(from a transcript of a sermon preached on 7/21/02 at Sovereign Redeemer Assembly)
Please turn in your Bibles to Romans chapter 6. I'll be reading verses 14 through the end of the chapter:
Romans 6: (14) For your sin shall not lord it over you, for you are not under Law, but under grace. (15) What then? Shall we sin because we are not under Law, but under grace? Let it not be! (16) Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves [as] slaves for obedience, you are slaves to whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or obedience to righteousness? (17) But thanks [be] to God that you were slaves of sin, but you obeyed from [the] heart the form of doctrine to which you were delivered. (18) And having been set free from sin, you were enslaved to righteousness. (19) I speak as a man on account of the weakness of your flesh. For as you presented your members [as] slaves to uncleanness and to lawless act unto lawless act, so now yield your members as slaves to righteousness unto sanctification. (20) For when you were slaves of sin, you were free as to righteousness. (21) Therefore what fruit did you have then [in the things] over which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things [is] death. (22) But now having been set free from sin, and having been enslaved to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end everlasting life. (23) For the wages of sin [is] death, but the gift of God [is] everlasting life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
At the end of Romans 5, the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul said that where sin abounded, grace much more abounded. Whereas sin ruled in death, grace ruled through the righteousness of Jesus Christ that is imputed to His people and received by God-given faith. Salvation is absolutely and unconditionally based on the work of Jesus Christ alone. When a Christian sins, he cannot be brought under condemnation, because fellowship with God is not based on our sinning or not sinning; it is based on the perfect sinless righteousness of Jesus Christ. God sees us as perfectly righteous in the eyes of His law and justice. At the beginning of Romans 6, Paul puts forth a question and an answer to address an objection to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. He asks, "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" Since where sin abounds, grace much more abounds, shall we who have been regenerated continue to live in sin, since salvation is by God's grace alone and has nothing to do with our own character and conduct? Paul answers with an emphatic "Let it not be!" and then explains that those who have been regenerated are identified with Christ in His death to sin and thus are themselves dead to sin and cannot live in sin. Verse 14 says that sin will not lord it over a believer, because a believer is not under the curse of the law but is under the grace of God.
Now we see in verses 15 and 16 that Paul again uses a question-and-answer-and-question format to answer another objection. He uses the exact same structure as in verses 1 and 2. The question "What then?" is equivalent to the question, "What then shall we say?" It means, "What shall we conclude from this?" Next comes the rhetorical question that addresses the objection: "Shall we sin because we are not under Law, but under grace?" The first thing we need to ask is this: Why would such a question be asked? As in the first time Paul did this, it is because salvation by grace strongly implies that our standing before God has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with our own character or conduct. Paul said in the previous verse that we Christians are no longer under the curse of the law. We are no longer subject to its penalty. We no longer lack a righteousness that equals the demands of God's law and justice. Instead of being under the curse of the law, we are under grace. We have a righteousness that equals the demands of God's law and justice, and this righteousness has absolutely nothing to do with our own good works. This righteousness is an ALIEN righteousness, meaning that it is TOTALLY outside ourselves. We are in fellowship with God, and we REMAIN in fellowship with God, because of the work of Christ ALONE. Our works do not gain or maintain favor with God, they do not bring us into or keep us in fellowship with God, and they do not qualify us for or make us more fit for heaven. Our salvation is SURE and CERTAIN based on the work of Christ alone. There is no way we can undo our salvation, because NO ONE can undo what Christ has done. Our sins will NEVER bring us back under condemnation. We are not under law but under grace. We are under the unmerited favor of God. We will never be OUT of favor with God, because we never merited being IN favor with God.
So then comes the question, "Well, then, if we are not under law but under grace, if our works form no part of our gaining or maintaining salvation or favor with God, then shall we just go ahead and live in sin? After all, our sin can't bring us back under condemnation, and we're under grace, so isn't it okay to just live it up in sin?" Paul again answers with the strongest of negations: may GHIN-ah-ma-hee - Let it never be! It WILL never be! Christians will NEVER use the grace of God as an excuse to live in sin. Paul then goes into another question, just like he went into another question in verse 3. He starts it with "Do you not know ...?" like he started the previous one with "Or are you ignorant ...?" Again, this is NOT implying that the Roman believers are ignorant of what he is about to say. He is saying this to the hypothetical person who posed the question, "Shall we sin because we are not under law, but under grace?" This is a rhetorical device to make a point. And the point is just like the last point: Christians are people whose lives are characterized by living in obedience, not by living in sin.
Let's go into what Paul is saying in verse 16:
Romans 6: (16) Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves [as] slaves for obedience, you are slaves to whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or obedience to righteousness?
God is saying that whatever one obeys, one is a slave to. To word it a little differently: You are a slave to whatever you obey. It makes sense, doesn't it? A slave obeys his master. Whoever the slave obeys is his master. His obedience to his master shows that he is a slave to his master. Now Paul puts forth an antithesis. And it is important to note that when there is an antithesis put forth, you cannot be one AND the other. You cannot be partially in one camp and partially in the other camp. You're either in one OR the other. The two camps are mutually exclusive. Also, there is no way to SHIFT from one camp to the other and back, depending on the day. You LIVE IN and EXIST IN one camp or the other. You cannot serve two masters. Let's examine the two sides of the antithesis.
The first side is "OF SIN TO DEATH." If one is obedient to sin, one is a servant of sin. And the end of this is eternal death. What does it mean to be obedient to sin? Don't Christians sometimes obey their lusts? It is certainly true that Christians sometimes fall when tempted. But this is not what being obedient to sin means here. It means living a life that is characterized by a disregard for God's law and a willingness to follow wherever sin leads. It is a kind of addiction to sin, if you will. He is a slave to it. He is not warring against it; he is its willing servant. Now I need to interject something here so no one misunderstands. I am NOT saying that everyone who has pangs of conscience for doing something wrong is regenerate. I am NOT saying that everyone who tries hard to obey God's commands and to keep away from what the Bible says is sin is regenerate. This is not the point that Paul is making here. Remember that Paul is making the point that Christians ARE NOT characterized by someone who says, "Since I'm under grace, I might as well go on living in sin." Also, a slave to sin is not necessarily one who lives in open immorality. It certainly INCLUDES everyone living in open immorality, but it is not LIMITED to those kinds of people. Sin comes in all kinds of forms. It can include the sin of works-righteousness. If one believes in works-righteousness, one is a slave to works-righteousness. His life is characterized by works-righteousness. He is willing to follow works-righteousness wherever it leads. We need to keep this in mind. Someone who is a moral professing Christian who is a slave to works-righteousness is just as rotten, just as filthy, just as disgusting, as one who is a slave to pedophelia or homosexuality or any of the outwardly revolting things. We need to be just as revolted by professing Christians who live in the sin of self-righteousness as those who live in open immorality. In fact, we should be MORE revolted by self-righteous religionists. Jesus Christ, when He walked here on earth, dwelled among the prostitutes and tax collectors and low-lifes of the world. He railed against and reserved his harshest words for the self-righteous religious leaders of His day. We need to be like Christ.
Now to the other side of the antithesis, which is "OBEDIENCE TO RIGHTEOUSNESS." Whereas sin leads to death, obedience leads to righteousness. Hmmmmm ... Sin results in death, and obedience results in righteousness. Hmmmm ... Is this talking about obedience meriting favor with God? Is our obedience the righteousness that God requires? The Pelagians would say yes, that's what this passage means. Let's take a look at this. The first thing we should notice is that if this were a direct parallel, it should read, "whether of sin to death, or obedience to life." Do you see what I mean? The opposite of sin is obedience, and the opposite of death is life. But Paul doesn't say "obedience to life." This is a very important omission on Paul's part. And it's very important what he put instead of the word "life." If Paul wanted to make it clear that one's own obedience is what is the basis for eternal life, here would be a perfect place to do it. He could have said that since death is the consequence or fruit of one's own sin, so life is the consequence or fruit of one's own obedience. That would have settled the matter in favor of works salvation. But of course, Paul wouldn't do that, because he was regenerate, and regenerate people cannot confess a false gospel. So he could not have said that even if this were a non-inspired letter. But we have, in addition to that, an inspired letter, meaning that Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to write what He wrote, and, of course, the Holy Spirit would have never inspired a writer to confess a false gospel. Thus, it is IMPOSSIBLE that the phrase "obedience to life" could have EVER been written here.
So here we have an obvious reason why there is not a direct parallel. If it were a direct parallel, then it would have to promote salvation by works. The fact that death and righteousness are not exact opposites should be very, very telling to us. So what does it mean? What does "obedience to righteousness" mean? Well, as you can imagine, there are all kinds of explanations for this one. But I can see only one plausible explanation. The word "righteousness" in the Bible does not always refer to the perfect righteousness of Christ, just as the word "righteous" does not always refer to God the Father or God the Son. In this context, "righteousness" means the walk of the believer. Now I might get some flak about this, but unless someone can give me a better explanation, this is what I believe is the correct interpretation. I'd like for us to turn to some verses that show where the word "righteousness" is referring to the actions of people rather than God.
Acts 10: (35) but in every nation the [one] fearing Him and working righteousness is acceptable to Him.
2 Corinthians 6:14:
2 Corinthians 6: (14) Do not be unequally yoked [with] unbelievers. For what partnership does righteousness [have] with lawlessness? And what fellowship does light [have] with darkness?
2 Corinthians 9:10:
2 Corinthians 9: (10) Now He that supplies seed to the sower and bread for eating, may He supply and multiply your seed and increase the fruits of your righteousness,
1 Timothy 6:11:
1 Timothy 6: (11) But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and meekness.
2 Timothy 2:22:
2 Timothy 2: (22) But flee youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with the [ones] calling on the Lord out of a pure heart.
Hebrews 11: (32) And what more may I say? For the time will fail me telling about Gideon, Barak, and also Samson and Jephthah, and also David and Samuel, and the prophets, (33) who through faith overcame kingdoms, worked out righteousness, obtained promises, stopped [the] mouths of lions,
And now I'd like for us to turn to some verses that show where the word "righteous" describes people rather than God. In particular, I'd like for us to see some Scripture where "the righteous" are contrasted with "the wicked." And where better to see that than in the Psalms and Proverbs?
Psalm 1: (5) On account of this the wicked shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. (6) For Jehovah is knowing the way of the righteous, and the way of the wicked shall perish.
Psalm 32: (11) Be glad in Jehovah and rejoice, you righteous [ones]; and all the upright in heart, shout for joy.
Psalm 37: (16) A little to the righteous [is] better than the abundance of many wicked. (17) For the arms of the wicked shall be broken; but Jehovah upholds the righteous. ... (21) The wicked borrows and never repays, but the righteous is gracious and giving.
Psalm 68: (1) God rises up [and] His enemies are scattered; and those who hate Him flee from His face. (2) As smoke is driven away, You drive [them] away; as wax melts before the fire, the wicked perish in God's presence. (3) But the righteous are glad; they shout for joy before God; yea, they exult with gladness.
Psalm 75: (10) And I will cut off all the horns of the wicked; [but] the horns of the righteous shall be lifted up.
Psalm 125: (3) For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest on the lot of the righteous; that the righteous not put forth their hands to evil.
Proverbs 3: (32) For the perverse one [is] hateful to Jehovah, but His intimacy [is] with the righteous.
Proverbs 10: (3) Jehovah will not allow the soul of the righteous to go hungry, but He pushes away the desire of the wicked. ... (11) The mouth of the righteous [is] a fountain of life, but violence covers the mouth of the wicked. ... (16) The labor of the righteous [is] for life; the gain of the wicked [is] for sin. ... (21) The lips of the righteous feed many, but fools die for lack of heart. (22) The blessing of Jehovah, it makes rich, and he adds no pain with it. ... (24) That which the wicked fears shall come upon him, but the desire of the righteous is granted. ... (28) The expectation of the righteous [is] joyful, but the hope of the wicked shall perish. ... (32) The lips of the righteous know what is pleasing, but the mouth of the wicked knows only perversities.
Proverbs 11: (23) The desire of the righteous [is] only good, the hope of the wicked [is] wrath.
Proverbs 12:5, 10, 26:
Proverbs 12: (5) The thoughts of the righteous are right; the counsels of the wicked [are] deceit. ... (10) The righteous knows the life of his animal, but the mercies of the wicked [are] cruel. ... (26) The righteous searches out [with] his friend, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.
Proverbs 13:5, 9, 25:
Proverbs 13: (5) The righteous hates lying, but the wicked is odious and acts shamefully. ... (9) The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out. ... (25) The righteous eats to the satisfying of his appetite, but the belly of the wicked shall lack.
Proverbs 15:6-7, 28-29:
Proverbs 15: (6) In the house of the righteous [is] much treasure, but in the gain of the wicked [is] tumult. (7) The lips of the wise disperse knowledge, but the heart of the fool [is] not so. ... (28) The heart of the righteous muses [how] to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things. (29) Jehovah [is] far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous.
Proverbs 28: (1) The wicked flee [though] no one is pursuing, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.
Proverbs 29:2-3, 6-7, 27:
Proverbs 29: (2) When the righteous increase, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people sigh. (3) He who loves wisdom gladdens his father, but a feeder of harlots wastes wealth. ... (6) A snare [is] in the transgression of an evil man, but the righteous sing and rejoice. (7) The righteous attends to the cause of the poor; the wicked does not discern knowledge. ... (27) An unjust man [is] an abomination to the righteous, and the upright of way [are] an abomination to the wicked.
And if you know your Psalms and Proverbs, you know I skipped over a lot of them. I just wanted to give a sampling. Now when the passages we just read talk about "the righteous," I don't believe they're just talking about imputed righteousness. You can especially see that when the righteous are contrasted with the wicked. The wicked are evildoers, and the righteous are righteousness-doers. There is a righteousness that believers perform, and believers who work righteousness are properly called righteous. Now some might say that it is improper to call anything that we do righteous, because only God can do what is righteous. But the same argument could be said for calling anything that we do "good," because only God can do what is good. The fact is that Christians DO do GOOD works, RIGHTEOUS works. But we must ALWAYS remember, as Christians always will, that our works of righteousness, otherwise known as good works, NEVER form even the MINUTEST PART of the ground of our salvation or maintaining salvation or our acceptance before God, because we know that our good works, our doing righteousness, never meets up to the standard of the perfect righteousness that God requires for fellowship with Him. Let us who are positionally righteous in Christ do righteous deeds out of love and thankfulness to the God who saved us based on the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Amen.