Sanctification Romans 6:15-22

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I frequently say that our relationship with God means that we must allow him to disagree with us through his word.  In what ways has God challenged and disagreed with you through his word?  In my case I remember one specific challenge being that as a pastor, my responsibility is not simply to help people survive and get through suffering but rather to thrive by being holy in the midst of it.

The call to holiness or sanctification is a major theme in Romans 6-8. WE have seen that God has saved us, justified us and given us the free gift of love, forgiveness and eternal life in Christ. Now, Paul is arguing that this should push us to godly, holy living.  In order to make this point, he first needs to deal with the argument that grace actually encourages more sin not less. WE have seen the first part of his response in verses 1-14 and now for part 2.

Why Grace should not lead to sin (part 2)

V15 We are continuing to explore the question “does grace lead to more sin?” We’ve established that we are no longer under the rule of the law (Torah) but have been transferred to the realm and rule of grace. So without the Torah setting its boundaries and restrictions, does that mean we are now free to do as we please? Once again Paul responds to the rhetorical question with a firm “Surely not.”

V16 Paul’s reasoning for this is to do with ownership. You belong to the one that you offer yourself to. You are then in their service. Humans cannot simply exist for themselves autonomously; we must belong to someone. We were made to worship, to serve, to love. This is a crucial point: freedom is from one thing but for and too something/someone else. So, you have committed to obey someone or something, either sin or obedience (godliness), the former leads to death and the latter to righteousness. Note that if it is to righteousness then that means all of the things that come with being in the right with God so that we can say that this obedience leads to life.

V17 -18 is the crucial point in this section. Paul’s readers are no longer slaves to sin, they’ve been set free from it. This is cause for praise. The result is that they now show heart obedience to “the standard of teaching” in other words, to the Gospel which has been proclaimed to them. They have been set free from a harsh master but have become slaves (are enslaved) of righteousness.

This is shocking language, we don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves and Paul is using human concepts and imagery to make his point (v19) however it is a crucial point. Once again he reiterates that they used to make their bodies available for sinful purposes and now they must make them available for righteous aims. This will lead to sanctification. The word sanctification is to do with holiness, it is about being set apart as God’s treasured possession in order to bring him glory.

V20-21 Rather than being free from godliness and righteousness now, they were free from those requirements before, they were free from righteousness and slaves to sin.  However, Paul asks them to consider the fruit or benefits of sin. First of all, what they did in the past caused them shame, they are now deeply embarrassed of their past actions. Secondly, it led to death.

V22 By contrast the fruit of their new life Is holiness and eternal life. Notice that there is a process here, the fruit of salvation leads to sanctification which leads to eternal life. Don’t misunderstand this to mean that you are saved, given a second chance, expected to be holy and then God will reward you with eternal life. As we will see shortly, sanctification as a Bible word refers not so much to the process as the status or position God gives us. We would do better to think in terms of God saving us, making us his treasured possession and because we are possessed, loved and treasured by him, we know that he will keep us safe into eternity.

This is summed up in one of the most famous verses in the Bible but notice that whilst v23 is often used as an evangelistic verse, it is in fact written to those who are already believers to encourage them in godliness.  Sin brings consequences, if you work for a master then they will give you a wage but the wages that sin pays out are not good, they are to do with death. By contrast, the Gospel offers a gift of eternal life. So when you have been offered a wonderful gift, why keep working for an unpleasant wage? This also helps us to see that sin is not merely our failure to do good things, we cannot find a safe neutral position where we are free to mind our own business. Rather sin is a specific choice to do the things that lead to death.

The Grace of Sanctification

Throughout Romans, we’ve been looking at a variety of doctrines that arise from the text. Here we are beginning to focus on something called “sanctification.” Sanctification is to do with being holy.  It’s from the same root word as “saints.” In other words, a saint is someone who has been sanctified. Sanctification is the act of setting someone or something apart and declaring it to be holy, God’s special possession for special use.

David Peterson in his book, Possessed by God: A Theology of Sanctification notes that we often talk about sanctification as a process by which we grow into holiness but when the word is used in the New Testament, it has more to do with a specific position or status. Indeed, that seems to be the case here in Romans 6, sanctification is the result, or the destination we arrive at as a result of pursuing godly obedience. The process may be seen in that commitment to obedience and handing yourself over to God’s service.

The point about sanctification is that despite it having a bit of a bad name and seen as austere and dull, it is in fact something that Paul says we should see as dull. Too often, we think of sin as something pleasurable to enjoy and hard to give up. That’s why there is the temptation to seek to negotiate with God about which aspects of our old life we can hang on to. Yet what we are seeing here is that Paul is re-orientating us and helping us to see that sin is something unpleasant, something to get free from. It’s not just that we want to be free from the punishment which is imposed as a consequence of sin, it is that we need to recognise sin for what it is. Sin is in and of itself ugly and destructive so why would we want to embrace, hold on to and nurture it in our lives.

If I can give what might be the nearest example on this, it would be to think about the way that the vaccines have substantially reduced the risk of death from COVID-19.  Does that mean that we should happily now spread the virus organising COVID parties to infect as many people as possible. Aren’t we now under the rule of the vaccine, not the rule of lockdown? Well of course we don’t say that. I may not be worried about hospital, ICU and death now I’ve had my jab but COVID-19 remains an unpleasant harmful illness to catch and to spread.

So Paul’s point is that given what we know about both sin and salvation, why would you want to continue to do things that are harmful and that you are no longer under obligation to. That’s the basis for our pursuit of holiness.  It’s not that God has given me this good thing, eternal life and now I must repay him with something unpleasant for me, obedient godliness whist pursuing the things that bring true pleasure. Rather, salvation is an invitation to enjoy the good things associated with belonging to Christ. Sanctification is one of those good gifts.

For Reflection

Why not take time to think about one of the temptations you struggle with. In what ways are you tempted to see this as a good thing to hold on to? In what ways is it ugly? In what ways is it harmful? In what ways does sanctification offer a better gift here?