Romans 6:15-23.
Sin and the Christian Life.

Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.


When we step into the sixth chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans, we find him deep in discussion.  It is as if we were to walk into the middle of an intense conversation, in this case, between a theologian and those who are listening to his instruction.  From the context of the material of Paul's letter, it appears that the Roman church suffered from some of the same issues that vex the church today.  When people come to Christ, they come to Him carrying many of the burdens of their pre-faith life.  They bring into the experience of faith a set of presuppositions and a world view that has been shaped by the sin-sick world in which we live.  When we come to confess Jesus as Lord and Savior, a substantive part of that confession is the submission to His Lordship. 

To accept Jesus as Lord is to accept His ultimate authority in our lives, and to fail to take this step is to fail to accept the salvation that God offers.  It may be easy to accept that Jesus is Lord, that He died for our sins, and was resurrected, etc.  It is possible to fully believe everything in scripture is true, yet fail to find salvation.  Satan knows that all of scripture is true.[1]  Faith is not about knowledge but about choice.  Satan knows that Jesus is Lord, but cannot accept Jesus as his Lord.  Accepting Christ is accepting in one's heart who He is:  Savior and Lord.  When one makes a saving decision for Christ, one accepts His Lordship in their lives.  This is Godís plan, and His only plan, to provide forgiveness for His rebellious creation.

Consequently, it is quite possible to make a public profession of faith and engage in the fellowship of a Christian body without ever actually turning to God in faith.  For some, the decision for Christ could be partial:  their choice could be compromised by sinful attitudes and behaviors that are not surrendered upon their profession.  These would declare Jesus as "LORD," but in reality keep much of the sphere of their lives away from His control. 

It is evident by Paul's teaching that the Roman church had a membership that included those who had not fully turned to Jesus Christ, and brought into the fellowship their baggage of worldly attitudes and behaviors.  This propensity of bringing sin into the church body was probably at its greatest following the events of the 4th century A.D.  (Flavius Valerius) Constantine attacked, besieged, and overthrew the Roman government using the cross of Christ on their vestments, and replaced an emperor who persecuted Christians with an edict that declared Christianity to be the mandated form of State government.  Constantine then spread Christianity with the sword, putting to death those who would not submit.  Consequently, all manner of unrepentant pagans joined Christianity under penalty of death, bringing into the faith all manner of pagan rites, rituals, and ideas.[2]  Constantine's actions drew the Christian church into the dark ages that saw very little light of faith until the brave work of Martin Luther and the other reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries.

An incomplete understanding of saving faith still empowers the introduction of pagan and secular attitudes and practices into the modern church.  Much of the strife that is experienced within the Christian body can be traced back to sinful, secular, and ungodly attitudes and practices.  It is into this body of Christian membership that Paul is interjecting some teaching on the issue.  In the beginning of the chapter Paul addresses a question, "Should we continue to sin so that grace can abound?"  This rhetorical argument illustrates evidence of the pagan world view that some Gentile members held, one that teaches that people have to do something to inspire the gods to respond in the manner that the people desire.  One does not probably have to look far to see secular influence in the body of todayís Christian believers. 

The entire argument comes full-circle back to the question of Lordship.  Who is LORD?  Who is the LORD of your life?  Who is the LORD of the fellowship of believers?

Romans 6:15.  What then?  shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace?  God forbid.  

After addressing this question from the Gentiles in the previous half of this chapter, Paul turns to the same question to the Jews:  since Christians are no longer under the condemnation of the Mosaic Law, does this mean that they are now free to break it?  Should Jewish Christians continue in sin because they are not under the authority of the Law? 

Paul's answer to this question is the same as the first.  Paul literally says, "May this never happen, may this never happen."  These two questions might have even astonished Paul as he understands that they are coming from the lips of Christians.  How can Christians even think for a moment that there is any reason to continue to express sinful attitudes and practices?  It was the Jews who brought the Mosaic and traditional Laws into the Christian body, so it is evident now that the issue of continuing to sin while a member of the church body was important to both the Jews and Gentiles.

Is it appropriate that Christians today "continue in sin"?  It would be rather hypocritical to argue that Christians are without sin.  The ravages of sin are just as evident within the church fellowship as without.  Divorce, violence, and suicide rates are similar.  The sin of personal pride, expressed as a drive for personal power, pervades and diminishes the life of many church fellowships.  These questions were posed by both the Jews and Gentiles in the first-century Roman church.  It is evident that these questions are as appropriate today as they were then.

Romans 6:16.  Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?  

These questions all relate to the issue of authority.  To what authority do you choose to submit as you journey through your daily life?  One is a servant to the authority they choose without regard to the identity of the authority who is served.  One cannot be free of authority, and most particularly, no person can ever be outside of the realm of spiritual authority.  As the "prince of this world," satan holds authority over all that is ungodly.  It is not the Holy Spirit who promotes hatred and violence, it is satan.  It is not the Holy Spirit who promotes pride and prejudice, it is satan.  It is not the Holy Spirit who promotes division in the church body, it is satan.  Any time we allow an outside source to control us, we are servants of the source of that authority.  Paul simply illustrates that we can choose to submit ourselves to authorities that promote our separation from a sinless God (resulting in death) or the one authority that would promote our relationship with God through obedience to Him. 

There are probably uncountable examples of sin that are brought into the church fellowship by those who are not focused on God's call to righteousness.  One example that comes to mind is that of racial prejudice and hatred.  I have seen clear and brutal evidence of such ignorant hatred coming from individuals who also claim to be Christians, often the most influential members a local church fellowship.  The most racially and economically segregated human institution in the world today is the church.  Often the bigotry expressed by the church body is focused on members of other Christian church denominations.  When such hatred is expressed is God glorified, or does satan stand back and laugh at his success in dividing people and diminishing the expression of God's love?  When one is engaged in these and other ungodly behaviors, they are submitting themselves to the authority of this secular and pagan world rather than the authority of God.  They may profess "Jesus is LORD" with their lips, but their lives show a quite variant allegiance. 

Romans 6:17.  But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you. 

Let us not leave the original question:  should we remain in sin?  Paul points out that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, we were all servants of sin.  Without God, we were fully immersed in this pagan and secular world, partaking in its godless culture as obedient citizens.  However, the repentance from that world that is characteristic of one's turning to faith in God serves to deliver one from its authority.  When one comes to Christ, one does so only with a commitment to serve Him, and Him alone.  Any other profession of faith is incomplete and no profession at all.  This is the doctrine of grace that Paul delivered.  Though repeated in many places in scripture, this profession is clearly stated later in Chapter 10:

Romans 10:9.  That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

Note that one confesses the "LORD Jesus," not simply "Jesus."  The scriptures insist that saving belief comes when one believes on the "Name" of Jesus Christ.[3]  This "Name" represents the whole of who Jesus is:  LORD and Savior.  Likewise, Jesus commanded the Apostles to make disciples by wholly immersing them in the "Name" of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[4]

Obedience to God is an obedience that comes only from the heart.  Though the Christian Jews may have been "free from the Law", this does not give the Jew (or any other Christian) a license to break the Law.  In fact, faith in Jesus Christ brings quite an opposite effect.  The "Law" becomes a more significant part of every Christianís life as it is written on the heart of the believer.  The writer of Deuteronomy described this in prophesy:

Deuteronomy 6:4-9.  Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.  And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.  And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.  And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

This passage, referred to as the "Shema" (Hebrew for "hear," the first word of the passage,) describes how a time will come when Godís Word will be written on the hearts of believers, the result of one's surrendering to God fully and completely.  It is in this way that one can love the Lord their God with all of one's heart, soul, and strength.[5]  When one truly loves God, one cannot help but teach the Word to beloved children.  One cannot help but be immersed in Godís Word that is made evident inside and outside the home.  Godís Word is a part of one's life from sun-up to sun-down.  The impact of Godís Word on one's life is evident in what one does (hand) and in the way they see their world (eyes).  People will see the evidence of Godís Word in the way they live (house) and where they work (gates.)

If Godís Word is so rooted in the heart of a believer, where is there room for deliberate sin?  One who places his/her faith and trust in God has been delivered from the power of sin.  Sin can no longer serve to separate one from God; death's victory over God is lost.  However, sin still serves to separate one from fellowship with God, and the mortal consequences of sinful actions and attitudes is not diminished by salvation.  When I, as a Christian, choose to act in a sinful and abusive manner towards you, you still end up abused.  However, as a Christian, I also have a choice to love you and avoid such consequences.

Romans 6:18.  Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. 

When one comes to true faith in Christ, one is free from the eternal penalty for sin: eternal separation from God.  True faith is characterized by a submissive allegiance to God, not to satan.  As a master, satan promotes all that would separate one from any relationship with God.  As a Master, God promotes love and righteousness in the life of the believer.  For a Christian to act in any other way is to turn his/her back on God and return to wallowing in the mire.[6]  It is not appropriate that one who claims God as their LORD would turn back in submission to the godless and sinful attitudes and behaviors of satan's realm.  That is, it is not appropriate to return to serving as a servant of satan when one has become a servant of righteousness.

Consequently, Paul's answer to this question of whether or not a Christian should continue to sin is rather firm and emphatic.  He follows his "May this never be," or "God forbid!Ē[7] with this explanation:  Christians are now servants of a righteous God, free from the ravages of sin's power to separate them from God.  To engage in sin is to serve unrighteousness, a choice that is inappropriate for a Christian.

Romans 6:19.  I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness. 

How do we respond to Christians who continue to defend the practice of sin in their life?  The gentiles tried to defend sin by stating that it would serve to promote God's grace.[8]  The Jews tried to defend sin by stating that they were no longer under the law.[9]  Christians today continue to defend sin by stating any number of rationalizations that come from this pagan, secular, and godless culture.  We defend the ordination of homosexual church leaders by referring to it as an "alternative lifestyle" rather than an abominable sin in an effort to better fit into this secular and pagan culture.  Such euphemisms are employed to hide from view the true, abhorrent, blackness of sin.  For example, Christians have served to defend the sacrificial murder of unborn children as a positive, "pro-choice," though God knew you before you were even conceived.[10]  There is no shortage of rationalizations that we use to defend sin, whether it be adultery, bigotry, pride, or any other self-serving and ungodly attitude or behavior.  And this is speaking of the church, not of the lost world. 

Paul speaks of this as yielding to "uncleanness."  He then follows this with a simple command, a command that is offered to all who continue to bring sin into the church fellowship:  "yield your members ...  to righteousness ...  holiness."  The cause of Christ is not lost upon those who have turned their lives partially away from Him:  Paul simply calls upon those who still wish to live in sin to repent of that sin and return fully to righteousness and holiness.

For the Christian who does truly desire to love the Lord, but who still holds tightly to old, sinful behaviors, this can be a tough command to obey.  An example can be found in this difficult issue of homosexuality.  How does a Christian who practices homosexuality or who struggles with homosexual drives respond to such a command?  Paul simply states, "turn to righteousness."  Turning is a choice just as sin is a choice.  We all make such choices.  No rationalization can justify remaining in sin.  The only choice is repentance.  For the practicing homosexual this involves repentance:  the deliberate choice to break off all homosexual relationships and activity.  For any Christian practicing any sin, repentance is that choice to turn from that sin.  Paul did not state that this would be easy.  He simply commends its necessity.

Ideally, the Christian who is struggling with sin is not alone.  Certainly the Holy Spirit will guide and comfort those who are choosing repentance.  Unfortunately, Christians all carry unrepented sin, and their lack of love for others who openly struggle with their sin often leaves the latter individuals without the love and support that they need from other Christians.  Instead of receiving the love, support, and prayers from the Christian fellowship, those who struggle with sin more often receive condemnation and judgment from those who are themselves expressing the sins of pride, prejudice and deliberate ignorance.  Paul's call to righteousness is a call to all who carry the Name of Christ.

Romans 6:20-21.  For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.  21What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?  for the end of those things is death. 

Before you came to faith in Christ you were a servant of sin, and you were free from  righteousness.  There was no expectation of righteousness placed upon you.  When God looked at you He saw no righteousness, and had you died in that unrighteous state, you would have been eternally separated from Him.  It is this "second death"[11] that awaits all who die in unrighteousness.  Those who still live in this state may see no need for righteousness, and are quite comfortable with their worldly life, as they are ignorant or uncaring concerning the consequences of eternal separation from God.  The fruit of this lifestyle is simply death.  Is this the lifestyle that would be appropriate for one who professes to be saved?

Romans 6:22.  But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. 

The appropriate lifestyle for a Christian is one that is in a continual attitude of repentance from sin.  Free from its ultimate consequence, Christians are still not free from its consequential impact on their lives here on earth.  To choose sin is to choose its master, satan.  As a Christian, you have chosen righteousness and holiness, choosing its master: God. 

Romans 6:23.  For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. 

This is one of the most quoted verses of scripture.  When taken within the context of this passage, we can see that Paul is stating a summary of his discussion concerning the presence of sin in the life of a Christian, or the lifestyle of one who is not a Christian but proclaims the Name.  "Wages" is literally the just reward for one's action.  "Death" is literally separation.  "Wages" is what we deserve, and a "Gift" is what we receive.  Though we all deserve eternal separation from God for the sin in our lives, God has given to those who submit to Him in faith and trust a gift of eternal life, a gift offered out of His grace and love for His creation.

So, does sin still have the power to separate the Christian from God?  The power of sin to eternally separate the faithful was defeated by Jesus' death and resurrection.  Those who put their faith and trust in Him have no reason to fear sin's ultimate wages: eternal separation from God.  God's gift is eternal life.  However, when Christians continue to allow sin into their life, its consequences on this side of death is not diminished.  When we are immersed in sin our fellowship with God is diminished as we experience the separation from God that sin demands.  The consequences of lost relationships and lost health that sin requites also remains.  Christians are called to be salt and light to this lost world as they share the love of God.  That task is diminished or demolished by the ravages of sin.

A desire for sin should have no place in the life of a Christian.  The Christian life is a continual assessment of obedience as we look into our own lives, illuminated by the power of the Holy Spirit and our knowledge of Godís Word.  When we are free of the rationalizations that our desire for sin can provoke, we can see where changes need to be made.  We can see where repentance is in order.

Paul's imperative is to repent from that sin.  This is certainly advice worth taking.  Each of us should regularly take inventory of the sin that we are still allowing to impact our life and respond to that sin in a righteous manner: in repentance.  It may be that some time spent in prayer that is focused upon God's assessment of our obedience and commitment to Him could serve to reveal those areas in life that need repentance, and empower us to experience positive change, for the truth is simple:  There is no place for deliberate sin in the life of a true Christian.


[1] James 2:19.

[2] The "celebration" of Halloween, packaged as a religious substitute by the name of "All Saint's Day" is an example of the introduction of an anti-faith Celtic/Druid pagan practice that found a home in the church.  Even Christians today participate in the ungodly and pagan practices of Halloween celebration.

[3] Mark 16:17, John 1:12, John 20:31, 1 John 3:23, 1 John 5:13, et.  al.

[4] Matthew 28:18, ff.

[5] C.f. Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27.

[6] 2 Peter 2:2.

[7] William Tyndale's paraphrase of the Greek,

[8] Romans 6:1.

[9] Romans 6:15.

[10] Jeremiah 1:5.

[11] Revelation 2:11, 20:6, 20:14, 21:8.