After presenting the gospel as God's offer to save man in response to man's faith in Christ, Paul proceeds to answer several questions that may arise from his teaching. One objection was the idea that if God is gracious to us as sinners, what motivation do we have to avoid sin? This objection is expressed in two questions in Romans 6 and answered in two different ways.
In Romans 6:1 the question was: Since God's grace always expands to accommodate greater and greater sin, why not just relax and remain in sin knowing that grace will cover it? Paul responds to this question by explaining that once we come into this grace, we die to sin (in the waters of baptism) and no longer see or participate in sin in the same way that we did before we knew God's grace.
An Experiential Change — Romans 6:15-23
Paul again poses a similar question in verse 15 but responds to it in a different way in verses 16-23.
15What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!
This time the question about grace is posed in the following manner: Just because our salvation is offered to us based on our belief in Jesus and not on perfect obedience to the Law, does this mean we can disobey the Law (sin) without guilt or fear?
Before, Paul answered this type of question from a "historical" perspective by saying that we do not pursue sin anymore because something happened in our past (at baptism) where sin lost rulership over us and we now have a different view of sin. In verses 16-23 Paul will answer this second question "experientially" by saying that since that historical moment, the grace of God has produced a new experience for us, an experience he will refer to as "eternal life."
In the Bible, the concept of eternal life does not only refer to a period of time (e.g. time without end) but also a quality of spiritual life experienced now and in the future. This new experience of "eternal life" is made up of different elements:
- The knowledge of our personal righteousness with God. Consciously being aware that we are acceptable to God is part of the "eternal life" experience.
- The discernment of the change in our character brought about through the inner workings of the Holy Spirit (usually referred to as the process of sanctification). I am aware that I am not the same person I used to be and recognize the person I am becoming in Christ.
- The lessening of the fear of death and the growing assurance of our resurrection from the dead.
The point Paul will make in answer to the question is: This eternal life experience that I enjoy under grace motivates me to obey and serve God much more than my old experience of the dread of condemnation and punishment under the Law ever did.
16Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?
Here Paul states the case in general terms: If you serve sin, the experience will be death; if you serve Christ, the experience will be life, eternal life.
17But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
Paul now refers back to the historical moment when one believes as true the message of the gospel and responds in faith expressed through repentance and baptism. As Paul explained before, this response effectively frees us from sin in that we die to it at this point. The motivating factor for Christians now is to do what Christ leads us to do (the pursuit of righteous living). We grow in our awareness of this as our understanding of the Bible deepens and our sensitivity to the Holy Spirit within us grows.
19I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
He exhorts them to pursue what is good and right with the same enthusiasm that they pursued sin in the past, knowing that the rewards are much greater.
20For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
He reminds them that when sin ruled over them and they accepted that rule, Christ did not and could not motivate them. This is why we should not be disappointed when people who are not "in Christ" (those who have not had that historical experience) act in ways which are unchristian. Only Christians act like Christians. A person cannot be motivated by Christ without the historical experience with Christ (buried with Christ in baptism, Romans 6:4).
21Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.
He also reminds them of the outcome of this rulership of sin: shame and, ultimately, condemnation and death.
22But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.
He compares that experience to the new experiences one has since the historical break with sin: righteousness (I am acceptable to God), sanctification (Christ likeness), and eternal life (the experience of assurance in an eternal future with God).
23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul summarizes by stating the outcome of both experiences: sin leads to death and Christ leads to life.
Paul's answer to the question, "If God responds to my sin with kindness rather than Law, why should I not continue to enjoy my sin?" is as follows:
Those who experience God's kindness are motivated not to sin. In other words, I pursue righteousness much more strenuously under grace than I ever did while I was under Law. Why? Because under the Law, the harder I tried to obey, the more I realized my imperfections. The more I knew the Law, the greater awareness I had of my sins. Greater knowledge and greater effort to obey the Law only widened the gap between myself and God. It was like looking into a mirror, the longer and closer I looked at my reflection, the more imperfections I began to notice.
Under grace, however, every effort that I make to please God, every new revelation I understand about Christ, every step I take in the process of sanctification leads to a greater awareness of His presence, His wisdom, His power and His love. In Christ (under grace) greater knowledge, greater service and greater spiritual maturity actually close the gap between myself and God, and produce joy, peace and love within me in the process. This is why I pursue righteousness, this effort rewards me with the experience of being close to God, a feeling I have not had before. Pursuing sin brings me further away from God and I do not want that now that I know what being close to God feels like.
Therefore, the answer to the question, "If I am under grace and not Law, why avoid sin?" is this, "I avoid sin as a Christian under grace because pursuing righteousness is more rewarding than pursuing sin."
The Jews asked, "If we are under grace, should we not be free to sin?"
Answer: No, you died to sin in baptism and no, pursuing righteousness is more profitable.
Of course, this is not the question that we, in the church today, ask. Our question is different. Our question is, "What is the relationship between grace and the good works that we do?" In other words, "If I am under grace, what good are my good deeds and how many of these are enough?" or, "I am saved with or without good deeds, so why bother?"
This question suggests a lack of understanding concerning the true purpose of good works done by Christians. Our good works are done not to justify ourselves or to earn God's favor or forgiveness, they are done as evidence of our faith.
In answer to the question, "What good are my good works if I am under grace?" The answer is that my good works are useful to God as evidence of my faith in Jesus Christ who has the power to reward my faith, not my works.
My good works:
- Cannot justify me (take my sins away). Only the cross can do this (I Peter 2:24).
- Cannot make me more righteous. Only faith in Christ can accomplish this (Philippians 3:9).
- Cannot endear me to God. Only faith and perseverance in Christ can do this (John 1:12).
Good works are done as a witness to others that I believe in Jesus, and are a method to provoke those who see my good works to glorify and praise God themselves (Matthew 5:16). In another epistle Paul says that our good works have actually been prepared in advance by God for us to do so that others who witness them will glorify and praise Him (Ephesians 2:10).
The relationship between grace and works is that grace motivates me to do good works in order to witness for Christ and provoke others to glorify God (if not now, then when Jesus returns when all works will be revealed). Good works are always seen by God and never wasted.
You can tell the difference between good works motivated by grace and those motivated by other reasons (pride, pragmatism, etc.). Works motivated by grace glorify God, not man. They are Christ centered, biblically supported and powered by the Holy Spirit. Works motivated by grace produce peace of mind, unity among Christians and joy to those they reach. Works motivated by other factors, however, often produce envy, division and discouragement. At best they relieve human suffering and sometimes enlighten, but only for a short time.
In the end, if you have truly understood this series on grace and allow God's grace to touch your hearts, the result will be a greater and freer motivation to do good, not in order to achieve perfection but to evidence a sincere faith, glorify God and provoke others to seek out the same experience. These works prompted by these motives will bless others, edify the one who does the good and honor God.