Romans 6:19 “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”
Every Christian is humbled as he meets the personality of Paul reading of it as it’s chronicled in the book of Acts. We also see his life in his own self-disclosures in his letters. He was obviously a man with a very high I.Q., a virtual genius, but what he had done with his genius was to offer all his capacities and attainment – his strength of body and mind – to God to be used in God’s service. After the Damascus Road experience (as he shares with us in our text) he ceased being a servant of cruelty and persecution – behaving as if he were a member of ISIS – and Paul had became a servant of righteousness leading to holiness. He gave his body, soul, mind and strength to the Lord Jesus for the rest of his days. But besides his own natural intelligence and creativity Paul was additionally gifted by the Holy Spirit so that he could write letters whose composition was inspired and directed to their very jots and tittles by Almighty God himself. The result of that was this, what Paul wrote was exactly what God wanted him to write. His very thoughts were enslaved to Jesus Christ. He could have prayed the famous lines of Havergal’s consecration hymn, “Take my intellect and use every power as Thou wilt choose,” and God did. Now I want to show how this worked for Paul in the opening words of our text.
- PAUL ADAPTED HIMSELF AND HIS GIFTS TO HIS NEIGHBOURS.
We have this little insight in verse 19 (which is easily overlooked), where Paul is telling us about how he wrote and spoke to people. What he says is fascinating to me. Consider his posture there. Paul did not hint to them, “Me the leader, you the led. Me the Apostle, and you the church members, and so you listen to me.” What authority he did have. Called to be an apostle. Commissioned by God. He’d had tremendous experiences of the Lord. He’d been caught up to the third heaven and seen and heard glorious things. He’d met the risen Christ on the road toDamascus. Who could challenge his authority? What a privilege to have him as your preacher, and to think that he should take such care and write a letter to you and your friends and maybe even mention you by name at the end. But if you dared to mutter, “Of course he’s so holy and brilliant but I can’t understand a lot of the words he says,” then Paul would be heart-broken, because he had failed to make clear to you the most wonderful message you could possibly hear. Here was the message that could save you, and make you a child of God and an heir of heaven. But from what you say he had failed to make things clear to you.
Paul was well aware of the background of this congregation in Rome, the illiterates, and the elderly, and the housewives, and the children, and the slaves, and the beggars. He knew that he wasn’t addressing the philosophers of Rome. This letter was not focused on the staff of the university of that city. The challenge to Paul was to write this letter in a way that these people and all the mixed multitude of the church from this moment on would be able to grasp the gospel.
Right! Let’s read what I am talking about, these words that give us another insight into the character of this wonderful Christian man. Let me show you why I find his opening words in this 19th verse so fascinating. He says, “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves.” What does he mean? Certainly he didn’t stop using correct God-words like ‘justification,’ and ‘regeneration,’ and ‘sanctification,’ and ‘adoption,’ and ‘mortification,’ and ‘imputation.’ If you have a fascinating new hobby like motor bikes, or mountaineering then one of the ways you show your love for and competence in those recreations is the special vocabulary you quickly learn as you go climbing or biking with your friends. You don’t talk about this ‘thingy’ or that ‘bit of wood.’ You use the correct words. We are to become familiar with and use the correct God-given words in the church. They are the stuff of prayer and believing meditation and praise, and if you have fallen in love with Jesus Christ you want to use his language and the words of his apostles.
So Paul knew that some of the people hearing this letter read out by an elder to the congregation in Rome were not as sharp or discerning as other people. Some were brand new Christians, so when he has to describe to them the immense problem of the bondage of man’s will he makes it as vivid to them as he can, and he does so by using the analogy of slavery – which they were all familiar with. Some of them were in fact slaves. He tells them that unbelievers are all slaves to sin. When they get angry or bitter or retaliate then they are doing what their sinful desires and lusts are dictating to them to do. They are not free men at all, they are slaves. But when God saves them he always saves them from the dominion of this old Master Sin. They find that they have a new master and they are slaves of righteousness to holiness. So Paul has taken the example of the lot of the slave from their own experience, but as he does so he is conscious that he is speaking ‘in human terms’ because we Christians are not exactly slaves in the same way as those poor slaves in the Roman Empire, in their hundreds of thousands, men and women and children who were bought and sold in the slave markets of Rome every day. To be a servant of Christ is in fact the highest form of freedom, and the only true liberty. But the picture Paul uses of being a slave to Christ is vivid, unforgettable and helpful because it indicates the comprehensive nature of our new life in Christ. It is not an hour on a Sunday morning and maybe again on Sunday night. It is a life of serving Christ, 24/7.
So Paul says these words, “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves.” In other words some of them were slow, and dull, and they needed human terms as we all do. We remember illustrations, but more than that we remember teaching that got hold of our affections so that there was pathos, and we were moved by the teaching. That’s why you wouldn’t be satisfied with me merely reading the Scriptures to you and announcing the benediction. You want me to teach and explain and apply the word of God to you. I also need to put the truth “in human terms.” The apostle once wrote to another church and said to them that he would love to be feeding them with meat – “Have some of this fine tender steak . . .” But they were like children in their understanding. They turned up their noses at this, and so he had to give them a bottle of milk and a teat to suck. And he actually did so!
This is a very different man from the man who once had persecuted the first Christians, and had guarded the coats of the men who had taken them off that they might throw sharp rocks at Stephen with more force to break his cheek bones and jaw and crack his skull, and break his ribs and kill him. “I voted for them to be killed,” Paul sadly acknowledged. What a change now has taken place! Paul is concerned for this man sitting in church who has recovered from leprosy, and for this old woman, and this girl, and this beggar. He longs for them to understand the love of God in Jesus Christ and so he speaks in human terms. Paul becomes like an illiterate himself, or like a beggar to bring the illiterates and the beggars into the true wisdom of God.
Paul is just like his Master who came not to be served but to serve and give his life for others. This Jesus had once sat on the throne of the universe he had helped his Father to create. He was worshipped and adored by an innumerable company of angels. He was as sinless and perfect as them. Then, he entered into the womb of Mary, a teenage Jewish girl, born in a stable. The Creator became a creature. The Sustainer of all things became dependent. The Almighty became weak. All for love’s sake, the richest of all became poor. He surrendered a throne for a manger. This is the action of the divine humility. This God goes beyond thought and attitude and becomes an action, in a willing and intentional condescension. He humbled himself . . . and became obedient. If this does not speak to us, what will? If we cannot see and appreciate what God has done, where are we?
I am telling you that the divine humility sacrificed all display of his blinding glory for the sake of sinners. This is the action of infinite grace. Jesus was born among the cattle in a stinking stable, yet we hesitate to lose sweat for Christ. Jesus allowed himself to be whipped and beaten up and nailed to a cross and mocked. He became obedient to that! Yet we refuse to be put out for the church. How am I measuring up in loving my neighbour as myself? I may understand what humility is, but am I humble?
I may share in a meal in the home of a young family. Earlier that year they’ve had their fourth child. He is now a nine month old baby and he sits in his high chair with us as we are gathered around the table. The father doesn’t turn to me and say, “Please, do you mind awfully if I give some food to my little boy?” and pouring out apologies he spoons baby food into his son’s mouth. He doesn’t need to apologize for that, and Paul is not apologizing here for using vivid terminology to explain the way God works in our lives. But I would think that he is conscious of people who are pernickety about points of doctrine, who want to protest, “Yes, but, serving God is not exactly like being a slave is it?” Come on! Think of the number one tennis player in the world teaching his ten year old son how to play tennis, and how he restrains and limits himself. He does not hit the ball over the net at 100 m.p.h. He nurses his son along.
There are always new disciples in our services; there are always Christians who are failing in doing the basics of Christianity so that part of every sermon must be a dogged repetition of basics. That is what characterizes Romans chapter 6. The truths it contains are so crucial that we find Paul returning to them right through the chapter. You remember that the first great commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart? And the second is to love your neighbour as yourself? Second in importance of the things that I need to be doing daily, and so I am never to stray far from such basic principles in speaking to you. Keep going back to those two fundamental commandments and then other questions you face will be answered. Why did Paul speak simply to these people? Because he had to love them as he loved himself.
I dare not assume that we are all daily, constantly obeying those basic commandments. Are you loving your neighbour as yourself when you are stuck in traffic that hasn’t moved for an hour? Or when someone in church does something that hurts you personally? Or when your husband ignores you or your wife forgets something. Of course, greed, covetousness, lust, hatred, and so on – all those need to be addressed, but really, everything hangs on those two great summarizing commandments that tell us what the Christian life is all about. The other problems come because these two are ignored or violated. A creative but dogged repetition is what is needed in explaining the Christian life. Paul said, “I die daily” and that obviously didn’t mean that literally he suffered physical death every day. It was a spiritual position he had to take every day. He had to kill self, and selfishness, and thoughtlessness every day. There was a dogged repetition of basic fundamentals. The challenge facing the Christian is to keep the greatest commands daily; loving the Lord our God comes first and foremost. It is not something we can assume, “Well, I’ve got that sorted out.” We haven’t. We must determine today that I am going to love the Lord more and more and love my neighbours just as I love myself. I have to keep the congregation focused by not majoring in the minors, but putting first things first, other things will fall into place. This does not mean that the demands the sermon makes are suddenly going to be easy, and that our struggles will all cease and the Christian life will become a bed of roses, but it does mean that self will be mortified, and the love of God will be central and our thoughtfulness for our neighbours will be clearer and stronger. Blessings will follow. Work on getting the first things . . . first.
- PAUL REMINDS US OF WHAT WE WERE AS UNBELIEVERS.
The apostle goes on to say, “you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness” (v.19). Two things.
i] You once offered the parts of your body in slavery to impurity. Many of us here today did that. Some of you, before you came to Christ, used your body for impurity. You used to take parts of your body and you abused them to serve an impure lifestyle, but now that you’ve come to Christ, you understand only too sadly what being a slave to impurity means. But others of you are still offering the parts of your body to impurity and you can’t stop. You are slaves of impurity. You are making a bad choice regarding the parts of your body. Your ears – are you going to be using them this week for God or for sin? Your eyes – are you going to be using them this week for God or for sin? Your lips – are they going to speak up for God or are they going to speak for the devil this week? Your hands – are you going to use them as instruments for God or are you going to use them for sin? Your feet – will they lead you in paths of righteousness or will they lead you into sin? What about the more private and personal and inward parts of your body? Are you going to use all of them for God or are you going to use them for sin? There is always our human responsibility. There is this basic attitude to the Christian life, in other words, I have a moment-by-moment choice to make. What will I do with my hands? Will I type out on my keyboard the address of a disgusting website? Will I take a revealing photo of myself and send it to my boy-friend? What will I do with my nose? Will I snort cocaine? What will I do with my lips, my tongue, my larynx, my eyes, my ears? We have this choice. All the world is either serving sin or they are serving God. That’s the frequent choice that each one of us has to make every single day. Whose slave am I being today?
Some years ago, Bob Dylan was attracted to Christianity and he wrote a song that was quite popular in evangelical circles. It was called You Gotta Serve Somebody. That’s what Romans 6 is telling us. Mother, you’ve gotta serve somebody this week. Father, you’ve gotta serve somebody this week. Student, you’ve gotta serve somebody this week. Doctor, electrician, pharmacist, farmer, salesman, writer, scientist, author, nurse, you’ve gotta serve somebody this week. Businessman, business woman, secretary, you’ve gotta serve somebody this week. No matter who you are, where you are, what you do, you’ve gotta serve somebody this week. There’s just one question. Who are you going to serve?
ii] Paul then says this, that they gave themselves, “to ever-increasing wickedness.” What an unusual phrase. You know what that means? It means you can tell a lie, but you just can’t stop at one. You tell a lie and then you need to tell another. Then you tell another one to cover up the second one. You tell another one to cover up the third one. They are ever increasing falsehoods. One sin leads to another. Envy leads to aching jealousy, to frustration and bitterness and self-pity. Lust leads to pornography and it leads to adultery. Bitterness leads to angry words and they lead to violence. Sin is like that. It’s ever-increasing wickedness.
A man told a lie at work. He said, “I got into trouble and then I told a lie to cover up what I’d done. But then I found that I needed to tell another lie to cover up the first lie. But then I had to tell a third lie to cover up the first two lies I’d told. Then I had to tell another one to cover up the third lie, a fifth lie to cover up the fourth lie, and I kept on until I finally sat down a few days later and counted them up and realized that I’d told 42 lies in a row to cover up the first one.” That’s “ever-increasing wickedness.” Once upon a time there was a man named David who lusted after a woman named Bathsheba. First he lusted. Then he committed adultery. Then he lied to cover that up, then he committed murder to cover up everything else. Lust. Adultery. Lies. Murder.
When are we ever going to wise up about ever increasing wickedness? When are we ever going to get smart about sin? Sometimes we are so stupid we go back to the website even when we know it’s going to hurt us. We go back to the bottle even though we know it’s going to kill us. We can go back to something even though we know it’s doing us no good at all. We know it’s going to hurt us. We do it anyway. When are we going to get smart about sin? It can lead to ever-increasing wickedness.
In 1948, George Orwell wrote a great book called Nineteen Eighty-Four. He turned the numbers of the year around. It sounds old fashioned now but it is a vision of the future. In that book he suggested that there was a possibility that in the future, because of CCTV cameras – surveillance cameras – there would be an age when we’d be living in an oppressive ‘Big Brother’ state which would be able to watch and control every aspect of our behaviour. There would be no privacy. And Orwell initially raised this as a problem of civil liberty. But before Orwell had written that particular book, a man named Aldous Huxley wrote a book called Brave New World. In that book he basically said that the problem was not going to be an impressive Big Brother state. The problem was that we were going to become slaves to our own desires. Then an American writer, Neil Postman wrote a third book called Amusing Ourselves to Death. Have you heard of it? In the provocative introduction to his book he says this: “We were keeping our eye on the year 1984, but when the year came and the prophecy of Big Brother tyrannizing us wasn’t fulfilled we sang softly in praise of ourselves and switched on the country and western station, and we watched the TV every night (saying “there is nothing on the telly”), and we played our pop CDs and we went along to the movies, and we amused ourselves month after month, and year after year, until we died. The last years of our lives were spent in an old people’s home where in the living room a mega screen TV set was permanently and loudly on all day. We might not have been living in Orwell’s 1984 – thank God, but we were living in the equally chilling Brave New World.
You see, contrary to common belief, even among the educated Oxbridge graduates, Huxley and Orwell didn’t prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an external control and oppression, but in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their personal identity and fulfilment, and maturity. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppressions and to adore the technologies that dismantle their capacities to think. In the book1984 Orwell said, “People are controlled by inflicting pain.” In the Brave New World they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. But all of them are controlled. All are slaves. None is free. George Orwell feared that what we hated would ruin us. Aldous Huxley feared that what we loved would ruin us. And in Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death is the suggestion that Huxley got it right, not Orwell. Isn’t our society, our little town by the sea, in that kind of pleasure-loving grip? We are offering the parts of our bodies to be slaves of impurity and ever increasing wickedness. We are captives of our desires, we’re greedy, we’re vainly ambitious, we ache for new experiences, new highs, and we’re insecure because when we find excitement and satisfaction they are in things that we can’t hold on to and we sing, “I can’t get no satisfaction though I try, and try, and try, and try, I can’t get no satisfaction.” The high that’s been won at such a cost wears off and we are low again.
- PAUL TELLS US OF THE GREAT CHANGE THAT GOD WORKS IN OUR LIVES.
Paul finally says something that is again quite amazing. Look at the end of verse 19. He says, “You were enslaved to that kind of destructive life, so now I’m going to tell you the way of true freedom. I’m going to define for you the way of true blessedness. Are you ready for it? Here it is. “Now offer the members of your body in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.” In other words, ‘Actively pursue slavery.’ You want true blessedness, you want true happiness, you want true freedom? Here’s how you get it. Pursue slavery. Paul says, “Go for it! Present yourself as a slave to the most wonderful Master you can think of. Desire to be his slave. Give the members of your body over to slavery, and your master is Righteousness who leads you to holiness.”
This is almost unbelievable. We might have expected for Paul to characterize the Christian life as ‘freedom’ in contrast to the dreadful slavery of bondage to sin. And of course he’ll do that elsewhere. But that’s not what he does here. He says, “If you really want to be free, if you really want to be happy, if you really want to be blessed, offer the members of your body in slavery to righteousness.” That slavery results in holiness, and holiness is the true freedom and true blessedness. You see, it is what you pursue, and who you pursue that ultimately makes you a free person. It is what and who you live for that gets you true liberty.
The members of your body which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the dwelling place of Christ, are to be presented to God constantly, day after day. John Stott describes his first action every morning as he rises presenting his arms to God, and his legs to God, and his mind to God and his affections to God. There is the constant dedication of our bodies to God while life and thought and being last or immortality endures. Every day I’m to present the members of my body in the service of God, to be received by him, to be blessed by him, to be used by him, to glorify him. I lie at his feet and he may put his foot on my neck. I welcome that. I am totally his servant, dedicated to God.
I want my tongue to be used for God; “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephs. 4:29). I want my eyes to be used for God. I keep a covenant with them, what I look at. Will I lust and covet and fantasize through my eyes? Or will I have a ‘single’ eye? I give my brain to God, what I think of, what I dwell upon. I want every thought to be captive to Jesus Christ. I want him to be Lord over every single cell in my brain and all the trillions of connections in the brain. I don’t want there to be one connection that is not honouring to God in its use. I want my ears to be used for God so that I reject the tales that put down men and women and show disrespect to other people. I won’t be party to filthy conversation. There is music that is primitive and base; I won’t listen to it. My ears I present to the Lord. My affections are his; what I get excited about, what makes my heart beat faster, what I talk over with animation to my friends, the things I love and am delighted in, my enthusiasms, what I have to see and be a part of – these affections I give them to my Master. My loins and my sexuality, my hormones and drives, what distinguishes me as a man or a woman, my longings and desires for love and companionship and union with my wife or husband for the rest of my days – I give them to God. He is Lord over that entire area of life.
I can see how others have made a disaster of their lives and marriages because they have felt they were completely in charge of this, and could do as they would. No. This dimension of my life I have handed over to the Lord. It is for him; it is for his honour and glory. My belly; my enjoyment of good food and wine, my interest in certain cooking programmes or diets, my admiration for famous TV cooks and their recipe books – what interest there is in all of that, in what shops sell the best foodstuffs and the cheapest, what we give to people who come to our house for a meal. Then there are the recommended diets, and there are the eating disorders. What a fascinating subject it all is, but I have given it all over to the Lord. I want to eat and drink to the glory of God.
Then there are my legs and feet and whatever athletic or sporting skill I may have as a young person, and that is given to the Lord. I am saying that we can use the members of our bodies in the service of our God and Saviour. Let our strength be used first of all in loving our neighbours as ourselves. Let our dexterity and co-ordination be given to love the Lord and in loving others more and more.
We are to continually offer the members of our bodies to the Lord, and that is our daily exercise. Think of an athlete in training. He or she will eat right, get to bed on time and take on the daily discipline of practice. Certain muscle groups will be worked on in thousands of repetitions till they have mass and flexibility. Certain moves will be practiced again and again till they become second nature. Each time the athlete trains she gets a little better. Each time she works out then some sloppy old habit dies a little and some disciplined new one begins to come to life. In other words, each training session causes a tiny conversion, but it is only after many seasons of such training that a person can perform skills by second nature. These mini-conversions repeated thousands of times add up to the changing of one’s life. A duffer becomes a disciplined athlete, and the Christian life is like that. We daily make that commitment; “I shall present every part of my body to the Lord today,” and as we do that it becomes second nature. Each time we bend our knees and pray, each time we open our mouths and speak a word of testimony, each time we pick up the towel and the basin of water and wash dirty feet our old self dies a little and our new self comes more to life. Add up all these mini-conversions across years of following Christ and you have a dedicated servant of God. A flabby and clumsy Christian becomes trim and graceful. He does so when he follows these instructions; “Now offer the parts of your body in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”
10th May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS