This week continues the long series of readings from Paul's Letter to the Church in Rome which began last week, and this week's text is the complement to the previous, in which Paul began working through the implications of Jesus' atoning sacrifice versus our present sin.
I have remarked, on occasion, that the all-pervasiveness of sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine of Judaeo-Christian religion. Everyone does things they know are wrong; anyone who observes the world honestly can see that. The LORD God gave the law to the children of Israel, and even as they had seen the fire on the mountain, they sinned a great sin before Moses had even descended. And I don't know about you, but if Awe-Inspiring Special Effects isn't enough to convince people to put their trust in the LORD and behave, I don't know what would be. We are perverse beings; or rather we are slaves to our broken nature—slaves to sin.
Or at least we once were, before we came to the water of baptism and were reborn in the new life. So what now, since we are freed from that bondage?
Last week Paul began with a question, which appears again this week: why not keep sinning? After all, he said last week, more sinning means more grace; this week, he suggests that being free of the law, we might think we may live as we please. It is a rhetorical question, of course, which Paul answers with his favorite comeback: By no means! We were held in thrall by the rebelliousness which goes all the way back to Adam, but that bondage was broken on the cross. But the freedom we gain is not license; indeed, at the very beginning of this long argument, way back in Chapter One, Paul identifies licentiousness as one of the marks and signs of our sin.
No, the freedom we gain is that we may again take up obedience, that we may become (as he says) “slaves of righteousness”. Now, this may seem to us paradoxical and unbelievable. We are free, but only through being bound to God. We are free, but we yet continue to sin. Fifty-four years after my baptism, and I am still slothful and intemperate, and those are my good faults. The most damning accusation the world levels against us, as representatives of Christ, is that we are hypocrites.
That accusation Paul does not answer this week, but another—that we are no fun—is at the heart of this week's argument. We are stuck in church on Sunday morning, listening to (they say) dull music and being lectured at; we frown on sex and drugs and every other pleasure. But as Paul says, all this freedom to frolic through life is illusion, and that the adultery and fornication, the double-dealing and exploitation, the violence both in word and deed are all signs of the bondage to sin which leads, in the end, to destruction. For those who lack another hope, the payoff, the wages of this sinning may not be held a raw deal, though I see that what the old serpent promises is never really what sinners get.
But this is Paul's message: we do have another hope, through Christ Jesus. We do not have to settle for the wages of sin, but have the gift of new life made available to us through grace. And since sin came as disobedience, so life and freedom come as faithfulness to what God commands of us.
Jesus gave us a new commandment: love one another has he loved us. We know the measure of his love, stretched out on the arms and post of the cross. Paul says that we are not to yield our members to sin, but Jesus yielded up his hands, his feet, his side to those who crucified their Lord. Therefore we yield our members to righteousness, even as they remember their old habits of sin. Take up the bread and cup in remembrance of his sacrifice, and then take up the acts of service to the LORD, living in Godly harmony, in charity, and in worship. Thus we show in our lives the free gift of the Father, in the Spirit, which is life and hope for the age to come.