Readings: Romans 6:1-14; Matthew 6:24
C.H. Spurgeon, that famous preacher of the 19th Century, tells the story of a woman who claimed she had attained “sinless perfection” and had not sinned for years. Then he recalls that someone stood heavily on her toe (was it Spurgeon?) and “her sinless perfection departed her like the morning dew”.
Last week we referred to the Roman Road – Romans 1:16-17- about “the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”; Romans 3:23 (all have sinned – in fact you need to read Romans chapters 1-3 to see the extent of the sin) – and in Romans 5 in particular, how sin is dealt with (justification, reconciliation, atonement and grace were considered).
The key verses in Romans 5 in this regard are verses 8 and 9: But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. (NRSV)
Romans 6 – today’s passage – is a favourite passage for people who are enthusiastic about baptism. Most lean towards believers’ or adult baptism, as the symbolic aspects are not lost to us – in Romans 6:3 and 4: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
Those who support infant baptism hasten to refer us to Colossians 2:11-12: In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. (NRSV) The NIV translates the verse as follows: In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
The question is – whichever baptismal tradition you support – have you really died?
Simon Ponsonby gives us this account: George Müller, the 19th Century German (Prussian) saintly founder of orphanages and schools, was asked the secret of his success: There was a day when I died, utterly died; died to George Müller and his opinions, preferences, tastes and will – died to the world, its approval or censure – died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends – and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.) (2 Tim 2:15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. KJV)
In similar vein, Ponsonby speaks about the worldwide evangelist Billy Graham, who when asked how he coped being away from his wife with the temptations of travel and fame, commented: “I’m dead to every woman but my wife Ruth.”
If we are dead to sin, then things have to be different. Romans 6:2 and 6:6 confirm this.
The big question Paul asks here, though, is about grace. This question starts here: 6:1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 6:2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?
Because we have this grace that we are positioned in, to which we have gained access to by faith (Romans 5:2) – does that give us a license to sin more to achieve more grace?
Romans 5 ends with these verses (which we did not read last week) – which of course raises the very question we are looking at: Romans 5:20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, Romans 5:21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
You can see the logic. A little boy spills milk all over the kitchen floor – and mum cleans it up. “Never mind” she says, “look how shiny it is now”. He responds with a smile: “maybe I should spill milk more often then!” You can also see the absurdity in this logic. Tom Wright uses this story to illustrate this (my version or summary follows): Think of the prodigal son – who has been welcomed back in an act of grace by the father who breaks protocol when he runs down the road. Life is pretty normal again – dad is getting older, the older brother more tolerant of the prodigal, and things are rather ordinary in the home. Suddenly it crosses his mind again – as he thinks of that wonderful day of being welcomed by his dad – how great the party was – suddenly he begins to wonder if he should run away for a while again – and “play the penitent and come back again. Maybe I’ll get another party!”
Wright goes on to say: Absurd? Unthinkable? Don’t you believe it. It’s exactly what a great many people think. ‘God will forgive me; that’s his job!’ declared a famous philosopher two centuries ago. (Christian Johann Heinrich Heine is the philosopher quoted here: December 13, 1797 – February 17, 1856. As an unrelated aside, Heine also said some more helpful things like this quote: If the Romans had been obliged to learn Latin, they would never have found time to conquer the world.)
Twice in this passage Paul asks whether it’s ok to sin more to essentially get more grace. (It also appears in verse 15 which we didn’t read). Twice he answers – “by no means” – literally “may it never be” – or as in the KJV “God forbid!”
Sin should not be our master. (v14). So we can’t make excuses. Simon Ponsonby also tells the story of a speeding fine he got in the post (in the UK). Included in the letter were a list of excuses that they indicated would not be accepted: these included “I did not know the road; I did not see the signs; I have a clean licence; I was late; I didn’t know cameras were there; the road was clear; I was momentarily distracted; the car behind forced me to speed up.”
Ponsonby says this about this power of sin: Paul accepts no excuse for sinning. Though he says Adam influences us, ultimately we are accountable in Christ for our sin, and if we sin we do so volitionally. Shall we sin? No! It is possible not to sin. Does Paul believe we can be free from sin? Yes! Does Paul believe we can live a life, moment by moment, sinless? Yes! Was Paul sinless? No (as Romans 7 will lead us to acknowledge). Have I ever met a sinless person? No. Nevertheless, Paul refuses to take sin for granted – he refuses to resign to its power.
SO WHAT’S TO BE DONE? What are the implications of this?
Have you noticed at the traffic light up the road (by the dentist where we can park on Sunday without fear of a needle or drill) that there are a number of permutations – possible combinations of who goes where and when? It takes a while – you can do quite a lot of praying and thinking at that intersection while waiting. The most interesting one is when you go along Anzac and turn left into Beach road by the VINZ workshop. There are times when the lights go red for those going straight and a green arrow allows you to go left. The moment those two are on at the same time, my brain has a fit. It’s the incongruence. The two signals contradict. (I encountered a similar thing recently in Auckland when there were two arrows pointing left – one was green and the other red. Symptoms of complex roads in a city that probably grew without planning!)
Red and green are opposites. Which do you obey? I want to slam on the brakes and the accelerator at the same time. Apparently in the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-76) they tried to change the colours so red would mean go (and thus match Chairman Mao’s red book). It didn’t work. Chaos ensued. A couple of things in relation to this then:
- We need to be clear about when to stop and when to go.
- Clear about what is okay and what is not.
- About what we are against and what we are for.
- About who we ignore and who we obey.
- About who we serve, and who we don’t. Listen again:
v13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.
The translations differ here. We are not to offer parts of ourselves, parts of our bodies, or our members to sin as instruments of wickedness. Rather we are to offer them to God (in other words consecrate them to God). The NRSV uses the word “present”. We read in Romans 6:13: “…but present yourselves to God… and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” Present – means to place yourselves at someone’s disposal. To stand beside someone. Ponsonby says this: Baptized believers are to present themselves to God – again we have the Greek word parastemi, “standing beside” God.
He goes on to say: When Old Testament priests were ordained they were anointed with blood on the right ear lobe, right thumb, and right big toe, cleansing and devoting their extremities to God (Leviticus 8: 23). In Anglo-Catholic churches when the Gospel is read, the people often make the sign of the cross three times – on their forehead, mouth and over their heart – symbolizing that their mind, words and affections are consecrated before Christ. It is important to do this, if not physically then spiritually, throughout the day, presenting to Christ all our instruments, offered to righteousness, set apart for God.
We do need to present every part of ourselves to God. The mind, lips and heart actual cover a lot of areas where sin so often abounds in our lives – what we think, say, and feel. You can list the sins that you struggle with in each category!
And if they are persistent sins – we need to die to them. We are not to hang around (presenting our members, positioning ourselves to sin), but rather we are to present ourselves, or “stand” ourselves, or stand beside God.
And we need new habits that crowd out the old ones. Ponsonby says this: Sin is often a programmed habit, an auto-reflex of the flesh – body members and mind. Holiness can become a habit through habitually presenting yourself and your members to God.
The single Gospel verse today (Matthew 6:24) is also about who we serve, who we honour, who our master is: 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Money – wealth – mammon – you will find different words used in different translations. This struggle or choice we have to make is always there. Presenting ourselves before mammon, or wealth is probably a fertile ground for breeding sin! The persistent desire for more (shopping aka retail therapy) is a great example. If we die to sin, and live to God, presenting (positioning) ourselves before Him – we can change our habits.
Simon Ponsonby reminds us of that famous speech by Churchill at his old school Harrow: Never give in, never give in, never never never never, in nothing great or small, large or petty; never give in, never yield to force, never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.
And this is Paul’s approach to the problem of persistent sin. Never give in to sin. Never, never, never, never: in sins large or petty, never surrender.
May this be so.
Footnote: I am indebted to Tom Wright and Simon Ponsonby for the great illustrations and arguments they provide on this passage: Tom Wright (2006): Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1 (New Testament for Everyone) (Kindle Locations 1717-1719). SPCK. Kindle Edition. Ponsonby, Simon (2013-05-24). God Is For Us (pp. 193-194). Monarch Books. Kindle Edition.