Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
The Apostle Paul described the Christians in Rome, before they became Christians, with these words:
…You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness... (Romans 6.19)
Many today, maybe even you, will scoff at the notion that they are or have ever been slaves to anyone or anything. This is nothing new: the Scribes and Pharisees said as much to Jesus – they are sons of Abraham, they’ve never been slaves – even though they were under Roman occupation as they said it. But Jesus had been talking about being slaves to sin. (John 8:31-38)
Today, most will assert that they are free to do as they please in life, they make their own rules, each person sets his or her own standards, each person determines for themselves what is right or wrong, and I would say, with the exception that there is one universal rule that does exist for every person: thou shalt not tell me that I am wrong.
But is it really freedom to do as one chooses, to make one’s own rules and determine for one’s self what is right and wrong? It may appear to be freedom at first, but it is in fact the very worst kind of slavery. “…You once presented your members as slaves of impurity, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness…” There is no freedom in that. When you do whatever you want to do, you become a slave to what you want. You live to please yourself. You become a slave to your own pleasure. There is no such thing as a truly independent person. There is no such thing as absolute freedom. Everybody is going to be under the authority of somebody, and as for fallen humanity, Jesus said it plainly when He said: “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34)
Pick a sin: Getting drunk, starting a fight, using filthy language, having sexual relations with someone to whom you are not married, taking God’s name in vain, cheating, stealing, lying. Why do people do these things? Why do they set out to drink too much when they know that it’s a sin? Why do they become violent and start fights? Why do they engage in intimacy that God says is unclean and immoral? Why do they tell lies to gain what rightly belongs to the neighbor? Why do they lie about the neighbor? Do you know why? Because they want to, that’s why. They do what they want to do, and what they want to do is wrong. But they do it anyway because they want to do it.
That is slavery. It is the slavery of someone who is mired in lawlessness, who doesn’t know or recognize God’s Law, and doesn’t know Christ, and doesn’t know true freedom in Him, and doesn’t know what life is because he doesn’t have it. The slave to sin thinks he’s free, but he’s not. He’s a slave to sin. The fact that it is his own sin, his own sinful desires that enslave him, in no way diminishes his slavery. It just makes it more pathetic. He thinks he’s free because he’s doing what he feels like doing but he’s a fool because what he feels like doing is being a slave.
And he’s a dead man walking. He thinks he’s alive. In fact, he thinks he’s really living because he’s doing what he really wants to do. But he’s dead. “The wages of sin is death.” Oh, he doesn’t know he’s dead and he probably won’t believe it when he is told that he is dead, but he is dead. Just as there are physical laws governing the universe, there are spiritual laws governing life and death. What goes up must come down. That’s the law of gravity. Sin pays off in death. That’s a law too, and it cannot be repealed. St. Paul calls that the “fruit” of being a slave to sin:
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. (Rom. 6:20-21)
Note that Paul says, “slaves of sin” – and “free” in regard to righteousness – such a slave is free from righteousness, the slave to sin has nothing to do with righteousness or holiness or anything that has to do with love of the one true God. The end of that way is temporal and eternal death.
What can be done? In our sinful condition, we are like the four thousand out away from home, having wondered far away for days, and with no food. You are at risk to faint on the way. Is the crowd able to help itself, just conjuring up food for themselves? Being enslaved to sin, can you conjure up on your own good fruit, that righteousness that leads to life? Do people have it within them to figure out their conundrum?
Martin Luther wrote one of his greatest books, “Bondage of the Will”, as part of his debate with the Roman Catholic theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus had written a book called, “The Freedom of the Will”, which spelled out the Roman doctrine that the will of each person must be involved in the person becoming a Christian. Rome teaches that each person must do their part to be saved, and the person can, because Rome looks at sin as just a “stain” or blemish on a person, that can be cleaned up through one’s efforts. So Erasmus held that even though each person is troubled by sin, there is nevertheless something that each person has inside to prepare himself for conversion and faith, and thus co-operate with the Holy Spirit in his conversion.
Luther disagreed. On the basis of Scripture, including our Epistle this morning, Luther categorically denied the freedom of the will, and spoke of the bondage of the will instead. He pointed out that while one might appear, to the earthly eye, to be free or that one has a free will, that freedom was not absolute. The Bible instead teaches us that we are slaves to sin according to our inherited sinful nature, that sin is more than a stain or blemish. Rather it is a complete corruption, and no one does good, no not one, none is righteous, no one seeks for God, all have turned aside, all we like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his own way. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) And everyone does commit sin!
I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him… says Dr. Luther in the Small Catechism. We do not have it in us to help ourselves. We will faint and die on the way if we try to save ourselves, either despairing in hopelessness, or foolishly believing we’ve saved ourselves when we truly fall short in God’s eyes, according to the Law, never able to do enough, and God at the judgment will hold such a person to account for every jot and tittle of His Law.
But when we have nothing of our own, nothing but slavery to sin and lawlessness in our account, and no food to eat but the bitter fruit of death, it is precisely at this point where we find Jesus looking for us. God beheld our wretched state, and said, “It’s time to have compassion.” We do have hope, a gracious Lord who has had compassion on us, as He had compassion upon the four thousand wandering after Him away from home with no food, enslaved to sin.
Jesus, who knew no sin, out of great compassion for you who were enslaved to sin, became sin for you, became an enslaved sinner in your stead, and took upon Himself the wages of your slavery to sin. That compassion Jesus showed for you was not cheap. It cost more than silver and gold to release us from this bondage, it cost Him His own holy, precious blood, shed in His innocent suffering and death, bound by nails to His grisly cross. He freely willed to taste the bitter fruit of sin, to die your death, that He might change your status, buying you back from your slavery to sin, death, and the power of the devil, that you might belong to Him and to His Father in heaven, who is your true Father, your true and only God, who created you and who truly cares for you.
This purchase is applied to you by God in your Baptism. You have in your Baptism into the saving death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ a free gift, one you cannot buy, food without price, food that truly satisfies and makes you whole, double and more than you deserve, with seven basketfuls leftover to boot. Grace upon grace, love without measure. Paul says it this way:
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6.22–23)
So you’ve been bought with a price. You were in slavery to sin. But now, God having washed you with the water of regeneration and the Holy Spirit, in Christ, has made you free from sin and its tyranny – “…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”
You’re still not “free” – but it is the right kind of slavery. You are now slaves of God. You belong to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the Triune God feeds you every good thing, a new food to eat, a new fruit that really does fill you – the sweet savor and refreshing taste of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, all the holiness that leads to eternal life that one can swallow, all feely gifted to you on account of Christ Jesus, our Lord.
So come, dear Christians, for the food of you who are slaves of God in heaven, the fruit you get leading to sanctification and to its end, eternal life, is yet again to be freely set before you at this altar and rail to strengthen and preserve you unto that life which knows no end, a life already enjoyed in heaven by the saints who have gone on before us, a life where true joy and true freedom from all that holds us back will be known without measure in God’s glorious and unveiled presence.+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +