Sermon for Pentecost 20(c)
Romans 6:15-23 + Luke 17:1-10 + Habakkuk 1:1-3, 2:1-4
What then? Shall we sin? What a silly question on a Sunday morning in church from your pastor! If anybody answers, “Yes, we shall!” you know you’re going to get a Bible thrown at you. You don’t want that. It’s an easy to question on a Sunday morning. Shall we sin? Of course not! Ah, but why not? That’s the question you just have to know the answer to.
Shall we sin?, the Apostle Paul asks rhetorically in his letter to the Romans, chapter 6. Now, understand, he’s not asking if we, as Christians, are still going to commit sins in our lives. He knows full well that our sinful nature is always sinning, and so all our works are tainted with sin. Paul isn’t asking if we will sin. What Paul is asking is, “Should we sin?” Should we make it our goal to miss the mark? (That’s what the word “sin” means – to miss the target of God’s holy will.) Why would he even waste the ink in writing a question like that? Because the Christian answer is so different than the non-Christian answer.
Shall we sin? Of course not! Even the non-Christian knows we shouldn’t sin. But why not? Those who don’t know Christ might answer, “Well, you shouldn’t sin, because then you’ll make God angry and he’ll send you to hell!” Guess what! You’ve already committed more than enough sins to kindle God’s anger and for God to condemn you eternally to hell. The one who knows Christ already knows that he or she deserves condemnation, and mourns over his sin or her sin. But he or she also knows that we have a Savior from that condemnation, a Savior revealed to us in the gospel.
For the past several chapters in Romans, Paul had laid out the doctrine of the gospel beautifully. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. No one will be justified by observing the law. Rather through the law we become conscious of sin. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And right before our text begins, he says, sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
Over and over again, Paul taught the gospel truth – God poured out his anger on his Son in order to spare sinners from his anger. The blood of Christ has freed us from the guilt of our sins, freed us from the condemnation of the law and brought us, by faith, into the good graces of his Father. Sin is no longer counted against us, because it was counted against Christ. The law can no longer condemn us who believe in Christ, because the law already condemned sinful man in Christ, our Substitute.
What then? Shall we sin? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Of course not! But why not?
Because when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness. Here’s the point Paul is making: At one time, before you knew Christ, you offered yourselves as slaves to sin. Your whole heart and will were dedicated to missing the target of God’s holy will, whether you realized it or not. You had no choice but to sin. Everything you did was sin, because without faith in God and in his Son Jesus Christ, you were already fighting against him all the time. You can’t hit the target of God’s holy will as long as you’re fighting against him. Apart from Christ, you were never good enough.
How can you love a God who is never happy with you? How can you love someone who’s always telling you you’re not good enough? You can’t, can you? And so, before you knew Christ, you were in this endless downward spiral. Not good enough for God because of your sin, and because of his constant disapproval, all you could do was learn to hate him more, or to despair of his love. That’s what it’s like to live as a slave to sin, and as Paul says, the wages that sin pays out is death.
Then Christ came along and said, “No, you’re not good enough, but I am. Trust in me, and my Father will count you as good enough, too. He’ll always approve of you. He’ll always smile on you. You’ll have his approval – his righteousness without even trying.” To trust in Christ for God’s approval – that’s what it means to offer yourself as a slave to obedience – the obedience of faith. The obedience that you and I could never come up with on our own, but God’s Holy Spirit comes to us in the gospel and makes us willing to give up our own will, and to submit as slaves to God’s will that we trust in Christ to be saved.
So shall we sin? Of course not! But why not? Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Why not sin? Because we’ve become slaves to righteousness. We hate to talk about slavery as a positive thing, don’t we? It has such horrible connotations, and Paul realized that, even in his day. He says, I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. He knows that slavery is not a perfect analogy to explain our relationship to God, but there is no perfect human analogy for the obedience that comes from faith. Whenever we talk about obedience in human language, it always grinds at our sinful nature. We don’t like to have to obey anyone by nature.
But see how different these two slaveries are! When you were slaves to sin – when you were devoted, body and soul, to missing the target of God’s holy will, you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness. You were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!
But now, as slaves to righteousness – as people who are devoted, body and soul, to hitting the target of God’s holy will, you offer yourselves in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
As slaves of sin, everything you ever did earned for yourselves the wages of death. As slaves of righteousness, nothing you do earns anything – neither condemnation nor eternal life. Eternal life is a gift from God to you because of Christ Jesus. And so, as slaves of righteousness, you set your heart, not on serving sin, but on serving God – even as slaves, because you know that this Master is good and that his holy will is right. You acknowledge that God has the right to be God, and you’ve seen for yourselves in Christ Jesus that God does a very good job at being God. So let his wish be your command! Give up your own will and submit to his!
Sometimes we have to be reminded of that, because our sinful nature still hates God and wants to follow its own will. We saw that in the Gospel today. Jesus revealed the will of God to his disciples. “Watch yourselves, lest you cause your brother to fall into sin. If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him – even if it’s seven times in one day.” And what was their reaction? “Yes, Lord, whatever you say!”? No. Forgive him? Even if he sins against me seven times in one day? Oh. That’s not what we want to do. We can’t do that. You’re going to have to increase our faith, Lord, if you want us to do that.
But Jesus reminded them, it’s not about having more faith. A tiny, tiny bit of faith can do miraculous things. It’s about remembering that you are slaves – slaves to righteousness, not to sin, slaves who will inherit the kingdom of God, but still slaves who don’t get to make the rules or decide when you want to obey God and when you want to obey your sinful nature.
When you remember that you’re God’s slaves, redeemed from sin by the blood of Christ, then when he tells you, “Forgive your brother if he repents,” “forgive as God has forgiven you,” you don’t have to sit around all day wringing your hands and asking yourself how you can do that or if that’s really something you want to do or not. You’re a slave. You just do it. Not by your own power or strength, but by the tiny bit of faith God has worked in you through his Word and Sacraments. Not to earn a reward. Not to merit a place in heaven or to avoid a place in hell. But just because God says so.
Shall we sin? Of course not! But why not? Because we have been freed from the slave-mastery of sin, and have become willing slaves of God – and in Christ Jesus, we know him to be a good and gracious Master. Amen.