Free from Sin, Slaves of Righteousness, Part 1
From Gospel Translations
By John Piper
About Sanctification & Growth
Part of the series Romans: The Greatest Letter Ever Written
What is the Meaning of "Under Law" and "Under Grace"?
Part One: What Is the Meaning of "Under Law" and "Under Grace"?
For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. 15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
Two weeks ago I drew out of verses 11-13 a picture. If we trust in Christ, our body is like a castle with God as the reigning king; our desires are like servants in the castle; sin is a rebellious, deceptive pretender to the throne who wants to rule over the castle; the strategy of sin's sedition against the king is to take our servant-desires captive, deceive them, corrupt them, and send them as traitors into the castle like Judas to betray the king, capture one of our members (say the tongue) and turn it into a weapon against the King for unrighteousness.
And I argued that there is a great battle to be fought here. That is what Romans 6 is all about – How do people who have been justified by grace through faith defeat sin? I pointed out six strategies, and the last one was based on verse 12, "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires." In other words: Don't desire sin as much as you desire God. Don't desire sin's lie as much as you desire God's truth. When it comes down to the conflict between the desire for what sin offers and the desire for what God offers, prefer God. Which means that one great strategy of living the Christian life is to set God and his ways before us as our treasure – as preferable.
O that the church – the lukewarm, worldly, half-hearted church – would realize that the Christian life, the only life that leads to heaven, is a life of competing desires. It is no accident or fluke that the distribution arm of this church is called "Desiring God Ministries." Verse 12 says, "Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires." In other words, we live the Christian life by not obeying the desires of the body that sin has captured and corrupted. And if you choose not to obey a desire, it's because you desire something else more. But what if you have learned a kind of Christian life that is all willpower-duty and no desire for God? What if you never invest any prayer or meditation or conversation in cultivating stronger desires for Christ than for sin? What if you only think of Christ as true, but don't desire him as your treasure?
Well, there is a window in today's text into the soul with that kind of Christianity. In verse 15 Paul says, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!" Paul is quoting somebody here. The same person he was quoting in verse 1, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" You see that Paul is still trying to help this poor fellow who doesn't understand the essence of the Christian life rooted in justification by grace through faith alone. This fellow listens to Paul's gospel of justification by grace through faith apart from works, and says, "Well, if I have a right standing with God by faith, and if all my sins, past, present, and future are forgiven, then I may as well let sin reign in my body and enjoy doing its desires." That's the way a person talks whose Christianity is simply a group of ideas and not an experience of the preciousness of Christ.
What can I do for such a person this morning? 1) I can preach Christ and try to display his heart and his mind and his grace and his work so that he appears for what he really is, namely, precious beyond all that this world can give. 2) And I can pray that God will open the eyes of your hearts to see this preciousness and that he would awaken your soul to taste and see that he is more to be desired than everything competing for your heart. 3) By grace, I can witness to the treasure that he has become in my own heart.
We will take two weeks on this text as we try to do this. The way I want to approach it today is to unpack what it means to be under law and what it means to be under grace. This will show the preciousness of Christ and of grace in a way that few other things could.
What, then, does it mean to be under grace not under law?
"Under Law" – We Provide Our Own Righteousness
Verse 14: "For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace." The phrase "under grace" is not used anywhere else in Paul's writings (or the New Testament) except here and the next verse. But the phrase "under law" Paul used seven other times (once in 1 Corinthians 9:20, and five times in Galatians – 3:23; 4:4-5, 21; 5:18). Those uses give us a fairly clear picture of what Paul would probably have in mind here.
Let's look at two of them. Keep this urgent question in mind, just in case you are prone to think this is pointless question. How you see yourself before God and how you live hang on whether you are under law or under grace. So what does "under law" mean?
Consider first Galatians 4:4-5, "But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under [the] Law, (5) so that He might redeem those who were under [the]Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons." The word "the" is not there in the original. The phrase is identical to what we have here in Romans 6:14. Christ was born "under law" to redeem those "under law."
Here's what we learn from this use: 1) Somebody is in deep trouble for being under law, because Paul says Christ needs to redeem them; 2) Christ was born under law, and so being under the law was not danger or sin for Christ, as it seemed to be for the rest. In other words, being "under law" is something that we sinful creatures want to avoid at all costs if we can, but that Christ embraced to rescue us from it. What then might it be?
I would suggest this. Being under law means that lawkeeping is the way we will provide a righteousness that lets us stand before God. If we treat the law in such a way that lawkeeping provides the righteousness that justifies us, then we are under law. And this is true whether you are trusting God to enable you to keep the law or trusting yourself. It doesn't make any difference when the issue is: What provides the righteousness that justifies me? If it is lawkeeping, I am "under law."
A Deadly Choice
The reason that is deadly for us sinners is that none of us can succeed in using the law to provide a righteousness that puts us right with God. On the other hand, when Paul says that Christ was born "under law" (Galatians 4:4) to redeem those of us who are condemned because of our failure to keep the law, he probably means that Christ will not fail in relating to the law this way. That is, Christ will perfectly keep the law (by faith!) and thus perform a righteousness that will, in fact, maintain a right standing with God. And what we have learned in Romans is that this righteousness of Christ is credited to our account.
Let's see if this is confirmed in Galatians 4:21, "Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?" There was a group of teachers who had come to Galatia and told them that an essential part of their justification was lawkeeping, especially, being circumcised. In other words, part of the righteousness that would give them a right standing with God would be lawkeeping, circumcision. Paul said, this was the same as wanting to be "under law."
He described it in Galatians 5:2-4,
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
Three observations: 1) If you want to claim that your partial lawkeeping in, say the act of circumcision, is part of your justifying righteousness, then you have to realize that you are indebted to keep the whole law (verse 3). If you want to provide any of your righteousness as the basis of your right standing with God, you must provide all of it. That is what it means to be "under law." Christ did it. We can't. We need his righteousness, not ours.
2) In verse 4 "seeking to be justified by law" is the same as "wanting to be under law" in 4:21. That is, wanting to be "under law" is the same as wanting lawkeeping to be part of our righteousness before God. That is what "justified by law" means.
3) If you try to provide any or all of your own righteousness before God, Christ will be of no advantage to you. Verse 2: "If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you." In other words, Christ will be all your righteousness or none of it. If you try to provide some of your righteousness alongside Christ's righteousness as the ground of your justification, you nullify grace (Galatians 2:21). Or, we could say, you are not "under grace."
"Under Grace" – Christ Is Our Righteousness
What it means, then, to be "under grace" is that Christ is all our righteousness for justification. We receive it in him as a gift by grace through faith alone. And the opposite is being "under law," which means that Christ is not our righteousness for justification, but lawkeeping is.
Now let's see if this is confirmed here in the context of Romans 6. It is, I think, in two ways. One is that it makes sense out the objection in verse 15, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" The person Paul has in mind here thinks that being "under grace" is a license to sin without penalty. And indeed, that's what it looks like if being "under grace" means that all our righteousness for justification is Christ's and not ours. So the objection seems plausible.
In addition to that, the same objection was raised in verse 1 in response to Romans 5:20-21, which also confirms we're on the right track. Remember that in Romans 5:17 Paul referred to "those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness." The grace of God is expressed in a gift of righteousness. That gift of righteousness is Christ's righteousness, not ours. You can see that in the next verse. Verse 18b: "Through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life." So the gift of righteousness (verse 17) is Christ's act of righteousness (verse 18) which results in our justification, and leads to eternal life. It is Christ's righteousness imputed to us.
Now with that in mind, we read Romans 5:20-21, which gave rise to the objection in Romans 6:1: We may as well sin that grace may increase. Verses 20-21 say, "Where sin increased grace increased all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." In other words, God's grace (verse 17) reigns through the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us for justification and leads to eternal life. To which someone says, "Well then, let us sin that grace may abound!" (6:1). Which is also what he says in verse 15, "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" So we see that the connection of thought in Romans 5:17-6:1 confirms the meaning of "under grace" that we've seen in Galatians and Romans 6:14,15.
So from all this I conclude that being "under law" means that lawkeeping is the way we will provide a righteousness that lets us stand before God. If we treat the law in such a way that lawkeeping provides the righteousness that justifies us, then we are "under law."
But being "under grace" means that we receive as a free gift all our righteousness, namely, the righteousness of Christ, by grace as the ground of our justification. That is the gift. That is the basis of our right standing with God. Christ was born and lived under law and fulfilled it perfectly by faith. That is his righteousness. We escape from being "under law" by trusting Christ as our righteousness. That is what it means to be under grace.
Now the question is: Why is it that not being under law but being under grace guarantees that sin will not triumph in your life and become your Lord? That's what verse 14 says: "For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace." This is not a command but a promise. "Sin shall not be master over you. And that is what we will take up next Sunday.
Desire, not Just Decision
I want to close today where we began – with the Christian life as the triumph of desire, not just decision. Connect this now to what we have seen. Who is this in verse 15 that talks like this: "Let us sin because we are not under law but under grace. Since Christ is our righteousness for justification, since our right standing with God is based on his righteousness not ours, then let's sin, because there can't be any penalty. Christ is our righteousness." Who talks like that?
I said at the beginning it is people whose Christianity is a group of ideas about Christ, not an experience of the preciousness of Christ. Their Christianity is all truth and no treasure. All "choices" and no cherishing. All logic about Christ and no love for Christ. All "decision" and no delight. And O how many people there are who come to church and are in this category!
So my closing plea is that during Advent 2000, we would all pursue the preciousness of Christ. And the preciousness of justification by faith. And the preciousness of being under grace, not under law. Advent means: "When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under Law, so that He might redeem those who were under Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). He came under law and satisfied the law, so that we might be redeemed from law and become children of God.
If that does not feel precious to you, if that is not the treasure of your life – more precious than gold and sweeter than honey – would you pursue the preciousness of Christ this Advent? Ask God to open the eyes of your heart. Turn off the television. Set your mind on the things of Christ. Fast and pray, "Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad in you all our days" (Psalm 90:14).