Who Is Your Master?
BY JAMES M. SHARP
MANY OF YOU may be familiar with the heart-warming epistle of Philemon. It's just one chapter long.
In it, Paul asks Philemon, the owner of a runaway slave, to forgive and take the slave Onesimus back because he has since become a believer. He writes: "If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me. But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge back to my account."
There's a unique sense in which this little letter illustrates the work of Jesus Christ on behalf of believers. And it underscores the spiritual truths we find in our text, Romans 6:14-23.
Under grace. By law, Philemon could have had Onesimus punished very severely. But Paul asks Philemon to deal with the runaway slave not on the basis of law, but according to grace. We can see the parallel in verse 14: "For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace."
Because all of our sins have been charged to Christ's account, God no longer deals with us according to the law. We are now under the grace of God.
Romans 6 then continues: "What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 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?" (vv. 15,16)
Remember the old saying that no man is an island? No one lives to himself or dies to himself is the Bible's way of saying it. It is equally true that no one lives in this world without a master who dictates the path of his life.
Obvious truth. When Paul asks rhetorically, "Do you not know," he is effectively saying, "You know, of course, that every man has a master. You are slaves either of sin or of obedience. There is no middle ground."
While this truth should be apparent to all believers, it is nevertheless not at all evident to most people living today. To the mind of the natural man, in fact, the notion that he is somehow a slave of another is very disturbing.
Is it not the American way to lift up the anthem that says: "I Gotta Be Me" or "I Did It My Way"? Running throughout all the expressions of the natural man, even in his music, is the very deceptive notion that he is an independent, free agent, that he has no master.
In recent years, it's been our women who have raised the anthem: "I am woman. Ain't no man going to step on me. I'm going to determine my own path in life." And we as Americans are especially given to it.
But the scriptures have an entirely different description of the true nature of man. It sees very little freedom of a full sense in the created order. To get us thinking along these lines, the Bible asks such questions as: "Can a leopard change its spots" (Jer. 13:23)? What is a leopard free to be but a leopard?
Born to sin. And David writes, "In sin, my mother conceived me" (51:5). He wasn't saying that he was an illegitimate child; rather, he was declaring that he had come into this world with a sinful nature inherited from his first parents, Adam and Eve. And with it comes a bondage to sin. If he is free at all, he is free to be a sinner.
That's why no man seeks after God. It's not his nature to seek after God. He lives in spiritual darkness. He will not come to the light lest he be exposed. No man seeks after God.
When a sinner is brought to Christ by His grace, however, the Apostle Paul reveals in Romans 6, a fundamental change in his nature occurs.
Made free. Remember the conversation Jesus had with the Jews in John 8? He said, "If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." They answered him, "We are Abraham's offspring and have never yet been enslaved to anyone (I guess they had forgotten Pharaoh and the Romans); how is it that you say, 'You shall become free'"? Jesus answered them: "Truly, truly, I say to you, Every one who commits sin is the slave of sin."
We are born sinners and sinners are bound to sin. But once the truth of the gospel is applied to our heart, once the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to embrace Christ, a new master comes into our life and we are set free from that bondage.
Paul goes on to say in verses 17-19: "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. And having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I'm 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."
Now, get that down. If you are someone who has been emancipated from the old master, who has been set free from sin and the dominion of darkness and brought over into the kingdom of light, there's only one explanation for it. It's not that you were smarter than the next guy or that you had greater insights into spiritual truth. It is simply: "Thanks be to God"
And obedience comes out of that new relationship. It's not an outward form of keeping the law because you are under a hard taskmaster God. No. Paul says it's obedience from the heart.
It's a reference back to the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah had prophesied that in the coming of Christ and in coming to faith in Him, God would take away the old heart and put a new heart in His people. "I'll write my law on their hearts."
Redeemed. But why does it say that we become slaves to righteousness? You see, Romans 6 is describing a Christian as someone who is a sinner by nature but has met Jesus Christ through redemption. Redemption is a word that literally means to purchase. It was used every day in the First Century slave market. When a slave was actually being sold, they would ask of this slave as he stood on the auction block, "What is the redemption price?"
If you're in Christ today, it's as though God was there when you were on the auction block, and Christ became the highest bidder. He stood up and said: "I will redeem him with my own blood. And so, I will be his new master."
In verses 20 and 21, Paul describes our condition under our former master: "When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death."
Self-righteousness. Do you know what that is saying? It's saying that you were so bound to sin that you couldn't do anything to please God.
You say, "Well, I did some good things." But they didn't amount to a hill of beans with God. I'll tell you, some of the hardest people to win to Christ are those who go to church and think they're really okay. They think they are not a bad person.
Beloved, that's just sin deceiving you. Satan is deceiving you into thinking that you can please God in your own merits. Self-righteousness itself is a sin and amounts to filthy rags in the sight of a holy God. We must come through Christ. The only way to be set free from slavery to sin is to be set free through Christ.
Rhetorical question. Frankly, I gave some thought to the rhetorical question: "What benefit are you getting out of being a sinner?" You get to cheat on your income tax so you get a few extra bucks this year. You get to lie to your mate which ultimately will destroy your marriage and trust.
What are the benefits offered by this freedom that sinners think they have? What does it pay? The answer God gives us here cannot be clearer: "For the outcome of those things is death." Eternal death, that is.
Moses counted the cost at one point in his life. He said, "Well, I could enjoy these pleasures for a little time. But payday someday." For the wages of sin is death. So, he decided instead that he would rather suffer with the people of God in Egypt than to indulge himself in the pleasures of sin for a season.
But let's look at the benefit of serving your new master in verse 22: "Now having been freed from sin, and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification."
What is the benefit? It says it results in sanctification. That's a big word that means "to be set apart just for God and for His glorious purposes". I say if I'm in bondage to God, "Oh, glorious bondage. Don't ever let me loose, Lord." If God is my master, I'm content to be a slave.
In verse 23, the Apostle Paul sums up the contrast between the two masters: "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Look at this. What we get from God isn't wages. It is the free gift of God. It is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. You see, there isn't any talk of pay when you become a servant of God, a slave of God, because to be His servant is to receive the gift of grace that has made you such and at the same time has set you free from sin.
No greater love. The greatest thing of all, beloved, is that when Jesus takes us out of darkness, He does so to bring us into the glorious eternal kingdom of light.
"Greater love is no one than this, than one laid down his life for his friends." Those words are in John 15.
Here's what the Lord goes on to say: "You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit."
To be the servant of God, to be the slave of God, is to be the friend of God. It is to be brought into the household of God. It is to become a son of God in Jesus Christ. o
Rev. James M. Sharp is pastor of Grace Tabernacle, F Street at 20th Avenue, So. Belmar, NJ 07719.
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