Wednesday of Week 29 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:12-18

Today we move into chapter 6 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Even spreading this letter over four weeks, there are many wonderful passages which have to be omitted. The only solution is to go through the whole letter ourselves in our own time.

Having again spoken of the contrast between Adam and Christ and said some words about baptism, Paul goes on to say that goodness, not sin, must be in charge of our lives. Just before this, he had told the Romans:

The death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:10-11)

And so, Paul continues in today’s reading:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies, so that you obey their desires. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness…

Though baptism destroys sin in us, as long as we are still in this world and our body has not yet “put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:54), sin can still find a way to reassert itself in a ‘mortal’ body, where sensuality still has a hold. Instead, we are to surrender ourselves totally to God, as people who have been brought to life from the death of sin. We are to offer all our human capacities – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, social – to God so that they will become instruments leading us to goodness of life:

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Paul conceived of sin as a power that enslaves, and so personified it. ‘Not under law’ means no longer under the regime of the Mosaic Law, whose external observance was the basis for the Jewish way of life.

He is certainly not saying that the Christian has been freed from all moral authority. Law, by itself, provides no enablement to resist the power of sin. On the contrary, violation of the Law only increases the awareness of sin. Grace, on the other hand, enables and liberates. Its only law is the law of love (agape).

Apparently some people were countering that, if we are no longer bound by the Law but by ‘grace’, then people could do what they liked. “By no means!” thunders Paul. That seemed to be Luther’s position with his famous dictum of Pecca fortiter (Sin vigorously). Luther seemed to say that once we have committed ourselves in faith to Jesus as Lord, our sinfulness, which will inexorably continue, will be ‘over-looked’, ‘covered over’ by Christ’s grace. We saw that Luther’s interpretation of Paul was partly influenced by his own apparent impotence in overcoming his lower appetites. He needed a way to be with Christ even in his sinfulness.

However, even this is not quite the same as saying that, once we are under grace, we can throw morality to the winds, that we can do what we absolutely like with impunity. No Christian could hold that position. We part company with Luther when he says that we are powerless to become better people, good people.

Paul totally rejects the idea that, with grace, we can forget about moral behaviour. To have committed oneself to Christ totally must result in an inner transformation which steers us in the direction of goodness and love. To be in Christ is to be free, not freedom to sin but freedom not to sin. True freedom is the ability to choose the good. Sin, as a choice of evil, can never be an expression of true freedom; it is an abuse of freedom.

The Jerusalem Bible comments on the freedom that comes from Christ:

“Christ has freed human beings from evil so as to restore them to God. Paul develops the biblical ideas of ‘redemption’ and of liberation from death, and in order to bring out their implication makes frequent use of a metaphor that his contemporaries would find impressive: the slave redeemed and set free who can be a slave no longer but must serve his new master freely and faithfully. Christ has paid for our redemption with his life; and he has made us permanently free. The Christian must be careful not to let himself be caught again by those who once owned him, i.e. by sin; the Law, with its ritual observance; the principles of the world; and corruption. He is a free man, son of a free mother, i.e. the spiritual Jerusalem. This liberty is not licence to sin. It means serving a new master, God, the Lord Jesus Christ, to whom the Christian now belongs, for whom he lives and dies; this obedient service is prompted by faith and leads to righteousness and holiness. This is the sort of freedom a son has, one who has been made free by ‘the law of the Spirit’. And, he must be prepared to surrender his own freedom to serve his neighbour in charity and respect if someone else’s scruples require it. Slavery as a social institution may be tolerated in a society that is, after all, transient. It has no real significance in the new order established by Christ: the Christian slave has been enfranchised by the Lord Christ, and the slave and his master are equally servants of Christ.” (edited and textual references omitted)

Paul then goes on to distinguish two kinds of slavery:

Do you not know that, if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

To become a slave is to be put under the will and control of another person. To be the slave of sin can only result in death, but to be truly obedient to righteousness leads to life.

The word ‘obedience’ contains the root of the verb ‘to hear’. To turn a deaf ear to goodness and submit to evil leads to sin and death. To listen to the voice of goodness and submit to it is the way to life.

We have a striking example in Jesus who, in obedience to his Father, offered up his whole body in life and in death for our liberation. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul says that Jesus:

…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross. (Phil 2:7-8)

We, because of and through Christ, have exchanged one form of slavery for another:

But thanks be to God that you who were slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted and that you, having been set free from sin, have become enslaved to righteousness.

To “become obedient” implies willing submission and not an obedience that is forced, imposed or legalistic. Christians have changed masters. From being slaves to sin, they have become slaves to ‘righteousness’, to that inner goodness that results from opening oneself to the love of God that comes through ‘grace’.

On the other hand, being ‘under the law’ meant looking for personal salvation by obeying external rules and regulations. As we see in the case of many Pharisees, it led to arrogance and a very dangerous kind of inner corruption. Such a corruption can infect us Christians too, if we are not careful. When we surrender to a life of sin, we are headed for death. When we surrender ourselves to God it leads to justice, to goodness. Paradoxically, to become the slave of “justice”, or righteousness, is to become free.

Freedom, as we said, is the ability to identify totally with the good. To use one’s freedom to sin is a contradiction. True freedom enables us to choose the good and loving act at all times and in every situation.

Although some may not see it that way, there is no one who enjoys more real freedom than the one who is totally committed to the Way of Jesus. Because it is the Way, it is the Vision of life, to which we are called by the deepest needs of our being.

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