“Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?
But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.”
Know ye not?
O, indeed, the apostle does not question the knowledge of the saints at Rome as to whether they have it or not. Rather, he is reminding them of the knowledge they have. This is very evident from the fact that they had obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which had been delivered to them.
Implied in the whole question is the solemn truth that they knew that no matter who their master was, they are always servants. If their master is sin, then they are the servants to sin. If their master is righteousness, then they are servants to righteousness. They know therefore that the servant never becomes lord and master. Of this saving truth the saints at Rome, and all the saints, must constantly be reminded, for in this truth is bound up their everlasting freedom.
The apostle gives thanks, and so must we, for the glorious fact that, whereas once the saints were servants to sin, they are now become the servants to righteousness. They have been made free from sin, and, having obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered to them, they are now free to serve righteousness.
They have been liberated to serve. This is evidently the main thought in this passage of Scripture. And this thought the apostle further develops in the remainder of the chapter. For, says he, when ye were the servants to sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become the servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Liberated to serve!
Does not this expression seem quite contradictory, and does it not defy the normal concept of freedom? Is it not normal to conceive of freedom as that state and condition where servitude no longer obtains? where one is under no master at all?
Yet there it stands, black on white—having been made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. Ye have been made free to serve!
Surely this conception of freedom violates the understanding of freedom in our modern world. Would not the fathers of our country and the authors of the Declaration of Independence scoff at this presentation of freedom? Do not all our history books teach us and our children that the war for independence was fought to set us free from the dictatorial tyranny of a foreign power? Or, to put it another way, was not Lincoln’s Emancipation Act the declaration of jubilee for all the black men who wished to be freed from their slave masters? a freedom just as real as the liberation of the slaves in the year of jubilee in the old dispensation?
And is not this idea of freedom in the sphere of the mundane relations carried over into the realm of the spirit? Is it not precisely the doctrine of all Pelagianism and Arminianism that man has a free will, and that freedom is a matter of man’s choice?
Indeed, when the text speaks of having been made free to serve, it not only suggests an apparent paradox in the light of history, but it markedly militates against the whole conception of freedom as expressed by man in any age.
We must see that the paradox is only apparent, not factual. We must understand that man, whether he is under sin, or grace, is always only a servant. He never becomes lord and master. This was true when he was the servant of sin. Though the master was a tyrant, exacting death; man was a willing slave of sin. This is true now when he becomes a servant of righteousness. Also here he is a willing servant, and he serves with a service that never ends. In both cases he is a willing servant, and he never becomes lord and master.
Fact of the matter is, that man in the state of righteousness before the fall was created only to be servant, never lord. It was precisely his sin that, under the enticement of Satan, he rebelled against the whole idea of servitude, and sought to be equal with God his Creator and Master. In this he emulated the Deceiver, whose sin, no doubt, was also that he refused to be under God, but sought to remove God from His exalted place, and to move into God’s state, Whose prerogative as Creator is to be Lord. Does not Jesus say of the devil (John 8:44) “He abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him”? What was the truth in which he abode not? Was it not that God was God alone, and that he was only servant? Mind you, he was an exalted servant, head of the entire heavenly realm under God. But he puffed himself up with pride and sought earnestly to demote God and to take His place. This lie he also conveyed to man in Paradise. Said he, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as God, knowing good and evil. (Gen. 3:4, 5) Man believed that lie, and ate of the forbidden fruit, because no longer did he wish to be servant, but as his lord. He did not want to serve God in love, but to be as God—to be lord, and not servant. And when man sinned, he became a slave of sin. This is the category in which the apostle also puts us, as we are by nature. We are by nature the servants of sin.
And the apostle suggests in the question he asks that this service of sin is not merely a service which is imposed on us against our will, but it is a willing service. Literally he says, “Know ye not that to whom. ye place yourself beside as servant unto obedience, servant ye are to whom ye obey, whether of sin unto death, or obedience unto righteousness?” O, we know, of course, that the service of sin unto death was the judgment of God, which He said man would experience if he transgressed the commandment of God. Nevertheless, man after the fall does not serve sin against his will, but willingly. He actually places himself beside sin, and says with all his heart, I will serve thee, I will obey your every dictate. He loves sin with all his heart and being, and would not have it otherwise.
The same is true when he is liberated from the service of sin; he becomes a willing servant of righteousness. True, he no longer serves from the heart the tyrannical. slave-master sin, but from the heart now serves righteousness. But in either case, he remains servant. Only now he places himself beside righteousness with the intention to be devoted unto righteousness with all his heart and being.
Man never becomes God, the very thought of which is blasphemy! Man, whether he be natural man, or the new man in Christ, remains servant. When he becomes the latter, he is liberated to serve righteousness.
What is generally forgotten at this point, or we should perhaps say is not understood, is the fact that man’s true freedom consists in his being able to serve his God. So it was in the state of rectitude. Man was created in the image of God and possessed all the faculties. to love and serve his God. He was made a covenant friend-servant. That was his true freedom. When man rebelled against God, at that ,very moment he lost his freedom. He imagined he would be free when he transgressed. The truth is, he became a servant, bound with the shackles of sin and death which he could not break. God was not mocked—the day he sinned, that day he died. This is the plight of all who are born of Adam, of the whole human race. But here is the gospel, the good news of salvation: God in Christ came to deliver His people from the bondage of sin and death. He not only restored them to their original state of rectitude, but raised them up to the glory of the heavenly and eternal covenant relationship in which they will be His covenant friend servants forever. Yes, they were the servants of sin, but are now become the servants of righteousness.
Wonder of grace!
The apostle says: But thanks be to God! Literally he says: But grace to God! The idea is that when the grace of God is recognized, observed, it becomes “thanks” to God. As you probably know, the fundamental and basic significance of grace is beauty. And that significance must not be lost out of sight here. The beauty which is here ascribed to God is seen in the redemptive work of making us, who were the servants of sin, to become the servants of righteousness. The change therefore is wrought through the wonder of grace. God, through a wonder of grace, made the change.
To be sure, when man sinned and became a servant of sin, that was also of God. And the fact that the wages of the service of sin is death is also of God. It belongs to the righteous judgment of God that the sinner must serve sin unto death.
But, O wonder of grace, God did not leave His people in the bondage of sin. He delivered them in His sovereign grace from sin and from death.
The text does not tell us in so many words how He delivered us. It simply assumes that that deliverance has taken place. But we know, do we not, from the Scriptures that God did it through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. He it was Who assumed our nature and our guilt, bore the penalty of our guilt in our nature on the accursed tree. He became a curse for us, in order that He might deliver us from the curse. He, by His death, broke the power of sin and death which held us in bondage, and in His glorious resurrection declared unto us our justification. As the glorious Head of His people He ascended to God’s right hand where He received the Spirit without measure and power to change us from servants of sin unto servants of righteousness.
Indeed, it is all of grace!
For He comes by His Spirit and truth and attacks our hearts, which loved the lie and the service of sin, and makes those hearts to love and obey that form of doctrine which was delivered to us through the preaching of the gospel. Through that change of heart we learned to hate sin and to flee from it. Through that change of heart we love God once more and desire to serve Him. Through that change of heart we submit to the form of doctrine delivered by His apostles and prophets; yea, more, we submit to the form of doctrine unto which we were delivered.
All of grace!
And when we by grace recognize this, we say with the apostle:
Thanks be unto God!
Not only do we say this with our lips, but we seal this confession with a godly life. That is what the apostle means when he says: obeyed from the heart with an obedience unto righteousness.
This is sanctification, without which no man shall see, the Lord.
We have been made free to serve. In the text it is obedience unto righteousness. In the verses that follow we note that the apostle adds, “yielding your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.” (vs. 19) And he concludes, “servants unto God.” (vs. 22)
It is a devoted service, not by compulsion, but willing from the heart. Consecrated are our lives in the service of and unto the glory of God. The end fruit of which is everlasting life.
Thanks be unto God!