There are many distinguishing differences between the outlook that Christianity presses upon us and the outlook that our culture presses upon us, but one of the big ones is how each perspective looks at death, and how that informs the decisions we make before we die. Thus, the perspective of the secularist is that we should grab as much security and comfort and fun in this world as we can, because this is the only thing of which we can be sure. They argue that it is silly to spend our lives preparing for some unknown future which may or may not transpire. Furthermore, the veil that scientism has placed over the eyes of many keeps a lot of people from even considering anything that a scientist cannot measure. And that means that for a larger and larger group of people, it is a waste of time to consider the eternal and the things of God. Whereas there used to be a presumption in favor of Biblical truth, now there is a presumption against it. And so many of our friends are oblivious to the realities of heaven and hell.
How can we argue for the urgency of the eternal? There are several ways we can do this. One way is to argue for the Biblical position using philosophical arguments. There is a place for that. And I think it is an important place, given the presumption in favor of the naturalistic perspective of our age. But I would also offer two other considerations to our generation.
The first is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is not something that occurred in secret, or merely in the minds of his followers, but something that occurred in the context of our space-time universe in first century Palestine. It is not from any historical considerations that people deny the resurrection, but purely from prejudice and philosophical presuppositions. I have argued, and many others have argued, that the best explanation for the evidence that we have is that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. It is the best explanation for the empty tomb, for the post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his disciples, and for the emergence of the church in the very place where Jesus ministered and lived and died. And if it is true that Jesus rose from the dead, and then ascended to heaven, and then went, in his words, to prepare a place in heaven for his disciples, then we have very good reasons to believe not only in the age to come, but also that the only way to enjoy eternal life in the age to come is through Jesus Christ.
The other way to argue for the urgency of the age to come is for those of us who are Christian to live that way, to live in light of the reality of heaven and hell, in light of the joys of eternal life in God’s presence and the terrors of the eternal death away from the presence of God in hell. If those who are not Christian look at those of us who are Christian and see that we live no differently from them, then we have given the lie to our profession of faith. If we are living as if the present is the most important, then was kind of message is that going to give to our neighbors? There is only one thing it can possibly say, namely, that our profession of faith is phony. The only way our philosophy is going to make any difference in the lives of others is when it has first made a difference in our own lives first.
And I think one way for us to get there is to pay attention to the words of our text. The overall emphasis of the apostle’s message here is that we need to pay attention to the wages that sin and righteousness pay to those who serve sin or righteousness. The whole passage is bookended with this point. In verse 16 we are asked to consider what sin and obedience lead to. Sin leads to death and obedience to righteousness. We should not think that death here just means the termination of our physical existence, but also to what follows our physical death. One of the reasons we know this is that in verse 23, Paul contrasts death with eternal life. Death here is death in its ultimate expression; namely, the death of body and soul in hell (cf. Matt. 10:28). In the same way, “righteousness” in verse 16 is not just a reference to right living in the here and now, but to the hope that righteousness brings with it – the life in the age to come (Gal. 5:5).
And then in verse 21-23, Paul comes back to this. “The end of those things [the fruit of shameful living] is death” (21). On the other hand, the fruit of obedience to God “leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (22). The conclusion: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (23).
In other words, we should consider our lives from the perspective of eternity, and that should affect the way we look at things, and the way we make decisions and the way we prioritize our lives. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t take other things into consideration. The Bible doesn’t look well on those who give up living life in this world in order to become religious hobos (2 Thess. 3:6-12). But it does mean that we live the kind of life that says to everyone around us that eternity in the presence of God is the primary and overarching consideration.
And it will affect the way we look at things. We will see things differently from those who don’t adopt the perspective of the gospel. Notice what Paul says in verse 21: “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.” They are “now ashamed.” That means they were once not ashamed of those things. In other words, when they were unconverted to Christ, they never gave a second thought to the way they lived. But then Christ invaded their life and their outlook changed, and now they are ashamed of those things. Why? What changed their minds? Paul indicates what it was that changed their perspective: “For the end of those things is death.” Whereas they probably once thought they way they lived was living life to its fullest, now they saw those patterns of behavior as draped with death, not necessarily physical death, but spiritual separation from God in this life leading to eternal separation from God in the age to come.
Knowing that the wages of sin is death means that we don’t judge sin’s value from the limited viewpoint of this present existence. We don’t do something just because it feels good or avoid it because it leads to consequences that are bad for us in the here and now. In fact, doing something that is forbidden in God’s word may feel really good at first. We might even describe it as feeling alive, or as living life to its fullest, or becoming what we were always meant to be. But ultimately, we flee from sin not because of what it does or does not do in the present, but because of what it leads to – namely death. Sin leads to an irreversible end, a terrifyingly irreversible end. Everything we might gain in this world by living in opposition to God’s word will never make up for the judgment that is to come. Our Lord himself said that it is better to lose your life in this world in order to gain the next rather than gain this world and lose the next. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk. 8:36).
But for us it’s not just a matter of trying to avoid a very terrible end. It’s also a matter of seeking what is ultimately good for us – eternally so. The Christian is not drawn on merely by fear. The greatest motivator for the believer is the love of God and the joy that is set before us in Christ. For eternal life is not just interminable, endless existence. It is “the free gift of God . . . in Christ Jesus our Lord” (23). God does not give bad gifts. He does not give gifts that we end up regretting. For God does not just give us something – he gives us himself. It is the free gift of God in the sense not only that God is the giver but also that he is the gift. And since it is given to us in Christ Jesus, we know that this gift is for our eternal and never-ending joy. In fact, our Lord himself described it in terms of glory – “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and love them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have give me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:22-24).
Now how does this tie back into the argument that the apostle is making in this epistle at this point? He asks a question in verse 15 that is basically a restatement of the question in verse 1: “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” It’s the same question but restated in different terms. His answer is again the same, but this time instead of making the theological point of union with Christ and its implications, he draws from the analogy of slavery. Though he recognizes that the analogy falls short (“I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations,” ver. 19), he also clearly believes that this analogy communicates something clearly that he wants to get across. What is it?
He is speaking to the reality that everyone serves someone or something. Slavery is inevitable. You are either going to serve sin or you are going to serve Christ. There is no third option. We are not neutral. Now that doesn’t mean that those who are enslaved to sin are as bad as they can get. In fact, you can be a very moral person in this state. You can be a social conservative. You can be a theological conservative (the devil is, after all). The difference between someone who serves Christ and someone who doesn’t is that if you serve Christ you are not living for yourself but for his glory and his fellowship. You are not standing under your own authority but under the authority of Christ.
A Christian is someone who serves Christ. This was the apostle’s favorite designation of himself (Rom. 1:1; Acts 27:28). Again, it is not a complete picture, because the service of Christ involves no compulsion of will. Serving our Lord is more a matter of delight than it is one of duty (1 Jn. 5:3). Furthermore, it involves no bondage of any kind (Rom. 8:15-17; Matt. 11:28-30). Every slave of Christ is also a son or daughter of God, with an eternal inheritance. We are richer than Croesus ever thought of being.
But Paul still uses this term to describe the relationship of the believer to God. For our lives are circumscribed by God’s will, not our own (2 Cor. 5:15). God is the rightful possessor of our souls.
What does it mean to serve Christ? We need to be careful here. It does not imply any insufficiency on the part of God (cf. Acts 17:25). God is not a master who gets slaves because he can’t do the work himself. We are allowed to serve him for our sakes, for our glory and joy. Rather, it means to live in such a way that Christ stands as the ultimate authority in our lives. He calls the shots, not you. We live for his honor, not our own.
Now what the apostle is arguing is that the Christian cannot go on living in sin because you cannot separate slavery to sin from the wages which sin pays. If you serve sin, then you will reap its wages, which is death. On the other hand, those whose life are characterized by obedience will inherit eternal life.
Of course, I think it is important to notice the distinction that Paul makes here. Whereas he denotes death as the wages due to sin, he does not talk about eternal life that way. Rather, eternal life is a gift. We can never merit eternal life. It comes to us by grace and grace alone.
But the point is that obedience leads inevitably to the hope of righteousness and sin leads inevitably to death. So it is wrong-headed to argue that because we are under grace and not under law that we no longer need to worry about the sin in our lives. Grace does not give us an excuse for sin. Grace does not mean that we can live any way we want to. Grace doesn’t because what grace does is to put us in the service of Christ. Grace creates in us a clean heart, one which willingly submits to the Lordship of Jesus over our lives. Paul does not reason from grace to libertinism. He does not say that because we are saved by grace, therefore a person can sin with impunity. He doesn’t argue that a person can be saved by grace and then go on living in sin. He argues exactly the opposite.
At the same time, neither does he argue that we should serve Christ because of all the good it will do for us in the present moment. He does not say, “Serve Jesus, because if you trust in him you will have good health, a happy marriage, obedient and successful children, and a full bank account.” There is no health, wealth, and prosperity doctrine here. Rather, he argues that we should keep our eyes on the prize set before us. But what a prize it is!
This being the case, we ought to desire the service of Christ above all things. How do we do that? For the reality is that, as much as we might know that it is right to delight and desire the service of Christ above all things, even as believers, we wrestle against the desires of the flesh which go in the opposite direction. So how do we get there? I think the text suggests the following three points.
Turn to God and trust in his grace
The first point is that the life of obedience to which we are called is a life of faith in the power of Christ. It is not first of all a matter of will power, but a matter of trusting in the grace that God gives. The reality is that we do not come to God on our own in the first place. Paul makes this very clear, as we pointed out last time, when he thanks God, not the believers, for their conversion to Christ (17). And then in verse 18, he describes their conversion to Christ in two phrases using passive verbs. In other words, the actor in this verse is not the Christian but God: “and, having been set free from sin, [you] have become slaves of righteousness.” The believer does not set himself free from sin; God does this. It is the work of the grace of God in the heart.
But we should not think that though the Christian life is begun by the grace of God that it is continued by the believer acting on his or her own. It is begun and continued in the strength that Christ gives. Why is it that Paul prays that the Ephesian readers should be strengthened by might by God’s Spirit in the inner man? (Eph. 3:16). It is because we need the power of the Spirit to live out the life of service to Christ. How do we not gratify the desires of the flesh? It is by walking by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). We live by the Spirit and are called to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal. 5:26).
What does this look like practically? I think practically it means that our lives are lived bathed in prayer. If there is any way that faith becomes concrete, it does so through prayer. Those who pray not indicate that they are relying upon someone other than God for their source of strength, wisdom, and guidance. It is no coincidence that “serve the Lord” in Rom. 12:11 is followed by “be constant in prayer” in verse 12.
I know that I am repeating myself from last week, but I don’t think this can be emphasized enough. To be totally honest, one of the things I struggle with the most in my life is remaining constant in prayer. It is because I have the problem of thinking that I have things under control. But the reality is that I don’t. Too often I skimp on prayer because I don’t adequately grasp the depth of my need of Christ and his power and guidance in my life. We probably all could use more of a prayerful perspective in life.
Obey God’s word
The second point is that, although it is true that we must first and foremost trust in the grace of God and can do nothing without it, that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. Note what Paul also says here in verse 17: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” Although once again we see the evidence of God’s sovereign grace in the lives of the Roman Christians, for he is the one who committed them to the standard of teaching, yet the fact that it is a standard of teaching, to which they obeyed, indicates that God’s grace is not an excuse for passive Christianity. God’s word does not come to us to be merely listened to. His doctrines don’t confront us to be merely considered but to be acted upon. And we are the ones who are to do the acting. And we act appropriately when we obey his word.
Of course, this means that our lives not only reflect a priority for prayer, but also for the word of God in the Bible. By the way, I love the picture that is suggested here in verse 17. It suggests the supremacy of God’s word in their lives. John Murray comments that “they were handed over to the gospel pattern. This indicates that their devotion to the gospel was one of total commitment and that this commitment is not one of their option but is that to which they are subjected.”
Another distinction between Biblical Christianity and the spirit of our generation is the place of authority. Under whose authority do you stand? Our generation refuses to stand under any authority. They want to be autonomous. Any suggestion that we are to surrender to the authority of the Bible (or any other external authority) is taken to be war-cry against our own freedom, which is taken to be the highest virtue to be pursued. They are right, of course, because it does mean the end of freedom from God’s authority (20). However, they are wrong in thinking that personal autonomy means freedom in any true sense. Freedom from God means slavery to sin. It means slavery to fallen reason and slavery to fallen passions. It means slavery to a course of life that will inevitably end in death. But the slavery to God which of course means that we willingly stand under his word is a slavery that brings life in the fullest sense. If you want to be truly free, you will submit to the truth of the word of Christ (Jn. 8:32).
Don’t loiter in the pursuit of holiness
The last point I want to make comes from something Paul says in verse 19: “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” The point here is that sin in the life doesn’t just run on idle. If you are enslaved to the sins in your life, they are taking you somewhere. And the place they are taking you is to more and more lawlessness and godlessness. Sin hardens the heart. It blinds the eyes. It makes it harder and harder to go back. It puts roadblocks in your life. It creates consequences that you will end up having to live with no matter how much you change later on.
On the other hand, when you commit yourself to a life of righteousness, based on God’s will for you in his word, this will lead inevitably to a sanctified life. Do you know what that means? It doesn’t mean life in drab. It doesn’t mean no more smiles. It doesn’t mean you wear black and point your fingers at everyone who is different from you. That’s what a lot of people think sanctification means. Rather, it means a life that is consecrated to God, and which has God’s blessing upon it.
Here is how Paul put it to Timothy: “Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:20-21). I cannot think of a more noble or desirable description of the sanctified person than that. Do you want a life that is honorable, one that is truly useful – even in the light of eternity? Then pursue sanctification with all your might.
The encouraging thing here is that if we commit to this, we can expect growth in grace. It will probably be slow, but don’t let that discourage you. Keep keeping on, and you can expect God’s blessing upon your life. For if you are set apart for God, then you can be sure that his blessings will be set apart for you.
So let us serve Christ. Let us take Paul’s description of himself for our own. Speaking of God, he said, “Whose I am and whom I serve.” Who do you serve? To whom do you belong? My friend, Christ is the very best of masters. And there is only one other: sin. You will either serve Christ or your lust. One leads to eternal life, the other to death. May the Lord bring all of us in glad submission to his wonderful word.
 John Murray, Romans (NICNT), (Eerdmans, 1968), Vol 1, p. 232.