One Way of the Other: Only Two Choices

Text: Romans 6:15-23

Introduction:  How do Christians grow in grace? Paul’s argument (and note carefully the kind of reasoning that he uses) is that we do not grow in grace by growing in law. We do not grow in grace by works. We grow in grace by grace through faith. Our covenant relationship with God began with grace and it continues with grace (and we will finish our course by grace). That is the Apostle’s point. We don’t work for grace; we work from grace (comp. Eph. 2:10 and Titus 3:4-7). What about our on-going struggle with sin? The Apostle, in this important chapter lays out the battle plan for facing sin’s onslaughts. First, he underscores again and again the need to KNOW certain theological truths that pertain to our being united to Christ in His redemptive work. Second, he tells us that we need to RECKON (count it as actually being the case) that, in our union with Christ, the old self is dead, nullified, and no longer able to command obedience. Third, we are reminded that we are to PRESENT ourselves (body, mind and emotions) to God as instruments of righteousness. Fourth and finally, we are told that we owe our OBEDIENCE to a new master, the Lord Jesus, and that this obedience issues a heartfelt desire to SERVE Christ in our daily lives. “That,” declares MacArthur, “is Paul’s formula for victory. It calls for boldness, determination, and an intelligent, informed faith. It assumes that we love God and desire to see His righteousness working in our lives. It offers freedom from sin’s absolute authority and the means to defeat sin in our daily walk.”[1]

In today’s world (and remarkably in much that goes by the name “Evangelical”), there is a cavalier attitude about the biblical understanding of sin. A person with a shallow sense of sin and of the wrath of God against our sin will neither feel the need for nor understand what it means to come to Christ as Savior and Lord. The Biblical doctrine of God’s grace is incomprehensible to people of this mindset because forgiveness is either perceived as being unnecessary or an entitlement. Why am I harping on the theme again and again? Why retrieve the awareness of sin? Why restate the Christian doctrine of sin? To begin with, without it there is no way we can even begin to understand Romans 6:1-23. The second reason is that traditional Christianity is considered out of touch with our Post-modern culture, especially by many professed Evangelicals (cf. my series on The Present Evangelical Crisis (July – August 2005). One of the major reasons that the Biblical doctrine of sin has been badly muffled is due the almost total eclipse of the holiness of God. Anytime the God’s defining attribute of holiness is downplayed human sin becomes minimized. The derisive manner in which those Evangelicals now identified with what they called “The Emergent Church,” treat the all-important doctrine of the penal substitutionary atonement (the holiness and wrath of God against sin being essential to the atonement) reflects this major shift from what traditionally characterized historic Evangelicalism.

But because Biblical, Orthodox (traditional and historic) Christianity saws against the grain of much in contemporary culture it therefore needs constant reaffirmation.  Christianity’s major doctrines need regular restatement so that people may believe them, and embrace them with conviction. Being reminded afresh of the Biblical doctrine of sin as well as confessing our sin is like taking out the garbage: once is not enough. Cornelius Plantinga points out, “But anyone who tries to recover the knowledge of sin these days must overcome long odds. To put it mildly, modern consciousness does not encourage moral reproach; in particular, it does not encourage self-reproach. Preachers mumble about sin. The other traditional custodians of moral awareness often ignore, trivialize, or evade it. Some of these evasions take time and training. As sociologist James Davison Hunter has observed, school teachers no longer say anything as pointed as ‘Stop it, please! You’re disturbing the class!’ For these are judgmental words. Instead, to a strong-armed youth who is rattling classroom windows with his tennis ball, educationally correct teachers put a sequence of caring questions: ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How does doing this make you feel?’ The word sin, Hunter adds, now finds its home mostly on dessert menus, ‘Peanut Butter Binge’ and ‘Chocolate Challenge’ are sinful; lying is not. The new measure for sin is caloric.”[2]

The old Scottish theologian, James Buchanan, put it this way: “The best preparation for the study of this doctrine [justification] is—neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning—but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God.”3 Likewise, defective notions of sin will lead to a very distorted understanding of sanctification. The influx of the therapeutic/psychological model into our churches shows how truly dangerous this has become. Noted Christian psychologist (who rejects this model) William Kilpatrick warns that Evangelicals, in large numbers, are in danger of embracing the myth of innate human goodness by buying into the concepts of “self-worth” and “self-esteem.” He argues Christians must be careful not to reduce “the good news of the gospel to the status of ‘nice news’—‘nice’ because there was never any bad news in the first place. If psychology’s great optimism about raw human nature is correct, then Christianity is not necessary: Christ’s redemptive action on the cross becomes superfluous. After all, why should He have suffered and died to redeem us if there is nothing wrong with us? If all we need to do to find wholeness is just be ourselves, then His death sums up to a meaningless gesture, a noble but unneeded self-sacrifice.”[3] Rom. 6:23 is one of the better-known verses in the Bible. The great English Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon called it “a Christian proverb, a golden sentence, a divine statement of truth worthy to be written across the sky.” He wrote, “As Jesus said of the women who anointed him for his burial, ‘Wherever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this women hath done, be told for a memorial of her’; so I may say, ‘Wherever the gospel is preached, there shall this golden sentence, which the Apostle has let fall, be repeated as proof of his clearness in the faith.’ Here you have both the essence of the gospel and a statement of that misery from which the gospel delivers all who believe.”[4]

I.          Three Contrasts:  It has been astutely observed that the direction one’s life points leads to one’s ultimate destination.[5] Paul makes clear that there are only two possibilities facing every individual who comes into the world. These two possibilities are completely different from each other, but each has its own internal consistency.

A.        The Master That is Served: Sin or God:  Every individual in the world at this moment is either a slave to sin, or else a slave of God. There is no neutrality in the spiritual realm. “No man’s land” does not exist in the spiritual realm. “You cannot serve God and mammon.”[6]

B.        The Outcome of One’s Service: Death or Eternal Life:  Both from the nature of things, and the appointment of God, the wages of sin is death. It renders intercourse with God, who is the fountain of life, impossible. It consists in the exercise of feelings, in their own nature, inconsistent with happiness; it constantly increases in malignity, and in power to destroy the peace of the soul. Apart from these essential tendencies, its relation to conscience and the justice of God renders the connection between sin and misery indissoluble. Salvation in sin is as much a contradiction, as happiness in misery (vv. 21, 23). Eternal life is the gift of God. It does not, like eternal death, flow, as natural consequence, from anything in us.[7]

C.        The Means By Which the Outcome is Attained: Wages vs. a Gift:  “The wages of sin is death,” writes Paul, transferring his imagery from sin as a slave owner to that of a general paying his soldiers. But the wage sin pays is death. “Death here is the negation or absence of a life that is truly life. Sin robs life of its meaning, purpose, fulfillment.” Sin promises life and gives death. A sense of equivalence is involved. Sinners get what they have earned. Death is no arbitrary sentence, but is the inevitable consequence of their sin. Over against that Paul sets the gift of God, where his word gift stresses the element of freeness, of bounty. Eternal life is not a reward for services rendered. There is no element of pay or requital. As Denney puts it, “Paul could hardly use what is almost a technical expression with himself in a technical sense quite remote from his own.” His sharp contrast emphasizes that sinners do nothing at all to merit salvation. Eternal life comes as God’s free gift, or it does not come at all. As in the previous verse, eternal life seems to be used to include both the present possession and the glorious consummation at the end of the age. Paul rounds this off by saying that this life is in Christ Jesus our Lord. [8]

Conclusion:  Sin, is an uncomfortable subject. Why is it that we often find ourselves embarrassed to bring the subject up in our attempts to share our faith with other people? Even in our Evangelical churches, the subject is often raised apologetically. “Ok, in a few minutes I am going to use the s-word. Please don’t leave. After I get it out of the way, I will try to end by saying something positive.” If churches are sometimes embarrassed to discuss sin, how can we ever hope to do Biblical Evangelicalism? Without a true evangel there is no Evangelical identity—period. The mention of sin tends to immediately polarize. In a culture where self-esteem and high views of self-worth are considered psychological essentials, talking about sin seems to be an attack on mental well-being. It conjures up images of dour Puritans and preachers screaming damnation upon those who don’t repent. It feels like judgment without mercy, tearing down rather than building up. “Sin,” as Welch writes, “is simply a reality. Without doubt, some people are nicer than others, but no one consistently treats others—in word, thought, and deed—as we ourselves want to be treated. In fact, the more ethically careful we are, the more we tend to be aware of our own faults. In other words, the nicer folks are usually the ones who think they are the least nice. They are quick to acknowledge their own faults or sins. To talk about sin defined as a violation, of the Golden Rule is not cruel, condemning, or judgmental. It is simply stating the truth about the way we are. In fact, to ignore something wrong in ourselves would be to practice self-deception, and this, especially when we talk about addictions, is exactly what we want to avoid. Furthermore, one of the great problems in our culture is a failure to admit that we do wrong. Do our wrongs offend our sense of self-worth? Perhaps. But we can’t coddle an unrealistic self-concept when the price we pay is self-deception and its destructive consequences.”[9]

David Wells has documented how modern views of spirituality are decidedly different from that which traditionally characterizes classic Christianity. This can be seen, he says, in the music that is imported into our Churches. “Wherein, then, lies the difference between a classical and a post-modern spirituality? The latter begins, not so much with sin as morally framed, but with sin as psychologically experienced, not so much with sin in relation to God, but with sin in relation to ourselves. It begins with our anxiety, pain, and disillusionment, with the world in its disorder, the family or marriage in its brokenness, or the workplace in its brutality and insecurity. God, in consequence, is valued to the extent that He is able to bathe these wounds, assuage these insecurities, calm these fears, restore some sense of internal order, and bring some sense of wholeness. As one praise song puts it; “He heard my cry and came to heal me, He took my pain and He relieved me, He filled my life and comforted me, And His name will shine, shine eternally.” This psychologizing of sin and salvation has an immediacy about it that is appealing in this troubled age, this age of broken beliefs and broken lives. The cost, however, is that it so subverts the process of moral understanding that sin loses its sinfulness, at least before God. And whereas in classical spirituality it was assumed that sinners would struggle with their sin, and feel its sting, and experience dismay over it, in postmodern spirituality, this struggle is considered abnormal and something for which divine relief is immediately available. That is why the experience of Luther, Brainerd, and Owen is so remote from what passes as normal in the Evangelical world today. Another difference is that the one spirituality is built around truth, but the other is defined by its search for power.

In a Charismatic setting this search takes the form of powerful encounters, dramatic experiences of the supernatural, healings of both physical and emotional kinds, and the exercise of the other gifts. But outside Charismatic circles, the search for power is most often construed in therapeutic ways: the power to conquer anxiety, to find enthusiasm for a new week, to repair the broken connections within the self, and to piece back together ruptured relations. It is the power to restore one’s daily functioning. It is power for survival.  There is yet another difference. In classical spirituality, access to God’s presence is gained through believing His Word and trusting in the work of the Christ of that Word. While these beliefs are not denied in the postmodern spirituality, they are not the key that opens the lock. Access in postmodern spirituality comes much more through the emotions and through bodily actions. The raising of hands, palm upward, the swaying to music, the arms outstretched to heaven, the release of inward emotions, this is what opens the door to divine reality. While everyone even remotely within a biblical frame of reference affirms both God’s love and his holiness, this postmodern spirituality greatly enlarges his love. It is because he is loving that we can hope for some sense of inward calm and order as his gift to his children. And while his transcendence and immanence are alike affirmed, it is his immanence, his relatedness, that is preeminent.”[10]

John Hanna insightfully points to some of the older hymns as reflecting a deep appreciation for the grace of God in our salvation. “There are few hymns that seem to have a nearly universal attraction to the people of the Lord. These are songs sung by believers near and far, several centuries ago and today. Each has somehow poetically captured the heartfelt wonder of Christians for the beauty of God, the gift of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of sin through the work of the Holy Spirit. One of these is Reginald Heber’s “Holy, Holy, Holy,” a majestic description of God’s being. Then there is “Amazing Grace,” John Newton’s grand testimonial to God’s mercy in granting forgiveness to sinners. Another is “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady, a poem that extols the unmerited grace of God and the helplessness of human endeavor. Those who know of true Christianity have experienced the content of these songs. They are aware of the blinding, rapturous vision of God’s holy character and the sweet sense of divine release following the knowledge of condemnation. They know that it is only through fleeing from the dark labyrinth of the inner self to find refuge in Christ that there is any hope for the troubled soul.”[11]



[1] J. F. MacArthur, The Vanishing Conscience, (Word, 1994), p. 227.


[2] C. Plantinga, Jr. Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Eerdmans, 1995), p. x.

[3] As cited by A. A. Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Eerdmans, 1989), p. 153.


[4] As cited by J. M. Boice, Romans: An Expositional Commentary II (Baker, 1992), p. 706.


[5] Adolf Schlatter, Romans: The Righteousness of God (rpt. Hendrickson, 1995), p. 152.


[6] M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6: The New Mass (Zondervan, 1972), p. 303.


[7] Charles Hodges, A Commentary on Romans (rpt. Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), p. 212.


[8] Leon, Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (IVP, 1988), p. 267.


[9] E. T. Welch, Addictions: A Banquet in The Grace: Finding Hope in the Power of The Gospel (P&R, 2001), p. 19.


[10] D. F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why The Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision, (Eerdmans, 1998), p. 42.


[11] John Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (NavPress, 2001), p. 201.

365 Days With Calvin

Selected and edited by Dr. Joel R. Beeke

John Calvin exercised a profound ministry in Europe, and is probably one of the most seminal thinkers ever to have lived. A godly pastor, theologian and preacher, he led his flock by example and worked hard to establish consistent godliness in his city. A prolific writer, his sermons, letters, and, of course, his Christian Institutes have been published again and again. His writings once described as flowing prose are characterized by clarity, simplicity, and yet profoundness, too. In these heart-warming pieces, drawn from his commentaries and sermons, Calvin brings us to Christ, the glorious Savior of all his people.

Author/Compiler Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written or edited fifty books, and contributed hundreds of articles to Reformed books, journals, periodicals, and encyclopedias. His Ph.D. is in Reformation and Post-Reformation theology from Westminster Theological Seminary. He is frequently called upon to lecture at seminaries and to speak at Reformed conferences around the world. He and his wife, Mary, have been blessed with three children: Calvin, Esther, and Lydia.


“Daily devotionalsspiritual aids to help us be accountable for a life of disciplined reading of Scripture and prayerhave been around for centuries and need a certain caliber of excellence and insight if they are to prove of lasting value through 365 days! Of those Id like to spend a year with as my spiritual guide and mentor, John Calvin is most certainly one of them. Joel Beeke guides us through the Reformers writings to help us discover the help and insight that every Christian needs to live a God-honoring life for Jesus Christ.” Derek W. H. Thomas, John E. Richards Professor of Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Minister of Teaching, First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, MS, Editorial Director, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

Hardback; 416 pages

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