Free at Last
January 5, 1993
There are many reasons people give for not becoming a Christian. Most of those reasons are in the form of either excuses or misunderstandings. But there is at least one reason that bears some consideration.
The woman said, “Pastor, you don’t understand. I’ve been like this for so many years, I don’t think I can ever change.” The man said, “You’ve never been in the grip of alcohol. You don’t know what it’s like to go for years and never miss a day without a drink. I don’t think it’s possible for me to change.” “I can’t forgive her,” he said, “not after what she did.” The woman said, “I can’t forgive him.” They all say, “Don’t give me that Jesus stuff. Nothing will ever change.”
Question: Is real change possible?
You already know what the answer is supposed to be, so let’s get down to reality. Is real change possible? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Lots of people think the answer is no. Lots of Christians fear the answer is no.
In this message I’m going to tell you that real change is possible, but you don’t have to believe it. In fact, I don’t blame you if you say, “I’ve heard all this before.” Especially if you have never come to Jesus Christ by faith, you have every reason to doubt whether real change is possible. You don’t have to take my word for it. The invitation of the gospel is always the same: “Come and see.” Come and see for yourself. Make up your own mind. Decide for yourself whether Jesus Christ can make a difference.
Is real change possible? Can the leopard change its spots? Can a person whose life has been going in one direction suddenly go into another direction? Can a person who has lived in the grip of debilitating sin for decades find liberation?
Last night you may have watched the “See You at the Party” special on TV-38. Josh McDowell shared his testimony. He gave a part of his life story I had never heard before. He said that up until the last few years he had never felt free to share this part of his story. “As I was growing up, there was one man I hated more than anyone in the whole world,” he said. “I hated this man with a fierce hatred. I hated everything he stood for. I especially hated the things he did. I used to lie in bed dreaming up ways to kill this man because I hated him so much. That man was my father.” In Josh’s words, he was the town drunk. “In high school other kids would make jokes about my father falling into the gutter.”
Is it possible for a man like that to change? The Christian faith says yes. In fact, if that’s not true, then there is no such thing as the Christian faith. We’re all just playing a religious game.
A Sharp Right Turn
In our studies of the book of Romans, we’ve come to a major turning point. There is a sharp right turn between Romans 5 and Romans 6. You not only change chapters, you also change subject matter. You move from one theme to another theme. Not that these two chapters are contradictory—they aren’t—but these two chapters are talking about different things.
Romans 5 speaks of justification. Romans 6 is talking about sanctification. Romans 5 explains how God declares people righteous. Romans 6 explains how God makes people righteous. Those distinctions are crucial for you to know. Justification is that act whereby God declares you righteous in his eyes. Sanctification is that act whereby God makes you righteous. But those things are not the same:
Justification happens at the moment you trust Christ and is never repeated.
Sanctification happens moment-by-moment as you surrender your life to the Lord.
Justification delivers from the penalty of sin.
Sanctification delivers from the power of sin.
Justification is an event.
Sanctification is a process.
Justification happens once and only once.
Sanctification is gradual and continuous.
Justification cannot be repeated.
Sanctification must be repeated.
Justification is the work of a moment.
Sanctification is the work of a lifetime.
Justification gives you the merit of Christ.
Sanctification gives you the character of Christ.
These two doctrines are distinct yet inseparably related. Justification leads to sanctification. Those who are truly born again are led of the Spirit into a life of growing holiness. This is the true connection between Romans 5 and 6. Romans 5 describes how we are brought into a right relationship with God while Romans 6 tells of the changed life which must issue from that new relationship with God. So, then, these two chapters are distinct yet joined by a natural progression of thought.
I. A Question 1
Paul begins with a question, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?” That seems like an odd question, doesn’t it? In order to understand it properly, we need to learn a new word—antinomianism. That’s a word that is itself made up of two shorter words—”anti” meaning against, and “nomos” meaning the law. An antinomian is a person who is “against the law.” Antinomianism describes a point of view that we might call “Spiritual Lawlessness.” An antinomian is a person who wants to live life unencumbered by any rules whatsoever. You might call such a person a “Christian hedonist.” He follows the credo “only believe and do as you please.” This is the person who says, “I know I’m going to heaven when I die, therefore it doesn’t matter how I live in the meantime” or “As long as I am a Christian, I am free to do whatever I want.” Not only does this person not want the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t want any commandments at all. He claims to love God while at the same time living in sin. He claims to follow Jesus but doesn’t want to live by his teachings.
Evidently some believers in the early church were teaching that once you were justified, you were free to live as you please. This perverted view of Christian liberty led some people to claim that by sinning they were actually increasing the grace of God, because when they sin, God forgave them, thus their sin increased God’s grace! It’s a clever, sneaky way of justifying wrong-doing.
An antinomian says, “If I sin, it is covered by the grace of God. Therefore, my sin doesn’t really matter very much because I know God will forgive me no matter what I do.” Where does such thinking lead? To such statements as these:
“I might as well commit adultery because God will forgive me.”
“I can blow my top because God will forgive me anyway.”
“I can be a lazy glutton because God will forgive me anyway.”
“It doesn’t matter whether I tell the truth. I can always ask forgiveness later.”
“I can get angry, bitter, hostile and upset because I know God still loves me.”
We all think like that some of the time. My point is that whenever those thoughts come to us, at that point we are not thinking like biblical Christians. We are abusing the grace of God.
That way of thinking is probably the one great objection to the doctrine of eternal security. “If you believe that, why not go out and live in sin? After all, you know you’re going to heaven.” Unfortunately, some believers have done exactly that. They have engaged in grossly sinful behavior and dismissed it because they believe their salvation is still secure. Nevertheless, that does not disprove the doctrine of eternal security (which I believe Romans 8 clearly teaches). It does teach us something about the deceitfulness of the human heart.
So the question is, Why not “live it up” in sin so God can forgive us later?
II. An Answer 2
“By no means!” The Greek has me genoito—”May it never be.” It’s Paul’s strongest negative interjection. Although it is not literally correct, the King James Version catches the flavor of this phrase with the translation “God forbid!” We can think of other words that fit, such as”Impossible!” “Absurd!” “Nonsense!” “God forbid that we should ever begin to think like that.”
Here’s the reason Paul reacts so strongly: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Underline the word “died.” That’s the key word for this whole chapter. Paul’s entire doctrine of the Christian life hangs on the truth that we died to sin. Note the tense: We died to sin. That’s a past tense. It refers to something that has already happened, not to something that needs to happen. This is not a present tense—”We are dying to sin”—or a future tense—”We will die to sin”—or an imperative—”Die to sin!” Nor is it an exhortation—”You should die to sin.” This is a simple past tense—”You died to sin.” The simple truth is that if you are a believer, you have already died to sin. It’s a past event, an accomplished fact. What is a Christian? Someone who has died to sin.
But what does that phrase mean—”died to sin?” Here is a simple definition. It means that you have been set free from the ruling power of sin in your life. Romans 6 shows us sin as a vicious slave-master. Before you came to Christ, you were a slave to sin. Verse 2 is telling us that when you came to Christ, you were set free from sin’s power (you “died” to sin’s ruling power over you) and were placed under the rule of Jesus Christ. Picture an ancient slave market. If you are a slave, you must obey your master’s every word. He speaks, you obey. You are “alive” to his voice because he is your master. But suppose you are sold at an auction to a new master. From the moment of the sale, your old master no longer has any legal right to command you. He can speak but you no longer have to obey. He can command but you don’t have to respond. You have “died” to his authority and “come alive” to a new master. Can you still obey the old master? Yes, but you don’t have to because he has no power over you unless you choose to give him power. It doesn’t make sense to obey your old master when you have a new master.
That’s the whole argument of Romans 6 in a nutshell. You “died” to your old slave master (sin) and have “come alive” to a new master (Jesus Christ). So why serve sin voluntarily when you don’t have to? Why not serve Jesus Christ?
From B.C. to A.D.
To put it another way, if you are a Christian, your life has two parts—B.C. and A.D. Before Christ and After Deliverance. The story of your life is your transfer from the Before Christ side to the After Deliverance side. That’s why the phrase in verse 6—”our old self was crucified with him”—is so crucial. Your “old self” is the life you used to live. It’s the person you once were. It’s the “old you” with your old way of thinking and acting and relating. All of that is gone now. It was crucified with Christ. You’ve gone from B.C. to A.D. Why would you want to live back in B.C.? You don’t belong in that life anymore.
Why does Paul go into this in such detail? Because our tendency is to try to live in two worlds at once. We like to straddle the fence between the old life and the new life. We like to put one foot in the kingdom of sin and one foot in the kingdom of God. We like to have Christ and our old way of life. Paul says you can’t do it. It won’t work. It’s not natural. You become spiritually schizophrenic. No man can live forever straddling the fence. Eventually you have to go one way or the other.
It’s easy for us to live this way, because we can justify a bad attitude or an abusive spirit or an evil habit or a lustful way of life or hidden idolatry or pride or arrogance or envy or any of a thousand other sins. We say, “It doesn’t matter because I’ve got a foot in the kingdom so God has to forgive me.” That’s an abuse of the grace of God.
Talk like that reveals that you don’t understand what Jesus did on the cross. It also shows that you don’t understand what salvation really means. And it may possibly reveal that you’ve never truly been saved at all. One mark of a truly born again person is a growing sensitivity to personal sin and a growing desire to please God.
You Can Sin—But You Won’t Be Happy
Here is the truth about the Christians’ relationship to sin: The true believer cannot sin and stay happy! You can sin but you won’t be happy. Or if you are happy, you won’t stay happy. Sin and the believer are now mutually opposite. What once satisfied you no longer satisfies. Lust won’t be as much fun. Anger won’t be as satisfying. Pride no longer meets your inner needs. Where once you enjoyed nursing a bitter spirit, now it feels uncomfortable. Sin no longer “fits” your life. Oh, you can “wear” sin for a while, but it’s like wearing old clothes that are two sizes too small. You can do it but you won’t be comfortable, you won’t look natural, you won’t feel right, and frankly, you won’t look right either. Sin no longer “fits.” Coming to Christ is like getting a whole new wardrobe. What fits now? Love, joy, peace, holiness, righteousness, compassion, zeal, concern for others. Those spiritual clothes fit just right. They were tailor-made for you. And those sins you used to wear so comfortably? They just don’t fit any more. You feel awkward and you look goofy when you try to put them back on.
But what if you go back to the closet and put those old sins back on anyway? What happens to a Christian who chooses to sin? Let me give you three answers to that question:
1. It won’t work. The old clothes just don’t fit anymore. You’ll sin, but you won’t receive any personal satisfaction.
2. God will stop you. He may judge you. He may discipline you. He will certainly arrange the circumstances so that your sin turns out to your own disadvantage. If you persist, he may even take your life prematurely (cf. I Corinthians 11:29-30; Hebrews 10:26-31; I John 5:16-17)
3. If you persist in sin forever, it demonstrates that you were never truly saved. The operative word is “forever.” A true child of God may stay in sin for a long time, even for many years. But if you choose to sin, and never feel the call of God to repentance, and never feel the tug of the Holy Spirit bringing you back to God, your long-term spiritual indifference indicates in all likelihood that you were never saved in the first place.
Direction Makes a Difference
Perhaps I can make this clear by drawing a simple graph. The point where the two lines meet represents the moment you trust Christ. The vertical line represents the distance from earth to heaven. The horizontal line represents your life on earth. Let’s try to graph the spiritual experience of a Christian. I suggest that it would look something like this:
The Christian’s Journey Toward Heaven
If we graphed your spiritual experience, it would move up and down, up and down, up and down—but always moving in a generally upward direction. At any given moment, the graph of your life may show you relatively up or relatively down spiritually. You may be down for a long time, but if you know Jesus, eventually you will start moving up again. I draw two conclusions from this:
1. Direction makes a difference.
2. True believers move toward heaven.
Although we may fall into grievous sin, that’s not where we belong, and we will not stay there forever. If you are a Christian, you won’t be comfortable living in sin. The direction of your life will be away from sin and toward Jesus Christ. It has been said that, “I would rather be one foot away from hell heading toward heaven than one foot away from heaven heading toward hell.” Direction makes a difference.
Some people are saved one foot from hell. God turns them around at the very brink of the pit. When they are saved, they still have the smell of brimstone in their clothing. That’s why new Christians sometimes look and act pretty rough. They’ve been snatched from the flames. Some of those same people will still look rough after 5 or 10 years. That’s okay because they started so low. You don’t judge people by where they are now, but where they’ve come from yesterday. The only thing that matters is to keep moving in the right direction.
The direction of the true believer is always ultimately toward heaven. Sometimes we fly like the eagle. Sometimes we run with stallions. Sometimes we walk in victory. And sometimes we’re just stumbling upwards. I love that phrase—stumbling upwards. That’s how the grace of God works.
III. An Explanation 3-4
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
These verses are the how behind the answer of verse 2. They explain the vital doctrine of the believer’s union with Jesus Christ. The key word is “baptism.” Through baptism we were united with Jesus and through him delivered from sin’s power. But that immediately plunges us into controversy. What is this “baptism”? Is this water baptism? Or is it Holy Spirit baptism?
The answer is Yes! It is both, in the sense that whenever baptism is mentioned in the New Testament, water baptism is always in the picture somewhere. That is, when baptism was mentioned in the first century, the original readers would naturally think of water baptism. That was the rite of initiation into the Christian church. You were saved, then you were baptized, then you joined the company of believers (Acts 2:40-41).
However, it is also true that water baptism in the New Testament symbolizes certain spiritual truths. The word “baptism” means to immerse or to dip. The symbol behind the word is “identification.” To totally immerse in water was a symbol of complete personal identification with Jesus Christ. Paul is not saying that the physical act of immersing in water somehow put a person “in Christ.” That happens the moment a person trusts Christ. Yet water baptism perfectly symbolizes that act of personal faith.
A Sermon Without Words
When I baptize people, I always tell the congregation that baptism is like preaching a sermon without saying a word. When a person stands in the water, he represents Jesus dying on the cross. When he is lowered into the water, he pictures Jesus being buried in the tomb. When he is raised out of the water, he symbolizes Jesus rising from the dead. So each time a person is baptized, he or she is “preaching” a sermon without saying a word.
That truth is in the background of Romans 6. He uses the word “baptism” for the spiritual truth it symbolizes—our complete union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. The moment we come to Christ, the Holy Spirit unites us with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. Water baptism is a divine object lesson that pictures that truth.
How does this fit into the larger argument of the passage? We can say it this way:
1. Should we continue in sin so that God’s grace may abound? 1
2. God forbid! The very thought is absurd! 2
3. You died to sin. How can you live in it any longer? 2
(Implied question: When did we die to sin?)
4. You died to sin when you were united with Christ in his death. 3
Your old life was buried with him in his burial. 3
You were raised from the dead and given a brand-new life. 4
Let’s think of this in a more dramatic way: It’s 3 PM on a hot Friday afternoon in Jerusalem. Three men hang on three crosses. From a distance you cannot make out their faces. As you come closer, the one in the middle
seems strangely familiar. He looks like someone you know. The eyes, the mouth, the tilt of the head—it all seems so familiar. Who is this person in the middle? It looks like Jesus, but it, yes, the face looks like … no, it can’t be. You know it’s Jesus, but the face … the face is yours!
You died on the cross with him!
You were buried in the tomb with him!
You rose from the dead with him!
You were there! That’s what Paul is saying. By faith you are spiritually joined to Christ in such a way that although 2000 years separate you from Calvary, what happened to him really and truly happened to you. How that can be is a mystery for the ages. Yet it truly is what the Bible teaches.
And because he was raised to new life, you were raised to new life. Verse 4 uses a word that means a “brand-new” life, not just a better life. Salvation is not a “spiritual re-hab.” It’s a full demolition with a new foundation and a brand-new building.
IV. An Application 5-7
Verses 5-7 spell out what this stupendous truth means for us in our daily living.
A. United With Christ! 5
“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly be united with him in his resurrection.” The word “united” means “joined at birth.” It the idea of being inseparably joined with Jesus. One commentator used the phrase “fused into one”—almost as if we were speaking of Siamese twins who share the same vital organs. How close are you to Jesus? If you know him, his life is your life, his strength is your strength, his mind is your mind, his power is your power.
B. The Old Man Crucified! 6
“For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin.” If this verse seems confusing, just concentrate on the last phrase. God’s purpose in “crucifying our old self” was that “we should no longer be the slaves of sin.” God’s purpose is clear: He wants to free you from slavery to sin. In order to do that, he had to crucify (put to death) your old self. The New English Bible says, “We know that the man we once were was crucified with Christ.” That happened the moment you believed. Your old life died.
You may not have known it, or felt it, or been even slightly aware of it. You may not have asked for that or even wanted it to happen. Perhaps you thought that somehow you could keep Christ plus your old life. But it doesn’t work that way. You can have Christ or your old life. Not both.
The phrase “body of sin” refers to your literal body as a helpless tool of sin. Sin worked through your tongue to say ugly words. Sin worked through your hands to commit foul deeds. Sin worked through your eyes to behold impure acts. Sin worked through your ears to listen to slander and gossip. Sin worked through your private parts to commit immorality. Sin worked through your feet to carry you places you shouldn’t go. Sin worked through your lips to eat to the point of gluttony and drink to the point of drunkenness. Without Christ, your body was truly a “helpless tool of sin.”
But now the power of sin has been broken. The phrase “done away with” literally means “rendered powerless.” Like an engine with no spark plugs, like a motor with no ignition, like an appliance with no plug, your body can no longer be a tool of sin unless you choose to let it happen.
Able Not to Sin
Can we still sin? Yes. Is sin necessary? No. Is it inevitable? No. What makes a Christian sin? When he chooses volitionally to yield to the sin which still indwells his body.
Augustine explained it this way:
Adam before the Fall was … Able to sin.
Adam after the Fall was … . Not able not to sin.
Believers in Christ are … . . Able not to sin.
In heaven we will be … … Not able to sin.
Number three is where we live today. We are “able not to sin.” But the choice is ours. Sin was defeated by Christ on the cross. It exists today as a defeated foe. Sin indwells your body and still tries to control you. But we no longer need to yield to it. Sin cannot defeat us unless we choose to yield to it. In essence, we cannot be defeated unless we choose to be defeated. And Paul’s whole point is—Why would anyone choose to be defeated?
To say it another way, victory is now possible. It is not inevitable. We still have responsible choices we must make. But before we came to Christ, we had no choice at all. We were slaves to sin whether we realized it or not.
C. Freed From Sin! 7
“Anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” This is the final—and ultimate blessing—of our union with Christ. We have been set free from sin. That means just what it says. We were enslaved to sin, but now through Christ we have been set free.
Why, then, would we ever go back to sin? Only one answer seems possible. We go back to sin because we think it will make us happy. And we’re right. Sin is fun for awhile. Drinking is fun for awhile, adultery is fun for awhile, lust is fun for awhile, anger satisfies for a short time, bitterness has its rewards, thievery is fun while you get away with it, gluttony is fun until you wake up the next morning feeling guilty. Sin gives pleasure … but only for a short season. All Satan’s apples have worms.
When I preached this message I made a passing comment like this: “You can be an alcoholic drunk and it’s fun for awhile.” After the service a friend passed a note to me. “Pastor Ray, in your sermon you said alcoholic drunkenness is fun for awhile. Wrong! Drunkenness is fun for awhile until it becomes alcoholic drunkenness. And then it is a life of despair.” My friend knows whereof she speaks. She knows the truth of her words because she once lived in that despair.
But Jesus Christ has delivered her. He has set her free from alcoholic drunkenness. By the power of Jesus Christ, she has been delivered from slavery to sin. Where once she knew only self-loathing and despair, now she knows freedom and full deliverance. And if you doubt my words, just ask her. She’ll tell you herself. She is a living testimony to the truth of Romans 6. She has died to sin and through Jesus Christ has been raised to a brand new life. She’s living a different life now because she’s not the person she used to be.
Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36) Hundreds of people in our own congregation can testify to that truth. They have been delivered from sin and set free indeed through Jesus Christ.
He Breaks the Power of Canceled Sin
One of Charles Wesley’s most famous hymns says it well:
O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace.
Jesus! the name that charms our fears, that bids our sorrows cease,
’Tis music in the sinner’s ears, ’tis life and health and peace.
He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.
My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad the honors of thy name.
The first line of the third verse might stand as a summary of all we have said in this study: “He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free.” There are none so happy as those who have been set free by Jesus Christ. Rejoice, child of God, the charges have been dropped, the chains now broken, the cell door opened. You are free. Why would you ever go back to prison?
Will You Go Back? God Forbid!
Will a prisoner go back to prison? God forbid!
Will a slave go back to his master? God forbid!
Will a rich man return to his poverty? God forbid!
Will a happy man go back to sadness? God forbid!
Will a survivor go back to a concentration camp? God forbid!
Will a Christian go back into sin? God forbid!
Paul says, “God forbid!”
The Bible says, “God forbid!”
The church says, “God forbid!”
The angels say, “God forbid!”
The Holy Spirit says, “God forbid!”
Let all God’s people say, “God forbid!”
One of the Puritan preachers was speaking on this text several hundred years ago. He said the accusation is often made against the church that we preach a gospel that leads to loose living. So he asked his people, “Is there anybody here who has been living such a life that you have given other people an excuse not to believe in Jesus?” Great question. He then observed that one man who lives a loose life does more harm than the good ten holy men do by their righteousness.
After I preached this sermon, a woman came to me in tears saying, “Pastor, you don’t know what that message has done for me. I have not been living the kind of life that would be pleasing to God.” We prayed together and asked God to make her effective for Jesus this week and to make her a light in the darkness.
I began by asking this question: Is real change possible? Through Jesus Christ the answer is yes. You’ve been set free. If the course of your life has been downward, it doesn’t have to stay that way. By the grace of God, your life can be different. The happiest people you will ever meet are those who have turned their backs on sin and set their feet on the road to heaven.