NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SIX (Lesson XVII)
American Bible scholar Albert Barnes also offers his view on what Paul meant when defining the Gospel as a “form” or “type of doctrine.” For him, it implied a shape or model of instruction which was communicated as something to imitate or follow. Therefore, when you say that you have obeyed the doctrine, you are saying that you have yielded obedience to the instructions, the rules, or the substance of the revelation. It must be understood that the word “doctrine” does not refer to an abstract dogma. Rather, it means that concrete instructions that are being taught. The meaning of the whole expression is simply this: That you have cheerfully yielded and heartily obeyed what has been communicated to you by a teacher or preacher of the Gospel.1 In other words, the teachings of Christ that are passed on and administered by teachers of the Word are not meant to be conformed to but have the power to transform those who obey into the likeness God intended. Paul will address this again in Chapter 12.
Charles Hodge also concurs that such obedience to the Gospel must be voluntary and sincere. This is not something that has been passively released by one expert to another peer. It means the student or subject has changed teachers. Through the Gospel, the power of sin is broken, and those who were freed have gladly renounced their bondage, and have freely given themselves to God’s service. As such, it then becomes implausible for them to serve sin’s master when they now have a new sacred Master. A freed slave does not continue being subject to his or her former owner. Says Hodge: “This subjection to righteousness is perfect liberty. It is the subjection of the soul to God, reason, and conscience, wherein true liberty consists.”2
Charles Spurgeon expresses it eloquently: “Yes, the fetters are all gone; we have put up our feet upon the block, and the chains have been knocked off; we have put our hands down, and the irons have been broken in pieces. Free from sin! ’Tis true that sin still tempts us, but it cannot prevail against us; it tries to put the bit in our mouth and to ride us as it once did, but we no longer submit to its sway. Sin is now an enemy to fret and worry us, but not a king to trample upon us, and rule over us. We are the Lord’s free people, and out of gratitude for this glorious freedom, we become the willing servants of the righteous God.”3
Frédéric Godet adds that the Apostle Paul knew from his own experience that it was only by the pure spirituality of the Gospel he preached that the real power of sanctification could be recognized. Every acquiescence to practice legal principles is at the same time a barrier to realizing the full operation of the Holy Spirit. That’s why Paul’s heartfelt joy sprang from the knowledge that a true form of doctrine had effectively impacted the spiritual and moral lives of the Christians in Rome. So Paul came to this conclusion: “Therefore your progress in goodness is from now on a matter of necessity… You could not sin even once without renouncing the new principle to which you have given yourselves.” For Godet, Paul has succeeded in rediscovering a law even in grace, but an inward and spiritual law, like his whole gospel. It is none other than Christ Himself who, after having freed us from sin by His death, now unites us to His life as the Risen One, which makes us subjects of a righteous kingdom.4
Karl Barth had one way of putting it by saying that the Gospel is announced and proclaimed. That means it is addressed to particular people. As far as the Roman Christians were concerned, it was to believers who lived in grace, and whose power of obedience he took for granted. They were now given the crisp command to initiate the conquest of sin. They must now exhibit their knowledge by putting it into action. Their obedience to the Gospel is not a matter of being forced to respond. They are wholly free! Now they can act because they want to, not because they have to. Nevertheless, with his grateful “Thanks be to God,” Paul dares to engrave in their hearts and stamp on their minds the truth that they are no longer servants to sin. They are now servants of the Most High God. They have been liberated from the bondage of sin’s slavery. Such servitude has been dissolved and eliminated so that it doesn’t exist anymore. Says Barth: “They are invited to think of themselves as existentially under grace, as belonging to God, and as brought within the sphere of resurrection. Looking on Him who has been crucified on their behalf, they are bidden to – believe; yes! to believe in their power of obedience. This is the venture which must become a dare.”5
Verse 19: I use this example from everyday life because you need help in understanding spiritual truths. In the past, you offered your body members as slaves to your immoral and sinful thoughts. The result was that you lived only for sin. In the same way, you must now offer yourselves to be slaves to what is right. Then you will live only for God.
While Paul has leaned heavily on the writings in the Old Testament to validate his argument about the new freedom from the Law we have in Christ, he feels the urge to use an illustration from everyday life to explain it more. Paul did the same thing in his letter to the Corinthians.6 And when writing to the Galatians, he begins a section of his letter by saying: “Brothers and sisters, let me give you an example from everyday life.”7 It is considered very helpful even in sermons today to take illustrations from everyday life in order to make Biblical doctrines practical.
The example Paul chooses from daily life is the role of a servant which many households had in his day. These servants were used for specific purposes and were under the complete authority of family members. As such, they could be told to do things that were constructive or destructive, and they had to obey under penalty of beatings or even death. So in this Paul saw an illustration of how in life people can either be servants of good or of evil. But now that they have been freed by God through Christ to live for God, it was their opportunity and privilege to go from being servants of sin to servants of righteousness.
This is the same point Paul made in his letter to the Ephesians: “In the past, you were spiritually dead because of your sins and the things you did against God. Yes, in the past your lives were full of those sins. You lived the way the world lives, following the ruler of the evil powers that are above the earth.”8 Paul then goes on to say: “That same spirit is now working in those who refuse to obey God. In the past all of us lived like that, trying to please our sinful selves. We did all the things our bodies and minds wanted.”9 Paul was not the only Apostle who saw things this way, so did the Apostle Peter.10 But now that they have been set free to love and serve God because they want to, it is still up to them as to what kind of dedicated and faithful servant they desired to be.
Many early church scholars feel that here Paul is giving allowances to those who came out of their bondage to the law to become servants of grace. In other words, once you are converted you will not be required to give more stringent or demanding service to God than you did to sin. This is what you may call fair and balanced grace. Pelagius believes that Paul is in effect saying: “Although you should serve righteousness much more than you previously served sin, nevertheless I make allowances for your weakness so that you might serve righteousness just as much as you once served sin.” Pelagius seems to be saying that it may be a case of whatever the soul does in a carnal fashion, it makes the flesh culpable. But if the flesh performs a spiritual deed, does the whole person becomes spiritual? No! When we offered our members to serve sin; it is not as the Manichaeans11 say, that it was the nature of the body to have sin ingrained in it.12 For the sinner, sinning is a matter of instinct; for the believer, sinning is a deliberate act of disobedience.
Again, reformer Martin Luther shares what he hears the Apostle Paul saying here: “In the preceding verses, I said with great severity that sin must not have dominion over you. But since you are still weak in your struggle against the flesh, see to it that you do not live in sin without any anxiety or in security. If you have no heroic measure of virtue, then at least strive after that standard that is demanded of all believers… Live virtuously, in order that sin might not rule in you to the destruction of your faith and righteousness.”13 Luther learned in his own life that the rule was not: Live the best you can and let God do the rest. Rather, don’t ever be satisfied with where you are. Continue to struggle and press forward to higher ground. Then, if you are truly sincere, you will be blessed by God with what you need to make it all the way to the top.
Albert Barnes also gives his interpretation of what Paul is saying here, and that is: In order to live a holy life we must surrender our members to sanctification, and be as sincere and as unqualified as our surrender was to sin. Barnes notes that this is all that God requires of His children. As they can all remember, before their conversion, they were totally given to sin. But after their conversion, they should be just as wholly committed to God’s standards of holiness. Says Barnes: “If all Christians would employ the same energies in advancing the kingdom of God that they have in promoting the kingdom of Satan, the church would rise with dignity and grandeur, and every continent and island would soon feel the movement. No requirement is more reasonable than this, and it should be a source of lamentation and mourning with Christians that it is not so; that they have employed so mighty energies in the cause of Satan, and do so little in the service of God.”14
Charles Spurgeon echoes this same thought in his sermon by saying: “In the days of our sin, we sinned with all our power. There was not one part of us but what became the willing servant of sin: and we went from iniquity into iniquity, and now the Cross has made us entirely new, and we have been melted down, poured out into a fresh mold. Now, let us yield every member of our body, soul, and spirit to righteousness, even unto holiness, till the whole of us, in the wholeness and consequently the holiness of our nature, shall be given unto God.”15 Don’t hold you breath thinking you may hear this kind of preaching today. But it is just as necessary now as it was back in 1850.
1 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 320-321
3 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.
4 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, loc. cit.
5 Karl Barth: On Romans, loc. cit.
6 1 Corinthians 9:8
7 Galatians 3:15
8 Ephesians 2:1-2
9 Ibid 2:3
10 1 Peter 4:2-4
11 Manichæism is a religion founded by the Persian Mani in the latter half of the third century. It purported to be the true synthesis of all the religious systems then known.
12 Pelagius: on Romans, loc. cit.
13 Martin Luther: On Romans, loc. cit., p. 106
14 Albert Barnes: On Romans, loc. cit.
15 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, loc. cit.