Romans 6:15-23

Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne, Phillip Jensen and occasionally Talar Khatchoyan – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at

This episode is about being set free from slavery and what our new freedom is really like. Strangely, it’s the glorious freedom to be slaves to a new master.

An exposition of this passage can be found at 17. The Christian and Slavery.

The next episode in this series is The Crossroads of Law and Grace. The previous episode in this series is We Demand Change.


The surprising liberation of Romans 6

Tony Payne: Slavery is hard to talk about, because we generally can only think of one kind of slavery—the kind that was in The Sound of Freedom movie, or that was practised historically in America, where people were kidnapped and sold into captivity and abuse. 

Phillip Jensen: Yes that’s the slavery we think of. But slavery is broader than that. Australia has had its own history of slavery even though we don’t often think of it. The islander people that we persuaded to come here weren’t kidnapped, but they may as well have been kidnapped to work in the sugar fields in North Queensland. Many of us are descended from convicts who were basically slaves—that is, they didn’t come here freely and did not get paid when they came here. They didn’t have any freedom. Prisoners of war are slaves. Debtors are slaves in the sense that they have to work to gain their freedom. So there are all kinds of slavery other than kidnapping and slave-trading. 

The Bible is always against slave trading. 1 Timothy 1:10 mentions ‘enslavers’ in a list of immoral, ungodly, lawless people—but the Greek actually says ‘kidnappers’. The kind of slavery where people are forcibly taken, and then traded as objects—the Bible condemns that.

But not all slavery is like that, and the Bible isn’t explicitly against some other forms of slavery. So, with the African slave trade, the slaves had no rights—but in the Bible slaves had various rights. They had to be released after seven years, for example. They had to be provided for, and weren’t to be harshly treated. There were also various reasons (like debt) for which one could end up in slavery, or even choose to enter slavery.

A slave was someone whose liberty had been taken away for some reason—it might have been because of a crime.

TP: So we’re circling around to a broad definition of slavery here: ‘a deprivation of liberty’. Is that sufficient?

PJ: Yes, an enforced deprivation of liberty. It’s not usually voluntary, although sometimes in the Bible it is voluntary. 

TP: Yes, but generally, you’re stuck in it. It’s a state of having your freedom or liberty removed or circumscribed such that you are no longer free. Now if slavery is the enforced deprivation or absence of freedom, what is freedom?

PJ: Freedom is a funny thing, isn’t it? I’m not sure you can see freedom other than in contrast to slavery. Freedom is not just a freedom from but also a freedom for. Otherwise it is a fairly meaningless term. Some philosophical tracks like existentialism would say that my freedom is my autonomy, my ability to rule my own life my own way without any influence of anything or anybody else. But that is a nonsense because we’re always influenced by something. You can’t have unconditioned freedom in this lifetime. 

TP: You’re always constrained by something, whether it’s time, place, the occasion, your parents, your wealth. I can’t actually have total freedom for my own autonomous self-actualization, expression, desires and will, whatever they may be. 

PJ: Yes, that’s right. And at that point, it’s a different kind of slavery. You then become a slave to yourself, which means you’ve become profoundly selfish. If ‘freedom’ is just the opportunity to completely satisfy your own self, without limit, then I would say you are still a slave to sin because it does not solve anything. If I’m free to be the boss of me then I’ve made myself into God. 

And at that point, you then move into this crazy identity world we’re in at the moment where people are saying, “Well, I’m a six foot gorilla.” 

TP: I can identify as anything I want and describe how I wish the world to be.

PJ: Yes. So you can make all kinds of choices for yourself, but that doesn’t change reality. But then you also move into that morality discussion, where the only fundamentally sinful sin is inauthenticity, hypocrisy, and insincerity. Authenticity becomes the touchstone of everything. How I feel determines what I am and what I do. If I feel like doing it, well, it’s authentic, and therefore it’s right for me to do it. You know the old bumper sticker, “If it feels good, do it”? 

TP: I think the modern equivalent might be something like, “You do you.”

PJ: Yes, there you go. It comes out of a sense of freedom from conventional morality or church or society, a freedom from some external constraint that I felt in order to be free to be me. No, the Bible is saying we’ve been freed from sin, in order to do something more. Otherwise, it’s still in sin. 

TP: Because if I’m just being me again and living under the regime of me, it’s just going to be the same slavery. Perhaps this is a good point at which to read the passage, because like last week in the first part of Romans 6, it starts with this question–What then? Are we to sin because we’re not under law, but under grace?

PJ: And again, he goes, “By no means!”

TP: “No, absolutely not!” And he goes on to explain what the nature of the slavery and redemption and freedom is. It’s fascinating because he says that we’ve been freed from one slavery for a different kind of slavery. 

PJ: Yes, we will always be in slavery because we always have a master. It’s a question of changing masters, not a question of changing to some absolute state of freedom. And he follows the same pattern that we saw in the first half of chapter six.

TP: Having said ‘no’ to a ridiculous question, he then tells us what we should know. 

PJ: And he follows with a command and then an encouragement. And the encouragement here is one of the greatest encouragements in the whole Bible, a memory verse encouragement. 

TP: So let’s look out for those four things–the absolute ‘no’, the ‘you know these things’, the imperative command, and the final encouragement as we read the passage. 

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 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, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 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.

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 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. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

PJ: It’s a great passage, isn’t it? You’ve got to hear clearly what it is that you know, which will lead you to the commandments, and then gives you this great encouragement in verse 23, that the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. So what is it that we need to know Tony?

TP: Well, it’s in verse 16–that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey. 

PJ: There’s the definition of slavery. 

TP: So if you’re a slave, you’re offering yourself to be obedient to somebody or something and to live under their control. And in this case, it’s either obedience to sin which leads to death, or obedience to God which leads to righteousness. Those are the two options. 

PJ: Yes. Most people take morality as a matter of developmentalism; you start as a child and grow slowly through your education and legislation up into becoming a moral agent. The Bible says, no, we start off as sinners and as slaves to sin. And that actually leads downhill to death. But what happens is, the gospel comes and creates a disjunction, creates a change. And so the obedience that’s being spoken of here in verse 17 is a transformation. 

TP: It goes on to explain it, doesn’t it? 

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, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.

PJ: I’m not just continuously growing more and more righteous; I’m stopping this and starting that.

TP: I used to obey an old master–sin–but I am now obedient to a new master. But it doesn’t actually say ‘new master’. It says:

… have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed

PJ: That’s right. You have been set free. Now just as you used to act this way as a slave of sin, now you’ve changed to live a different way that is not leading to more and more lawlessness as the old slavery to sin was. When I give myself to lying, I have to lie more to cover the lies that I have already made. It never stops. Sin is addictive, like pornography or substance abuse. You need more and more to keep on living that lifestyle, and will later be ashamed of it. But now, something has changed. You become free from sin in order to be a slave to righteousness, which is going to lead to our holiness. 

TP: He clarifies that in verse 20, which is really interesting, isn’t it? It says: 

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 

PJ: You didn’t have to bother about righteousness. But now, you don’t have to bother about sin because you are free from that—in order to be free for righteousness and for a new life. It’s ‘freedom from …’ and ‘freedom for …’, and that’s critical to understand. 

I think I’ve told you before about my Ugandan friend who was in prison. One night, the gates were opened, and the guard said, “Run for your life.” He was free from prison. But what was he freed for? Was it for a chance to get out of Uganda? Or was it for a chance for the soldiers to shoot him in the back as he was running away? He was tempted to stay in prison because he didn’t know what he was being freed for. But in the end, he ran. And he said he didn’t stop till he crossed the national border. But yes, you can understand why he hesitated; he thought there was a bullet coming.

TP: Yes, because the nature of that slavery and of those masters is such that he couldn’t trust them.

PJ: No, he couldn’t trust them. It was in the time of Idi Amin. You see, we’ve been freed from the captivity of sin, which had led us to more and more lawlessness and which led us ultimately to death and things we were ashamed of. But now we’ve been freed for something, not to just be free to ourselves, because that’s the old thing that I’ve just got out of. But rather I’m freed for righteousness and the fruit of that. That means I’ve become a slave of God, a slave of righteousness. But I can’t treat God as myself or myself as God. It’s the true and living God that I must offer myself to. 

TP: So all this is what they know: that this momentous change has happened, that that old slavery is gone, that you are freed from that and you know that you’ve now been freed for a new master, for slavery to God and to righteousness. So what are the implications? What’s the command or the imperative? I guess that is in verse 19. 

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.

PJ: Yeah, that’s the command: present yourself to God. Present yourself to righteousness. Present your members, your body. It’s the particulars, not just the generality.

TP: It is sort of like reporting for duty, like a slave presenting themself or coming before the master and saying, “Here I am. I’m at your disposal.” All that I am, all the bits of me. You can tell me what to do. Present yourself to God. 

PJ: And then you get this magnificent encouragement, which you mentioned is one of the first memory verses you learned. A good memory verse says something really important and worth remembering. Not every verse of the Bible is necessarily good for memorisation. For example: “My brother Esau was a hairy man.” 

TP: But Revelation 19:10 is a handy one: “Do not do it.”

PJ: Yes, great for parents, that one. Critically, a memory verse must mean the same thing in context as it means without the context. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Well, what does that mean? Without the context of learning to be in need and learning to abound, you can turn that verse into saying, “I can win my football game because I can do all things”. 

TP: I’ve been claiming that verse for years on the first tee, but it just never works. 

PJ: I saw a Fijian football team run out with that verse on the jumper. And mind you, they look like they could do anything. They were big men. 

But Romans 6:23, it means the same thing in and out of context. 

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are three contrasts there, but most people only see two. The first contrast is between sin and God, the second is wages and gift, and the third is death and life. But most people miss the sin and God one because of the way it’s written. But we see that death is the wages that Sin our master paid, as opposed to the gift that our master God now gives. When we read ‘the wages of sin’, it sort of sounds like sin is the wage, but it’s actually talking about the wages that sin gives, which is death. And the gift that God gives is life. And then of course, it finishes beautifully with life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Our God gives us life–a life freed from sin, a life to live for his praise and glory, all from grace, the gift of God. It all comes through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for us. That is what Romans 1-5 have been teaching us.

TP: It makes me think about Romans 5:1-10 in particular, his justification of the ungodly by his blood. And because he’s risen and alive and has already justified us, we know that there is the gift of life. When we get to that day, there will be salvation and victory and life, because Jesus Christ is Lord and because he’s risen. He’s there, ready to forgive, and ready to grant eternal life.

PJ: And that’s why you need Romans 5:11. Because it teaches you that you now can rejoice in God.

TP: Oh, that’s right. That section actually goes to verse 11, doesn’t it? 

PJ: Yes. And you rejoice in God because you know the life of the Lord Jesus Christ that you’re now living. 

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