Practical Sanctification - Page 3 of 4 (series: Lessons on Romans)
by John Lowe
17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.
But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. In modern day language, it could be said: “Thank God that you, who were at one time the servants of sin, honestly responded to the impact of Christ’s teaching when you came under its influence.” The Roman Christians had given wholehearted obedience to the gospel of grace to which they had been committed, including all the doctrine Paul teaches in this Letter. Paul was always mindful that God is to be thanked, that these Roman believers obeyed from their hearts the traditions or “patterns of teaching” which were embodied in Christ Jesus. Because of Him they have been made free from service to sin and, in turn, have become the servants of righteousness. Freedom from service to Satan is, by definition, bondage to the Lord, who loved us and gave Himself for us.
But God be thanked. In verse 17 we, who were formerly servants of sin, have a reminder of the deep gratitude we should have for the deliverance from sin that we and others have received. Paul was overcome with gratitude and he burst forth with praise and he thanked God.
Paul said, “You obeyed from the heart.” The Roman Christians have become obedient from the heart. In other words, they had responded to the Gospel with obedience—obedience that came from the depths of their being. This brought a decisive change in their lives. Before they responded to the Gospel, they had been slaves to sin. But they “obeyed from the heart” (inwardly and genuinely, not merely externally) and believed the Gospel.
Form of doctrine. In the Greek, the word for “form” refers to a mold such as a craftsman would use to cast molten metal. Paul’s point is that God pours His new children into the mold of divine truth—“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). New believers have the innate and compelling desire to know God’s truth—“As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Pet. 12:2).
You were delivered. It’s true that the doctrine of grace was delivered to us, and we by the grace of God believed. But that’s not what Paul says; his statement is stronger. It is not the form of doctrine that was delivered to the Romans, but a doctrine (the Gospel) into which they were delivered—or cast, as in a mold. In other words, as one commentator states it, “The teaching to which they had heartily yielded themselves had stamped its own impress (impression) upon them.”
18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
The phrase free from sin does not mean that they no longer had a sinful nature. Neither does it mean that they no longer committed acts of sin. The context shows that it is referring to freedom from sin as the dominating power in life. In other words, when you were in the world, when you were lost, you obeyed sin. It was natural for you to do that. Another thing we need to understand is that, when you have been saved, you have a new nature that can obey Christ. Paul went through the experience of being a new Christian, as we will see in Chapter 7. He discovered two things: first, that there was no good in his old nature—“For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find” (Rom 7:18); and second, that there is no power in the new nature. We think that now that we are Christians we can walk on top of the world. We can’t. We are just as weak as we have ever been before. This is the reason we have to walk by faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can produce the Christian life, as we shall see.
You became slaves of righteousness. Correct doctrine should lead to correct duty. Responding to the truth that they had been set free from sin as master, they became slaves of righteousness. They had a new position in Christ; they trusted him and now are in Him. Then they trusted themselves all together to Him. Then they consented to be His property. They are His bondservants and slaves of His truth, and shinning through it, on them, is the glory of both His grace and His claim.
We do not abstain from sin, because of fear of the Law; but we abstain from sin because of the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the heart—“who has come, not according to the law of a fleshly commandment, but according to the power of an endless life” (Heb. 7:16). God does not want us to sin, but if a believer does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, who did no sin—and He pleads our case; He is our Propitiation. “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:1-2).
19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.
I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. In verse 18 the apostle spoke of slaves of righteousness, but he realizes that those who live righteously are not actually in bondage. Righteousness is not slavery, except when we are thinking and talking as lost men do. Those who practice sin are slaves of sin, but those whom the Son sets free are free indeed. Jesus (said), “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin… (but) if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed. (John 8:34, 36).
But why does Paul say he speaks in human terms? There are several reasons given by the various commentators that center around the condition of the hearers, such as:
1. Their imperfect state enfeebles their spiritual perception.
2. They had poor judgment.
3. Their spiritual apprehension was weak.
4. Their humanness and their difficulty in grasping divine truth.
5. The weakness of their flesh (weak in their natural selves)—in other words, because of their intellectual and spiritual difficulty in understanding truth when it is stated in general terms.
For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. Now he counsels them to yield themselves to holiness with the same gusto they once yielded themselves to uncleanness. When they were servants of sin, it was their master. Now that they are servants of Christ, righteousness must be their master. They cannot serve the master of righteousness and dabble in sin at the same time. Before their conversion the believers had surrendered their bodies as slaves of all kinds of uncleanness and to one kind of wickedness after another. Now they should dedicate those same bodies as slaves of righteousness, so that their lives would be truly holy. They were set apart from the practice of sin, and set apart to the practice of righteousness to obtain sanctification—“…when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe” (1 Thess. 2:13).
Our Lord Himself (and scripture generally) teaches that only those who know the truth, and walk in the truth are truly free. The Jews in John 8:32-36 rebelled when our Lord told them, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” There is true freedom only for the person who is “in Christ.”
Slaves. I think Paul explains why he is using the imagery of slaves and master—he is speaking in human terms; that is, he is using a familiar illustration from everyday life, that the Romans were familiar with. Slavery was common in the Roman Empire. Out of the 120 million people in the Roman Empire, half were slaves. Many Christians were slaves. And the little epistle of Philemon reveals that freedom was a prized possession, and hard to obtain. Truth often needs to be illustrated in order to be understood. Therefore, Paul must speak in a way that those who have little faith and little knowledge of God and scripture will understand. He said that he spoke in “human terms.” He doesn’t mean that he is not speaking by inspiration, but he is speaking in a manner that they will understand.