The Gospel of Godís Grace #10

Right-Living: The "Paradox" of Grace

November 30, 1997 / Romans 6:11 ó 7:6

"If you believe salvation is entirely by grace, then why try to be good?"

Iíve lost count of the times and ways in which that question has been put to me over the last dozen or so years. In fact, when I first began trying to understand the great Pauline theme of salvation by grace through faith, it was a question with which I wrestled.

Indeed, the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ described some false teachers with these words: "They are godless men, who change the grace of God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord" (Jude 4). And Paul knew the same perversion was possible with the message of grace he preached. In the section of text we are studying today, he approaches the relationship of grace to goodness with three analogies. We will look at each in its turn. But first I ask you to hear a non-biblical analogy that I promise to tie together with the ones Paul used.

In Platoís most famous work, he relates an ancient myth about a shepherd in service to the King of Lydia. The servant found a magic ring with a strange power. Twisting it a certain way on his finger, he would become invisible. With its mystical powers, he could do anything he chose without being found out. Thus he committed adultery with the kingís wife and plotted with her to take her husbandís kingdom. He eventually murdered the king and replaced him on the throne.

In context, the story is related by an opponent of Socrates who is arguing that people follow the path of justice only because of some sort of social contract that is enforced through laws. On that opponentís view, nobody acts justly by personal choice and willingly. Thus he says:

Now if there were two such rings, one worn by the just man, the other by the unjust, no one . . . would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice or bring himself to keep away from other peopleís property and not touch it, when he could with impunity take whatever he wanted from the market, go into houses and have sexual relations with anyone he wanted, kill anyone, free all those he wished from prison, and do the other things which would make him like a god among men. His actions would be in no way different from those of the other and they would both follow the same path.

You might think about it for a moment. What would you do with such a power? Would you live as you do now? Would you get even with some enemies? Would you take money in the knowledge you would never get caught? Or is there something about your personality and character that would keep you from using such a power to attempt things you would not think of doing under your present circumstances?

A Mental Adjustment

The first of Paulís three analogies is the one we began exploring in the previous lesson in this series: death and life.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace (6:11-14).

Since we have been united with Christís death, burial, and resurrection in baptism, we are supposed to take seriously the meaning of that event. We are to "count" ("reckon," KJV; "consider," RSV) ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. Are there days and events you can think of in your life that required a mental adjustment from that time forward? Try some of these: discharge from military service, graduation from medical school, passing the bar, getting married, getting AIDS, having a child, having a brain tumor. For good or bad, each of these events is major enough that it takes some getting used to. Youíll sometimes ó at least in the early days of your new situation ó catch yourself making a decision from your pre-event mindset and having to revise it in light of your post-event reality.

Paul views conversion to Jesus Christ as the most significant of all events. It is the defining event of a lifetime. Everything is pre-conversion and post-conversion in terms of its significance. Was I trying to find God in my pre-conversion life? In my post-conversion life, I know I was found of God! Was I trying to atone for my sins and set things right in my pre-conversion life? In my post-conversion life, I magnify God for doing what I could not do! Was I looking out for myself and asking what would make me happy in my pre-conversion life? Now, post-conversion, I am looking for ways to please him! Pre-conversion, was I willing to use the parts of my body (i.e., tongue, eyes, mental energy) to sin in pursuit of the worldís definition of a good time? Post-conversion, I put those same instruments to use in service to God!

Does a life go from pre-conversion to post-conversion mode like flipping a switch? Looking at it in one light, I would answer "Yes" to that question. In the decisive event of your turning to Christ, God set you in Christ and "flipped the switch" that set you free of guilt and liberated you from Satanís death grip. You were translated from darkness to light in that instant. But, from another perspective, I would say "No" to the switch-flipping question. Your transition from pre-conversion to post-conversion lifestyle will probably come gradually over time. To bring that about, you will need to alter the way you think and read reality. Thus Paulís call for a mental adjustment.

So the major secret of holy living is in the mind. It is in knowing (6) that our former self was crucified with Christ, in knowing (3) that baptism into Christ is baptism into his death and resurrection, and in considering (11, RSV) that through Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God. We are to recall, to ponder, to grasp, to register these truths until they are so integral to our mindset that a return to the old life is unthinkable. Regenerate Christians should no more contemplate a return to unregenerate living than adults to their childhood, married people to their singleness or discharged prisoners to their prison cell. For our union with Jesus Christ has severed us from the old life and committed us to the new. Our baptism stands between the two like a door between two rooms, closing on the one and opening into the other. We have died, and we have risen. How can we possibly live again in what we have died to?

In post-conversion life, Paul gives us the following assurance: "Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace." Do you remember the chart I offered you earlier when we were looking at Romans 4:14-16? Weíve come back to the same point here. Weíll just add a fifth point to it now.

*Works are key
*Merit is goal
*Transgression is inevitable
*Sin is master

*Faith is key
*Promise is precious
*Transgression is impossible
*No condemnation
*Sin is no longer master

Voluntary Slavery

Thus Paul offers the second analogy of this section of text: slavery. He uses it to disclaim emphatically the notion that being under grace rather than law implies that one has a license to sin. He writes:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Donít you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey ó whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness (6:15-18).

Not all slaves in the ancient world were taken as spoils of war and involuntarily. Under certain conditions, people in extreme circumstances could offer themselves as slaves to someone capable of providing food and shelter (cf. Lev. 25:39ff). This is certainly the imagery that fits our text. We were in dire spiritual poverty, on the very brink of eternal death. But we heard Godís offer of grace and voluntarily accepted his offer. Now our cruel slavery to sin has been replaced by an intentional slavery to Christ, a commitment to obedience that leads to righteousness (i.e., right-living appropriate to oneís right-standing).

There is almost an apology from Paul at verse 19 for using the slavery metaphor. Perhaps that is because so many members of the church at Rome were slaves under the dehumanizing Roman system. He justifies his use of the analogy by saying that he was simply trying to use something familiar for the sake of their understanding: "I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness" (6:19).

Verses 20-23 actually make two points simultaneously. First, they obviously contrast the two very different outcomes of slavery to sin and being a slave of God. Second, they assume what so many people do not wish to grant ó that there is no third or neutral posture in this matter.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What a contrast! All those in Adam or "under law" are enslaved to sin ó sin that bring such terrible shame and results in death. But those in Christ or "under grace" have become "slaves to God" ó slavery that leads to holiness (not sin!) and results in eternal life. And notice Paulís careful choice of terms to describe the death and life at the end of these two paths. Death is "wages"; it is what sin merits and deserves. Eternal life is Godís "gift"; it is not deserved but conferred by grace.

Death Cancels Obligations

The final of Paulís three analogies about salvation and its implications is built on the legal understanding of personal duties: death cancels all personal contractual obligations.

Do you not know, brothers ó for I am speaking to men who know the law ó that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives? For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man (7:1-3).

Laws governing human beings have limited jurisdiction and power. Roman law that had been extended by force or arms throughout the Mediterranean world or Jewish law rooted in the revelation to Moses at Mt. Sinai had authority over its subjects only as long as they lived. Death cancels all personal contracts, voids all personal obligations, and terminates all personal relationships. Paulís illustration is marriage, but his application of the principle is thoroughly theological and a clear development of his thesis about the gospel of Godís grace.

Perhaps you would have expected Paul to apply this metaphor by saying that people once married to sin are free to be married to God because sin has been put to death by Christ at the cross. But he goes a different route. Consistent with the motif begun back in chapter 4 (i.e., law and Adam versus grace and Christ), he invites us to see ourselves as dead to law and joined now to Christ. "So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God" (7:4).

Before we knew Christ, we thought everything depended on our ability to keep law and do right things. What a naive and foolish delusion. And how Satanic! The devil appeals to our pride to think that we could somehow hope to earn our way into heaven. In that very process, we were guaranteeing hell for ourselves. After coming to know Christ, however, we abandoned the seductive ways of our sinful nature for the holy path marked by Godís Spirit.

For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code (7:5-6).

Back to Gygesí Ring

With Paulís rich context as background to it, I can now explain why I introduced the ancient story of Gygesí Ring at the start of this lesson. It seems to me a perfect way to answer the question "If you believe in grace why be good?" and to explain the nature of Christianity as opposed to both license and legalism.

Remember the story of the ring? When someone wore it, he or she was invisible. Nothing he wanted to do could be denied him. Nothing she did could be traced to her. It was a magic better than invincibility. It was the ability to remain totally hidden and unknown in anything its wearer chose to do. I think the way you react to that story tells a great deal about your spiritual being and state. Let me explain . . .

What if you could do anything you wanted to do without any concern of being seen by others or having to bear any personal consequences from you deeds? Would you be honest with property? Faithful to your mate? Honest with your parents? Truthful at work? A person of integrity when away from home?

In Platoís Republic the controversy is over the behavior of men otherwise believed to be just when given such powers. One man, Glaucon, argues that all men would behave the same if given the power of Gygesí ring. The other, Socrates, is committed to the view that a truly just man will behave virtuously in public or in private, with cameras on him or under cover of darkness, as a shepherd in the field or invisible in the court of a king.

I believe the character of a born-again Christian is genuine and Christlike no matter what the circumstance. It does not matter that it is Sunday or Tuesday, at home or on the road, in the full daylight or in deepest darkness. It is the same because it is something more than his or her obedience to laws. It is behavior rooted in love for God and empowered by the Spirit of God. It is a lifestyle that arises from those who count themselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. This authentic newness of life does not spring from more knowledge of Scripture or deeper commitment to doing right. It springs from love for God.

This is why Augustine could say that, so long as one loves God, he can do as he pleases. It is somewhat like saying that, so long as one loves his wife, he can treat her any way he chooses. Or that, so long as one loves his grandchild, he can do anything with her he pleases. Love is what causes one to seek the happiness of the beloved, to obey all the laws and rules relevant to the relationship. But the critical issue is not the laws and rules but the relationship.

Therefore to ask "Why be good if you believe in grace?" is like asking "Why be a good wife if you love your husband?" or "Why be a protective grandfather so long as you love your grandchild?" To phrase these questions is to show how foolish they are. No one who understands anything of the riches of Godís grace would think of presuming on it any more than a man who knows his wife loves him enough to forgive him anything would be his excuse for betraying her.

All this explains why Christianity is neither legalism nor license. It is something altogether distinct from the categories we know best. Yet we try to reduce the ultimately holy to the purely mundane, the infinite to the manageable.

Let me rush to repeat what I said earlier about flipping switches in oneís spiritual life. In terms of oneís relationship to God, salvation changes your status immediately and forever. You once were lost but now are found, were blind but now you see! In terms of your lifestyle, however, your conversion to Christ is the start of a process. The sinful nature will still have its effects to draw you toward sin, but its power has been broken and you no longer have to obey its desires. Then, over time, you develop and nurture Christlike character through such disciplines as worship, prayer, Scripture, and Christian fellowship. Pre-Christ, you "let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey[ed] its evil desires" (6:13a); post-Christ, believers "offer yourselves to God" and "offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness" (6:13b).

And what brings about so wonderful and complete a change of character? "For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace" (6:14). Thus is revealed the great "paradox" of the Christian faith: Those who are freed from the law do not use their freedom as an excuse for sin but as the motivation for holiness!

Legalism (i.e., living by a list of rules) is the lazy personís way out. He relies on a set of rules to tell him what to do in any given situation. The trouble is, however, that there are never enough rules to cover every contingency and unforseen situation. Thus, like the ancient Pharisee, he sets about to generate sub-rules from the primary rules in order to know what to do. He is not only slavish to those interpretations but demands that others see everything as he does. He quickly sets himself up as a judge over those who donít keep his rules. All this leads to ever-increasing personal bondage, great alienation from others, and brittleness in oneís own personality. He knows his burden is too great for either him or others to bear, but his fear keeps him in bondage. "If I donít have these rules, I wonít know what to do! I will have no guidance in my life! All will become chaos!" The only cure for such legalism is an acute realization that the Christian faith is a personal relationship with God through Christ and not a set of rules. In that relationship, the Spirit of God impresses us with the clear teaching of the Word of God, guides us through a learning and growing process in lifeís perplexing moments (i.e., the innumerable contingencies not covered by a law), and teaches us to be gracious toward others struggling with their own perplexities. The result is a character that looks like Christís own and a lifestyle that reveals his gracious presence to others.

Hear John on this point: "No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because Godís seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God" (1 John 3:9). The Christianís aversion to sin is due to a deep and wondrous work of grace in her life. She has been reoriented in her being to such a love for God that sin is unthinkable. Using freedom as an excuse for sin would prove that she is still in her sinful nature and has not been born of God. "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are," continues John. "Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother" (1 John 3:10). And this is certainly the meaning of this statement from Paul to the church at Corinth: "To those under the law, I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from Godís law but am under Christís law), so as to win those not having the law" (1 Cor. 9:20b-21).


What I will call the "Gygesí ring test" reveals a great deal about oneís heart and relationship to God. In the context of Romans, it exposes the character of one who is a legalist as opposed to a true Christian. A legalist says, "Iíd do x or y or z, if there were no law against it." The child of God says, "X and y and z are unthinkable for me, for they are inconsistent with the lifestyle of my Lord" or "I would never do such things, for the law has revealed that my Father is dishonored by such behavior."

Is the difference so hard to see? Is the paradox so impossible to grasp? A woman was married to a man she could not love. He made her get up every morning at five to cook his breakfast, serve it as six oíclock sharp, and then check off a daily list of items that served his ends. He was so demanding and inflexible that her life became miserable from trying to satisfy his endless demands. She carried a constant sense of sadness in her heart and was frequently reminded of her inadequacy. Then he died, and she eventually married a good man who loved her devotedly. One day, while cleaning out some old papers from a desk, she came across a "Things to Do Today" list her former husband had given her on a particularly demanding day. Suddenly it dawned on her that she was doing those very things that day for her new husband. But there was none of the resentment in her heart. There was no sadness hovering over her. She was doing from love now what had once been done from fear. "

In the same way, the knowledge of Godís grace at work in your life gives us a new perspective on doing his will: "But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (7:6).

Ask a miser what he wants, and the answer will be money. Ask a libertine what she desires above all, and the reply will be pleasure. Ask a drug addict what he craves, and he will tell you that he needs a fix. Ask a narcissist what she wants, and her answer will have to do with being noticed and flattered. Ask a Christian his or her greatest desire, and the answer will come back: That I may be found in Christ, that I may be like Christ, that I might suffer for Christ, that I may live with Christ forever!

Praise God for his boundless mercy! Praise God for the paradox of holiness in the lives of people set free by his love! Praise God for the magnetic pull of Christ to the hearts of those who are captured by his wondrous grace!

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