Romans 6:15-19 (RSV)
Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you yield yourself 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 yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification.
In the orthodox Christian understanding of Christ’s crucifixion the reason above all he suffered that fate was that he was obedient. The idea is, in other words, that Jesus went to the cross because he knew it was what God intended him to do. He did not choose that path, but he accepted it because he believed it was the will of the Father that he do so.
More than anyone else, it is the Apostle Paul who was responsible for promoting this view, and it reappears again and again in the parts of the Bible we attribute to him. And typically when Paul speaks of the crucifixion in this manner, he uses the occasion as an opportunity to show how he thinks Christ’s followers should live. They, too, should seek to live obedient lives, following the example set by Christ.
The passage from Romans 6 under review here illustrates this pattern well. Having made it clear that he thinks Christian discipleship does not require submission to the old Jewish “law,” Paul hastens to make clear that this does not mean Christ’s followers are free to do whatever they choose. Quite the contrary. Paul is all too aware of the possibility that, having heard this message, people will fall prey to sinful dispositions that in their own way will be just as “enslaving” as was the Law. But that is unlikely to happen, he says, if we appreciate (and seek to follow) the example set by Christ, who was anything but a free spirit.
In making this point Paul even goes so far, in fact, as to characterize Christian discipleship as itself another form of enslavement, albeit to “righteousness.” Living as we do in a time when personal freedom is so highly prized and obedience to anything other than our own wills is often viewed with suspicion, I suspect this is not how most of us would want to describe our experience as Christians. But there is no getting around the fact that the idea of living in obedience to God’s will for our lives is a central feature of the images of Christian discipleship we encounter in the New Testament.
Critics of the Christian religion have often maintained that this strain in Christian piety is a recipe for submissiveness, and sometimes that has indeed been the case. But not always, and in some cases it has actually had just the opposite effect. In the Reformed tradition in particular, the desire to serve the Lord obediently has often inspired stout resistance to demands for obedience from other, less worthy figures.
Good and gracious God, you know us far better than we know ourselves. So you know how difficult it is for us to follow the example of obedience set by Your Son. We do not presume to be able to follow that example in anything other than a partial, halting way. But to do even that we need help. We need spiritual gifts of the kind only You can provide, and it is for those gifts that we offer this prayer.