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Liberating letters (May 1)

Uniform Lesson for May 1, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Romans 6:1-14

We now shift from the Gospels to the letters as we continue our theme of liberation. We Christians too easily proclaim: “Jesus has set me free from my sins.” “Really?” the world responds. “We see little evidence to back up your claim!” Surely we followers of Jesus are tempted to say too much about our freedom from sin. But, Paul would remind us, we can also be tempted to say and claim too little. “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the blissful shore,” goes the old hymn “Love Lifted Me.” But from what did God’s love in Jesus Christ lift us, and for what moving forward?

Saying too much regarding freedom from sin

Paul leads off this portion of Romans acknowledging a pervasive problem for those who talk too much about freedom from sin. Such talk might imply that Christians can now do whatever they want, as their sins are now covered by Christ’s obedience. Indeed, Christians might strive to sin more extravagantly. Why? So that grace might “abound” (v. 1). Paul’s answer is unequivocal: “By no means!” (v. 2). Or, “No, heck no!” (my translation).

Rumbling beneath any sermon or teaching on the good news of the gospel is the charge of “antinomianism” or “lawlessness.” If the cross and resurrection of Jesus pronounces God’s forgiveness on sins past, present, and future, then can’t we all just do what we want? All too often, this seems to be the world’s experience of those who follow Jesus. We Christians don’t seem to be more loving than others. We Christians don’t seem to be more forgiving than others. We Christians sometimes talk so much about a grace that allows us to go to church on Sunday then live our lives Monday through Saturday doing whatever the heck we want, knowing that forgiveness is always available.

Paul was right to be worried regarding saying too much about our freedom from sin. First, it’s not true. Christians are sinners, like everyone else. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one”
(Romans 3:10). Second, it’s not helpful. Freedom to do whatever we want is not true freedom, but a new kind of slavery to our own whims and desires. From the beginning, we Christians are guilty of saying too much about our freedom, opening us up to slavery of a different kind.

Saying too little regarding freedom from sin

Nevertheless, it’s also possible to say too little regarding our freedom in Christ. Here Paul uses language of death and resurrection, of baptism and walking in “newness of life” (v. 4).
Just as Jesus died and was raised from the dead by the power of God, so have we been buried in Christ’s death and raised to new life by the power of God at work in us. “For whoever has died is freed from sin” (v. 7). Not in the sense of living a sinless life, but in being relieved of the necessity of doing something we can’t do on our own — truly loving God and neighbor with all that we are and all that we have.

Resurrection then becomes not only a doctrine concerning what happens after we die, but a doctrine that undermines any excuses we might proffer for while we are yet alive. We can’t simply use the phrase “all humans are sinners” as a justification for continuing on our selfish and self-serving way. “No! Heck no!” This is giving sin “dominion” over us, and allowing our misplaced passions to demand our obedience (v. 12). Again, this is simply slavery of a different and more pervasive kind, and goes against everything Jesus came to do.

Getting to the root of the matter

Paul gets to the heart of his good news when he says: “The death [Jesus] died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (v. 10). Note, there’s no “once for all” in the second phrase. Why? Because this new way of living is now given to all in whom his spirit is at work.

In the words of The Study Catechism: “In the death and resurrection of Christ, God judges what God abhors –
everything hostile to love – by abolishing it at the very roots. In this judgment the unexpected occurs: good is brought out of evil, hope out of hopelessness, and life out of death” (Question 80). The trick to striking the right balance between saying too much or too little about our freedom from sin is to keep our focus on God, and God’s power at work in this world — and, most remarkably, in us.

For discussion:

What does it mean to be “under grace” versus “under law”?

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