Commentary on Romans 6:15-23

Notes (NET Translation)

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not!

Another charge against Paul’s gospel is that by teaching believers they are not under the law (6:14) he is encouraging moral anarchy. The law was viewed as the primary deterrent to sin so its removal would be seen as an encouragement to sin. Paul strongly rejects this claim. He is not saying Christians are free from moral norms. He “means that they are free from the power of sin, which was indissolubly connected with the Mosaic covenant. To say that believers are under grace means that they now have the power to keep the moral norms of the law (cf. 8:4; 13:8–10). Thus the freedom from the law trumpeted here does not imply that believers are free from the law in every sense.”1

16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness?

It is not completely clear whether Paul means by this that habitual obedience manifests a condition of slavery or that habitual obedience constitutes or leads to a condition of slavery. In light of the context, where the verb “present” again occurs in the imperative (v. 19; and cf. v. 13), the latter, with its implicit exhortation, is more likely. Christians, who have been set free from sin by their union with Christ, must recognize that, were they constantly to yield to the voice of temptation, they would effectively become slaves of sin again. The Lord Jesus made the same point: “Every person who is committing sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Without taking anything away from the reality of the transfer from one master to another, then, Paul wants to make clear that “slavery” is ultimately not just a “legal” status but a living experience. Christians, who are no longer slaves of sin, must no longer live as slaves of sin.2

Neutrality is not an option. One either obeys sin or God. “Those who think that freedom is attained by jettisoning obedience to God opt for sin as their lord.”3

17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness.

The Roman Christians had transferred their spiritual allegiance from sin to righteousness.

‘From the heart’ is an expression found only here in the NT. What Paul appears to be emphasizing is that their obedience was not merely outward conformity but really ‘from the heart’, perhaps alluding to the promise of Jeremiah 31:33: ‘”This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time”, declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts”‘.4

Paul refers to a pattern of teaching (typos didaches).

Many interpreters think that Paul alludes to a “rule” or “pattern” of early Christian teaching. There is good reason to think that this is the case, but he may also want to suggest a contrast with another “pattern” of teaching. Godet thinks Paul contrasts his own “gospel” with the pattern of teaching that the Romans had already heard. But a more likely contrast is that between the “form” of Christian teaching and the “form” of Jewish teaching. Paul would then imply that Christians, while no longer “under the [Mosaic] law,” are nevertheless bound by an authoritative code of teaching. And Paul may have an additional reason for using typos. Most of the Pauline occurrences of this word refer to believers as “examples” to other believers. In these verses, typos includes the active connotation of a pattern that “molds” others. Similarly, in this verse, it is likely that typos includes the idea that Christian teaching “molds” and “forms” those who have been handed over to it.5

The phrase “entrusted to” usually refers to the passing on of Christian teaching (1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3), but in this verse it is the Roman Christians who are handed over to the teaching. It is as if they have been transfered from one master (sin) to another (righteousness).

Verse 18 includes the first mention of freedom in the letter. For Paul, freedom is not autonomous self-direction but deliverance from powers that prevent us from becoming what God intended. This is why freedom can involve being enslaved to righteousness and God.

19 (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.

The slavery analogy is what is put in human terms. Weakness of flesh refers to human limitations in understanding things. Paul apparently felt an analogy to everyday life was necessary to get his point across.

Paul recognizes that his language could be interpreted to mean that Christian experience bears the same marks of degradation, fear, and confinement that were typical of secular slavery. But, while shorn of these characteristics, life in the new realm of righteousness and life does mean that a person is given over to a master who requires absolute and unquestioned obedience; and to make this point, the image of slavery is quite appropriate.6

Offering themselves as slaves to righteousness, Paul says, will lead to holiness. ‘Holiness’ may be understood here as a state to which yielding one’s members to righteousness leads, a state acceptable to God and making one fit for his presence. Alternatively it could be understood as a process, so that yielding one’s members to righteousness, itself a process, finds expression in another process, sanctification. This may be one of those occasions where Paul implies both aspects: yielding one’s members to righteousness not only leads to the process of sanctification but also results in a state of fitness for God’s presence. Jewett puts it this way: ‘Although it [holiness] is ordinarily interpreted as an individual virtue, the second person plural imperatives throughout this pericope point to a new form of social life as the primary embodiment of holiness’.7

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

To be a slave to one master (sin) means to be free from another master (righteousness).

21 So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death.

The expected answer is that they reaped no real benefits (lit. fruit) from being slaves to sin. Looking back, they are now ashamed of their former way of life.

22 But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life.

In this, the last of the antitheses in this chapter, Paul confronts us with the ultimate “powers” that dominate the two respective “ages” of salvation history: sin and God. Behind believers’ subservience to “grace” (vv. 14, 15), “obedience” (v. 16), “pattern of teaching” (v. 17), and “righteousness” (vv. 18, 19), and embracing them all, is their ultimate allegiance to God.8

Sanctification is seen here as the intermediate condition between what was true of believers before they were converted and what will be true of believers at the resurrection, where they will inherit eternal life. Sanctification is then something that is supposed to lead to eternal life, not merely happen when one obtains eternal life, just as iniquity in this life leads to death. Holiness of heart and life is what God expects, indeed requires of his people. When one becomes a slave of God, a slave who obeys God’s call and will, the process of sanctification, of cleansing, has begun in that human life. It is something that must continue, as the believer continually must submit his faculties to be used in a right and righteous manner. One must present oneself to God as a living sacrifice daily. The promise given here is that believers have been freed from the bondage to sin, but freed for service and obedience to God.9

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

In everyday life the opsonion (payoff/wages) provided sustenance for life, but the wages of sin are just the opposite. The word “wages” implies that the penalty sin exacts is merited. On the other hand, eternal life is not a wage (something deserved) but a gift of God. The words “in Christ Jesus our Lord” “indicate that God’s gift of eternal life is granted to those who are united with the Lord Jesus Christ, to those who were united in his death and resurrection.”10

Bibliography

Kruse, Colin G. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Moo, Douglas J. The Epistle to the Romans. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.

Schreiner, Thomas R. Romans. Kindle Edition. Baker Academic, 1998.

Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Kindle Edition. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004.


  1. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 6734-6736 
  2. Moo 1996, 398 
  3. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 6744-6745 
  4. Kruse 2012, 281 
  5. Moo 1996, 401–402 
  6. Moo 1996, 404 
  7. Kruse 2012, 284 
  8. Moo 1996, 407 
  9. Witherington III 2004, 174 
  10. Schreiner 1998, Kindle Locations 6933-6934 
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