You Gotta Serve Somebody

Sermon on Romans 6:12-23

In this passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Paul is inviting us to explore the paradigm of the process of our sanctification—becoming who God has called us to be. He uses loaded terms that bear a different meaning to modern-day Americans. When we hear the word slavery, we think of the elements of our own nation’s history of which we need to repent.

However, this is not exactly what Paul was talking about. He has in mind the slavery of the Israelites under Pharaoh in Egypt, and their liberation from that. As Paul goes through the Book of Romans, he is drawing a comparison from that part of Israel’s history, saying that now we have a new “exodus” taking place with the coming of the Messiah.

The new exodus isn’t liberating us from a human tyrant, but rather from an even greater tyrant: sin. The fundamental problem of humanity is an issue of sin. Sin, like Pharaoh did to the Israelites in the Old Testament, enslaves people as instruments to carry out its will in the world. So the gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to a new exodus from the bondage of sin as a tyrannical oppressor.

The word “sin” in our modern context is another loaded word, so let me clarify what Paul means when he talks about sin.

Sin is universal. All people have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). It doesn’t matter where you come from, what color your skin is, how much money you have. Every person ever to dwell on this planet is alike in the condition of sin. Humans have a tendency to single out particular sins as worse than others, and by doing such moralizing, all you are really doing is blinding yourself to your own depravity by minimizing your own sins as not as bad as others.

I think this concept is reflected in the movement in America today to tear down the statues of some historical figures because of the offensive beliefs and behaviors they committed as part of their success. The thinking is that we should purge ourselves of the celebration of these sinners. I definitely understand the feeling behind this, and I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be done. However, the sins of these people are no worse than the sins of everyone else. If we tear down the statues of every sinner, we would have no statues left. If we change the names of every building that was dedicated to a sinner, we would have no name to change them to, because every other candidate would also be a sinner.

One thing I love about the Bible is that it deals honestly with humans. For all of the heroes, it gives us an honest account of both their successes and their failures. David was a “man after God’s own heart,” but also an adulterer and murderer. Paul himself was a great Apostle and missionary, but he was also a persecutor and murderer. Anybody that we can pick throughout the pages of Scripture—except Jesus—is a mixed bag of victories and sins. It helps prove to us that every single person is the same in this condition of sin.

And that’s what sin is, a condition. All of the evil behaviors done by people: racism, malice, anger, violence, murder, adultery, greed, envy, deceit… They’re all outward symptoms of the root condition of every human being. So what Paul challenges us to do is to be honest about the condition of every human heart.

One thing I love about the U.S. Government is that it takes the sinfulness of human nature into account. Our system of checks and balances acknowledges that our government is being run by a bunch of sinners, and so we can’t universally trust any of them. We cannot allow any one person or party or branch to acquire too much power, because they’re all sinners. And as voters, we can decide to vote out all the sinners and replace them with a whole new bunch of sinners. It’s not a perfect system, but it does acknowledge the universal sinful condition of the human heart.

Then in Romans, Paul challenges us to accept that as believers in Christ, we are no longer slaves to the bondage of sin. We have been liberated to follow a new ruler, the ruler of righteousness (Rom. 6:19).

Going back to the story of the first exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, Moses was frustrated with the people because they kept looking back and longing to return to Egypt, to go back to the familiarity of that old lifestyle. In the new exodus, we are the same way, tending to look back at our old sinful lifestyles and want to return. We are in the difficult in-between period where we have been freed from the tyranny of sin but not fully released from its effects, and we are torn, often wanting to go back. We have to be intentional about looking forward, focusing on letting go of the old way of thinking and relating, and intentionally placing ourselves under the authority of Jesus Christ.

I love the old Bob Dylan song that expresses this perfectly:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Album: Slow Train Coming, 1979

This is fundamentally what Paul is saying here. As human beings, we’re going to be instruments of something. Either we will be instruments of sin, or we will repent of that and become instruments of righteousness. But no matter what, we will be serving somebody.

When we were under the tyranny of sin, we didn’t have choice in the matter. Scripture says that we were in bondage, slaves to sin. But thanks be to God that Jesus sets us free and give us the ability to choose, repent, and turn away from that bondage.

Paul sets out that choice before us: which will you serve? If you go back to the slavery of sin, ask yourself the question, “How’s that working for you?” What benefit do you get from being a slave to sin? If you look at it honestly, you will know it’s not much. We tend to look back as our life in sin as a time of license and freedom from rules. But when we face the truth, we realize that all we get from that life is shame, and ultimately death.

Choosing a life of righteousness in the service of Christ is all that will give life, eternal life. God is the only one who gives abundant life, significance, meaning, and ultimate freedom through Jesus Christ. He pours out his Spirit and his love into our hearts, and we get holiness and eternal life.

Every single day, as we walk on this earth as humans, we have moments when we have a choice to turn back to the old ways or to come out from under that tyranny and choose Jesus Christ. I encourage you to give your heart to Jesus, to seek after his will for your life by asking his Holy Spirit to fill your heart and make you new, to set you free from bondage to sin to eternal life and holiness.