“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” – Romans 6:12-14
Paul the Apostle is addressing Christian believers, those who have undergone a genuine conversion to Christ and sincerely intend to be His disciples. He is reminding them that their old life of indulging sin is over because they have been crucified with Christ and died to that way of thinking and acting. But if that is so, why does he address them in this manner? Paul is a realist and knows that the garden of the heart, even though it is under new management and a general clean-up has taken place, still contains those pestilent seeds of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.” (1 John 2:16; the very things that led to Adam and Eve’s first sin: Genesis 3:6) In other words, we are still susceptible to temptation to sin. Only God, as God, cannot be tempted. (James 1:13) One day, when we dwell with God in Heaven, we will be beyond the reach of temptation. Yet when God the Son took upon himself a human nature, that nature was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15; see also how Jesus underwent the same three temptations as Adam and Eve in the Garden when He fasted in the wilderness: Luke 4:1-13)
So if God incarnate could not avoid temptation while dwelling in this world, we certainly cannot expect to be exempt from it. Therefore we must understand and begin to learn how to overcome sin rather than being overcome by it. Paul emphasizes that if we are in Christ we are no longer under the dominion of sin. This, of course, is true in principle. What remains, however, is to turn it into practice. Paul devotes chapters 6-8 of Romans to providing instruction on this subject. He begins, as we have seen above, with the foundation of all success in overcoming sin: the truth that we don’t have to do it! This may sound rather elementary but many people, including Christians who should know better, think that we have to sin because “nobody’s perfect” or “we’re only human”. That may be so, but what is meant by this? Does it mean that we must give in to every temptation that presents itself to us? How absurd! If this were so, what would be the point of Christ’s saving work? The fact that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ and not “on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness…” (Titus 3:5) is not a reason to go on sinning. Paul makes this abundantly clear: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” No, as our text says, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:12-14)
God’s grace or mercy in forgiving our sins is not in order that we may go on sinning, whether in the old ways or in new ways. He forgives our sins so that He may have close fellowship with us. He removes the barrier of our guilt so that His Spirit may go to work within us, convicting us, bringing us to repentance and empowering us to live a new life of obedience to God’s will. Paul points out that those who “are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8) “Aha!” someone might say, “This shows that while we are in these sinful bodies we cannot do God’s will and please Him – so we must sin!” But this is misconstruing what Paul means by being “in the flesh”. He immediately goes on to say, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” (Verse 9) Everyone who truly belongs to Christ has His Spirit dwelling and working within him. Of course this does not mean they have already been “perfected in love.” (1 John 4:18) That process may not be completed until a believer’s death, but there is no reason why it should necessarily be delayed until then. It depends, of course, on the extent of our willingness to yield to God’s perfecting work within us.
So how do we cooperate with God’s Spirit working within us to stop sinning and start doing the will of God? Paul tells us first to “not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” We need to differentiate between our bodies and the sinful dispositions that have taken control of them. Our bodies need not be instruments of unrighteousness. Our tongues need not lash out in anger. Our faces need not contort into scowls when someone disagrees with us or apparently slights us. Our hands need not be used to hurt others. Our brains need not be exercised with schemes to enrich ourselves at the expense of others. Our sexual organs need not be given over to fornication or adultery and our eyes need not be filled with pornography. Our lungs need not be filled with tobacco or pot, our livers with alcohol or our veins with narcotics. Instead, the members of our body can be devoted to doing good and advancing God’s kingdom. There is so much good to do in this world we should never have time to do evil! So first, if we are to have victory over sin, we must make a conscious and deliberate presentation of our souls and bodies to God. We should do this, not on the basis of any goodness in ourselves, but on the basis that our old self died with Christ and that we are raised to new life in Him. We should make this presentation every day, at the start of each day and throughout the day as we become conscious that we are heading into temptation or when, sadly, it has already been indulged to the point of sin. In that case, confession of sin and sincere repentance must accompany our fresh surrender to God.
The next thing the Holy Spirit through Paul tells us to do can be found in Romans 6:20-23. Paul, in effect, is telling us to keep in mind the terrible fruit of being enslaved to sin. Ultimately, it brings death: spiritual, and potentially eternal, separation from God. But being enslaved to God bears the delicious fruit of sanctification and ultimately, life eternal! And finally, in Romans 8:12-13, Paul tells us, “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” We need to keep in the Spirit of God through prayer, meditation on God’s words in Holy Scripture and spiritually nourishing worship alone, and with others, at the feet of Christ. It is the power of the Spirit that overcomes the power of temptation! You need not sin, for sin is no longer your master if you truly belong to Christ.
But if sin is now your master, take Christ instead! Sin is a cruel and destructive master though it promises, and provides, pleasure for the moment yet it leads to aching regret and misery for a lifetime – and forever, if not freed from it. Christ is the loving master who, while He calls us to take up our cross and follow Him, promises and provides everlasting glory, freedom and joy!