Know you not, that to whom you yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants you are to whom you obey; whether of sin to death…
1. The apostle is not content with speaking half the truth; he does not merely say that we are set free from guilt and misery, but he adds, that we have become the slaves of Christ. He has not bought us, and then set us loose upon the world. He has given us that only liberty which is really such, bond service to Himself, lest if left to ourselves we should fall back again to the cruel bondage from which He redeemed us.
2. This needs insisting on; for a number of persons think that they are not bound to any real service at all, now that Christ has set them free. Men often speak as if the perfection of human happiness lay in our being free to choose and to reject. Now we are indeed free, if we do not choose to be Christ's servants, to go back to the old bondage. We may choose our master, but God or mammon we must serve. We cannot possibly be in a neutral state. Yet a number of persons think their Christian liberty lies in being free from all law, even from the law of God. In opposition to this great mistake, St. Paul reminds his brethren in the text that when they were "made free from sin," they "became the servants of righteousness." He says the same in other Epistles (1 Corinthians 7:22, 23; Colossians 3:22, 24; 1 Corinthians 9:21).
3. Religion, then, is a necessary service; of course it is a privilege too, but it becomes more and more of a privilege, the more we exercise ourselves in it. The perfect Christian state is that in which our duty and our pleasure are the same, it is the state in which the angels stand; but it is not so with us, except in part. Upon our regeneration indeed, we have a seed of truth and holiness planted within us, a new law introduced into our nature; but still we have that old nature to subdue, a work, a conflict all through life.
4. Now most Christians will allow in general terms that they are under a law, but they admit it with a reserve; they claim for themselves some dispensing power.
I. WHAT IS THE SORT OF MAN WHOM THE WORLD ACCOUNTS RESPECTABLE AND RELIGIOUS? At best he is such as this. He has a number of good points to his character, but some of these he has by nature, others he has acquired because outward circumstances compelled him to acquire them. He has acquired a certain self-command, because no one is respected without it. He has been forced into habits of diligence, punctuality, and honesty. He is courteous and obliging; and has learned not to say all he thinks and feels, or to do all he wishes to do on all occasions. The great mass of men, of course, are far from this; but I am supposing the best — viz., those who only now and then will feel inclinations or interest to run counter to duty. Such times constitute a man's trial; they are just the times on which he is apt to consider that he has a leave to dispense with the law, when it is simply the law of God, without being also the law of self, and of the world. He does what is right, while the road of religion runs along the road of the world; when they part company awhile he chooses the world, and calls his choice an exception. For instance —
1. He generally comes to church, it is his practice; but some urgent business or scheme of pleasure tempts him — he omits his attendance; he knows this is wrong, and says so, but it is only once in a way.
2. He is strictly honest in his dealings; it is his rule to speak the truth, but if hard pressed, he allows himself now and then to say a slight falsehood. He knows he should not lie, he confesses it; but he thinks it cannot be helped.
3. He has learned to curb his temper and his tongue; but on some unusual provocation they get the better of him. But are not all men subject to be overtaken with ill temper? That is not the point; the point is this — that he does not feel compunction afterward, he does not feel he has done any thing which needs forgiveness.
4. He is in general temperate; but he joins a party of friends and is tempted to exceed. Next day he says that it is a long time since such a thing happened to him. He does not understand he has any sin to repent of, because it is but once in a way. Such men, being thus indulgent to themselves, are indulgent to each other. Conscious of what might be said against themselves they are cautious what they say against others. These are a few out of a multitude of traits which mark an easy religion — the religion of the world; which would cast in its lot with Christian truth, were not that truth so very strict, and quarrels with it — because it will not suit itself to emergencies, and to the tastes of individuals.
II. THIS IS THE KIND OF RELIGION WHICH ST. PAUL VIRTUALLY WARNS US AGAINST, AS OFTEN AS HE SPEAKS OF THE GOSPEL AS BEING A LAW AND A SERVITUDE.
1. He indeed glories in its being such; for, as the happiness of all creatures lies in their performing their parts well, where God has placed them, so man's greatest good lies in obedience to God's law and in imitation of God's perfections. Therefore Paul insists on the necessity of Christians "fulfilling the righteousness of the law." Hence James says, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." And our Saviour assures us that, "Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments," etc., and that "Except our righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees," which was thus partial and circumscribed, "we shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." And when the young man came to Him, He pointed out the "one thing" wanting in him. Let us not then deceive ourselves; what God demands of us is to he content with nothing short of perfect obedience — to avail ourselves of the aids given us, and throw ourselves on God's mercy for our shortcomings.
2. But the state of multitudes of men is this — their hearts are going the wrong way, and their real quarrel with religion is not that it is strict, but that it is religion. If I want to travel north, and all the roads are cut to the east, of course I shall complain of the roads. So men who try to reach Babylon by roads which run to Mount Sion necessarily meet with thwartings, crossings, disappointments, and failure. They go mile after mile, watching in vain for the turrets of the city of Vanity, because they are on the wrong road; and, unwilling to own what they are really seeking, they find fault with the road as circuitous and wearisome.
3. But religion is a bondage only to those who have not the heart to like it. Accordingly, in ver. 17, St. Paul thanks God that his brethren had "obeyed from the heart that form of teaching, into which they had been delivered." We Christians are cast into a certain mould. So far as we keep within it, we are not sensible that it is a mould. It is when our hearts would overflow in some evil direction, then we consider ourselves in prison. It is the law in our members warring against the law of the Spirit which brings us into a distressing bondage. Let us then see where we stand, and what we must do. Heaven cannot change; God is "without variableness or shadow of turning." His law is from everlasting to everlasting. We must change. We must go over to the side of heaven. Never had a soul true happiness but in conformity to God. We must have the law of the Spirit of life in our hearts, "that the righteousness of the law may be fulfilled in us."
4. Some men, instead of making excuses, such as I have been considering, and of professing to like religion, all but its service, boldly object that religion is unnatural, and therefore cannot be incumbent. Men are men, and the world is the world, and that life was not meant to be a burden, and that God sent us here for enjoyment, and that He will never punish us for following the law of our nature. I answer, doubtless this life was meant to be enjoyment; but why not a rejoicing in the Lord? We were meant to follow the law of our nature; but why of our old nature and not of our new? Now that God has opened the doors of our prison house, if men are still carnal, and the world sinful, and the life of angels a burden, and the law of our nature not the law of God, whose fault is it? We Christians are indeed under the law, but it is the new law, the law of the Spirit of Christ. We are under grace. That law, which to nature is a grievous bondage, is to those who live under the power of God's presence, what it was meant to be, a rejoicing.
(J. H. Newman, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?