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Why Pursue Righteousness?

February 5, 2023 Speaker: Kit Johnson Series: Romans

Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 6:20–23



How many of you ever get tired of pursuing holiness? I certainly do. Sometimes sin looks attractive, and I don’t feel like saying no. At other times spiritual progress seems hopeless, and I’ve wondered, “What is the point of even trying?” And sometimes, I get tired, and I feel lazy, apathetic, and selfish. I’m not motivated to pursue holiness.

I’m sure you have those moments as well. The flesh is strong, the world is persistent, and sometimes they get to us. Yet last Sunday we saw that Romans 6:19 commands us to “present your members...” Christian, Christ is your Lord; therefore, you must pursue righteousness.

It’s an important command. It is the only command in vv. 15–23, and it is a high standard. And if you are truly saved, your heart resonates with it. You want to please the Lord; you want to obey his will. But another part of you your sin nature, resists God’s call. And some days and some seasons, it’s more oppressive than others.

So, how do you stay motivated to pursue righteousness when you don’t feel any ambition to do so? Both Paul and the Lord know it’s a struggle. Therefore, Paul follows the command of v. 19 with a word of encouragement to close the chapter (read).

Paul exhorts us to pursue righteousness through a powerful contrast between slavery to sin and slavery to God with a particular focus on the end result each brings. He begins by reminding the Romans of their lives before conversion. Verses 20–21 describe…

I.  The Vanity of Sin (vv. 20–21)

Before we go any further, remember that vv. 16–23 answer the question Paul raised in v. 15. It’s a very relevant question because many people assume freedom from the Mosaic Law equals freedom to make my own rules and to do my own thing.

But Paul says, “May it never be” that we would use grace to excuse sin. Then he gives his fundamental answer in v. 16, where he says that everyone is a slave either of sin or righteousness. And your master reveals your eternal destiny. So, there is no such thing as a slave of sin who is going to heaven. If you refuse Christ’s practical lordship over your life, you will end up in hell, but if you pursue righteousness, you will inherit glory.

That’s not because you earned heaven but because your life reveals your heart condition. If the indicatives or gospel truths of Romans 6 are true of you, they will manifest in obedience to the imperatives to pursue righteousness. A new heart will produce a new life. These assumptions are crucial for today’s text. Paul begins by reminding the Romans of their lives before conversion. Notice how v. 20 describes our…

The Natural Condition (v. 20): Once again, Paul makes his point by contrasting slavery and freedom. We’ve talked a lot about the fact that unbelievers are slaves of sin. They may think they are free, but they are deceived by sin so that they blindly pursue a course with no ultimate value, and which will end in God’s judgment. They are slaves even if they don’t realize it.

But then Paul adds an ironic twist. The unbeliever is also “free in regard to righteousness.” Yes, he has a type of freedom, but it’s not a good one. He is free from any compulsion to please the Lord.

Yes, unbelievers perform noble deeds all the time. Because of God’s common grace they give sacrificially, fulfill responsibilities, and behave chivalrously. But it never arises from a genuine desire to glorify the Lord based on sincere love for him. Sin corrupts everything.

That’s why Isaiah 64:6 can say of the unbeliever, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” The Bible leaves no room for someone to earn salvation through their good works. You can’t go to enough church services or feed enough homeless people to earn salvation because even the best deeds of the unbeliever are deeply corrupted by sin and rebellion. Grace is our only hope.

But maybe someone would reply, “Fine, but I really like my sin. I’d rather be a slave of sin and free of righteousness than the opposite.” Verse 21 presses into this argument by first noting…

The Temporal Vanity of Sin: Paul asks an important question that demands reflection, “What benefit…” When you are tempted to pursue sin, consider your life before conversion, and ask what “benefit (or more specifically ‘fruit’)” you gained by living in sin? What good came out of your slavery to sin? How did you benefit other people; what did you accomplish of lasting significance because of your sin?

I was saved as a child, so these questions don’t hit me too hard, but I’ve listened to many people lament how they wasted so much time chasing their selfish lusts before coming to Christ. It was all such a waste.

Again, the point is not that unbelievers never do anything of significance. Sometimes they do good and bring about good results, but that good didn’t come from sin. The question is specifically, “What good came out of my slavery to sin?”

The answer is that the Romans were “ashamed” of how they once lived. Like all other unbelievers, they were guilty of shameful deeds. They hurt the people closest to them. Maybe some committed crimes. Others got stuck destructive habits that destroyed their bodies.

And others hadn’t done anything especially horrible, they simply wasted so much time pursuing their own worthless lusts. They missed opportunities to serve Christ and invest in people.

As a result, Paul notes that the Romans were rightly ashamed of their pre-conversion lives. I imagine some of you have similar thoughts. It pains you to remember the time you wasted and the heartache you caused.

But even as you feel that in your soul, don’t we all easily forget how empty slavery to sin really is? Your heart resonates with v. 21, but then you turn around and crave the very things of which are ashamed. You’re hesitant to passionately pursue righteousness.

That’s why v. 21 is here. We need constant reminders that sin doesn’t benefit anyone or produce anything of lasting value; instead, it hurts people, it causes lasting problems, and it leaves us empty. Therefore, we must discipline ourselves to keep the perspective of v. 21. There’s simply no long-term value in pursuing sin.

Maybe you are a teenager or a young adult who has grown up in a Christian home; therefore, you’ve never experienced the harsh reality of sin’s consequences. You aren’t sure that slavery to sin is really that bad. You want to find out for yourself because a lot of sin looks fun.

You’re right. Sometimes it is. But God says in his Word, and plenty of wise people around you can testify to the fact that sin will always leave you hanging. The pleasure fades quickly and leaves all sorts of misery in its wake. Don’t be deceived. Understand the vanity of sin, and remember that when temptation comes. But even worse than the temporal vanity is…

The Eternal Loss of Sin (v. 21b): Since v. 23 contrasts death with eternal life, we should understand “death” as eternal separation from God in hell. The Scriptures warn us that hell is an awful place of unimaginable misery and torment. So, not only does slavery to sin produce no meaningful fruit in this life; it also terminates in eternal torture.

Maybe you have never wanted to receive Christ because you are afraid of what Christ will demand. You like your sin, you want the world’s acceptance, and you don’t want to lose those things. Please see that sin is a terrible master. It won’t satisfy you here, and it terminates in hell. So, honestly, what is so great about life without Christ? It’s not great. It’s shameful, worthless, and destructive. Please come to Christ and be saved.

But it’s also noteworthy that this entire passage is addressed to Christians. God had transformed the Roman Christian’s lives, and Paul says they had become slaves of righteousness. And Romans 8:1 promises, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Every genuine believer will make it to heaven.

If that’s true, then why does our text use the threat of hell to motivate Christians to pursue righteousness? In our day, you won’t hear many sermons that use the danger of hell to motivate Christians to pursue godliness. That’s because we generally assume that hell isn’t a realistic threat for anyone who has professed salvation.

But v. 16 teaches that your life reveals your master. If sin is truly your master, you will end up in hell regardless of what you say you believe. Therefore, while it’s subtle, v. 21 is clearly implying that one reason we must pursue righteousness is because we don’t want to end up in hell. It’s not our primary motivation, but it is definitely there. A path of rebellion against the lordship of Christ ends in eternal destruction.

Of course, I am not saying that a genuine believer can lose his salvation. Romans 8:1 assures us of that. And Jesus promised, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27–28). Everyone truly in Christ is eternally secure.

But while Christ perfectly knows his sheep, the NT frequently warns us that we can be deceived. Jesus also warned, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’” (Matt 7:22–23).

Notice that these people did not lose their salvation because Jesus says, “I never knew you.” Rather, they deceived themselves. And in our text, if someone sees the grace of God as an excuse to be a slave of sin, they very likely do not know the true grace of God. The threat of hell should loom large in their minds.

So, professing Christian, if you are walking down a path of rebellion or considering that path, understand the eternal consequences of rejecting Christ’s lordship. I don’t know your heart, but I do know that God says that slaves of sin are destined for hell. Please feel the weight of that, and may it be a means of grace to correct your way. I also want to talk with you about your life and your relationship to God and help you stay on God's course.

For every professing Christian, I know that this kind of warning is not pleasant to hear, but we must see it as the grace that it is. God loves us enough to be honest where it hurts. One of the graces he uses to help us persevere is to warn us about the consequences of failing to do so.

So, whenever Satan dangles a carrot in front of you, see through the lie. Sin has no real benefit today other than fading pleasure that always disappoints. And the end result is the darkness of hell. Sin is a terrible master. So, stay away. In stark contrast, v. 22 describes…

II.  The Value of Holiness (v. 22)

This verse uses much of the same language as vv. 20–21. But that’s where the similarities end. Life in Christ couldn’t be any more different from life in slavery to sin. He begins by reminding the Romans of…

The Power of Conversion: Paul makes his point by flipping the language of freedom and slavery from v. 20. Before Christ, they “were slaves of sin” and “free in regard to righteousness.” But Christ flipped the script! God had “freed (them) from sin and enslaved (them) to God.”

I do want to emphasize that God did this. Both verbs are divine passives meaning that the Romans didn’t do these things; God did. Once again, spiritual growth is truly a spiritual work rooted in divine grace and initiative. I could never produce genuine practical righteousness on my own. But Christ made me a new creation. He changed everything!

Paul wants the Romans to remember what God had done, and Christian you need to regularly remember too. No matter what your story may be, it is so encouraging to remember your conversion. Remember how someone shared the gospel with you. Remember how the Spirit drew your heart to that truth and how beautiful the gospel was. Remember how God changed your life. God has done a precious miracle in the heart of every true believer.

These memories are so valuable when Satan tempts your heart. You don’t need sin. You have something far better. And you don’t have to obey sin because you have a new and far better master. Remember what God has done. Remember who you are in Christ. 2nd, v. 22 reminds us of…

The Fruit of Holiness: At conversion, God changed everything. As a result, Paul adds that right now, “You derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification.” The idea is literally, “You are bearing fruit, fruit that leads to sanctification (or practical holiness).”

This statement is in contrast to what v. 21 said about vanity of the unbeliever. Sin doesn’t produce any fruit of real value. It’s all vain, fading, and disappointing. But not so with holiness. “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness;for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim 4:7–8).

We’ll get to the eternal value, but for now, notice that godliness is profitable today. A godly life makes a genuine impact on other people. We could tell stories forever about how we have been blessed by the practical godliness of other saints. But the room would be crickets if we tried to do the same with sin. Godliness blesses others.

It also blesses us. People who are truly disciplining themselves to godliness enjoy the fruit of the Spirit. They have joy, they enjoy peaceful relationships, and they are content in Christ. Yes, they still have burdens and sorrows because we live in a sin-cursed world. But godliness is profitable for the present life.

We must remember that when the world, the flesh, and the devil are pushing their cheap imitations on us. Godliness is profitable, so discipline yourself to godliness. But of course, the blessings we enjoy today are just a foretaste of what is to come. Our ultimate hope is…

The Joy of Eternity: Paul assures us, “the outcome (is) eternal life.” Of course, eternity with Christ will unimaginably exceed any fading pleasure of sin. “For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor 4:17–18).

God has promised us “an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison.” So, why should you “present your members as slaves of to righteousness”? Why should you prioritize the spiritual disciplines? Why should you wake up each morning determined to do battle with sin and to press toward the mark? The simple answer is that the eternal glory of Christ will be worth it all. That weight of glory will be so great, that everything you left behind will seem to be “light affliction.”

Christian, don’t lose heart. “Press on so that (you) may lay hold of that for which also (you) were laid hold of by Christ Jesus (Phil 4:12). You will not regret it. Fight sin, obey God’s Word, pray, and meditate on truth. And most importantly, “consider yourself to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” You can do this! Finally, v. 23 drives home the appeal by emphasizing…

III.  The Promise of Heaven (v. 23)

We use this verse often when we share the gospel with unbelievers, and rightfully so. In a few succinct words, it drives home the stark reality that everyone of us is faced with…

Two Radically Different Destinies: Every person will ultimately face either eternal death in hell or eternal life with Christ in heaven. There is no 3rd You will either be in heaven or hell for all eternity. You can drown yourself in distractions, but it doesn’t change reality. Eternity awaits us all.

And the difference between heaven and hell couldn’t be more drastic. Jesus describes hell as eternal torment while heaven will be absolute bliss. Maybe you know that you need to receive Christ but something is holding you back—fear, relationships, a sin that you love, or loyalty to another church. I don’t doubt that the cost may feel high, but I am sure that it is not worth sacrificing your soul. As hard as it may be, please face reality and choose heaven. You won’t regret it. But in order to make this choice, you must also understand that there are…

Two Radically Different Causes: Paul reflects this drastic difference by contrasting “wages” and a “free gift.” We tend to view hell as unfair, but God says that everyone who will be there will have earned their place by their sinful deeds. If you are a sinner, you have earned a ticket to hell.

I know that’s hard to hear, but that’s what God says. You have sinned against your sovereign lord. If you are not saved, every day of your life is an act of rebellion against his sovereignty. You have earned hell.

But please don’t miss the fact that the solution is not to instead earn a place in heaven because it is impossible. You can never do enough good to make yourself acceptable to God. Our only hope of salvation is “the free gift of God…in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus provided that gift when he died on the cross and rose again. He paid your wages so that you don’t have to. Therefore, please receive the gift of salvation in Christ. Acknowledge Jesus as the only Lord and Savior. Repent of your rebellion against him, and believe on Jesus. If you do, you can leave today with a radically new and wonderful destiny. Please be saved today.

And if you are saved, don’t miss the fact that v. 23 was originally addressed to Christians as a final summary of Paul’s argument for the superiority of slavery to God. Slavery to sin ends in hell. But God generously saves all who are in Christ, and we can look forward to eternity in glory.

“Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be.” The joy of heaven is better than any pleasure of sin.

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