Romans 6:15-23

Sanctification is a big word.

What I mean by big word is that we use and it is not clear what we mean, but it sounds good and hopefully using such a word makes us sound intelligent.

However, sanctification names the process by which we are set apart to and for God. Romans 6 through Romans 8 deal with the subject of sanctification, and I pray that by the time we finish studying these chapters, sanctification will be something that we not only understand, but also joyfully participate in with God our Savior.

In Romans 6:1-14, we began our look into sanctification by learning that we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. A dictionary definition of sanctification is “set apart for particular use in a special purpose or work and to make holy or sacred."[1] The word sanctification has its origins in the Latin word for “sacred,” which is another way of saying “holy.” Our death to sin is the starting point of our sanctification. We are being made holy. We are separated from sin and set apart to/for God.

Romans 6:19 ends with the phrase “leading to sanctification.” The Greek word translated “sanctification” is the word “ἁγιασμόν” (hagiasmon), which is a form of the Greek word for “holy.” To be sanctified is to be holy, and to be holy is to be set apart.

The use of such big words and lengthy explanations can suck the life and energy out of an otherwise exciting and practical subject. In Romans 6:15-23, we will see sanctification explained in a practical way that has meaning for our everyday lives. Romans 6:15-23 shows us that we must choose whom we will serve. The preceding verses show us that we are separated from our sin and that sin no longer has dominion over us. However, we still have a choice to make. Therefore, verse 15 starts out with a question:
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? (ESV)

This question is answered in verses 15 through 23. These verses explain sanctification in three different terms. These terms are:

1.       Slavery
2.       Freedom
3.       Wages

We will look at each term as it appears in the text and will find each term drives us back to the fact that we have a choice to make.

The discussion starts with the fact that we are not under law but under grace. This fact is stated in both verse 14 and verse 15 of Romans 6.
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! (Romans 6:14-15 ESV)

Having been justified by faith and given access by faith into this grace in which we now stand, our sins are no longer held against us. This is described as “being under grace.” All our sins, past, present and future, have been covered by the blood of Christ, and we stand justified before God. Therefore, naturally, we can do whatever we want because we are already forgiven. This is where the question comes in, “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” The answer is no, “By no means!”

Thus begins the explanation of sanctification, and the explanation begins in terms of slavery. The text immediately asks a question:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? (Romans 6:16, ESV)

The question “Do you not know...” implies an expectation that this should be common knowledge. In this case, the common knowledge is along the lines of the physical impossibility of being in two places at once. You either give yourself to sin or you give yourself to righteousness, but you cannot do both. It is a definite either/or situation. Either we are slaves to righteousness or we are slaves to sin. Jesus put it in the terms that no man can serve two masters. In this case, we are said to be slaves of the one whom we obey. Notice also that the text says whom. We can take this one of two ways. Either sin is personified, or there is a personality behind sin. We know that the one behind sin is called the prince and the power of the air. While we cannot use the excuse “the devil made me do it,” if we choose to obey sin, we end up doing the devil’s will or his work.

When we speak of sanctification, we are not talking about salvation. We are talking about those who have been justified by faith. However, we must still make a choice. We must choose which we will obey, and therefore which we will be slaves of. Either we obey sin or we obey righteousness. 

Before we were saved, we had no choice. We were born into slavery to sin, and could not break free. This is where the text takes us to next. It explains sanctification in terms of freedom. Verses 17-18 say:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:17-18 ESV)

The first part of this passage makes it plain that we were all once slaves of sin. We all once walked according to the dictates of the flesh. This is the definition of slavery. We had no choice. We were separated from God, prisoners of sin and under the power of the prince and power of the air. However, according to this passage we have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which we were committed. Of course, this is speaking of the gospel that Jesus was crucified for our sins and rose again for our justification. We enjoy salvation by believing in His name. It is by this that Romans 6:18 refers to us as having been set free from sin. It is only by being set free from sin that we can become slaves of righteousness.

We are not saved by our sanctification. We are saved and thus become free to be sanctified. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can choose righteousness. Ephesians 5:1 encourages us to be imitators of God as beloved children, and this is what we are. We are God’s beloved children, and with His Holy Spirit living inside us we can walk in love just as Christ loved us. This is what it means to be sanctified. We are set apart as children of God and set free to live in imitation of Him.

In verse 19, Romans 6 makes it clear that it is speaking in human terms, because of our natural human limitations. Verse 3 of Romans 6 asks a “Do you not know” question and assumes there is knowledge common to all people who have believed the gospel. This knowledge common to all who have believed the gospel is our union with Christ. Our union with Christ should make the idea of continuing in sin seem ludicrous. Now, in verses 15 through 19, our knowledge of freedom and slavery should make the idea of continuing in sin seem ludicrous. This is not a deep spiritual truth. These are the simple physical facts of the situation. We are slaves to the one we obey. In light of this truth, Romans 6:19 pleads with us to make the choice of obedience to righteousness, which leads to sanctification.

After presenting the truths of slavery and freedom, the text next explains sanctification in terms of wages. Verses 20-21 say:
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. (Romans 6:20-21 ESV)

In these verses, the term “wages” is not used. Wages is used in verse 23 in the conclusion. Verse 21 asks the question, “What fruit were you getting?” Verse 21 also makes it clear that the end of those things is death.

Being free in regard to righteousness is not a good thing. The fruit of sin is ultimately death, but that is not its only fruit. Consider all the heartache, pain and suffering in the world, and realize that it all comes as the fruit of unrighteousness. Horrific, horrific, horrific crimes are committed each day because people are free in regard to righteousness. We think we are okay because we are horrified by the evil in the world, but we harbor malice and envy in our hearts, which are the roots from which these evils in our world come. We are horrified at sex trafficking but for our own gratification, we will step outside the boundaries God has put on sex. It does not take a spiritual genius to see the hypocrisy in this. However, what is strange is that we all seem to be blind to the fruit of our slavery to sin. That thing that everybody is doing has become acceptable. Even though we know it is wrong, do we realize that the end of it is death? We run around busily trying to establish social justice but ignore the elephant in the room, which is our sin. We have chosen to present ourselves in obedience to sin. We see the fruit all around us.

Thank God that we have been set free from sin. Having been set free, the assumption of Romans 6:22 is that we have become slaves of God.
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Romans 6:22 ESV)

Just as our slavery to sin bore fruit to death, our slavery to God bears fruit to life. It bears fruit in the lives of those around us as we share the gospel, demonstrate His love and reach out to the lost. Jesus said He came to seek and save the lost, and we are here as His hands and feet to do His work. Our slavery, or sanctification, expresses itself according to our individual gifting. Some have the gift of helps and are good at supporting, encouraging and helping others. They get loads of physical work done. Some have the gift of mercy and are empathetic and can spot and feel the pain of another from across a crowded room. They are good at supporting and encouraging us emotionally and spiritually. They bind up the brokenhearted. Some have the gift of administration. These people keep us organized and help us get things done. The fruit of all these things is life giving as long as they are done in obedience to the Lord.

The practical work of sanctification is expressed in terms of wages as Romans 6:23 gives the conclusion:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 ESV)

There is no benefit in slavery to sin and it only leads to death. In contrast to this, God gives eternal life. Eternal means never ending, and in addition, it means a new quality of life that Jesus termed “abundant life.”

We have been set free, and yet we should fear lest we fail to enter into the riches of the eternal life that God gives so freely. Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to lay aside the sin that so easily besets us. 1 John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (ESV) Having been justified by faith, let us move forward into our sanctification, trusting Him who has begun a good work in us to carry it through to completion.
Let’s close with a verse from Romans 6 that comes before our text for today:
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Romans 6:13, ESV)

[1], accessed June 8, 2018.


  1. Nicely done. Studied Romans in Bible Study Fellowship this year for the 2nd time. It is a challenging book, worth coming back to repeatedly.


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