Coming on the heels of Paul's discussion of baptism in Romans 6:1-11, our passage for the Second Sunday after Pentecost serves as a corrective to a potential misunderstanding.
Verses 1-11 could be understood as pointing to full possession of all that God gives. We have been freed from sin. Does that also mean that we are perfected? No, say verses 12-23. If verses 1-11 are the already, verses 12-23 are the not yet.
Let's jump to verse 15. As is typical in the diatribe structure that Paul loves, he poses two questions--and provides his own answer! (See also 3:1-4 and 6:1-3.) To answer the questions he develops an analogy from slavery. And so, verse 16, people are either for Paul obedient slaves of sin, which leads to death, or they are obedient to God, which leads to righteousness. The word obedient is in Greek hypakoē. It is composed of the preposition under (hypo) and a noun that comes from the verb akouō, I hear. Thus to be obedient is to hear what is said and to place one's self underneath the authority of what is heard (so Jesus is the obedient one in Romans 5:19 and Philippians 2:8).
But the outcome of the obedience depends on whom or what is heard and obeyed. And so in verses 17-18 Paul rejoices that his listeners have been released from their former slavery to sin and have now "become obedient from the heart" to the message about Jesus. But, rather strangely, that shift results not in total freedom--in fact, the result is the opposite. Believers have now "become slaves of righteousness."
The situation is similar to the way professional sports used to be run. Before free agency developed, professional athletes were bound to the team that had first signed them. They were "slaves" of that team. Owners could offer contracts, not offer contracts, or trade players. Players, for their part, had few options. They could sign a contract and play, or they could retire. They were not free to move to another team nor to offer their services to the highest bidder. If people wanted to "play ball," they had to be owned by one team or another.
So for Paul (who is a slave of Christ Jesus, 1:1), there are two possible places to be: in sin or in righteousness, and there are two kinds of slavery: to sin or to righteousness (compare the two realms of Adam and Christ in 5:12-21).
Paul's language is not as abstract as it might first seem to be. In verse 19 Paul reminds the Romans that formerly they "presented" their "members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity." The word members (melē) refers to the parts of the human body and is a clear reminder of how in the past his listeners had mis-used their bodies against the will of God. But now Paul reminds them to present those same members in slavery to God's righteousness. That in turn leads to sanctification, the growth in grace and in grace-directed life that Paul envisions for those who follow Jesus.
In verses 20-23 he continues to play with freedom and slavery. In verse 20 Paul helps the Romans recall that indeed at one time they were totally free in relationship to righteousness. The double meaning of righteousness can easily be missed. The same Greek word, diakaiosynē, means both righteousness and justification. So when people are slaves of sin, they are free not only from living righteously (righteousness), they are also free from a redeemed and positive relationship with God (justification).
In verse 21 Paul poses yet another question that is a potentially important point of dialogue with people individually and as we address people in sermon: "So what did you gain by living that way?" The word for gain, the NRSV's advantage, is the well-known biblical term fruit (karpos). What has been the fruit of living in ways that now make you ashamed? Well, according to Paul, the fruit is death. The preacher may well want to consider with the congregation how many of our behaviors--both individual and collective--lead to death, even when we know they are wrong.
In verse 22 Paul interjects his beloved phrase, "but now." But now they have been freed from sin, yes, but they / we have also been "enslaved to God." The outcome of this slavery is sanctification, and "the end is eternal life."
And so, Paul concludes in verse 23, "the wages of sin is death." Paul uses a military term for wages; it refers to the soldier's daily pay (opsōnia). It could be an eye-opening exercise to think about not only the big "D" death, but also the many daily deaths in our lives and how they are the wages of sin. And over against those wages is "the free gift of God," "eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." The word free gift has buried in it the word grace (charis). God's grace is the final word, once again.
The passage reminds us that we are still vulnerable to sin and death, post-baptism. And so the issue becomes: which slavery do we want--slavery to sin that leads to death or slavery to Christ that leads to life?
But if we have to make the decision, and if we have to follow the directives in verses 12-14 to "not let sin exercise dominion" in our bodies and to "no longer present" our bodies as tools of injustice, where is the good news? The good news is that God has freed us from the realm of sin as the determinative reality of our lives (verse 22), and God has given us God's free gift of eternal life in Christ (verse 23). And that remains an ancient message that is new every day. And it remains a message that people still find hard to hear. But it remains what we are called to proclaim.