When I studied biology, I learned that a “good” parasite never kills its host. No; it keeps them alive, slowly draining their energy over a long period of time, sometimes years.
Sometimes sin is like this. Selfish behavior can go overlooked because, well, “it’s not that bad.” It’s only later that we realize that we’ve spent years feeding our selfish egos and our sinful hearts not all at once, but by degrees over a lifetime of small compromises.
THE DANGER OF “CHEAP GRACE”
Paul continues in his letter by repeating at least some of the themes he’d introduced just a few paragraphs ago:
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 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 6:15-16)
Right off the bat, Paul emphasizes that there are two and only two ways to live: either as slaves to sin, or slaves to obedience. It’s just like what Bob Dylan wrote: “you gotta serve somebody.” Everybody’s ruled by something.
As Christians it may be tempting to think of your faith in terms of “getting saved” and then “going to Heaven when you die.” That’s all well and good, but it leaves you without purpose in the meantime. For many, faith becomes little more than “fire insurance,” rescuing you from the flames of Hell, but requiring nothing from you in the day-to-day trenches of life.
In the last century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled this way of thinking “cheap grace:”
“Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system…no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin…Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p 44-45)
Let’s not get confused, here. The alternative to this kind of “cheap grace” isn’t to buckle down and work harder. This only pushes us from the error of self-indulgence into the error of self-righteousness. No, what we need is to re-align our allegiances, to remember that we are members of Christ’s kingdom, and therefore align our lives to His character.
WHICH WAY IS YOUR HEART SLANTED?
Paul develops this further, emphasizing the world of contrast between man’s earthly empires and God’s eternal kingdom:
17 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, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 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. 22 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. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:17-23)
Paul is saying there are two—and only two—outcomes in life: you live as a slave to sin and receive the death you deserve, or you devote yourself to Jesus and receive the life you don’t deserve. And notice—in the case of sin, the consequences are “wages;” in the case of Christ, life is a “gift.” This forms the basis for what Paul is saying. In Christ, we already have what we need—eternal life. What more could there be to focus on? To turn back to sin would be to return to the very things that bring only death. Why would we ever want to go there?
And the answer, practically speaking, is that we don’t. Or at least we convince ourselves that we never do. We think of “sin” in binary terms: you’re either sinning or you’re not, and as long as you stay on the “good” side of the line, you’re golden.
There’s nothing particularly inaccurate about this way of thinking, but perhaps we should think of it with a different word picture. Picture your heart as a set of scales—or better yet, more like a see-saw where weight on one side causes the whole thing to tip in one direction. On one side, we have “love for self.” On the other side of the scale, we have “love for God and neighbor.”
Now, which way is your heart slanted?
Apart from Christ, our hearts are inclined only toward “love for self.” But the gospel enables our hearts to tilt away from self and toward “love for God and neighbor.” That’s what repentance is really all about, re-orienting our hearts away from self and toward God.
It’s easy to see how grievous sins could tilt our hearts away from God and back toward self. Stealing, lying, lust—you know the list; these are all obvious ways that we could, once again, become slaves to sin.
But what about our small habits? What about the things we do unconsciously?
- When we screen our calls, or when we interact with people only through text messaging, is it possible that we’re unconsciously tilting our hearts away from love and toward the idolatry of convenience?
- Is it possible that we look to our career for our sense of worth and significance, rather than what God has done for us?
- If you’re a new parent, you may be tempted to roll over when you hear the baby crying at 2AM. Does this not slant your heart away from your marriage and toward your own interests?
- Might your entertainment choices slant your heart further from God and toward the things of this world?
If we view sin this way, we might realize that our hearts are tipping further from God and toward self-interest. On the one hand, that’s part of being human. On the other hand, God sets us free from those idols that our hearts might be re-directed toward Him.
Is your heart slanted toward yourself? We’ve all been there. But even a few small choices today could lead to living in the fullness of the gospel.