Romans 6:20-21, “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.”
As we look at all religions besides biblical Christianity, we find many differences between them in their conceptions of God and the nature of salvation. Yet, we find an essential agreement between these religions on the means to salvation. Put simply, all other religions teach a form of personal works-righteousness. Whether final salvation is nirvana, heaven, or another blessed state, these religions concur that redemption depends on our good works. Good deeds—done with the help of God or another higher power—are the means to salvation.
This commonality reflects the fundamental creational reality known as the covenant of works made with Adam and his posterity in the garden. God promised in this covenant to give Adam and his descendants unfettered access to the tree of life if Adam did not eat the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2). In Romans 5:12–21, Paul says the obedience of the last Adam—Jesus—gives us eternal life. If the last Adam’s obedience grants us eternal life, the first Adam’s obedience would have done the same had he not fallen. That people seek to be saved by their good works reflects a basic awareness of this covenant of works in Adam.
The problem is that since the fall, no sinner can keep the covenant of works with the absolute perfection God requires (3:23; 8:8; see Matt. 5:48). Thus, the Lord instituted the covenant of grace, in which we are saved by Christ’s works alone (Rom. 5:12–21). It is a sin for us to try to justify ourselves by our works, for the Lord has said we cannot meet His standard and that He saves us by grace alone (11:6). To reject this word by trying to make ourselves right with God on our own or even with God’s “help” is to reject the Lord who spoke it.
If we try to fulfill the covenant of works ourselves and do not hope in Christ and His merit alone, we end up in bondage to sin. We come under the law’s condemnation and our wickedness is increased (Rom. 7:8). Thus, we are “free in regard to righteousness”—we cannot please God in any way because we do not submit to Him as our master. Sin is our master, and Jesus said we can serve only one master (Luke 16:13). The only thing we earn if we trust in our own works for our justification is death. People may popularly believe that one is only free if one is not in submission to Christ, but then one is really enslaved to death. John Calvin comments that this “liberty of the flesh, which so frees us from obedience to God … makes us slaves to the devil. Wretched then and accursed is this liberty, which with unbridled or rather mad frenzy, leads us exultingly to our destruction.”
If there is anything we learn from today’s passage and the whole of Romans 6:15–23, it is that Scripture knows nothing of an autonomous existence in which we have no master to serve. We are made to be servants, and we will serve either the master of sin or the master of righteousness—God Himself. We cannot serve the master of righteousness apart from God’s grace, and if He has bought us with the blood of Christ, we will—imperfectly but truly—serve Him.