One of the things Paul was criticized for by others was that by proclaiming the Gospel of grace so boldly, he encouraged people to sin. So, he asks, as he does in more than one place- "Shall we sin because we are not under the law but grace?" He answers the rhetorical question emphatically: "Certainly not!" Picking up on what I read about yesterday earlier in this chapter, the apostle goes on to point out, mining a vein of the Lord's teaching (Matt. 6:24 and Luke 16:13), that we are the "slaves" of what we obey, to that to which we adhere (v. 16). So, we are either "slaves" (doulos) "of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness" (v. 16).
Paul thanks God that though the Christians in Rome "were slaves of sin" they "obeyed from the heart" the Gospel they were taught, humbly submitting themselves to God by observing the apostolic teaching they received (v. 17). As a result of their submission they were "set free from sin" and "became slaves of righteousness" (v. 18). As I am focusing on the need we have to bring our bodies into conformity with Christ, what Paul writes next is of crucial importance: "just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so you now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness" (v. 19).
Like the ancient Christians of Rome, "when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness" (v. 20). What does this mean? Well, it means something like we are all free in the sense we can choose how we live, how to face whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves. Freedom is certainly one of the inviolable aspects of the human person. The Gospel does not ever seek to rob us of our freedom, but to complete it, to bring us to the full realization of what it means to be free. So, if in our freedom we choose sin, we become enslaved to sin and, as a result, alienated from righteousness. Being slaves to sin, as Paul goes to great pains to demonstrate, not just by his words, but with his whole life, which was so fraught with trials for the sake of the Gospel, is no freedom at all. It is not even slavery. It is death. Authentic freedom, as John Paul II taught tirelessly over the 26 years of his pontificate, is tethered to truth and realized in virtue. Virtue, in turn, is acquired through our free cooperation with God's grace, which in Latin, we call habitus, or, closer to home, habit.
How do you become more patient? By practicing patience in circumstances that cause you to be impatient, something in which prayer plays an important part. How do you become more chaste? By practicing chastity, etc. This brings me back to the point about the necessity of mortification, of deliberately denying myself even things that in themselves are not bad.
Yesterday, the second day of my annual six week preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord, in the mid-afternoon, a group of people returned to the office from lunch. They had gone to a popular wings and barbecue joint, a place that I frankly love. They plopped down on the desk next to mine a big takeaway box full of wings, still hot and smelling delicious. They invited everyone to dig in. I have no problem admitting that I really wanted one and that this desire was in no way a bad desire. Beyond that, it was a lovely act of generosity on the part of my co-workers. I thought not just about what I am doing, but why I am doing what I am doing. I said consciously to myself, "I can have a wing or two. I am free to do so, but I choose not to, not because it is bad or would be in any way sinful for me eat one or two, but because it would interfere with my effort to open myself more to God's grace through this time-proven method."
Chapter six of Romans concludes with his well-known verse: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v.23). For me at least, this is the only end worth pursuing. It is the best gift of all.