When in Romans
"When in Rome do as the Romans do," is such a popular saying that it's often abbreviated as, "When in Rome..," indicating the listener is to finish the sentence. How do you think you would live if you lived in Rome? Ancient Rome is often compared to modern America, but you would find big differences between living in the "land of the free and the home of the brave" and living in the land of the slave and the home of the pagan. We would appreciate America more if we could live in Rome for a time. We couldn't live there the same way we do here.
The first thing we would notice is the class lines. Only some are educated; only some have money; only some have property; only some have freedom. In America there are some class lines. The difference is that in America you can cross them; theoretically all have that opportunity. The second thing you would note is religious freedom. Rome had as many religions as modern America. The difference is that in Rome, Christianity was illegal for it’s first 300 years. We wouldn't have a building with a sign out front. We wouldn't be free to publicly teach. We would be subject to jail, torture, and death if we tried.
Aren't you thankful then that you live in 21st century America rather than in 1st century Rome? So, isn't it fitting that as our country celebrates her independence today we give thanks for her? Typically, pastors go to Romans for a sermon. Some of you noticed the sermon's title is not "When in Rome..." but "When in Romans." Usually that means going to Rom. 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…Those that exist have been established by God.” But in a time when some Christians fear they are facing the condition Augustine warned about, Rom. 6 is called for. Augustine said, “For, as far as this life of mortals is concerned,.., what does it matter under whose government a dying man lives, if they who govern do not force him to impiety and iniquity?” (City of God, V, 17, 98). However, before you conclude that’s where you are, read Rom. 6:1-11:
What shall we say then? Shall we keep on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 Absolutely not! We died to sin. How can we go on living in it any longer? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him by this baptism into his death, so that just as he was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too would also walk in a new life. 5 For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united with him in the likeness of his resurrection.6 We know that our old self was crucified with him, to make our sinful body powerless, so that we would not continue to serve sin. 7 For the person who has died has been declared free from sin. 8 And since we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he will never die again. Death no longer has control over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way also consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Here Paul warns of 2 ways of perverting Christianity. The first is making it liberty to sin. Christianity does teach that where there is more sin there is more grace; that Christ came to save sinners not holy people; that Christ is for the sick not the healthy. People pervert this to mean that sins don't matter. You can make idols of money, people, and things in your heart and it's okay. You can live in adultery, lust, or fornication, and not be afraid. You can disobey parents, not listen to the Word of God, and steal and what's to worry? Jesus kept the Law and forgave you’re breaking it.
What? In America can you continue to live as you did in Rome? Not hardly. You're in a completely different state. You’re in Romans. In Romans, Paul says we died to sin, how can we live in it any longer? In Romans, Paul speaks from Baptism to those standing in their baptismal waters. Those in Baptism have been buried with Christ. “We who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” If a slave in 1st century Rome, were placed in 21st century America, he wouldn't be a slave here would he? It would it be a shame if he still lived like one: as the property of another; as bound to do what another commanded. In Romans we are told Baptism frees us from slaving to sin. We're not bound to do what it commands.
Thinking Christianity is license to sin perverts Christianity. Thinking it means a life sentence to remain under the Law, does too. The opposite of thinking Christianity means remaining alive to sin is thinking it means remaining alive to the Law. And this is where many of you are. Being a Christian means having a conscience that measures your life by how well you keep the Law. You put checks against yourself when you fail to measure up, and you put stars when you make the grade. Your life is one of constant checking and starring.
Don't you see that is living like a slave, living as a 1st century slave of Rome in 21st century America? You are free here. You aren’t beholding to anyone, yet you daily live asking, "Have I done everything that was required of me? Your body is free because it is no longer in Rome but America. However, your conscience is still back in Rome. And you won’t be able to deal with conscience issues involving government accurately, faithfully till you cease to live as Paul says the pagans do: their consciences sometimes accusing them and sometimes excusing them (2:14-15).
They are in Romans but not living in it. The Law of slavery, of death, of sin, torments them even though by Baptism they have died to all of that. They don't live with free and peaceful hearts, but with hearts that are constantly burdened by what they do or don't do. They think that being a Christian means living with a perpetually guilty conscience as if Christ wouldn't want them too happy, too peaceful, too sure of their salvation. Is that you? Do you secretly think you can be too sure of being saved? That you must keep in your heart a little question mark, a little doubt? Because if you're too sure, too certain, you'll end up at the opposite error: thinking being a Christian means being free to sin. That’s Satan’s way. He uses sin to invalidate or at least truncate God’s grace: because people do live in sin everyone must live under the Law; because people do abuse the grace of God better not use it; because the Gospel is used as a cloak for sin better not let it cover yours!
Baptized Christians live in Romans not Exodus, under the Gospel not under the Law, in America not Rome! When Paul proclaims, "We died to sin; our body of sin is done away with" he is saying that we died to the Law. If you don't believe me, read Rom. 7:4; "You also were made to die to the Law through the Body of Christ." And Gal. 2:19, "I died to the Law." Do you see? The way to be free of sin is not to die to sin. Do you know why? Because you can't in this life, and you’ll be in misery till you realize this, constantly beating yourself up because you can still find sin in you. You'll be open to trying anything to root sin out of you like the man in this true story: He came to his pastor from attending a church where they claimed to deliver from demons. He declared he had been freed from the demon of lust forever! The pastor replied, "Well then on your way home I hope you don't see any billboards, and when you get home I hope you don't turn on the TV or read any magazines." The pastor knew the truth: lust, greed, unbelief, doubt, pride and all manner of sins are active in us till the day we die.
Some Christians think the way to deal with this is to live under the Law. But Paul specifically says in Rom. 5:20 that the Law was added in order that sins may abound. The more your conscience preaches, "You shalt not lust,” the more lust burns. The more your conscience says, "You must stop this or that;” the more your flesh will crave it. Those of you who diet know this. Nothing like a diet to increase your appetite. Neither living under the Law or trying to die to sin is the answer. Dying to the Law is. Why? Because sin remains in your mortal body until you're delivered by death. But where there is no Law, sin loses it's power. I didn't make this up. This is what God says in I Cor. 15:56, "The power of sin is the Law." Where there is no Law sin has no power. When Paul says we are to count ourselves dead to sin, the only way we can do that is to count ourselves dead to the Law, so the Law no longer rules our consciences.
Back to the "when in Rome" illustration. By Baptism we've been transported from slavery to sin in 1st century Rome to freedom in Christ in 21st century America. As we go about our lives, we’ll be tempted to think like slaves. But in our new state, America, there are no slave laws. Though we have the tendency to cower because we think the lash is coming, no one hits us. Though we think that we can't go here or there, no one stops us. The more we walk about in our new country, the less we'll act like slaves. The more we remember we're as good as dead to the Law of 1st century Rome because we live in 21st century America the more we’ll enjoy our freedom. That's living in Romans!
Paul says, "We've been baptized into death, so that just as Christ has been raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also in new life we might walk around." Paul is not saying now that you're baptized get out there and live differently. No, Paul states a fact: in Baptism not only did you die to the Law but you've been raised to walk around in a new life. In your Baptism, you've been freed from slavery to sin by dying to the Law, so you walk about in new life just like Christ did. That’s what Paul says: “We’ve been buried with Christ through Baptism, so just as Christ was raised from the dead so too we may walk about in a new life.” Did Christ walk around wondering if He pleased God enough? Neither do you. Did Christ walk about worried if He was saved? Neither do you. Did Christ walk about as a slave under countless laws? Neither do you. You live in a new state called Baptism where the old slavery doesn't exist anymore.
It's fitting to remember Rom. 13 on our nation’s birthday. But if you’re wondering if being a Christian in America today might be a problem for your conscience, Romans 6 is where to start. There you walk about free from sin's guilt and power because you’ve died to the Law through Baptism. That's what Romans tells us. And when in Romans... Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
20210704; Romans 6:1-11