In the 6th chapter of the letter to the Romans, St. Paul teaches that through complete surrender to Christ, the Christian becomes a second Christ. By undergoing sacrifice with and through Christ, sinners lose themselves only to become like Christ and more like themselves through him. This mystery reveals itself in three paradoxes in the text. First, slavery to God leads to true freedom from the real slavery of sin. Next, death with Christ leads to life with Christ that never ends. Finally, the created receives the wages of a son; the slave receives the same as God, the uncreated master. All of this can be expressed in the parable of the seed that falls to the ground only to yield fruit. By letting go, we become fully ourselves.
Escaping the Slavery of Sin
St. Paul wants to teach his readers how to escape slavery. Paradoxically, the path to freedom lies in slavery. Rejecting one type of slavery, the Romans have gladly embraced another: “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, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (6:17-18). St Paul likely uses the expression “obedient from the heart” to reveal several aspects of this obedience. First, the transformation has come from the inside out and is genuine. Likewise, while the slavery to sin may have gone against human nature, this new slavery comes from the heart and aligns with whom we are as humans. Finally, the action of grace in the heart goes beyond human control.
This last point needs explanation. After yielding to sin or righteousness, humans find themselves carried away by the action of one or the other. For this reason, St Paul commends the Romans for escaping the sway of the body and of sin which is so powerful. “For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (6:19-20). The phrases “greater and greater iniquity” implies the slippery slope of sin leads to greater and greater enmeshment and less and less true freedom to do what is right. While grace can also overpower, it never violates our freedom or traps us in addiction in the way that sin does.
Death to Self and Sin
Slavery to God brings us the liberation needed, but only by dying to sin. It is by daily dying to the sinful impulses of the body that the death of sin is overcome—death puts to death death. However, true slavery implies death. The phrase “slaves of righteousness” is harsh for a reason; slaves have no say over their lives. The Romans should have no say either if they want to enjoy the fruits of the resurrection. The will must be destroyed—utterly put to death with all its sinful wiles. Thus, death brings us into life and is the only path to Christ. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin” (6:5-8). St Paul writes to an audience that seems eager to enjoy the fruits of the resurrection without realizing that dryness, doubt, and suffering lead to these fruits. Baptism brings us new life but only through death: “Do you not know that all of us have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (6:3). The “old self” is the dying self, trapped in sin and unable to see beyond its own self-interest. Destroying this “old self” leads to life but requires going through a “death like his” and being obedient to the heavy burden of the cross. Death flies in the face of all that appears healthy and human, but Christ has made it the path to life.
The Wages of Righteousness and Sin
God treats his creatures—his slaves—as sons by paying them with the wages which Christ Himself received. The suffering and slavery experienced on this earth in no way merit the reward God bestows. The goal of death and suffering with Christ is to become Christ like, a conversion that we could never achieve alone. To St. Paul, the experience of life on this earth is not a true experience of life. True life exists in Christ for the sinner becomes “alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11). Sinners take on a new existence through Christ, and in this existence in Christ, they find themselves at last. The creature has no right to demand this reward from God its maker for doing his will. The gift of eternal life comes freely to us. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23). The word free has two important implications. First, the gift is free since no one can boast that they merit it—although our good deeds help us access them. Second, the gift is free in the sense of inherited. In this way, sin is also free for the wages of sin prove free in the sense that we are born into them. The damage of sin can only be erased by God’s life which is both a gift and a reward just as the death of sin is both merited and inherited from Adam. Just as our dying body is connected to Adam, our living body is connected to Christ’s.
Conversion into Christ
This chapter of Romans describes a conversion experience. The paradoxes in St Paul might be summarized by saying that Christ demands a complete emptying of the self in order to be reborn again in a total conversion. The Christian life demands the human version of kenosis that Christ went through to attain his glory. Human beings are apt to seek after their lives. They pursue fame and possessions because they think that thus can they become great. Greatness in Romans lies in becoming nothing, even less than nothing in the eyes of the world. Only thus can we become sons of God. Conversion in this sense is total because it takes us completely out of ourselves. We are converted into Christ.