20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
21 What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.
22 But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I wonder sometimes how much I have changed since coming to Christ. Have I been transformed? Am I truly a new creation? (2 Corinthians 5:17) How much of my old self has carried over? I know that I still struggle daily with some of the old sins, but I can see that in many ways, the things of old no longer interest me. My personality is still the same, but I know that many of my priorities have shifted. I am still transforming as I seek God more every day.
In today’s verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans, the apostle asks a very pointed question about the measure of who we were: “What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?” (v.21) It is the cornerstone of his explanation of breaking free from slavery to sin and becoming a slave to righteousness. That question is a moment for us to pause, a “Selah” in the midst of our reading, a time to reflect on who we were and who we are.
Paul is asking a very pointed question about where our priorities are now. Oh, it may seem like he’s asking about the past, but please note that he mentions “the things of which you are NOW ashamed.” When we repent of our past sins, our minds ought to be transformed so that we hate the sinful things we used to love. That is part of the transformation. But do we truly find ALL of those things shameful? Do we truly look back in disgust at who we once were? I’m not saying we ought to be filled with self-loathing, but Paul is reminding us that in our new state as slaves of righteousness, we ought to look back and feel some guilt, some shame for what we once did.
Paul’s question is about what “fruit” we produced in those old days. If the fruit of knowing and living in the Spirit is love–followed by joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)–then what is the fruit of sin? As Paul implies, sin is barren, fruitless. Sin is dead and it leads to death. There’s a great contrast here: Love versus death, eternal life versus barren mortal living. And the question is simply “What fruit did we produce in our sin?”
It’s strange to think of slavery being fruitful, and yet that is exactly what Paul is trying to point out. Slavery to God produces fruit “to holiness” (or “unto sanctification”) because God is the holy source of all life, His very breath given to Adam to quicken his clay form into life. But slavery to sin is self-serving and useless, barren of the spiritual fruit we ought to be producing for God’s kingdom.
In a way, we could almost turn this question around: What fruit do we have NOW in the things of which we are NOT ashamed? For that matter, we ought to be asking ourselves if there are still things in our life that are unfruitful, things of which we OUGHT to be ashamed and yet we aren’t. Are there lurking sins in our lives, things that we consciously or unconsciously hold onto without thought for their fruitfulness? If there are such things, we need to jettison them, boot them out of our lives. “For the end of those things is death.”
Do slaves ever get paid? Sometimes they might be ransomed out of slavery, or they might get a reward from a kind master for work well done, but generally slavery receives no wage. Of course, slavery to sin is equally unproductive for the slave. In sin, we work for our master–Satan–and never break free of our bonds to truly gain anything for ourselves. And that is the sad irony of sin: In sin, we think we are serving ourselves and our pleasures when actually we are serving the devil, and in the end we have gained nothing in our sin, produced no fruit, no wage other than death.
But slavery to God is different, for God seeks simple obedience, and His discipline (such as it is) is not used to keep us in line but to teach us and help us grow in righteousness. (1 Corinthians 11:32) And rather than simply slaving away at useless pursuits, serving ourselves and knowing temporary pleasures that never truly fulfill, slavery to God brings us in line with His will and His Spirit. In such slavery to righteousness, we know true love, true joy, true peace, and all the fruit of the Spirit. And not only that, we are treated as members of God’s family, adopted through His Son and His Spirit (Romans 8:16-17), receiving an inheritance we never deserved yet always desired: life eternal.
15 “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil,
16 “in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the LORD your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess.”
And that is the fruit we have today for the things of which we are not ashamed: eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. So either we hang onto unfruitful living in sin and unrighteousness, living in rebellion against the clear and holy Word of God, or we turn our lives completely over to God, allowing Him to reign over us body, heart, and soul, so that we can know the free gift of His grace. Choose life.
Father God, I know that I have been unfruitful, that my past life was self-serving and rebellious. Help me to repent, O Lord, so that I may be fruitful for You and for Your kingdom. Your grace and mercy overflow to me, Father, and I accept them in faith. Praise be to Your holy name! Amen.