How often did a parent or some other authority figure use the line in today’s title to discourage you from doing something which was at best questionable, but largely because of things it might lead to which are beyond question? And did we ever truly outgrow the need to be reminded? Consider Romans 6:12-23 (only a portion of which is printed here):
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But 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, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
The idea of prohibiting one action because of others which are all too likely to follow is certainly not a new one. That idea seems to form the basis for much of the Old Testament Law, and even more to the tradition of building other laws as “hedges” around the laws. Prohibitions against things which are not bad in themselves serve to protect people from situations in which the opportunity to do that which is truly sinful arises. Over time, the distinction between the hedge and the purpose of the hedge tends to become blurred, so that the hedge itself becomes a new law and requires hedges of its own.
Some of us can remember such hedges from our youth in conservative churches. One did not go to dances. Why? Was dancing itself an evil thing? That would be hard to reconcile with Scripture, as well as with the nearly universal phenomenon of dancing as an expression of culture, even a means of telling culture’s story. But it was prohibited because of the temptations toward sexual impurity which might be incited by the close contact of boy-girl during those dangerous teen years. Undoubtedly, there is some wisdom there; but when the hedge became an unwritten law, even dancing between married couples was thought to be a violation. Freedom from that sort of law is surely a thing.
But the principle of one thing leading to another does hold. And Paul writes about it in the text for today, noting that when we “present ourselves” to sin and lawlessness the result is further erosion of the soul as it falls into a downward cycle or spiral. It’s a graphic phrase he uses. It’s not “just” a body that commits sin, it’s a self, which is “presented” to its commission. And it is a relentless taskmaster, taking more and more of the self along with each trip around the spiral.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the same principle can work for righteousness and character development. If we can become slaves of sin, we can also become slaves of righteousness once faith has been placed in Christ. But it is not automatic; we do not take on a transformed character immediately, but by presenting ourselves for this very purpose. We are sometimes so fearful of a pre-Reformation works righteousness that we do not present ourselves to do the things which are righteous, which are what bring about our continuing growth in sanctification. Today’s encouragement is two-fold: to identify those presentations of ourselves to sin which still hang on; and to develop a new habit of presenting ourselves to righteousness, so that one good thing will indeed lead to another, concluding in our being found in the likeness of Christ.