A Commentary by John Stott
Having laid down the principle that surrender leads to slavery, Paul applies it to his Roman readers, reminding them that their conversion involved an exchange of slaveries. Indeed, so complete is the change which has taken place in their lives that he breaks out into a spontaneous doxology: *Thanks be to God!* He then sums up their experience in four stages, which concern what they used to be (*slaves to sin*), what they did (*wholeheartedly obeyed*), What happened to them (*set free from sin*) and what they had become (*slaves to righteousness*).
First, *you used to be slaves to sin* (17a). Paul does not mince his words. All human beings are slaves, and there are only two slaveries, to sin and to God. Conversion is a transfer from the one to the other. Secondly, *you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted* (17b). This is a most unusual description of conversion. That they had ‘obeyed’ is understandable, since the proper response to the gospel is ‘the obedience of faith’ (1:5, RSV). But here it is not God or Christ whom they are said to have obeyed, but a certain *form* (RSV ‘standard’) *of teaching*. This must have been a ‘pattern of sound teaching, (2 Tim.1:13) or structure of apostolic instruction, which probably included both elementary gospel doctrine (e.g. 1 Cor.15:3f.) and elementary personal ethics (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:1ff.). Paul evidently sees conversion not only as trusting in Christ but as believing and acknowledging the truth (For ‘believing’ the truth see 2 Thess, 2;12f.; 1 Tim. 4:3; for ‘knowing’ or ‘acknowledging’ it see Jn.8:32; 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Tim. 2;25 and Tit. 1:11; and for ‘obeying’ he truth see Rom. 2:8; Gal.5:7 and 1 Pet. 1:22). Moreover, Paul writes not that this teaching was committed to them, but that they were committed (*entrusted*) to it. The verb he uses is *paradidomi*, which is the regular word for passing on a tradition. ‘One expects the doctrine to be handed over to the hearers,’ writes C.K.Barrett, ‘not the hearers to the doctrine. But Christians are not (like the Rabbis) masters of a tradition; they are themselves created by the word of God, and remain in subjection to it.’
Thirdly, the Romans *have been set free from sin* (18a), emancipated from its slavery. Not that they have become perfect, for they are still capable of sinning (e.g. 12-13), but rather that they have been decisively rescued out of the lordship of sin into the lordship of God, out of the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). In consequence, fourthly, they *have become slaves to righteousness* (18b). So decisive is this transfer by the grace and power of God from the slavery of sin to the slavery of righteousness that Paul cannot restrain himself from thanksgiving.