It’s time to pay up. Everyone break out their wallets, their checkbooks, and their credit cards. You are in debt to someone or something. You are a debtor and there is payment that must be made. But what exactly are you a debtor to? Think carefully about this, because whoever or whatever you owe will become your master, because you cannot be released from your obligation until the debt is paid. The one whom you owe owns you. In New Testament times, this was meant quite literally: many who were in debt became slaves in order to pay off the debt. So to whom are you a debtor? Who do you owe, and what? This is vitally important, because in the context of the epistle, this is also true: whatever is your master will also be your god.
As Paul says, “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” It is easy to be a debtor to the flesh: it’s perfectly natural – according to your sinful nature. Paul writes that we are debtors, people under an obligation. The obligation that we are under is our sinful nature. Our epistle warns against this, because flesh is a master that cannot save you, and yet because of our sinful nature, we are debtors to the flesh. Paul makes it very clear what happens when we live according to the flesh – “you will die.” There is no other way to put it. You can’t sugarcoat it; you can’t try to make it sound better than what it really is. “For if you live according to the flesh you will die.” What is in Paul’s mind is the fact that the world is full of men who live according to flesh, their whole nature being flesh; it is for this reason that he says to the Romans, “If you live in that way you will die.” Living according to the flesh heads straight for death; it cannot and does not head for anything else, no matter what those who live that way may think.
We are fleshly creatures. We live by the flesh and we die by the flesh. We live our lives according to the flesh. We are always drawn to living according to the flesh – doing what comes natural, doing what we want and desire, doing what feels good and appeals to our sense of fun or pleasure or rights, as in, “I have my rights!” Frankly, living according to the flesh is doing anything without first thinking about what God says, or comparing our will to the will of God as expressed in Scripture. Living according to the flesh is to live in sin and will cause you to die the eternal death of condemnation to hell. One theologian put it quite simply: “Here we are furnished the proof that we do not owe the flesh anything. It cannot do anything good for us. It leads to death, temporal and eternal.” Thus our text: do not be a debtor to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. If you live according to the flesh, you will die.
As a Christian, you’re still a debtor—just not to the flesh. You’re a debtor to the Lord. For one thing, He made you, and it is only right that we serve Him who made us. He continues to give you life and all that you need. That’s why, when the Small Catechism explains the creedal phrase, “I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” it says, “For all which it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.” Created by God, it is right to serve Him.
There’s more than that, though. The Lord has also saved you. He has redeemed your life from the pit. He has saved you from sin, death and hell. He’s conquered the world and the devil for you. He’s given you forgiveness, salvation and eternal life. He gave all this to you at your Baptism. He still comes to you and gives it to you in His Word and His Supper. Clearly, you owe Him your life, forever. You owe Him. You’re in His debt. Thus you are a debtor.
So, there’s the first thing the text calls you. It calls you a debtor. If you’re a debtor to the flesh and make sins your master, then you’re going to die. If you you’re a debtor to the Lord, then the price is paid and eternal life is yours—all for Jesus’ sake.
Lest you become downtrodden by being a debtor to the flesh, Paul says that you are something else as well. He says, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” By Holy Baptism, He has adopted you into His family. The word “sons” means “free sons” from sin, death and the power of the devil. Being called a son of God means that you receive all the benefits that come with it. You receive everything that comes from God. You receive forgiveness, life, and salvation. You receive those gifts and blessings which God had ordained His people to have from the very beginning. He did not ordain man to be debtors to sin, yet that is what we became. In order for that debt to be paid, something must happen. That something happened 2000 years ago when Jesus Christ came into this world, lived the perfect and sinless life for you, died on the cross for you, and rose from the grave for you.
But that’s not all! You are not just a debtor. You are not just a son. You are also an heir. Paul says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” If you are forgiven, you are a son of God; and if you are a son of God, then you are an heir to the kingdom of heaven. God’s kingdom is yours forever: the Spirit Himself bears witness to this each time He delivers forgiveness to you for Jesus’ sake – for every gift of forgiveness renews in you God’s Word that heaven is yours.
You’re not a debtor to the flesh. You’re a debtor to the Lord – but the debt has already been paid by Jesus on the cross. Therefore, you are a son of God and an heir of the kingdom of heaven. Be warned: the devil, the world and your sinful flesh don’t take kindly to this Good News. They want you indebted to them. Each day, they’ll tempt you with all those would-be flesh masters. And as you refuse, you can expect to suffer for it. Behold how the world treated your Savior – your Master. Expect the same for you. That is why our text concludes that we “suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” It is not that we earn salvation by suffering or must pay a debt of pain for forgiveness. Forgiveness and salvation are already yours, bought and paid for. But the devil, world and your sinful flesh hate that news, and so they must attack you since they cannot defeat your Master.
Your Master is Jesus, and He has conquered these enemies by His death and resurrection. He does not call you a slave, but a son. And if you are a son, you are an heir of God and His entire kingdom. Rejoice in this: you are sons of God and you are heirs of God, because you are forgiven for all of your sins. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.