“But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” (Romans 6:17-18 NASB).
The more familiar reading of this passage (KJV, NKJV, etc.) is “form of doctrine.” Some versions simply say “teaching.” What is meant by this “form” and how does one obey a “form” of teaching? What is the point of the “slave” terminology?
The usual interpretation of “form of doctrine” in Churches of Christ is that this refers to baptism – or to dying to sin, being buried in baptism and being raised to newness of life. It is what we so often refer to as “obeying the gospel.” But to Paul, the idea of “obeying the gospel” is never merely the doing of certain specific acts such as repentance, confession and baptism. Those may be included in his view, but his use of obedience is much more comprehensive much as his expression, “obedience of faith.”
For the apostle Paul, the gospel was the message to be preached – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 2:2; 15:3-4). Several versions of this passage, (Romans 6:17-18 NASB), render the phrase variously, “which was delivered you,” “pattern of teaching to which you were entrusted” (LEB), “to which you were delivered,” (LITV, MKJV), “teaching you were entrusted to,” (NET) and “whereunto ye were delivered” (RV). It was not just that the gospel was preached to them, but that THEY were delivered TO the doctrine. What does this mean?
The answer to this lies in the meaning of the phrase “form of doctrine.” The Greek is tupon didachēs – and refers to a type, form, pattern or mold of teaching, mr). It is like the butter mold in the picture above. The Greek word tupos means “to strike so as to make an impression.” Consider the following…
That form of doctrine – Τυπον διδαχης; here Christianity is represented under the notion of a mould, or die, into which they were cast, and from which they took the impression of its excellence. The figure upon this die is the image of God, righteousness and true holiness, which was stamped on their souls in believing the Gospel and receiving the Holy Ghost. The words εις ὁν παρεδοθητε τυπον refer to the melting of metal; which, when it is liquefied, is cast into the mould, that it may receive the impression that is sunk or cut in the mould; and therefore the words may be literally translated, into which mould of doctrine ye have been cast. They were melted down under the preaching of the word, and then were capable of receiving the stamp of its purity. (Adam Clarke – eSword).
“I thank God, that although you were formerly the slaves of sin, ye have willingly obeyed the mould of doctrine into which ye were cast at baptism.” (MacKnight via B.W. Johnson, People’s New Testament – eSword).
MacKnight has it that the obedience to the form comes AFTER baptism!
“into which they were delivered”, as it may be rendered, as into a mould; and so received the impression of it, (John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, eSword).
“whereunto ye were delivered” (Margin), or cast, as in a mould. The idea is, that the teaching to which they had heartily yielded themselves had stamped its own impress upon them. (Jamieson-Fausset-Brown -eSword).
What is clear from these scholars and from an understanding of the meaning of “form” as “type” or “mold” is that there is more involved in one’s initial obedience to the gospel than just the acts of repentance, confession and baptism. We must understand that every demand from God for our obedience involves more than just the act of obedience itself. The form of doctrine here is not to be confused with a “formula” as in the five steps of salvation. Certainly obedience must be from the heart as the apostle says here, but even with that heart-obedience, there is more that is in view.
It without a doubt involves one’s initial obedience, but those acts are not what ultimately form or shape us. As we increasingly apply the doctrine – the gospel – the story of Jesus death, burial and resurrection into our daily lives we are shaped by that story. We come to participate in the story. Paul’s words in Philippians 3:9-11 emphasize and explain what I believe is the meaning. Paul wanted to…
“…be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Our obedience must always be toward the end of becoming. Becoming more and more what God intends us to be. Becoming more and more like Him. That is what the form or mold of the doctrine is all about. The doctrine – teaching – is about Christ, the form into which a person is cast with a view of being molded or shaped into His likeness. We become, as the Hebrew writer puts it of Christ who was “the exact imprint of his [God’s] nature.” When, in view of Christ one obeys, of course he is made free from sin. That is prerequisite to being in fellowship with Him and to being like Him.
It is a mistake to isolate a verse or a phrase from a verse from its context and apply a meaning to it that was never intended by the author. That is true of this particular passage. We end up applying what we think the passage means – our supposition or what conveniently fits our view of scripture. This passage is no different. What is the context in which Romans 6:17-18 is set?
First we must consider the overall reason behind Paul’s writing what he wrote in this chapter. Verse 1-2 sets the theme for the entire chapter.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
He repeats this question in verse 15.
“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”
Why not? He answers in verse 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?”
So how does the Christian develop the mentality, attitude or thought processes of a slave? He does so by being conformed to whatever or whomever he chooses as his master. Paul warns Christians… “Do not be conformed to this world…” (Romans 6:16). Do not be shaped, molded, formed by the world. Do not be shaped, molded, formed by the practice of sin. By the same token, to be formed into a slave of righteousness one must be exposed to a different kind of influence – the doctrine which has the power to shape us into servants of righteousness. This is what Paul is writing about in verse 17.
Romans 6:17-18 “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, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
Read in the context of Paul’s teaching here, these Roman Christians had been slaves of sin before their conversion. But they had been delivered to “the form of doctrine” to which they had become conformed, molded or shaped. Now they had been made free from sin and had become slaves of righteousness. Was it at the point of baptism? Paul does not say. It is freedom from that slavery to sin that is under consideration here, not the precise moment at which sins are forgiven. He had already dealt with baptism and newness of life earlier in the chapter.
There is in these verses a contrast between the former state of slavery to sin and the subsequent state of slavery to righteousness leading to sanctification. They had to overcome their “slave mentality” and learn to think in terms of a righteous life. They had done this by “obeying from the heart that form of doctrine” to which they had been delivered or by becoming conformed to that doctrine. They had become slaves of righteousness. That is why they could not go on sinning.