“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. . . .But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is one of the more confusing arguments Paul makes over the course of his letter to the church in Rome. First, he says Christians were slaves of sin before being saved, then, he says that Christians, once they have been saved and set free from sin, are slaves of God. So we are saved from slavery only to enter into another kind of slavery? What gives? Why not just stay where we were at first?
Because in Christ we are free. Yes, but if that’s the case, then why does he call us slaves of God? Was he lying? No, but he was using a metaphor to try and describe the nature of the life of the follower of Jesus in a way his audience was going to understand it.
What is clear is that apart from Christ we are slaves. We are slaves to sin. Let me clarify what this means, though, because it is not immediately apparent. When someone is a slave, they are bound to do their master’s will. When it comes to things which are not subject to his will (which, admittedly, may be a small category), the slave has a measure of freedom. Whether the slave sleeps on his back or front may not make any difference to the master, so he is free to choose according to his preference. As long as the master’s will is accomplished, a bit of leeway on those matters which are not covered by it is often granted.
When sin is our master when we are apart from Christ, sin’s will is that we sin. As long as we are sinning at the end of the day, the route we take to that sin is immaterial. If we want to do a few genuinely righteous deeds along the way, sin is fine with that just so long as we sin in the end.
For instance, even the most pagan man in the world is likely to show some love for his child. A woman who is opposed to the Christian worldview at every point will nonetheless do kind things for her child if she is in need. These are acts of righteousness. Sin is okay with them just so long as sin is the final word on the story. We could walk the path of Mother Theresa for all sin cares as long as we come back to sin. We do not have a choice in the matter. We will sin.
I should add that this doesn’t mean we are not responsible for our choices. Rather, our wills have been so thoroughly corrupted by sin that we consciously and actively choose the sin. We are doing what we want. Our chooser has been compromised.
When we give over control of our lives to Jesus, He breaks the power of sin over us such that we are no longer its slaves. We have new wills and gain the ability to not sin (with the abiding presence and help of the Holy Spirit). But…
While we are truly free when we are in Christ, able to make meaningful and consequential choices to do as we please without coercion otherwise, we cannot choose to sin ongoingly and maintain this freedom. In this sense, we are slaves to God. We are beholden to do His will. We cannot freely choose other than Him and remain with Him.
So we are free, but if we use our freedom to leave Him, we will lose it again and so we are slaves as well. It is a tension that we must hold as we walk the path of Christ. What makes it possible and what makes us truly free is that new will we are given in Christ.
When we are in Christ, our will is transformed so that we desire the good, the true, and the beautiful. We do not want to choose other than God and His will. Thus, we are free indeed. Clear as mud?
Here’s the big idea: Apart from God, you are stuck in sin without hope of reprieve. You cannot get yourself out of the mess and you never will. In Christ, there is freedom that is true, sweet, and lasting. If you use your freedom to choose sin, you will risk losing it, but your new nature in Christ and the help of the Holy Spirit will help keep you making the right choices and enjoying your freedom as you lean into it. You have a choice then between slavery and freedom. Choose freedom.