“But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” — Romans 6:17-18
How would you describe your life as a Christian? There are many ways to do it, some emphasizing joy and hope, others emphasizing suffering in the midst of difficulty. In Romans 6 the Apostle Paul describes Christians as “slaves to righteousness.”
He is employing surprising rhetoric here, to say the least. He’s turning something bad into something good. Slavery is not a good thing, either in the ancient world or today. Indeed, Paul himself tells Corinthian slaves to get their freedom if they can (I Cor. 7:21). And, yet, Paul describes us as slaves.
Over the next two weeks I’d like to consider two reasons why he would do this. First, one reason he does this is to emphasize that humanity is limited. As humans we have a tendency to think we ourselves are ultimate and absolute. Our own concerns loom large in our own minds. Our own judgments seem right, and fixed. When we want something, we want something. Adam and Eve did this in the garden, choosing what seemed right in their own eyes.
But, we are not our own ultimate authorities. We are limited. None of us gets to be the boss of the universe, or even the boss of our lives. We all have to take direction from others, and above all from God Himself. We belong to God; we are His creatures. Everyone has a master in heaven, regardless of his position here on earth.
So, don’t think that the Christian life is one of absolute self-directedness. It’s not. The idea of Christian living is not to be totally unhindered in every possible way. Christians acknowledge God’s supremacy.
Of course, in the truest sense, we do have freedom. We have the best kinds of freedom, beginning with the freedom from the guilt and shame of sin. Paul says “You were slaves of sin. You were bound to obey sin. You used to present yourself in service to sin.” Before we were justified by faith in Jesus, before we were united to Him and His death (6:5), we presented ourselves to sin.
Some of us can remember what it was like before we became slaves of righteousness, back when we were slaves to sin. It was horrific. We went down and down while we lived like that. God describes that descent in Romans 1 – giving ourselves over to idols and thereby perverting the goodness of what God made. Think of what happened before the flood: all the thoughts of men were evil continually. Life in the free pursuit of sin leads not to happiness, but to misery.
David, in Psalm 1, shows us the alternative: we are happy if we delight in the law of the Lord. When we reject God’s law, we are hindered: when we delight in setting traps for others, when we delight in evil — we are ruined. Our foot slips. But when we walk in the pathways of righteousness, we flourish.
When we were slaves of sin we were not free. Our own “degrading passions” directed our lives. Recently I taught a unit on Augustine in my ethics class at The King’s College. One of the things he says in Book 19 of City of God is that slavery to our own passions is the worst kind of slavery. Other philosophers agree – to not be directed by your passions, your emotions, your desires – that is the kind of freedom we really value.
In other words, the best kind of freedom is the freedom to do what is good, the freedom to acquire what is truly best. That is the kind of freedom really worth having.
But, that kind of freedom does not come through making ourselves absolute – we are not lords of the universe. No, God is in His holy temple. God is ruling and reigning – and we are under His kingship – his mastery.
Brothers and sisters, let’s contemplate the reality that we are not the Lord of our lives. We don’t live for ourselves, but instead in service to God and to one another.
And this is a wonderful thing. Where else would we rather be? Where could possibly be better than under the love, care, and direction, from an all-powerful, all-loving Father who has given His only Son for our salvation? Where else would be better than in His loving arms, walking according to the wise paths he has given us. Who would leave such a place? Remember the first question and answer in the Heidelberg Catechism? “What is your only hope in life and in death? The answer: That I am not my own, but belong— body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
It’s a glorious thing to belong to another, when the one whom you belong to is your creator and redeemer.
So, by calling us slaves to righteousness, Paul teaches us about our limits as humans – God is our Lord. Brothers and sisters, let us solemnly consider that God is our Lord. Our service to Him, what Paul calls being “slaves of righteousness,” is actually the surest pathway to true freedom and happiness.
Elder David Talcott