15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 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? 17 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, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 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. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We continue today in our study of the book of Romans, and the elephant in the text both this week and last week is the word slave. And, what is curious here is that Paul is not invoking the word slave to denounce the practice of slavery or to make a statement about social justice or human rights. Instead, Paul is calling us to slavery.
Despite what you might think, the gospel that Paul is proclaiming does not call you to somehow become more in control of yourself. No, to the contrary, this gospel is calling you to give over control of yourself to another master…Christ. In other words, Paul’s not saying that you need to become a slave…he saying, you already are slave. The question is: who is your master?
Now, to our modern ears, the idea of giving control of yourself over to someone or something else sounds very strange and very antiquated. As we’ve talked about before, we live in an age that is obsessed with the idea that there is a you hidden deep down inside of you and that you need to find and release that real you somehow. In other words, the common mindset is not that I need to give over control of myself to someone else, but, instead, I need to find the real me and take control of my life rather than allowing others or my parents or the culture to shape who I am and what I do.
Two weeks ago we talked about Adam, and notice that for both Adam and Eve, the idea in eating the fruit was, we’re going to do what we want rather than what God wants. We’re going to take control of our lives. But, even though they didn’t realize it, the choice they were making was actually, are we going to do what God wants, or are we going to do what the serpent wants? They were deceived. So, listen, the gospel is not calling you to take control of your life and live it the way you want. The gospel is calling you to actively remove control of your life from the hands sin and give over that control to Christ.
And this is what Paul is getting at in this chapter in general. You can’t have it both ways. You are either a slave to sin or you are a slave to Christ. The big question is, which one of those things is reigning in your body. Which one of those things has control? Which one of those things is master over you?
Now, what is strange to me is that over the years I have heard…I’ve read Christian scholars and commentators with what I find to be a peculiar perspective on slavery in the Greco-roman world of the 1st century. And, that peculiar perspective is that like maybe it wasn’t that bad to be a slave. So, that when Paul called his readers to be slaves to Christ, that word “slave” to a 1st century reader was perhaps received differently with a less negative connotation than it would be received by a 21st century reader. And, I’m not sure I buy that.
That all said, we certainly do live in a culture that is marked by a history of slavery, and a very narrow and specific history of slavery. Our history of slavery concerns primarily one specific ethnicity of people who were forcibly abducted, tortured, taken thousands of miles away and sold into unending manual labor and a perpetual state of powerlessness. In the ancient world, however, slavery was not necessarily better, but it was definitely more complex. One non-Christian commentator notes that Jesus’ parables actually give us a glimpse into 1st century slavery. He writes:
“A slave might handle large sums of money for an owner, yet that owner could, at will, torture the slave. A slave might function as a trusted agent of a slaveholder, but his low status nonetheless left him vulnerable to physical abuse by those he encountered. Some slaves were overseers, exerting physical control over lower-ranking slaves. Lower-ranking slaves endured the violence not only of slaveholders but also of slave overseers. … Some slaves enjoyed their owners’ trust. Perhaps all slaves lived in fear”
That doesn’t sound all that different does it? Another similarity between America’s history of slavery and the slavery of the New Testament world was that there were all kinds of philosophical and religious justifications for slavery bandied about. One scholar says that: Slavery found a “justification” in philosophical treatises of that time that endeavoured to prove the existence of two kinds of human beings. …Aristotle stated that some human beings were, by their nature, meant for slavery because of the lack of intellectual capacities that are essential for an autonomous life. To put it crudely, dumb people are destined to be slaves. Smart people are destined to be free. And to be sure, you can find virtually the same arguments being made in America during the 1800s, even by those who claimed Christ.
The word that the ESV translates as slave is the Greek word doulous, which, by the way is also often simply translated as the word servant. And, isn’t it interesting how we perhaps have a very different response to the word servant. While we may not see being a servant as a positive thing, that word also may not conjure for us image of violence and human rights violations in the way the word slave does. So, why does Paul use such fraught terminology?
One simple reason…Paul wants us to understand that in the same way that a slave is completely submitted to his master, we are to be totally submitted to Christ. Our minds are to be submitted to him. Our bodies are to be submitted to him. Our resources are to be submitted to him. Our children are to be submitted to him. The whole of our lives. And, in 1 Corinthians, Paul even goes so far as to use the language of the slave market.
18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. 19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Paul says, you have been acquired in a transaction, but in this transaction it is not money that is the purchasing agent, it is the blood of Christ. And, the result of this transaction is that you have been rescued from a life of slavery to sin and a life of slavery to an evil master. So, Paul’s point is, brothers and sisters, if you grasp that…if you get what Christ has done for you, why would you ever willingly submit yourself or submit your body to sin again?
And, the answer is we turn back to sin because we all collectively have Stockholm syndrome. We have spent so long as a slave to sin, that we don’t know how to live without it. And, even if we recognize that the wages of sin is death…even if we grasp that sin is literally killing us…we still are inclined to feel affection for it. It’s like a textbook definition of addiction. So, two thought regarding application of this today as I wrap up. Two things that you need to commit yourself to if you truly want to follow the teaching of not only Paul but also Jesus.
- Commit yourself to the task of renewing your mind. Paul will get to this notion later in Romans 12, but why not get a preview today. Paul believes that if you want your life to be transformed, your mind must be healed, and healing is a process that depends both on God’s restorative work and your intentional focus. Your commitment to your own mental health matters. And, much like our physical bodies, one of the most critical questions is “what am I putting into my mind” and “what am I letting my mind dwell on.” Paul said that we are not to submit our bodies or our members to sin, and I would dare say that most of us are living a dualistic, schizophrenic life here. On one hand there may not be obvious external sin coming out of bodies, but inside our minds we are dwelling on darkness, anger, lust, jealousy, fear, covetousness and on and on and on. And for many what is going in is social media which is nothing more than darkness, anger, lust, jealousy, fear and covetousness on parade, TV including whatever violence, crime or pseudo-pornography you can find on Netflix. Binging the news is not good for your mental well-being. Binging political pundits whose entire industry is built on outrage, fear, demonization, accusation is not healthy. So, what do put in instead? Well, Paul answers this for us as well. Philippians 4:8-9 – whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
- The second task that you need to commit yourself to is the task of making disciples. And, that phrase “making disciples” can seem ambiguous to many of us. So, here’s how I want us to think about it. Making disciples is about guiding others as they go about the process of renewing their minds in Christ. Making disciples is about taking of what you have learned from following Christ and seeking your own mental restoration and offering that experience to others as a guide. And, the beauty of all of that is that you don’t have to reach some state of perfect spiritual maturity in order to disciple others. The thing you need most is the Holy Spirit inside of you
Paul is presenting us with a slavery, a servanthood, that we honestly have no context for in this world. Because it doesn’t come from the world. It is doesn’t come from the flesh. It comes from our Father who is perfect. And, it is only in slavery to Christ that we will ever find freedom.