We don’t like to think of ourselves as slaves. Most of us find the idea of slavery of any kind reprehensible. That we might ourselves be in that condition doesn’t appeal to us at all. We like our freedom—freedom to do what we want, live as we please, live where we please, and run our own lives. No slavery for us, no sir!
Paul says otherwise. For context we must realize that slavery was a much more prevalent institution in the first century C.E. than it is today. The New Testament doesn’t seem to draw a distinction between servants and slaves, at least not in Greco-Roman culture. Luke, the writer of the third gospel and Acts, and Paul’s companion on at least some of his missionary journeys, may have been a slave for at least part of his life.
For people in the first century, slavery was not necessarily a lifelong condition. It was possible to purchase your freedom—and the freedom of your family if they too were slaves. Occasionally, someone else might arrange for your freedom.
Because of the prevalence of slavery in that culture, it was a useful metaphor for Paul when he wrote about a person’s spiritual condition. In previous verses Paul spoke about being dead to sin and alive to God. He makes it clear that, once someone has been justified by faith in God, sin no longer controls his/her life. Instead, that person has been reconciled to God. We know from Paul’s writing here and in other letters that our justification is by God’s grace and not by anything we have done.
Paul wants to speak in terms everyone will understand. He uses the slavery metaphor because he knows everyone will get it.
“Do you not know,” Paul says, “that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (We understand that when Paul says “obedience,” he is speaking about obedience to God.)
There you have it! We have two choices. We can be slaves to sin or slaves to God. We can choose our destiny, but only between these two possibilities. There is no third way. Either we recognize God’s claim on our lives and submit ourselves to God’s will, or we submit ourselves to be slaves of sin. Praise be to God Paul doesn’t leave us there.
“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.”
This freedom from the slavery of sin is something we could not achieve on our own. We couldn’t afford the purchase price. God has bought our freedom through the immeasurable grace of Jesus Christ—but we are still not free to be our own creatures. Instead, we have exchanged masters.
Is this a problem? It shouldn’t be—at least not if we understand the dynamics of the situation. If we read further (Romans 6:23), we understand what it means to be God’s slave.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior we move from death to life, from a never-ending progression of more and more lawlessness to righteousness and sanctification.
What great news!