The Letter to the Romans



20. Slaves to Sin or Righteousness?


Romans 6:15-18


Romans 6 explains that when we accept Christ, we receive new identities with new histories, new capabilities, and new power. Being a child of God born of the Spirit gives us a completely new standing before God. He redeems and heals the wounds of the past; the places of our greatest weakness become points where God will glorify himself and restore us with His grace. He explains again that we are not under law any longer, but are under grace.

The question remains, however: "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" Paul answers his own question: "By no means!"

This apparent paradox leaves one with the observation that even after a person is no longer enslaved to sin, he still sins. If sinning is still possible after a person accepts Jesus as his Savior and is living under grace, what actually happens to one when he is in Christ?

The result of our accepting Jesus as our Savior is that God puts his Spirit IN us. This phenomenon could not happen before Jesus paid the price for our sins. As long as our sins remained unatoned, there was no way for us to be able to be intimate with God. We could not be in His presence in our natural condition because God's holiness would destroy us. Broken, sinful creations cannot enjoy communion with God unless their sins are wiped away. We are born spiritually dead, separated from God, and our spirits languish until God's Spirit awakens them and convicts us of our need for him.

When we surrender to Jesus, God marks us with the seal of His ownership; he puts the Holy Spirit in us. (Ephesians 1:13-14, 4:30) In the spiritual realm, our new identity is visible; we no longer look like natural humans. The Holy Spirit in us transforms us into new creations-children of God, and this new identity marks us clearly in the universe. Before his crucifixion Jesus promised that he would ask his Father to send the Comforter, the "promised Holy Spirit," to be in us. (John 14:16-17) Exactly what this gift would mean to us was unimaginable before Pentecost, but the reality of the Holy Spirit coming to us marks our crossing from death to life. (John 5:24) This astonishing gift-the Holy Spirit living in us-makes us certain of our eternal future with God. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22) We know we live in him and he lives in us because he's given us His Spirit (1 John 4:19), and his Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are his children. (Romans 8:17)

Our new identity in Christ does not mean that our sinful flesh never succumbs to temptation. What is does mean is that we are spiritually alive instead of dead; we are filled with the Holy Spirit, connected intimately to the God of the universe, no longer enslaved to death and sin. We are God's children, born of the Spirit, equipped with the power of Jesus to live new lives we could not have lived before.


Two Slaveries

In verse 16, Paul clarifies that people have two options: they can be slaves to sin, or they can be slaves to obedience. This comparison, at first glance, does not look parallel: sin is a power under whose control we are all born. It is the natural state of humanity. Obedience, on the other hand, is a response in our hearts that requires some volition on our parts. Defining these two forms of slavery will help us make sense of this verse.

Verses 6, 12, 14, 17, and 20 of chapter 6 emphasize that sin lives in us. We are sold as slaves to sin. Earlier in Romans Paul explained that sin reigns in death, but grace reigns through righteousness. (Romans 5:21) In chapter 7, Paul will move into an explanation of the internal conflict that occurs when a person becomes conscious of God's requirements as outlined in the law. Verse 14 describes this conflict by saying, "the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual" and "a slave to sin." Paul continues in verses 22-23 and 25 to say that in his inner being he delights in God's law, but "another law" is in him waging war against his mind, which loves God's law, and rendering him a prisoner of the law of sin. In his mind, he is a slave to God's law, but in his sinful nature, he's enslaved to sin.

David acknowledged that he was sinful from conception. He did not freely choose sin from a clean beginning; he was born sinful. (Psalm 51:5) He begged God to direct his footsteps with His word and to "let no sin rule over [him[."(Psalm 119:133) Ephesians 2:1-4 clarifies that by nature we are objects of God's wrath, and as long as we followed the "ways of the world" and the "ruler of the kingdom of the air," we were dead in sins. "Everyone who sins," John writes, "is a slave to sin." Slaves, he continues, have no permanent place in the family. A son, by contrast, belongs in the family forever. (John 8:34-36)

Slavery to sin is the natural condition of humanity. We are all born under a curse, objects of wrath in God's eyes. This slavery makes sinning inevitable. We have no hope of living for God while we passively default to our natural state of spiritual death. When God calls us to him, we must choose to surrender our lives and give up to him whatever destructive thoughts and plans we have. He calls us to spiritual life, and his desire is to give us freedom from our enslavement to sin.

Early in humanity's history, God confronted Cain with sin's persistent, pervasive presence. As Cain contemplated murdering Abel, God spoke to him, begging him not to give in to his evil impulses. "Sin is crouching at your door," he said; "it desires to have you, but you must master it." The sin in Cain's life was his birthright from his father Adam. God, however, was calling him to surrender that birthright and to allow God instead of sin to direct his life. Cain, however, chose to hang onto his bitterness, and he allowed the sin in his life to destroy him and to kill his brother Abel. (see Genesis 4:7)

Peter echoed this conversation between God and Cain when he wrote that a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. It's worse, he said, for a person to turn back to sin and be consumed by it after having known Jesus than it is for a person who has never known Jesus to turn back and be mastered by sin. (2 Peter 2:19) When God calls us to obedience and surrender, we must be willing to let go of our natural pull toward sin and allow God to empower us to be true to him

Slavery to sin is our natural condition of spiritual death. We are born separated from God and unable to live holy lives. This natural condition is impossible to change without the intervention of God. Our call is to allow God to awaken us and to release us from slavery by placing his Holy Spirit in us. When we "wake up" in Jesus, we are no longer mastered by sin; our spirits are alive in Christ, and instead of sin being our only choice, we now have the ability to respond to God's will by the power of the Holy Spirit.

When we are no longer slaves to sin, according to verse 16, we become "slaves to obedience." The question that emerges from this reality is: if being slaves to obedience is the opposite of being slaves to sin, to what are we obedient? If we are no longer under law but under grace, what are we actually obeying?

Verse 22 says we are now slaves to God. We have been released from the law and serve instead in the new way of the Spirit, not by means of the "written code". (see Romans 7:6) Again in Romans 8:4 Paul stresses that the "righteous requirements of the law" are met in us not in the way of the written code but by living "according to the Spirit". The mind of a sinful man-a person not born again by the Holy Spirit-leads one to death. The mind of a person controlled by the Holy Spirit, however, yields peace and life. (Rom. 8:4) If the Holy Spirit lives in a person, he is no longer controlled by the sinful nature (Rom.8:9). In fact, if a person lives by the Holy Spirit, not only will he not die, but he will find that the "misdeeds of the body" will be "put to death". (Rom. 9:13-14) His body is no longer his own, and he is obligated to honor God with his body because it is now the temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

When we pass from being slaves to sin to being slaves to obedience, our obedience is to Jesus through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The opposite of being enslaved to sin, therefore, is being born again. The Holy Spirit now indwells us and claims us for his own. Instead of being hopelessly mastered by the power of sin, we become alive in Christ, and the literal presence of Jesus in us makes us new kinds of "slaves": slaves to obedience to the One who took on himself the suffering and penalty of our sins. A human cannot live apart from a controlling power. It is impossible for a person to choose whether to be a slave to sin or a slave to obedience from a position of neutrality. We are all born dead, subject to the power of sin. We come alive not by a rational decision based on weighing two equal options; rather, we come alive when God himself gets our attention and offers his life in exchange for our inherent deadness. He chooses us and awakens us, and we pass from slavery to death into slavery to obedience to his love.

Sin is not essentially wrong doing stemming from personality weaknesses that we inherited from our forefathers. Rather, it is the natural state of humanity, spiritual death, which is our legacy as descendants of Adam.


Obedience Leads To Righteousness

When we become slaves to obedience, Paul says, this obedience leads to righteousness. In verses 21-22 of chapter 6, Paul will elaborate that when we are set free from sin, we become slaves to God. This slavery leads us to holiness and also gives us eternal life. The practical questions that arise are, what does a life look like when it is enslaved to obedience to Christ? How does a spiritually living person exhibit righteousness when that righteousness is not his own? If we are no longer under law, will righteousness look lawless?

When we no longer look to the law for our standard of behavior, we depend upon our relationship with Jesus and the prompting of the Holy Spirit for our moral guidance. Unlike the law which had no intrinsic power of its own, the Holy Spirit provides the power and the incentive we need in order to act in response to God's will for us. In 2 Corinthians 10:45 Paul remarks that our weapons "have divine power to demolish strongholds," or places of entrenched evil. With these weapons, which are the gifts, fruit, and power of the Holy Spirit in us, we "demolish every argument and pretension against the knowledge of God," and we "take captive every thought to obedience to Christ." We do not corral our thoughts by the power of our own wills; we would inevitably fail if will power were the route to obedient thoughts. When we surrender our thoughts to God's power, he keeps them in obedience, and he gives us his ability to defend truth.

Paul wrote to the Galatians that when a person pleases the sinful nature, that is when he gives in to the temptations that continue to assault him instead of surrendering them to Jesus, he reaps destruction. The person who pleases the Holy Spirit, however, reaps eternal life. (Galatians 6:8) Pleasing the Holy Spirit, ironically, often looks very different from what we think a life should look like. Issues of human fairness and obligation are eclipsed by the central concern of serving and honoring Christ. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul admonished them, as slaves to Christ, to obey their authorities. In fact, he specifically told slaves to obey their masters. The Lord will reward his people for whatever good they do. (Ephesians 6:5-8) In other words, we can't expect that our authorities will necessarily honor us, but we can be confident that in the big picture, God will reward us for being faithful to the circumstances in which he places us.

Paul also told the Colossian slaves to honor their masters and to work with all their hearts, whatever they did, as if they were working for the Lord, not men. It is the Lord they serve, he said, and their reward will be an inheritance from God. (Colossians 3:22- 24) To Titus Paul wrote that he (and those he served) should be subject to the rulers and authorities under them. They were to be "obedient" and "ready to do what is good." (Titus 3:13) In a similar vein, Paul also admonished the Thessalonians that they were not to be idle: they were to earn the bread they ate." (2 Thessalonians 3:11-15)

The writer of Hebrews used Jesus as an example of the submissive attitude God asks us to have. He "practiced reverent submission" to the Father, and even though Jesus was the Son, he learned obedience from suffering and received the eternal appointment of high priest as the reward for his endurance. (Hebrews 5:7-10) We, likewise, are to "do good" and share, because such sacrifice pleases God. We are to obey our leaders and submit to their authority "so their work is a joy". (Hebrews 13:16-17)

Obedience to Jesus yields no glory or personal power to us. Our rewards for faithfulness come later, when we reign with Him in his kingdom. Now, the result of our obedience to Jesus is ever-deepening intimacy with him. He reveals himself to us, and we learn to trust him and to surrender ourselves to him at increasingly personal levels. Obedience to Jesus involves respectful submission to the authorities God puts in our lives. We are here as the body of Christ to serve those around us, and one of the ways we mediate the presence of Jesus is through our willing subjection to human authority and to the needs of others.

Peter said we are to prepare our minds for action; we are to be self-controlled and are to refuse to conform to our own evil desires. (1 Peter 1:13-16) Ultimately, we can accomplish Peter's admonition by obeying God's commands, as John explained them in 1 John 3:21-24: believe in the name of Jesus and love one another. Our ability to submit to authority, to serve with love and with no desire to self-promote, to resist evil desires-all these are possible only when we accept Jesus and live by the power of the Holy Spirit which he gives us when we are born again.

The obedience to which we are slaves is not an obedience that results from harnessing our will power and determining to perform certain behaviors. Rather, it is an internal surrender of our natural desires to control events and people, It is giving to God our normal coping mechanisms that remove us from reality; it is willingly submitting to knowing the truth and to allowing the Holy Spirit to heal our hearts and to change us. Obedience is saying "Yes" to the Holy Spirit and to God's clear leading in our lives, even if we feel out-of-control as we surrender to him. Obedience means growing in trust, knowing that we can give up our lives to Jesus' care, and he will accomplish in and through us what we cannot.

Peter summarizes our obedience in 1 Peter 1:1-2 when he says God's elect are "strangers in the world" and have been chosen by God's foreknowledge through the sanctifying work of the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ. In other words, our transition from natural death to eternal life is the work of the entire Trinity. The Father chose us from eternity, the Holy Spirit drew us to repentance, and our lives are now dedicated not to obeying the law but to obeying Jesus. The law is no longer our schoolmaster; the Trinity is now in charge of us, and God gives us the power and courage of the Holy Spirit to obey Jesus and to do his work.


Obey the Form Of Teaching

Paul says, in verse 17, that the reason Christ-followers have been set free from slavery to sin and have become, instead, slaves to righteousness is that they "obeyed the form of teaching to which [they] were entrusted." This teaching is the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 2 Timothy 2:8-14 Paul identified his gospel as "Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David," in whom is salvation. Again in 2 Timothy 4:2-5 Paul tells Timothy to "preach the word." He continues by telling him the time is coming when people will not want to hear sound doctrine but will seek whatever their "itching ears" want to hear.

The teaching that saves people from slavery to sin and establishes them as righteous is the gospel of Jesus and the word of God. Only pure Bible teaching can rescue people instead of enslaving them further. In Titus 1:9 Paul clarifies that leaders of the church must "hold firmly to the message as it has been taught" so they can encourage others by sound doctrine. This sound doctrine is established in hope in the living God, the Savior of all men. (1 Timothy 4:10) Equipped with a saving relationship with Jesus, Christ-followers are to point out "doctrines of demons" forbidding marriage and certain foods. "Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales," Paul admonished Timothy. We are, instead, to stick to the truths of the faith. (1 Timothy 4:6-7)

Paul didn't stop with instructing Timothy about what to avoid and specifying what to teach. He evaluated the motives of people who refuse to stick to sound doctrine. A person who teaches false doctrine and doesn't agree with sound instruction and godly teaching, Paul said, is conceited and has an unhealthy interest in controversies yielding friction. They are people of corrupt mind who are robbed of truth and who think goodness is a means to financial gain. (1 Timothy 6:3-5)

Godliness, Paul is saying to the Romans, is not the result of asceticism. It does not come by means of self-deprivation or from detailed analysis of the law. It comes by sticking to "the form of teaching" they received when they heard the true gospel of Jesus presented to them. The word of God is the only source of truth, and only when we are true to Jesus can we find freedom from the enslavement of sin.


Set Free For Slavery

Paul has pursued the idea that in Christ we are set free from our enslavement to sin. Reality proves, however, that we continue to commit sins. What did Paul really mean when he said, "You have been set free from sin"? His commentary clearly shows that sins are possible even when we're "set free;" in verses 8-12 of this chapter of Romans Paul reiterates that Christ died to sin for all of us. We have also died to sin by being in Christ, and we now live for God through Jesus. Yet Paul acknowledges that sin is still possible; "do not let sin reign in your mortal body," he says in verse 12.

If Christ is in us, Paul says in Romans 8:6-11, our bodies are dead because of sin, but our spirits are alive because of righteousness. Further, Paul clarifies that our new status as spiritually living people is the result of God's initiative; the law plays no part in our transformation. (Romans 8:1-4)

We were called to be free, Paul wrote to the Galatians; we are not to use this freedom to indulge our sinful natures. Rather, we are to serve each other in love, keeping in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:13, 24-25) We were crucified in Christ and raised with Him through our faith in the power of God who raised Jesus from death. (Colossians 2:11-12)

In other words, when we accept Jesus, we accept his victory over sin. His death created a living connection between humanity and God, and when we are in Christ, we are taken from the curse of hopelessness and death and placed inside that connection. The Holy Spirit comes to us, and our spirits come to life. Because of Christ's death, which is ours when we accept him, we inherit freedom from the curse of sin. We also acquire a new position in relationship with God in Christ, and our dead spirits come to life. Our freedom from sin's enslavement is freedom from our natural heritage of spiritual death and eternal damnation. When we come to life through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we do not instantly lose our mortal bodies and sinful habits. What we do lose, however, is our hopeless bondage to those things. We now have the power of God in us to protect, teach, and empower us to make choices that lead to obedience instead of destruction.

This passage ends with one of reality's great paradoxes, "You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness."(v. 18) Our natural enslavement leaves us incapable of making any pure, righteous decisions. We are completely dead spiritually; we have inherited predispositions to sin, and we have no power to disentangle ourselves from our morass of self-destruction. When we accept Jesus' death in our place, when we acknowledge our hopelessness and allow his Spirit to transfer us from our natural death into eternal life, we are freed from our organic enslavement.

Even our ability to recognize our hopelessness and need of a Savior, however, is not the result of our own good sense and decision-making. From the moment we awaken to our desperate condition to the moment we bow before Jesus in repentance and surrender, those impulses are initiated by the Holy Spirit wooing us to Himself. Apart from the convicting and awakening power of God, we would not even be able to seek or accept him. Our enslavement is complete; we are inherently unable to rescue ourselves from our accursed state.

God himself is the only one who can set us free from our enslavement to death and sin. Once we surrender to him and accept his power as our own, however, a new reality exists for us. Our spiritual life is entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit in us. We have no power to invoke our new birth, nor is our new status as children of God jeopardized by our still-sinful natures once we are born again. God places us in his family, he inhabits our still-sinful bodies, and his righteousness and power become ours. We belong, body and soul, to him. Thus Paul says we become "slaves to righteousness." With our new birth comes a completely new desire to live in truth and to honor God. We are not merely wishing we could be different, we are different, and our transformation is not merely external. We are now born of the Spirit, not of man, and our history, our capabilities, our power, and our identities are new.

After being born again, we are as eternally alive and securely in God as we formerly were eternally dead and consumed by sin. We are "slaves to righteousness" as certainly as we were formerly slaves to sin and death. This slavery, however, gives us freedom. In Christ we are free to choose truth instead of deception; we are free to refuse, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the seduction of sin. We are free from our obsession with trying to be good and struggling to please God. We are free from the curse of the law and our feeble attempts to keep it righteously.

In Christ we are free indeed!



God is longing for you to experience the full reality of your inheritance in Jesus. Not only do you pass from death to life when you are born again, but you have a new freedom to live by the Spirit instead of living by your sinful nature. You have the new freedom of being able to be a "slave to obedience."

If you have accepted Jesus as your Savior and have been born of the Spirit, Jesus asks you now to allow him to illumine the places in your heart where you have wounds and tightly held anger that have never been resolved. He asks you to release your tight grip on the secrets that drive you and allow the Spirit of truth to bring knowing and healing to your soul. He asks you to bring even your thoughts and desires to him for transformation by his righteousness.

Jesus desires to take away the burden of living your life in failure and despair. He longs to give you abundant life. Your willingness to surrender and to trust are the only things that limit your ability to live in daily Sabbath rest in Jesus. Jesus asks you to risk letting him enter the secret places of your life and transform your anxiety into resolution and peace.

Praise God for calling you to himself from eternity. Praise Jesus for being your sacrifice, the Lamb slain from the creation of the earth. Praise the Holy Spirit for bringing new life to your soul and giving you the power to live in Jesus instead of living in sin.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Copyright (c) 2004 Graphics Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Posted April 17, 2004.
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