The Letter to the Romans



21. Enslaved by Life


Romans 6:19-23


Paul now concludes his dissertation about the contrast between being enslaved by sin and being slaves to righteousness. He makes his point by carrying the slavery metaphor to its logical end. He reminds the Roman church that they had, in the past, been enslaved to sin and had offered the parts of their bodies to "impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness." Now he says, they must offer themselves to righteousness.

Paul doesn't make exceptions; he includes all his readers when he says they have offered their bodies to wickedness. This inclusive assertion may sound exaggerated to those who have lived lives of self-denial and rigorous discipline, yet Paul does not make exceptions for people with good behavior. In Romans 1:21-32 Paul explains that natural humanity has suppressed the knowledge of God by its own wickedness. Because of people's refusal to acknowledge the sovereign God, He "gave then over" to their "sinful desires," "shameful lusts," and "depraved minds." Overt behavior is not the only way people give their bodies to impurity; they also offer themselves to wickedness in their minds. Their hearts and attitudes can be completely corrupt even if they keep a tight reign on their external behavior. Paul reminds them, however, that God issues rewards and judgment according to what people do in their bodies-including their minds. Those who reject truth and follow evil, he states, will receive wrath and anger from God. (Romans 2:6-11)

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul lists the sorts of behaviors to which people were enslaved before they believed in Jesus: sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, male prostitution, homosexuality, thievery, greediness, drunkenness, slandering, swindling-people who indulge in these, he says, will not "inherit the kingdom of God." (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) Paul explained this increasingly impure, wicked condition this way to the Ephesians: "In the futility of their thinking," the wicked are "darkened in their understandingseparated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more."(Ephesians 4:18-19)

Offering the parts of one's body in slavery to impurity and wickedness involves a deliberate refusal to acknowledge God. Such offering of one's self is not a mindless indulgence; rather, it includes hardening one's heart and cutting one's self off from God's call. One's thinking becomes futile and devoid of understanding when he refuses to listen to God. When a person shuts out the influence of God, he separates himself from ultimate reality, and as a substitute for the sense of meaning and fulfillment which knowing God would bring, such a person surrenders to every sensual indulgence that tempts him. In an attempt to feel alive in his spiritually dead condition, a person offering himself to impurity will indulge his appetites and take dangerous risks. Separation from God inevitably results in self-destructive living.

Paradoxically, becoming free from slavery to impurity and wickedness requires becoming a slave to righteousness. This righteousness leads, Paul says, to holiness. The slavery metaphor suggests that another power or person owns the enslaved one. It's easy to see that a person can be enslaved to sin and wickedness and would therefore be captive to self-destructive urges. Being righteous, however, sounds like a relief from slavery to sin, yet Paul equates truly belonging to righteousness with being its slave. Righteousness, therefore, must be an external power or personality that claims us with grace and compassion instead of subjecting us to despair and death.

Throughout his epistles, Paul sheds light on this great paradox. In 2 Corinthians 2:21-22 he identifies the One who owns us in righteousness: God makes us stand firm in Christ. God set his "seal of ownership" on us and put his Spirit in our hearts guaranteeing our certain future with him. Our slavery to righteousness means that we belong to God through our acceptance of Jesus and his death for us. Our spirits have crossed from death to life, and we belong to God and to eternal life instead of to the curse of death. Our "slavery" means that God claims responsibility for us. We are not our own, living frantically by our own wits. The Creator of the universe now takes personal responsibility for us, and our righteousness is a fact because he has covered us with Jesus' righteousness.

Paul warned the Galatians not to allow themselves to be enslaved again by external laws. Christ set them free, he said; now "live by the Spirit" and avoid gratifying the desires of the sinful nature. Returning to law, in other words, would awaken one to the temptations all around one. Instead of focusing on God's prompting, by returning to law a person focuses on the sins which the law forbids. (Galatians 5:1, 16)

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul had much to say about the nature of enslavement to righteousness. He tells them that God called them to a great hope-the riches of God's power in them-like the power that raised Christ from death and seated him at the right hand of God. (Ephesians 1:18-20) The singular, life-giving power of Jesus' resurrection is the same power that God places in his saints. We are no longer slaves to sin with this power at our disposal; we can live completely new lives for the glory of God! In fact, He can do "immeasurably more" in us than we can ask or imagine because of his power at work in us. This power in us, however, is not for our sakes; it is for the sake of His glory, both in us as believers and in the corporate church-his body on earth. (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Therefore, Paul admonishes, we are to "put off" our old selves which have been corrupted by deceitful desires and put on instead our new selves-our born again selves-which He created to be like Him "in true righteousness and holiness" (Ephesians 4:21-24) We no longer belong to darkness but to the light, and we are to bear the fruit of light: goodness, righteousness, and truth. We are to have nothing more to do with the "fruitless deeds of darkness" but rather expose them for what they are. (Ephesians 5:8-12)

When we accept Jesus, we don't just make a decision to be good instead of to enjoy sin. We literally choose a new citizenship. We become God's children instead of Adam's offspring. We belong to God as truly and thoroughly as we used to belong to sin and death. We now have living spirits instead of dead ones, and the life of God is now possible in us instead of the life of sin. Our "enslavement" is not a matter of being owned against one's will. Rather, it is a matter of being redeemed and claimed by one who loves us and frees us from a slavery that is sucking away our lives. We belong to God and to life and to victory instead of to misery and certain death. We can now stand without falling, for the Lord our Master will make us stand. (Romans 14:4). Further, we can be absolutely certain that our eternal outcome is sure because God, who began this new work of righteousness in us, "will carry it to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:1-6)

Being enslaved to righteousness means being claimed as God's children. We are permanently citizens of heaven instead of victims of hell.


From Slave to Slave

For many the question remains unresolved: what exactly happens when I accept Jesus that makes me different? Is this acceptance simply a change of mind, a wish for relief, a decision based on fear? What ensures that I am no longer a slave to sin but am rather a slave to righteousness?

The answer to this confusion is one powerful fact: when a person accepts Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes at that moment and indwells him. Living for righteousness is not a resolution to be good; it is literally being born again by the Spirit of God. Before his death Jesus clearly stated this fact to Nicodemus in his secret visit to the Savior. A person must be born "of water and of the Spirit" in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus told the seeking Pharisee. "You must be born again." (John 3:5-6)

After Pentecost the church became established when the Holy Spirit entered new believers, both among the Jews, the Samaritans, and the Gentiles. During the council of Jerusalem Peter testified to the elders that the Gentiles, devoid of any Jewish rituals, laws, or understandings, had clearly become part of the fledgling church. The proof, he said, was that God had accepted them by giving them the Holy Spirit. God had made no distinction between them and believing Jews. (Acts 15:8-9) When we are born again, we receive the Spirit of sonship that testifies with our spirits that we are children of God. (Romans 8:15-16) When we have received the Holy Spirit, we're no longer slaves to our mortal bodies. God, through the same power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, will give new life to our mortal bodies. (Romans 8:9-11) The astonishing reality is that this Spirit actually lives in us!

Paul emphasized this new life in the Spirit when he wrote to the Ephesians. Having believed, he said, you were "marked with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit." (Ephesians 1:13) In Christ, Paul further explains to the Colossians, "all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form." He continues by making the astonishing assertion that we have been given fullness in Christ. (Colossians 2:9-10) The God of creation lives in us. This act of acceptance is what marks the change in us from being slaves to death and sin to being "known by God." When we are intimately known by God, we are inherently no longer slaves to sin, and we must act in our new identities, not turning back to slavery to law and do-it-yourself religion. (see Galatians 4:8-9)

Becoming slaves to God, Paul says, "leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life." Holiness means being sanctified or set apart, dedicated and devoted to service for God. The author of Hebrews says, "without holiness no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14) Holiness is not something we accomplish ourselves in order to qualify us for service we wish to render. Holiness, our sanctification and dedication to God, is the work of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 1:29-30 says that Jesus has become our wisdom from God. This wisdom, he clarifies, is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Holiness, righteousness, and redemption are inextricably linked; we don't possess one without the other two. Our dedication to God's service is a divine appointment; our separation from evil is the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul wrote to the Thessalonians that God chose them "from the beginning" and saved them "through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and through belief in the truth." In light of this eternal calling, it is God's will for believers to "be sanctified" and to avoid immorality. They are to control their bodies in a way that is "holy and honorable." (1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13) To Timothy Paul wrote that if a person cleanses himself from the trappings of sin, he will "be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master, prepared for any good work." (2 Timothy 2:21)

Christ-followers are called not only to be born again but to surrender their bodies, their desires, and their impulses to God for His transformation. Our minds, spirits, and bodies belong to Jesus when we accept him. The presence of the Holy Spirit changes reality for us. We are no longer bound to ourselves; the power of God makes it possible for us to live in freedom from the natural sin in us. We are to dedicate our bodies and our minds to God's service; this dedication is the holiness he requires. Unless we deliberately surrender to him, we hold back from him the habits and desires in our lives, and he cannot transform them into offerings of service instead of self-serving indulgences. Holiness is God's work in us, but we have to invite him in and surrender to his cleansing love.


Earning Wages or Receiving a Gift?

Paul ends this section of his letter with a powerful statement: "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (v. 23) The subjects of the two clauses are significant: wages are earned, and gifts are not. The result of sin is death, and that death is a wage people are paid for their sins. The result of accepting Jesus as Lord is life, and that life is a gift which has nothing to do with our earning it. If, however, we are born in sin through no choice of our own, how do we earn death?

The answer to that question lies in understanding the corporate nature of humanity. Adam was created to be the head of the human race. His choices determined the future of the race. His decision to sin by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil resulted in a consequence which became our legacy: natural humanity is born with no connection to God.

An imperfect metaphor that might help explain this situation is a family touched by some sort of abuse such as drugs, violence, incest, or other transgression. If a pregnant mother continues to abuse drugs during her pregnancy, her child will be affected in permanent ways. If a parent abuses a child, that child will carry emotional and psychological scars that will shape his behavior throughout the rest of his life and will influence his children also. Children do not deserve the consequences of their parents' decisions, but it is an inevitable part of life that what we do affects all those around us.

Similarly, what Adam did determined the fate of humanity. We may not "deserve" to be born sinful, but God established a reality that made Adam the head of the human race. His obedience or disobedience determined the nature of mankind. All of us, as his offspring, inherit the sin he committed in a way similar to that of children inheriting the wounded behavior of their wounded parents.

As sinful, wounded people, we have only one hope, both corporately and individually: we must experience the intervention of God's power to set our lives right. As children of Adam, we deserve the wages of sin. We are born fatally flawed; we cannot live whole, victorious lives. We have only one certain future: death. God told Israel that if their hearts turned away from him and became disobedient and idolatrous, they would be destroyed. (Deuteronomy 30:17-18) Romans 1:18-20 also says people suppressed the knowledge of God with their wickedness, so God has allowed his wrath to come upon them. Because we are born with our spirits disconnected from God, we have no option but to sin. We totally deserve the death sentence which rests upon us.

Because mankind has not retained its knowledge of God and has approved the deeds of evil doers, He has given people over to their own depraved minds. (Romans 1:28-32) Further, Paul says that because of stubbornness and unrepentance, people are "storing up wrath." (Romans 2:5) Those who refuse the salvation offered by the Lord Jesus are "objects of wrath". (Romans 9:21-22) Because of Adam's sin, all people have sinned (Romans 5:12-14); flawed humans touched by evil cannot exist in God's presence; our sin has "earned" us a sentence of death. Sinful passions are at work in our bodies (Romans 7:5); we will die if we continue to live by our sinful natures instead of responding to and living by the Spirit (Romans 8:13)

Paul wrote to the Galatians a universal truth; we reap what we sow; if we sow deeds that please our sinful natures, we reap destruction. (Galatians 6:7-8) All of us were once self-gratifying in response to our sinful natures; all of us were once objects of wrath. (Ephesians 2:3) If we are tempted and dragged away into sin, we cannot blame God for our condition. We succumb to evil because of our own sinful desires. (James 1:13-15)

In short, we all are born deserving death because of our inheritance from the head of our race: Adam. We are a line of deeply flawed, irreparable creatures, and we are hopeless to better our condition. Apart from a divine intervention, we would all be destroyed.

The intersection of God's grace through the sacrifice of Jesus offers us hope and a new identity. Because of Jesus' shed blood, we have the possibility of being born into a new race no longer headed by Adam; we can be born of the Spirit into God's family. We are no longer natural humans; we are the recipients of true grace that rescues us from otherwise inevitable death.


Practical Reality

Those who pass from earning death to receiving life begin to change the way they live. Freed now from the curse of the law, Christ-followers begin to walk with the Spirit. Instead of looking to the law for direction, they learn to ask God and to rely on the direction of the Holy Spirit who indwells them. The Spirit begins to point out areas of sin and wounding, confronting them with the truth about themselves and about God's desires for them. Instead of living by their wits and their own hard work, Christ-followers learn to let God work in and through them. Their lives become an extension of their salvation; they are saved and changed by grace, not by works, so they can never boast about their spiritual maturity. (see Ephesians 2:8-9)

God humbled Israel as they were preparing to enter Canaan by bluntly telling them not to think they were going to take possession of the land because their own integrity and righteousness. Quite the contrary; they were disobedient and willful. God Himself would drive out the Canaanites, not to honor the Israelites, but to fulfill his promises to Abraham and the patriarchs. (Deuteronomy 9:4-6) Christ-followers must learn the same lesson; their true accomplishments will never be the results of their own hard work; God will being doing his work through them, and they can never take credit for the growth and victory in their own lives. Jesus purifies them from iniquity. (Titus 2:14) They will devote their lives to doing good (Titus 3:8), but those good deeds will be God's work in them. In fact, those very deeds may include great suffering for the sake of the gospel. (2 Timothy 2:8-10) Yet through whatever happens, Christ-followers can know that Jesus is now taking responsibility for growing and changing them, and he will be faithful to complete the work he begins. (Philippians 1:6)



Jesus wants to free you from impurity and sin including the good works you may be doing because you feel they ennoble you. Jesus wants you to experience life and victory and peace, but in order to embrace your freedom, you must be willing to let go of everything God calls you to surrender. For some of us, our hindrance to intimacy with Jesus is blatant sin. For others, our idol may be compulsive involvement or a deep refusal to be vulnerable and to face the truth about ourselves. Anything can stand between us and Jesus if we hold it close to ourselves and refuse to risk loosening our tight grip of control and ownership.

God is calling you to trust him enough to face the issues confronting you. If you have accepted Jesus, then you can be sure that the struggles and conflicts in your life are part of God's discipline of you. He will continue to bring you face-to-face with your fears and shame and guilt until you are willing to open yourself to his power and purifying love and expose your deepest shame and pride to him. Until you are willing to acknowledge the truth about your own experience and your own feelings, you hold Jesus at arm's length, and he cannot bring his peace and joy into the places in your heart where you struggle.

As long as you refuse to acknowledge your own stubborn pride that keeps you clutching your illusion that you are somehow justified in your fear or anger or self-pity, you are living that part of your life enslaved to your sinful nature. God wants to redeem all of you, including your heart and mind. He wants to free you from yourself and bring those places of disarray and confusion into truth and enslavement to righteousness.

Ask God to make you willing to know the truth about yourself and to know his will for you. Ask him to change you in the ways you need to change and to give you the faith to risk opening the door that hides your pain and shame. Ask him to be your strength and to give you the courage to be obedient when he beckons you into the unknown.

Praise God for knowing you before the beginning of time. Praise Jesus that he redeemed all the suffering you have ever experienced as the price of someone else's power or pleasure. Praise the Holy Spirit for gently insisting that you face the truth and know the cause of your misery and anxiety. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for faithfully refusing to leave you when you're resistant. Praise God for setting you free and for healing your heart.

"God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful." (1 Corinthians 1:9)

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