Slavery & Freedom
Bible Text: Romans 6:15-23 | Preacher: Rev. Alex Peterson | Series: Lent 2019 | Last week we explored the most frequent Biblical word for sin, which literally meant to “miss the mark” God desires for our lives. Today, we continue our Lent series on sin, looking at the common Biblical metaphor of evil as slavery or tyranny. A reminder: this series on sin is not a how-to guide but a study of what we’re up against so we can a) be all the more grateful for God’s grace and b) better equipped to resist evil. In the Old Testament, evil-as-slavery is often quite literal, as God frees the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the oppression of Assyria, exile in Babylon, and more. And usually that literal slavery is shown as the consequence of already-ongoing spiritual slavery to idols and evil. In the New Testament, God’s people now hail from every nation and every social caste, and freedom-from-slavery takes on even more spiritual, eternal, cosmic dimensions. That’s why Paul in verse 22 celebrates, “You have been freed from sin.” It’s an idea we’ve all heard since we were kids, have sung in countless hymns, and prayed thanks to God over and over again for. The problem… is that you and I are so used to talking this way… we rarely stop to think about what “freedom” and “slavery” mean here. So let’s go deeper.
First, let’s talk about sin. Gathering together Paul’s words in today’s scriptures, here’s the picture he paints of evil: “If you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey… You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity… When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regards to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? …The wages of sin is death.” So what do we learn? First, personal sin isn’t personal for long. If I do evil on my own without anyone knowing, even then I am a slave to evil. And being a servant to evil rarely stays personal for long: my inward vices eventually spill over into outward harm. Second, while ad execs pitch delicacies as “devil’s food” or “wickedly delicious,” framing gluttonous temptation as an act of freedom, in reality… while greed or selfishness may be an act of freedom from “the rules,” you are still enslaving yourself, just instead of to good it’s to evil. But how is that? If I just bend the rules this once, it’s not like I’m Adolf Hitler, right? Well, Paul explains that sin—that the evil we do—has this nasty habit of building on itself. Paul suggests impurity leads to greater and greater iniquity, and so too greed to still more hunger for gain, selfish pride to even greater demands for flattery, sloth towards yet more procrastination, and so on. If we are not careful, sin builds upon itself like a deer trail turning into a well-worn walking path under the soles of more and more hikers’ boots. Or as theologian Rudolph Bultmann writes, the freedom to do whatever we want merely enslaves us “to our impulses, to do in any moment what lust and passion dictate… Genuine freedom is freedom… that withstands the clamor and pressure of momentary motivations.” Evil, if left unchecked, ultimately pays dividends in death and suffering. Evil is not content ruling over one small corner of the human heart: it desires to consume us whole and so must be resisted and fought down to the smallest inch.
The greatest example of the tyranny of evil in recent memory is perhaps Hitler’s Germany. One American writer interviewed several Germans after the war about their experiences under Hitler’s fascism, and their accounts of falling into political subjugation parallels the heart’s path to enslavement by sin. “Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow… But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty… In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D… And now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves.” Or for a more recent example, the hit TV show Breaking Bad was the story of a high school chemistry teacher who starts dealing drugs to pay for his cancer treatments so his family won’t starve after he dies. But over a series of small moral compromises, each seeming necessary or reasonable at the time… the teacher becomes a monster so gradually it’s hard to notice, until he’s destroyed the very family he set out trying to protect. At its core, Breaking Bad is a tale about how one tiny sin—in this case the hero’s angry pride—if unchecked can corrupt and harm everything you love. That is why Paul writes: “If you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey… You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity.”
So that is our opponent: sin wants to enslave us entirely. But Paul says the alternative to sin-slavery… is being a slave to God and righteousness. “Just as you once presented yourselves as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present yourselves as slaves to righteousness for sanctification… Now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life.” So no matter what we pick, we’re still slaves? That hardly seems fair. But the point Paul is making is that, when it comes to sin, often the choice is binary. Either choice frees you from one option and enslaves you to the other. You can either be enslaved to good diet and exercise… or you can be enslaved to health problems. Either you are enslaved to being faithful to your spouse… or you are enslaved to adultery and all the damage it brings. And just as one evil act paves the way for another and another, so too can acts of humility, kindness, love, and mercy pave the way for yet further acts of righteousness. Remember “sanctification” is the fancy word for God slowly making your holier over time… and then re-hear Paul’s words: “present yourselves as slaves to righteousness… for sanctification.” Being a slave to God, to righteousness… sanctifies you, makes you become holier, makes doing good easier and easier over time. And where slavery to sin brings death, the free gift of grace—that inspires our slavish devotion to goodness—the free gift of grace gives us life eternal. It is no accident that the standard clergy uniform is a collar, for the fashion was meant to reflect a slave’s collar, reminding pastor and parishioner alike that we are all meant to be servants of the Lord who sets us free from the chains of sin and death.
However, I’m not saying all ethics is just a slippery slope, where if you lie to a friend today you’ll be selling heroin tomorrow. Rather, I mean what Aristotle meant in his book on ethics when he described virtue. Aristotle argued you and I are freely able to choose how to behave. But over time, these behaviors we freely choose shape us in turn, and they form our character, our innate disposition to do good or evil. Repeatedly choosing goodness makes choosing good again easier. And indulging evil over and over makes doing so again more likely. Obviously not everything in life is binary like that, and we don’t make moral choices in a vacuum with all the facts laid out before us. So don’t take the simple model here as the end-all, be-all of Christian ethics but as a starting point. Rather, in essence Paul is saying that righteousness and wickedness are like muscles: you don’t notice them growing stronger overnight… but eventually you find the one you’ve been repeatedly using is overpowering, whereas the one you’ve neglected has atrophied into weakness. So too with vice and virtue.
And this understanding of evil makes Easter all the more miraculous. Because if evil like a disease slowly takes over its host, then Easter is about the tide unexpectedly turning. Because if sin does enslave us such that we can be called its servants, then Easter is a story of abolition, as heaven’s army breaks our fetters and restores to us what was taken. Because if evil is indeed this way, then we know God’s grace must indeed exceed our wildest expectations and can never truly be lost, for that grace saved us from self-forged chains at a time when we were powerless to save ourselves. It’s a reminder that Jesus didn’t come for the righteous but sinners, doesn’t choose the strong but the weak, doesn’t look down upon the lowly but raises them up. Evil-as-slavery highlights that truly God’s grace is a “free gift,” as Paul says here. Because nothing other than the might of heaven could free us, and nothing other than freely given could we slaves to sin afford. But the good news is God’s grace is indeed freely given to you and me.
But there’s another lesson in this. Slavery to evil is a path that ultimately confines and binds you, makes you unable to choose otherwise after a point, ultimately leads to a point where you look back unsure how you got there. Slavery to goodness, in contrast, ironically sets you free. You are free to love. Free to enjoy things for their own sake. Free to choose forgiveness. Free to choose to say “no” to temptation. Slavery to goodness leaves you in control over your mind, whereas slavery to sin leaves impulses and cravings at the wheel as your conscious brain looks on helplessly. Because in both forms of slavery—whether to goodness or evil—both nurture a strict obedience in your soul. Slavery to evil eventually binds your will to your desires, to temptations you cannot control but only submit to. While slavery to goodness… chains your will to self-control, ultimately gives you more freedom to choose, gives you a strict discipline that rules your life. But unlike the discipline doled out by evil, a discipline that abuses and dominates, the self-discipline of slavery to God brings more freedom, more peace, more options… even as it asks strictness of you like a master might a servant. But the difference is giving your will to God gives you control by making you what you were always meant to be.
So… what have we learned from all this? We’ve learned that resisting temptation is easier the more you do it and that giving into vice is also easier the more you do it, so remember that today’s choices form tomorrow’s habits, which form your ultimately character. We also gained a new appreciation for Easter waiting for us on the other side of Lent. Because if sin is indeed this way, then once we fall prey to it we have a literal hell of a time getting out. And so it makes the work of Jesus all the more miraculous, because he frees us from chains that we forged, systems we built but become oppressed by, tyrants we chose but now need deliverance from. Jesus frees us from a captivity that we alone were overcome by and could not escape alone. It reminds us grace is free… but mighty. And lastly, we learned that the gift of Easter not only frees us from sin… but frees us to choose to be bound to righteousness. Not only are we freed from evil… we are freed for something: for love, for purity, for holiness, for mercy, and compassion. In this life, you must choose between one of two masters. Evil frees you from the disciplines required by righteousness, but it chains your will to impulses that one day corrupt the pleasure and good you desire. And righteousness frees you from evil, but slavery to righteousness instead frees you to self-control, to love, and to choosing into the life God always desired for you. The choice is ours to make. But most of all, remember the final verse of today’s text: “The wages of sin is indeed death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Evil is something earned, yes… but grace that frees us… is freely given and can be freely received by any. The chains that bind can be broken forever, even if we misstep from time to time on our earthly way. The shackles of evil can be undone… and the key… is the grace of Jesus. So yes, sin is a slaving tyrant. But Christ is a merciful liberator. Praise be to God. Amen.