A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on October 10, 2021.
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 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? 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. 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. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 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. 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. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:15–23).
If someone asked you for another word for Christian, what word would you give? Believer? Disciple? Follower? Ambassador? Saint? (Or, my favorite, Presbyterian?) Because words matter, each of these words gives a different perspective. Believer, disciple, follower, ambassador, saint, all describe the same person, yet each describes different aspects of what it means to be a Christian.
Similarly, Scripture provides a variety of similes and metaphors to help us better understand the Christian life. We desire God’s Word like babies, fight like soldiers, compete like athletes, and abide like branches. We are aliens and strangers and citizens of heaven yet lights of the world. We are heirs of the kingdom and joint heirs with Christ. We are even friends of God.
But there is one word, one metaphor, that is used in Scripture more than any other to describe us (over 250 times in the Old Testament and at least 40 times in the New Testament). Do you know the word? Slave. In fact, the earliest Christians referred to themselves as the Lord’s slaves.
Yet, the word sounds offensive to modern American ears. How can we who are free be slaves to anyone? In an age that esteems Critical Theory, isn’t there another word that could be used? Slave sounds so oppressive to liberated ears. Yet, this is the metaphor Paul employs in his letter to the Romans at a time when approximately 30% of the population were slaves. He is not using the word “slave” to offend or for shock value but to teach, and he does this by describing us as “slaves . . . either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (6:16). Paul is leading us to examine ourselves and realize that the question is not whether you are or are not a slave but whose slave are you?
Slaves of sin
Paul returns in this passage to the allegation that living in God’s grace encourages sin, but this time from the perspective of the law. The underlying argument is that the law leads us to obedience and righteousness while grace leads to lawlessness. But it’s a faulty argument for two reasons: First, you can’t pit two of God’s gifts against one another; and second, you’re trying to make God’s law do something it was never intended to do, namely save us from our sin. God’s law does not guarantee obedience and righteousness and God’s grace is not a license to sin. On the contrary, God’s grace frees us from sin so that we may obey God’s law; it doesn’t work the other way around. But the world cannot see this or accept it. Why? Because, to the world, true freedom is the freedom to sin; everything else is slavery.
It is only by God’s grace, through the illumination of his Spirit, that sin can be seen for what it really is. Sinning isn’t freedom; it’s slavery, unmerciful servitude to an oppressive and tyrannical master. So oppressive is sin that it has and continues to enslave people all over the world, regardless of race, language, or nation. No one is immune to its poisoning of the soul, pollution of the mind, and power over the body. So pervasive is sin’s infection that it invades our intellect, will, and emotion, like a thriving and untreatable cancer.
Jesus said, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34); that is, they are mastered by it. Even the most noble of unbelievers, is shackled and captive to sin’s mastery. They are spiritually blind to “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4) and dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). And yet, ironically, unbelievers do not want to be freed from bondage to sin. Why? Because he is enslaved to the very thing his heart loves—sin. Having exchanged the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25), sinners believe that sin satisfies what the heart desires, when in reality it only enslaves, ultimately delivering death.
Yet, the world, our flesh, and the devil never present as slavery but as freedom. Think back to Eve’s temptation in the garden. Eve knew God’s law, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Gen. 3:3), but Satan’s argument was so convincing: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). Satan argued that sin leads to unshackled freedom, even from God, and Eve believed him. And that snake continues to make the same argument today, and sinners far and wide continue to buy the lie, willingly submitting to indentured servitude to sin.
In fact, the greatest oppressor in the history of the world is sin, and the only hope of freedom is the gospel. The good news is that all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved, saved from the wrath of God, saved from eternal death, saved from slavery to sin. All who trust in Christ are no longer slaves to sin but are freed to willingly and joyfully obey the Lord, as slaves of righteousness.
Slaves of Righteousness
To say that we were slaves of sin means that we no longer are. Slavery to sin is part of the old self not the new, part of Adam not Christ, but speaking in “human terms,” because of our “natural limitations” (6:19), Paul continues with the metaphor of slavery, contrasting sin with righteousness. To do this, Paul uses the word obey: “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?” (6:16). And it is to this point of obedience that we see more clearly why the law cannot free us from our bondage to sin but only grace. If we seek to be freed from sin by obeying the law, we quickly find we cannot keep the law perfectly. It cannot liberate but only condemn. But by God’s grace, we are freed from slavery to sin through faith in Christ.
In Christ, we are freed from sin and to obedience, and it is in this grace-enabled obedience that we grow in righteousness. We refer to this as Christian sanctification, the means by which the Spirit of Christ is conforming us to the image of Christ in righteousness, which Paul describes too as “slavery”: “having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness” (6:18). As Paul uses the word righteousness here, he is not referring to our justification, our state of righteousness before God through the imputed righteousness of Christ through faith, but our sanctification. As Augustine put it, we were non posse non peccare, “not able not to sin,” but in Christ, we became slaves of righteousness, or posse non peccare, “able not to sin.” And this we do by God’s grace.
However, Paul does not leave his metaphor of slavery to the abstract but instead provides at least three practical applications for what this means. First, we are to commit to the truth of God’s Word. Paul gives thanks that “you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (6:17). The Roman Christians were committed to knowing Scripture. Historians tell us that for the edification of the illiterate and literate alike, every Lord’s Day worship included public reading from the Old Testament often accompanied by the Gospels or circulated letters from the apostles. Sometimes Christians would assemble every morning of the week to hear the Word of God read and for prayer. That’s commitment! Christian, we are no less needy than our ancient brethren. That you may live a life of righteousness, commit yourself to be in God’s Word daily.
Second, according to the truth of God’s Word, we are to know who we are. If we walk through this sixth chapter of Romans, we will find a large number of verbs in the past tense, telling us who we already are in Christ. For example: “we died to sin” (6:2); we “have been baptized into Christ Jesus” (6:3); “we have been united with him” (6:5); “our old self was crucified with him” (6:6). All these things (and more) happened to us through faith in Christ. We lack nothing for our sanctification! As Dr. Lloyd-Jones put it, “You have already received ‘all things that pertain unto a life of godliness.’ You do not need another experience. You do not need some new gift. You have been given everything in Christ; you are ‘in him’ from the beginning of your Christian life. You are just a slacker and a cad, just lazy and indolent, indeed ‘a liar,’ if you are not living this life.” Never one to mince words, what Lloyd-Jones is telling us is that we are who we are by God’s grace through faith in Christ and this has a practical implication for your life and mine. Stop looking for something else when God has given you everything you need.
Third, knowing who we are, we are to live life like who we already are. Based on who you are in Christ, Paul says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions” (6:12). In fact, and specifically, he says, “present your body’s parts as slaves to righteousness” (6:19 NASB). Where grace abounds, righteousness abounds, in every square inch of your redeemed body and mind. So, by the power of the Holy Spirit in you, live like who you are. And, in living like who you are, you will also reveal whose you are. For, you and I are slaves of God.
Slaves of God
Paul told the struggling church at Corinth this startling truth: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). From the slave market of sin we were redeemed, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold” (1 Pet. 1:18) but through the precious and priceless blood of Jesus. Contrary to the way many Christians behave, we are not our own. As we were bought by the precious blood of Christ, the precious love of God should flow from your life and mine to a world enslaved to sin. The world should clearly see that you and I are slaves of God, a beautiful testimony of God’s reigning grace of our lives.
For, we are slaves of God, purchased and delivered, and the divine paradox is, as slaves of God, we are truly and eternally free! And this freedom is found only through faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As he said himself, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Freed from sin and freed to righteousness, freed from death and freed to life, as slaves of God we find that we have been freed to live as we were created, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
So, as slaves of God we rejoice in God’s grace, for the wages of sin is death, not life. But by God’s grace, by his unmerited favor, he has bestowed upon us not wages earned but a gift received through faith. Whose slave are you? Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as a slave of God, you will be free indeed.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 John MacArthur, Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 12.
 Mark Cartwright, “Slavery in the Roman World,” World History Encyclopedia, November 1, 2013, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/629/slavery-in-the-roman-world/.
 “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:1-2).
 D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6, The New Man quoted in James Montgomery Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), 2:701.
 “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” “The Shorter Catechism Q. 1,” in The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: Christian Education & Publications, 2007), 355.