What does the Bible mean when it talks about being a slave to sin?
Romans 6:17-18 shows that all people are slaves to sin before coming to faith in Jesus Christ: "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." Paul explains in the previous verse that, "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?" (v. 16).
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A slave, or doulos in the original Greek language of the New Testament, was a person who served the will of his or her master. A slave to sin indicates a person is obligated to follow the will of sin; a person has no power to leave the "master" of sin. In addition to being a slave by status, a person is a slave to sin by function. In John 8:34, Jesus told the unbelieving religious leaders, "Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin." People are slaves to sin both through their fallen human nature (often referred to by theologians as original sin) and through actions.
However, when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9), he or she is "set free from sin." Instead, we become "slaves of righteousness." For the believer, this new freedom comes as a gift. Yet this gift was priceless. The cost was the death of Jesus Christ. Romans 6:6 shares, "We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin." The crucifixion of Jesus covered the cost of our sin. The one who believes in Him is given eternal life (John 3:16) and new life.
The response of the believer who has been freed from the slavery of sin is clear: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness" (Romans 6:12-13). Based on God's great love, grace, and mercy, our response is to no longer live obedient to sin, but rather to live in righteousness in obedience to God. This is not to earn His favor, but to express our love for His wonderful forgiveness and gift of eternal life.
How should we then respond when we find ourselves sinning as a believer? Scripture offers two helpful principles. First, we confess our sins: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
Second, we realize that we will continue to struggle with sinful temptations as believers. Even with God's Spirit within us, our human weakness deals with desires that can cause us to stumble. Paul stated, "For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Romans 7:18-20).
As believers, we are no longer slaves to sin. However, we will continue to struggle with sinful desires and temptations in this life. Our goal is to draw near to God, resist the devil (James 4:7-8), and to live according to God's ways in accordance with our new life in Christ.
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