Slaves to Whom We Obey
Christians today have a problem when reading Scripture that is due to inhabiting a thought world which is quite different from that of Paul and the rest of the apostles and the early Church in general. When we hear the words, “free” or “freedom,” “liberty,” or any of their cognates, we think of self-determination—individuals choosing for themselves their own paths based upon their own desires, needs, or goals. When we see these words in Scripture, we must rid ourselves of these secular notions. I do not say that there is anything wrong with these definitions as long as we understand and rightly apply them to our secular context; indeed, I certainly favor individual freedom in a context of ordered liberty, the latter term being of significant consequence to our American founders—but that’s another matter. The biblical understanding of freedom is exactly how Paul describes it here: Freedom from sin, and freedom to love and serve God.
The passage begins with a similar question to verse one: “Are we to sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” And, of course, the answer is a resounding, “No!” In an effort to explain, Paul uses an analogy from the ancient world (which still exists in ours but in even more degraded forms), that being the institution of slavery. You see, as the Bible presents it, everyone is a slave to someone. Thus, the question is not whether or not one will be a slave, for that was decided in our creation. The only question is the identity of the master to whom the slave belongs. Is one a slave to sin and self, or is one a slave to Jesus Christ (as Paul often identifies himself in the opening of his letters, e.g., 1:1), which is the only true freedom there is? And how does one know which of the two is his master? Paul answers, “The one whom you obey.” Moreover, each master leads his slave to the proper end which that path leads: The lord and master Sin leads his slave to eternal death; the Lord and Master Jesus Christ leads his slave to life everlasting.
I am intrigued by verse seventeen: “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” The Christian faith is not based on a feeling; it is not a proper sentiment that one should nurture. The Christian faith is certainly life and joy, but it is based upon a “standard of teaching” which we do not get to modify according to our contemporary standards and tastes. And what is that standard of teaching? Well, that is what the whole Bible seeks to answer and what the Church has taught for centuries. And obedience to God’s word is the means for our freedom.