The commonality of slavery in first century Rome—and its often less-painful connotation compared to American slavery—led many New Testament authors to employ references to slavery in order to illustrate spiritual truths. One such spiritual truth is that we are all slaves. White, Black, Christian, non-Christian, American, non-American—everyone is a slave to something.
The Paul makes this point in Romans 6:16-19:
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.
The point is simple: Everybody submits themselves to something as obedient slaves. Paul gives two options. Either we are obedient to unrighteousness and lawlessness; or we are obedient to God, and therefore, righteousness. Perhaps a better-known example of slavery as a metaphor in the New Testament is found in Matthew 6:24, where Jesus explains, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB). Once again, the point is simple. If we want to serve our wealth, we cannot serve God at the same time. If we want to be obedient to God, we must be obedient to Him alone.
While the Bible is clear that we are all slaves to something, one question remains. To what (or whom) are you a slave? Who is your master?
The Master of Money
As it has been said before, money makes a miserable master. Many of us are familiar with the treadmill of materialism. The race to get more money, or the latest, greatest thing never ends. When that is our main goal, no amount of cash and no amount of stuff is ever enough. The Bible’s warning against having money as the center of one’s affection are clear and cutting. Paul admonished Timothy, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
Indeed, we ought to strive to “Keep [our] life free from love of money, and be content with what [we] have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). Is money and materialism worth all of our adoration and commitment? Money can make our lives more comfortable, and there is some pretty cool stuff to be acquired; but it is all vain. Either we will die, and we will not be able to take any of it with us (cf. Eccl. 2:18, 21; Lk. 12:20); or Christ will return and “all these things are to be destroyed” (2 Pet. 3:11 NAS). When a man “lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” he becomes a fool (Lk. 12:21). The master of money has empty promises full of fleeting pleasure and lengthy disappointment. Jesus says we can either choose to serve money, or God. Choose God.
The Master of Sin
Similar to the master of money is the master of sin. When we submit ourselves to unrighteousness, it becomes our master. We may think we are free—doing what we want, when we want—but in reality, when we live a life devoid of an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty we are pitifully enslaved. This slavery is pitiful for two reasons. First, the master of sin doesn’t pay well. Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” When we work full time in the field of unrighteousness, our boss pays us our due wages: death. We can’t expect to work for sin and get paid anything else. The second thing that makes this slavery so pitiful is how it’s perceived. The world at large views slavery to sin as freedom. They believe that a life of no moral restraints is liberating and worth having. But what about when this life is over? For indeed, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).
There is nothing liberating about slavery to sin. The New Testament describes some who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4). Those whose “end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19). Spending this earthly life chasing one fleeting pleasure after another is not freedom—it is a pitiful form of slavery. Only one source provides liberation from this slavery: the truth of Jesus (Jn. 8:32).
The Merciful Master
One vital difference between earthly slavery and spiritual slavery is that we get to choose. We get to choose who our master is by submitting ourselves to obedience. Whether it is to sin, self, money, or God, we have all submitted ourselves to someone or something. God loves us, and he wants the best for us. He is worth submitting to. True liberation is found while being obedient to God. Jesus once declared, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free… Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:31-36). The only way to be freed from slavery to sin is through obedience to the word of God—then we are free indeed.
Paul likewise wrote in Romans 6, “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” (17-18). The blessings of being a slave to righteousness are many. When we are slaves to righteousness we are “free from sin” and the fruit we get “leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22). While the fair wage of sin is death, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23b). To be a slave to righteousness one must denounce unrighteousness, and obey “the standard of teaching” found in the New Testament. Only then can we be liberated by Jesus Christ and a slave of righteousness.
We all need to look within ourselves and determine to whom or what we are submitting ourselves. Are we a slave of sin? Are we only seeking more money and pleasure? While these forms of slavery may seem like freedom, they are eternally disastrous. Jesus offers liberation, reconciliation, and eternal life. Be a slave to righteousness. Let God be your master.