Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?… You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness… Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The term ‘expressive individualism’ was coined by the sociologist Robert Bellah, but given currency in the work of philosopher Charles Taylor. Understood as the free expression of an individual’s natural desires and inclinations – the freedom to ‘be yourself’ – it’s increasingly seen as a defining feature of our current age.
The biblical perspective is more realistic and far richer. True freedom does not involve living for ourselves, but living under the lordship of Jesus. Paradoxically, belonging to Christ marks not the end of slavery but the beginning of a new type of slavery. We’re set free from one master into the service of another, to be ‘slaves to righteousness’ and ‘slaves of God’.
This would have resonated powerfully with the first hearers of Paul’s letter in Rome. For some of them, slavery would be not just a metaphor but a way of life. There was a range and complexity in the social status of slaves in first-century Roman society. Much depended on what kind of master the slave belonged to.
So it is that Paul presses home the nature and consequences of two possible slaveries. The end result of one is sin and death. The end result of the other is holiness and life, now and in the age to come. Our release from slavery to sin brings with it not the freedom to do as we please, but the freedom to enter service to God – a new Lord, with a new way of life, and a new outcome.
In practical terms, on our everyday frontlines, this means living and working, making decisions and relating to others, based on our first allegiance – to God himself. Then, in many workplaces and family contexts, we’re required to serve the interests of others. In doing so, we follow the pattern of Christ himself, who took on ‘the very nature of a servant’ (Philippians 2:7). We see it in the teacher reaching out to a difficult student, the business person drafting a deal that will bring genuine benefit to a local community, the parent apologising to the grumpy teenager.
And we do this not to earn points with God, as if he will owe us some sort of wage at the end of the day, but from the secure position of knowing we already have ‘eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’.