Summary: God calls us to give up our freedom, to make him our master, to submit to a new bond of slavery, slavery to righteousness, knowing that obeying God will actually enable us to live the way God originally intended.
They say if you can remember the 60s you weren’t really there. Well, I don’t know about that. I’m pretty sure I was there and despite how long ago it was there are still things I can remember about it. I guess the thing that most memorable about the 60s for those of you who aren’t as old as I am, was that it was the era of liberation and protest. There were the anti Vietnam war protests, there were protests for women’s lib, there were protests for black rights, workers rights; protests against Apartheid; you name it. And it was all about seeking freedom for all people. The 60s were the years of free love, freedom of choice, freedom to make up your own mind about everything from clothes to morality. And the result was that each generation since has been careful to ensure that their freedoms and rights are preserved at all cost. In fact it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that freedom, particularly personal freedom, with the right to choose what we will, is the core value of our culture today.
Not that the desire for freedom is anything new of course. It’s always been a fundamental human desire, even need. Even in cultures like those of Bible times, when slavery was a fact of life for many, freedom was longed for.
Yet what we’ve discovered so far in the first 6 chapters of Romans is that ultimately none of us can ever be really free, none of us has a real choice, without Christ. Without Christ we’re told, we’re slaves to sin.
So what does it mean to be a slave? Well, it means no choice. Slaves do what their master tells them. It means no freedom. Slaves go where they’re told, live we’re they’re told, get up, go to bed, work, when they’re told.
But at least there’s a sense in which that sort of slavery is outside their control. People are born into it. They have no say over it. And because they have no choice they can still protest against it, in their minds at least. But what if we actually chose to enter into the slavery of sin. Then it would be even worse.
There’s actually an OT image that Paul may be thinking of when he talks about people presenting themselves to someone as obedient slaves. That’s the image of a slave choosing to remain in slavery to a good master even though he could go free. (Exo 21:2-6 NRSV) "When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. 3If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. 5But if the slave declares, "I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person," 6then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life."
Now notice that his slavery at first is a limited thing. It lasts for 6 years, then the slave is set free. But if a slave chooses to remain in the service of his master, his slavery is then for life. This may well be what Paul has in mind when he says, in v2, "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?"
Having been rescued from slavery by Christ’s death on the cross, having been set free to obey God, we still have a choice - we can return to the slavery of sin, or we can choose to be slaves of righteousness, i.e. slaves of God. In fact he thanks God that they have become obedient from the heart to the teaching of the gospel. Like the OT slave, they’ve decided that because they love their new master, God, they’ll submit to his authority over them, they’ll become slaves, not of sin, but of righteousness.
But notice that our culture’s belief in the importance of freedom and choice has nothing to do with the reality of being Christ’s followers. In fact it’s at odds with it. We’ll come back to this in a moment, but for now, let’s realise that we 21st century western people have quite a difficulty here. We’re so convinced of the importance of freedom and choice that we don’t want to hear that we’re slaves. We’re so used to being able to go to the supermarket and choose whichever breakfast cereal we like, whichever toothpaste we think will make our teeth the brightest; we’re so used to turning on the TV and being able to choose what to watch and if there’s nothing on TV we can go down to Mick’s Flicks and hire one of the 1000 or so videos he’s got there (plus get 3 weeklies for an extra couple of dollars); we’re so used to that sort of choice that being part of a church, taking part in it’s activities, even worshipping with God’s people each Sunday, becomes just another recreational possibility, rather than a commitment made to the one who rules our lives.