What Does it Mean to Be a Slave to Sin?

Followers of Christ desire to please the Lord by living lives that obey the Lord and live in the freedom He alone can provide them. They can do this because Jesus has set them free through the new birth from the slavery of sin.

Contributing Writer
May 10, 2021
What Does it Mean to Be a Slave to Sin?

What does it mean to be a slave to sin? This is a vital biblical concept to understand and discuss but to do that, we must confront the effrontery of the word slave.

In our times, the term slave is a loaded word. Throughout human history, to today there have been people who enslaved others for their own purposes. In ancient times, captives of war may have been spared death to become slaves of the victorious nation. However misguided, this was often seen as an act of mercy even though their suffering may have been great.

In the ancient world, sometimes people became slaves through debt to others or they agreed to become indentured servants for a period of time to make amends or to restore the family honor. Women and children could be given to nobles as slaves, maidservants, or concubines. In biblical times, women and children left without protection or the support of a husband or father would often become victims of forced enslavement to survive. The Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt when they multiplied in such great numbers, the Pharaohs felt threatened by their number and size. They were forced to make bricks for the great building projects of ancient Egypt and had few rights.

In modern times, we, of course, recognize slavery as an abomination, a violation of human rights, and inconsistent with the freedom of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean the practice has been eradicated. Americans continue to wrestle with the consequences of earlier generations engaging in the slave trade and enslaving countless numbers of Africans on plantations in the South. Refugees fleeing harsh conditions in their home countries often end up virtual slaves of exploitive people who provide escape from their home country for an outrageous price that must be repaid once they are delivered to a new home. Around the world today, Christians unite to combat human sex trafficking that results in the enslavement of women, teens, and even children.

Slave is a terrible word. Likewise, sin is a terrible state in which to find oneself, especially if one is enslaved to sin. To sin is to miss the mark, to wander from the path of right living, to violate divine law. If one were to be enslaved to a lifetime of missing the mark or violating divine law, it would surely be, not only misery but a life that leads to death. The Bible uses strong, offensive words to describe this condition because it is an offensive state (offensive to God, offensive to us, and offensive to life itself) in which to exist. Praise God He’s provided a means of escape and paid the price for our ransom Himself.

What Does 'Slave to Sin' Mean?

To be a slave (in the Greek, doulos) to sin is to be someone who cannot help but make unrighteous choices. We may even recognize, as Paul did, that we want to do better, we desire to make choices that lead to life, but repeatedly discover we cannot free ourselves from the allure of sin. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” Romans 7:15 ESV.

When we are enslaved to anything, we submit our wills to that person or thing. Smokers become enslaved to nicotine. Try as they might to resist it, the demands of nicotine always win. Addicts and alcoholics become enslaved to their substance of choice. They may determine daily not to indulge but until they secure their freedom, they remain enslaved to that substance. Workaholics may be enslaved to achievement. Perfectionists become enslaved to precise standards. Food addicts become enslaved to food. Gamblers become enslaved to risking all for the chance of winning.

Bob Dylan released a song in 1979 titled “Gotta Serve Somebody.” In it, he sings about how we’re designed to serve a greater being. It’s hard-wired into our DNA to seek someone to serve. When we resist a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we don’t lose this desire to serve so we wind up serving harsher masters like pride, hate, selfishness, greed, deception, or indulgence that enslave us and rob us of life. Too often, in running from or resisting submitting to a righteous God, we find ourselves yielding our lives to relentlessly demanding powers with no love for us.

What Is the Difference between This and a Slave to Righteousness?

The difference between being a slave to sin or being a slave to righteousness is the difference between choosing life or death.

Paul writes in Romans 6:17-18But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

To some hearers of God’s Word, this may not sound like a great choice. No matter what we do, we end up a slave. The important difference is that as followers of Jesus, we are free slaves.

Think of it this way. When we don’t accept Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins and choose to live in our own righteousness, we are slaves to sin. We are confined to the “City of Sin-ville” because, as slaves of sin, we cannot do anything but choose to reside in sin. Even if we desire to visit the City of Righteousness, we are barred because we don’t have citizenship there.

When we do enter a saving relationship with Jesus, we are freed from sin. We no longer must reside in the “City of Sin.” We have now become citizens of the City of Righteousness with full privileges there, purchased by the blood of Jesus. We are free to enjoy all that being a citizen of that city entails. We are also free to make occasional visits to Sin but the more we inhabit our citizenship in Christ, the fewer desires we have to even occasionally revisit sin. We become slaves of righteousness as we learn to enjoy the pleasures and joys of a life that leads to more life, not death. As Christians, when we do lapse into sinful choices, the Holy Spirit convicts us and we remember we are free to make other choices, we remember we are now slaves of righteousness and life.

Why Does the Bible Use This Imagery?

Slavery is serious, serious business. We recognize the outrage of it and the damage it causes everyone involved. Slavery is dehumanizing and repugnant. God wants this reaction from us in response to sin. He wants us to understand the power of remaining in our sinful state. Sin is also dehumanizing and repugnant. He wants our eyes opened to the deception our spiritual enemy uses to keep us enslaved to sin that leads only to death.

When we are children, we learn the story of Pinocchio, Geppetto’s wooden puppet who longs to be a “real boy.” One night, his wish was granted, but on his way to school, he was lured by the wily fox, “Honest John,” who promises him stardom as a “live puppet without strings.” Sadly, Pinocchio finds himself locked up and enslaved by the fox. He is freed by his friend but shortly thereafter, he’s lured again to “Pleasure Island” where he can “live free.” There he learns that his new life of “freedom” will quickly turn him into a donkey. The theme of this fairy tale is that we must be on guard for ways that look like freedom but actually lead to enslavement and death. Even though this is a child’s story, it’s a creative example of the enticement of sin that leads only to bondage and to a diminishment of our humanity.

God is our Creator and our Father. He gave His only Son to free us from bondage to sin. To be a slave to righteousness is to be free from sin and, ultimately, from death. It is the path to eternal life and life so abundant we are a blessing to ourselves, to others, and to God.

How Can We Be Free of the Bondage of Sin?

Freedom from sin is found only through a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Romans 10:9-10 ESV reads, “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”

We must believe in our heart that God raised Jesus from the dead and confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord. He died on the cross to pay our ransom from sin and death. When we accept His sacrifice on our behalf, we enter into a relationship with Him.

In John 8:34-36 NIV Jesus says this: “Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John tells us in John 1:12 NIV “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—” Through Jesus Christ, we have freedom from sin and become children of God.

We then become “slaves of righteousness,” but it’s not a righteousness we must conjure up of our own volition. It is the very righteousness of Christ that becomes our breastplate. In Ephesians 6:11 KJV, God warns us about the tricks and schemes of the devil and tells us to, “Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” One specific piece of that armor is the breastplate of righteousness detailed in Ephesians 6:14 KJV “Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness.”

In other words, we are no longer subject to our own behavior but instead, need only abide in Christ, who is our righteousness. “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” Philippians 3:9 KJV.

We don’t like to imagine that we are enslaved by anything, but the truth is that if we don’t have a relationship with Jesus, we are slaves to sin, and often deceived into believing we are free. The good news is that Jesus’ died for all. Any person from any walk of life can look to Him for salvation and receive the freedom that only He provides. A freedom that leads to eternal life.

For further reading:

Does God See All Sins as Equal to One Another?

Can Nothing Really Separate Us from the Love of God?

What Does it Mean ‘The Wages of Sin Is Death’?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Boonyachoat

Lori Stanley RoeleveldLori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits who enjoys making comfortable Christians late for dinner. She’s authored four encouraging, unsettling books including Running from a Crazy Man and The Art of Hard Conversations. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.

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