Sin, Sanctification, and the Truth about Slavery

March 2, 2016

Joshua Waulk

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Joshua Waulk

According to the apostle Paul, no matter who you are or where you come from, you have always been and always will be a slave—either a slave to sin which leads to death or a slave to righteousness which leads to eternal life.

This shocking truth comes to us in Romans 6:15-23, where one of Paul’s main ideas is that enslavement to sin is overcome through enslavement to God and obedience to the gospel (Rom. 6:17).

While slave language may feel like a foreign, if not uncomfortable, concept to most westerners, the fact remains that the United States has a long and tragic experience with the slave trade. Human slavery ought to conjure up disturbing thoughts because of its soul-crushing effects. In our day, the sex trade, or human trafficking, is both thriving and destroying thousands of lives across our nation and around the globe. For this reason, Paul’s repeated and illustrative use of slave imagery to communicate sin’s arresting power is difficult for many to digest—even Bible-believing Christians.

The Truth About Slavery to Sin is Hard to Confess

Biblical evidence of this reluctance can be seen in Jesus’s dialogue with a Jewish audience in John 8:30-34. In this passage, Jesus tells them that the truth of His word will set them free if they “continue in it.” Yet, the crowd is incredulous, and they ask Jesus how He can suggest that they are slaves. In response, Jesus makes the critical point that “anyone who sins is a slave of sin.”

In Romans 6:15-23, Paul is neither apologetic for his choice of words nor bashful about connecting slave imagery to the believer’s new life in Christ, which is perhaps even more shocking for some.

For Paul, who frequently refers to himself as a slave of Christ (e.g., Rom. 1:1), there is no middle ground: the human soul is at all times either enslaved to sin or enslaved to God (cf. Matt. 6:24). Slavery to sin earns us only shame and death. The fruit of slavery to God, however, is not a wage, but a gift: sanctification (being made holy) and eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:19, 22, 23).

While there are many significant theological topics addressed in this Romans passage, the biblical counselor may find it particularly useful when working with counselees who struggle not with a suffering issue (loss of a loved one, illness, etc.) but some type of ongoing sin for which they are morally responsible (Rom. 1:29).

To Get Them Saved, Get Them Lost

A professor and friend of mine once shared that before you can see people saved, you’ve got to get them lost; that is, you must connect them with the truth of their own depravity. His point is well taken in light of the passage at hand, where Paul reminds his audience that they used to be slaves of sin (Rom. 6:17) and that this bondage produced only those things for which they were ashamed, namely, moral impurity leading to greater and greater lawlessness (Rom. 6:19).

Sin, it turns out, is just as progressive as sanctification, yet one of its grandest delusions is that it can be managed. The counselee who is caught up in a destructive cycle of sin must be warned that sin is not an obedient slave, but a tyrannical master. As has been observed elsewhere, “Sin will take you further than you want go, make you stay longer than you planned, and cost you more than you wanted to pay.”

Helping counselees see that their sin issue is a matter of both willful obedience and slavery to sin may be, by God’s grace, a pivotal moment for them in counseling. Drawing out these biblical truths in session while casting them in the context of the counselee’s life circumstance may represent a level of discipleship and doctrinal application they’ve never experienced before yet desperately need now.

Holding Up the Mirror of Scripture

Romans 6:15-23 becomes a much-needed mirror of sorts for counselees who need to be reminded of sin’s current or former hold on their lives. Speaking the truth in love, the counselor will show counselees what is at stake should they continue to choose willful disobedience to Paul’s command to pursue righteousness—that is, continued or even renewed slavery to sin along with its downward spiral of increasing consequences and exposure to shame and death (Rom. 6:16, 19).

This is, of course, a difficult conversation to have, but there are principles that the counselor can observe that will promote a successful outcome:

  1. Remind the counselee at the outset that nothing you say is intended to harm the counselee, but rather is designed to open up Scripture to them for their sanctification (use the Bible’s terms and define them clearly).
  1. Quote Scripture with precision or directly from the Bible if necessary so that counselees can clearly see that the counsel being provided is the wisdom of God rather than man and that the confrontation is between them and God’s Word rather than with the counselor.
  1. Be equally prepared to extend the hope of the gospel found in the passage, which involves the sovereign and preceding work of God both to liberate people from sin and empower their obedience for sanctification and eternal life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:18, 23).

Join the Conversation

Paul’s use of the slavery metaphor is a reflection of its presence in the Roman Empire. People could relate to it. Slavery is still a part of human experience today, but is harder to relate to. Can you suggest more ways that biblical counselors can help counselees appreciate the value of this metaphor for their lives?