From Slavery to Slavery - Romans 6:20-22

For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Romans 6:20-22).

 

In these verses, the metaphor that Paul continues to use to portray the Christian life is that of slavery. As we look at this passage, we see the transition that takes place in a believer’s life at the moment of conversion, as he goes from one type of slavery to another. Before we become a Christian, we are slaves of sin, held in bondage to its cruel tyranny. When we were born again, we became a slave of God, now obedient to a new master. There is never a moment in anyone’s life in which we are not a slave. There is not an interval of time between these two slaveries in which we are in neutral territory, not a slave to any master. When we were converted, the door of the prison house of sin was opened, our chains were unlocked, and we were ushered out of our former bondage to sin. Immediately, we were brought into a new slavery to righteousness.

 

This is important to know because there is a dangerous teaching today called the ‘non-Lordship position’ that believes you can be freed from your slavery to sin when you become a Christian, yet not at the same time become a slave of Jesus Christ. In other words, you can believe in Jesus as Savior, yet not submit to Him as Lord. Their thinking is that when you are converted to Jesus Christ, you can still live however you want without having to obey Him. Then, at some point down the road, perhaps five or ten years later, you might get to a point of dedicating your life to Christ. That is when you get serious about God and decide to recognize Jesus as Lord of your life. At last, you finally submit your life to Him and only then become His slave. It is as if this is a second work of grace, a second level of commitment to Jesus Christ.

 

However, this position is completely erroneous when weighed against the clear teaching of Scripture. There are many passages that refute this incorrect view of Christianity, and Romans 6:20-22 is one of them. The moment you are converted to Christ, you are released from one slavery and immediately ushered into a new slavery, that of being a slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the previous study, we asked, “Whose slave are you?,” because everyone is a slave to one of two masters, either of sin or of Christ. That is the central theme of these verses for this study.

 

These three verses in Romans 6:20-22 can be divided into two main headings. Verses 20-21 address the slave we were. Then verse 22 addresses the slave we are. In other words, verses 20-21 look at our past, our pre-conversion days before Christ. Verse 22 looks at our new life in Christ. There is a stark contrast between these two slaveries to two different masters.

 

I. The Slave We Were (6:20-21)

 

Verse 20 begins with the word “for,” and I want you to see the importance of this word. As you look in Romans 6, six verses – verses 5,7, 10, 14, 20, and 23 – all begin with the word “for.” Paul uses this word to introduce an explanation for what he has previously stated. In verse 20, Paul gives the explanation for what he said in the previous verse when he wrote, “Present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (verse 19). He now gives the reason why believers need to present the members of their body to God as slaves to righteousness. Though we once were a slave of sin, we are no longer under such bondage. As believers, we are now a slave of God and righteousness. Paul is stating that we need to be living out the reality that has already taken place in your life. That is the reason for what he writes in verse 20.

 

“You Were Slaves of Sin”

Paul writes, “For when you were slaves of sin” (verse 20). “You” refers to all believers. Every single believer was once a slave of sin. In fact, everyone in the world began as a slave of sin and continues to live as such if they are without Christ. But even for those who have been born again, we were once slaves of sin previous to our conversion. It does not matter if you grew up in church with Christian parents, went to a Christian school, had Christian friends, and memorized Bible verses as a child, you were still a slave of sin according to the authority of Scripture.

 

Your entire former life was lived in the prison house of sin. Your mind, heart, and will were all enslaved to your sinful desires. There is no way that your mind and affections were enslaved, but your will was free to make its own choices as though it is disconnected from your mind and heart. Your entire being was enslaved to sin. We need to understand just how dominated we really were by sin. Sin cracked the whip, and we obeyed. We once lived under the dominant rule of sin. It was manifested more so in some than in others, for various reasons. Some of the differences were due to the environment you were in and the amount of temptations that were confronting you. Nevertheless, Paul is crystal clear that every believer was once a slave of sin.

 

Without Righteousness

Paul adds, “you were free in regard to righteousness” (verse 20). “Free” carries the idea that before your conversion, you were without any power to fulfill the righteousness that God requires. More specifically, you were free from any obligation to pursue righteousness. There was a moral inability within you to be righteous. This is the very opposite of the freedom of the will. You were disconnected from righteousness, powerless to perform righteousness or even choose to pursue it.

 

Ashamed at the Past

Paul then writes, “Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed?” (verse 21). “Benefit” (karpos) could be translated as ‘fruit, advantage, profit.’ Paul is referring to the deeds of the flesh, which one did before he was born again, of which he is now “ashamed” (epaischunomai, ‘to feel shame’). One mark of being a believer is that one has repented of the sins of his past. He has confessed and turned away from the sins in which he once lived before he was born again. Even if a person was raised in the church and never did any violent sin, nevertheless, he was an idolater, liar, and coveter, who was deceptive, self-centered, and living for himself rather than for God. Paul says believers are ashamed of those things.

 

As a believer, the things you once loved before you came to faith in Jesus Christ, you now hate. And the things you once hated, you now love. The things in which you once gloried, you are now ashamed. This is a distinguishing mark of the new birth. When I hear someone give a testimony, I always carefully listen to how they present their past life before they became a Christian. Those who in any way glamorize their sin from before they were a Christian, immediately set off warning sirens in my mind. We should be ashamed of those things in which we once gloried.

 

“The Outcome is Death”

Paul continues, “for the outcome of those things is death (verse 21). “Death” refers to eternal death, eternal punishment, and eternal torment in hell forever. The outcome of any life without Christ is the second death, which includes death throughout the ages to come. This “death” is the just punishment for sin that everyone deserves from a holy God. If you are born again, this describes from what you have been delivered. You also were once enslaved in sin before you came to salvation in Jesus Christ.

 

Slavery to Sin Taught by Jesus

Jesus Himself taught the truth of the unbeliever’s slavery to sin. He stated, “So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine’” (John 8:31). This mark of a genuine, authentic disciple of Christ is perseverance and endurance in obedience to the truth. The true believer will continue in the faith. Those who fall away will give evidence that they were never genuinely converted. They started out apparently well, but they eventually fizzled out and no longer lived in pursuit of Christ and adhering to His word. This prolonged lifestyle of disobedience gave evidence that they were not truly disciples of Christ.

 

Jesus continues, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (verse 32). Obviously, if the truth makes you free, then previously, before you came to believe in the truth, you were not free. If you were not free, you were a slave who was enslaved to something. When you were an unbeliever, Jesus will explain, you were enslaved to sin and to Satan.

 

The response of the Jews was, “We are Abraham’s descendants.” That is a very telling statement, because it indicates that they were claiming a right relationship with God simply because of their religious heritage as Jews. Because they were descendants of Abraham, therefore, they claimed that they must be in good standing before God. These self-deceived Jews continued, “‘And [we] have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?’” (verse 33). They understood the implication that Jesus was making, that if they were to become free, this must mean that they were presently enslaved.

 

This heated exchange continued, “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin’” (verse 34). This refers to every unbeliever who lives in an ongoing lifestyle in sin. They habitually practice sin, because they are a slave of sin. Jesus is painfully clear, and His message was not received well. He asserted, “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you….But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth’” (verses 37,40). This was a provocative accusation, that no matter how religious their upbringing, parents, or heritage, until they believe in the truth of the gospel, they remain enslaved to sin.

 

Slavery to Sin Taught by the Apostles

The Bible has more to say on the topic of slavery to sin. In 2 Timothy 2:26, Paul addressed false teachers, but his words would also apply anyone who buys into their lies. Paul writes that they are in “the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will.” They had no freedom of their will, because they were ensnared and held captive by the devil himself to hold them in the grasp of his grip. In 2 Peter 2:19, the apostle Peter writes that false teachers are “slaves of corruption; for by what a man is overcome, by this he is enslaved.” In other words, they are held as slaves of sin, overtaken by their sin. The theme of slavery to sin when one is without salvation in Jesus Christ is taught throughout the New Testament.

 

We need to understand how ensnared we were before we came to faith in Jesus Christ. We were enslaved beyond what most of us can recognize or comprehend. A major part of our lostness was that we were a slave of sin – and a slave to sin. Our mind, emotion, and will were all held in the ironclad grip of sin. That is a sobering and grim truth. But it is this bad news that makes the good news the best news you have ever heard.

 

II. The Slave We Are (6:22)

 

As we come to verse 22, we see the new slave we became to a new master at the moment of our regeneration. Paul begins, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God” (verse 22). “But now,” marks a stark contrast from their previous spiritual condition. It indicates a dramatic change in their relationship to God. There needs to be a “but now” in every person’s life. It signals the present state of grace in which we must be found. The verb “having been freed” is a passive participle verb. The active voice means that you are the one doing the action. With the passive voice, someone is being acted upon. If this was in the active voice, it would mean that we set ourselves free. But it is the total opposite, in the passive. Someone else acted upon us. We were passive in this liberation, and someone else was active. That someone is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus maintained, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). This spiritual freedom was designed by God the Father, working through Jesus Christ, applied by the Holy Spirit. It was by the mighty work of Jesus Christ that your chains were unlocked and you were delivered out of your former slavery to sin.

 

“Freed From Sin”

When Paul says you have been “freed from sin,” he does not mean that we have been freed from all practice of sin. You and I still sin. Paul means that we have been freed from the reign, dominion, and mastery that sin once possessed over our lives. We have been set free from the rule of sin in our lives. The “redemption” (Romans 3:24) through the blood of Jesus Christ means that He entered into the slave market of sin in this world and paid the price to purchase and deliver all who would believe in Him. Jesus died in order to set us free from our former slavery. We now belong to Him, because Jesus bought us with the price of His own blood. He purchased the church at the cross while bearing our sins and paying the penalty for the curse of the Law, namely, death.

 

Jesus freed us from sin, but not so that we would continue to live in it. No believer is free to live however he wants. If so, it is a sure sign that a person is still in slavery to sin. Jesus purchased us at the cross, and we now belong to Him. By right of His ownership, He has now made us to be His slaves. What a wonderful thing it is to be His slave, because as our new Master, He cares for us so well that you would think we are living in a palace. He meets our needs, lives within us, provides for us, directs and guides our life. No slave ever had a more benevolent master than what we have in the Lord Jesus Christ. You would never want to be anywhere but under His mastery.

 

“Enslaved to God”

Notice in verse 22, what comes directly after “being freed from sin.” Paul writes, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God.” It does not say “or enslaved to God,” but “and enslaved to God.” This exchange is a package deal. When you are released from the one enslavement, you are joined to the other. When you are freed from one bondage, you are bound to the other. There is no other category, not other option. This change of master occurs immediately at the moment of conversion. It would be a distorted theology to imagine anything otherwise.

 

All believers are “enslaved to God,” whether they have been in Christ for five decades or five seconds. This is also a passive participle, meaning we were acted upon by God to bring about this new enslavement to Himself. We could not enslave ourselves to God. It was God who liberated us by the work of His Son. It was the Son of God who ushered us out of one slavery and immediately into the other slavery. No former slave of sin is left behind who has been born again. We are all ushered into this new submission to God, which means we are now under the dominion of God and under the reign of His grace. At the end of Romans 5, Paul says we were once under the reign of sin, but now we are under the reign of grace (verse 21). We are under the sovereign authority of divine grace. It is a powerful reign under which we now find ourselves in the Christian life. We are under the lordship of Jesus Christ, who is our new Master.

 

“Resulting in Sanctification”

In addition, Paul explains, “you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification” (verse 22). “Benefit” refers to the fruit or what is produced in your life. “Sanctification” (hagiasmos) comes from the same root word as “holy” (hagios) and “saint” (hagion). It means to be separated from sin and set apart unto holiness. “Sanctification” refers to from the moment you were born again until the moment you enter heaven. It refers to the entirety of your Christian life, from beginning to end.

 

There is both a negative and  positive aspect of sanctification. The believer is increasingly becoming more and more disentangled from the things of this world. At the same time, he is becoming more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. It is like a renovation project in which there is both a tearing down of the old and a building up of the new. The old material is being carried off from the construction site and the new material is being brought to the same site. The old is passing away, and the new is coming. Sanctification is our daily growth in grace by the work of the Holy Spirit, who uses the word of God and the other means of grace such as prayer, worship, and fellowship. In sanctification, you and I are being progressively matured into a greater resemblance to Christlikeness.

 

“The Outcome, Eternal Life”

Paul finishes verse 22 by saying, “and the outcome, eternal life.” This means that the inevitable end is eternal life. In this particular verse, “eternal life” refers to glorification. This is the final aspect of our salvation, when we will stand faultless in the presence of God and Jesus Christ in heaven. In that moment, what remains of our sin will be eradicated. Only our new man will remain. We will enter into the final phase of eternal life, which will go on throughout all eternity forever and ever.

 

We are now enslaved to God, which means we have a new Master. We give new obedience to this new Master, from a new heart, that redirects our new life, in a new direction, down a new path, that leads to a new destiny. There could be no greater change that occurs in anyone’s life. No greater change could ever happen in your life than for you to be born again and converted to Jesus Christ.

 

J.C. Ryle, an Englishman and one of the greatest Bible teachers of the eighteenth century, said, “To be born again is to enter into a new existence. It is to have a new mind, new heart, new views, new principles, new tastes, new affections, new likes, new dislikes, new fears, new joys, new sorrows, new love to things that you once hated, new hatred of things you once loved, new thoughts of God, new thoughts of yourself, new thoughts of the world, new thoughts of the world to come, and new life in Christ.” There cannot be a more dramatic alteration that could take place in anyone’s life than to go from slavery to sin to slavery to Christ. There is not a third category in the middle. It is an immediate transfer from slavery to one master, sin, into slavery to another Master, Jesus Christ.

 

It is good for us to be reminded of this new slavery that we now have. This is an already accomplished fact in the life of every believer. There is nothing that you need to do to become a slave of God if you are already born again. This transfer has already taken place. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to recognize this change and to live like it.

 

“Present Your Members”

The application is found at the end of verse 19, which set up verses 20-22. Paul writes, “So now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (verse 19).  That is the action point. Verses 20-22 are simply the explanation of why you need to present the members of your body to God. You must not present yourself to sin or to the world. You certainly must not present yourself to yourself. Instead, you must present yourself to God on an ongoing basis. You need to reaffirm this presentation of all that you are to all that the Lord Jesus Christ is.

 

When Paul begins the practical section of Romans in 12:1, he starts with this very thought. He writes, “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice” to God (Romans 12:1). As we noted in our last study, you need to present your mind to God, everything starts with your mind. As a man thinks in his heart, so is he (Proverbs 23:7). You need to present your eyes to God. What you gaze upon and look at is what comes into your mind. You need to present your ears to God, what you allow yourself to hear. You need to present your tongue and mouth to God to be used in a way that will glorify God. You even need to present your stomach to God and not be a glutton. You need to present your hands to God, what you lay hold of and what you do for work. You need to present your feet to God, where you go and the path that you take. You need to present your heart to God, your affections, longings, loves, ambitions, and desires. Every part of your body needs to be presented to God.

 

This truth needs to be reaffirmed over and over in our lives. Many seminaries require the whole faculty to reaffirm their commitment to the doctrinal tenants of the institution each year. There is a very real sense in which you and I, on an ongoing basis, need to be reaffirming the presenting of our entire life to God for His glory and purposes. We do not belong to ourselves. We have been bought with a price. At every turn in life’s road, we must ask, What will most glorify God? What will most promote the kingdom of God? What will most expand the gospel of God? What will most showcase the Son of God? What will most evidence the character of God? Those are the determining diagnostic questions that we must ask ourselves.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.