Slave or Free?
I once had dinner with a young navy Lieutenant and his wife and family. They were a dear Christian couple and he was contemplating going into ministry after his military career was over in a few years. He asked me many questions about working as a minister,
- What training he would need
- How to begin
- What this work was really like on a daily basis
In his role as a navy officer he was responsible for hundreds of people and the efficient completion of their tasks and he wanted to know if there were any comparisons with ministry. In trying to sum up the core idea of being a minister I told him that if he wanted to become a preacher he needed to get used to dealing with failure, not efficiency.
Because ministry is all about dealing with people's sins not their successes.
- Before people become Christians they need to see that they are sinners so that they can recognize their need for Christ.
- When people become Christians they need to be reassured that Christ takes away all those sins that they are now so clearly aware of.
- And as they mature in Christ the task is to make sure they don't lose sight of their need for God's mercy (and become overly self-righteous in thinking they have no sin)
- Or reassure them that God's mercy and grace continues to save them despite the painful awareness that sin, no matter how hard they try, continues to be a major factor in their lives - even as Christians.
So you see, in ministry sin is always part of the equation - you can never get away from it. I suppose this is why the writers of the New Testament spent so much time writing about sin and its consequences, especially Paul in the book of Romans. In Romans chapters 7 and 8 the Apostle zeros in on one of the most perplexing questions concerning our experience with sin - are we slaves of it or are we free from it? Understanding the answer to this question usually dictates the quality of life we have as Christians.
Now in the book of Romans Paul has a lot to say about sinfulness and its effects. In chapters 1-3, Paul makes the case that everyone who ever lived is guilty of sin and subject to God's judgment and condemnation. In chapters 4-6, He explains in detail the good news, that despite this guilt God offers everyone forgiveness and eternal life based on faith in Jesus Christ, something everyone is capable of doing. It is in chapters 7-8 however that he deals with a seeming contradiction that appears to all those who have becomes Christians:
- If I am free from sin and condemnation through faith in Christ - why is sin still causing so many problems in my life?
- The Bible says I am free from sin but in my every day experience, I have to deal with sin that seems even more powerful than before I because a Christian.
So the question becomes: Am I a slave or am I free? Which is it? This is the question Paul tackles in Rom. 7-8 - this is what he says:
1. As long as we (Christians) live in this mortal body, sin will always have an effect on us.
And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.
- Romans 7:18
It's a sad and difficult fact that we, as Christians, remain subject to the "power" of sin. Paul says that even as Christians who know and desire to avoid sin, to overcome sin, to denounce it in ourselves and in the world - there is nevertheless failure to live up to the ideal we know and want.
The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don't really understand myself for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate.
- Romans 7:13
Doesn't' that well describe a Christian's experience when he/she falls into sin? So Paul uses himself as an example of a mature, productive Christian who struggles and fails to overcome sin in his life.
2. Even if we are subject to the effect of sin, we're not slaves to sin.
There's a big difference here between being affected by sin and being a slave to sin. For example:
The Israelites lived in Egypt under the same hot sun that the Egyptians lived. Couldn't get away from it. They felt the heat of it and had to deal with it. However, unlike the Egyptians, they didn't worship the sun. The sun didn't dictate the character of their lives, their hopes, their fears, etc. The Israelites were affected by the hot Egyptian sun but they were not slaves in mind and spirit to it as were the Egyptians. In the same way, in chapter 8 of Romans Paul says that despite the influence of sin in our lives.
A. We can overcome its influence to the point that while sin is part of our human nature it is not what guides and directs our lives. Paul explains in chapter 8 how God has enables us to do this - Romans 8:3-4. It's as if before Christ we had this raging bull on a leash that was pulling us along and dragging us wherever he wanted go. Christ's sacrifice has reduced this beast to a barking Chihuahua that's annoying, makes a lot of noise, bites our ankle once in a while but we can control by pulling on a leash.
B. We have the power to live the way we want. In Romans 7 Paul simply declared the obvious - everybody, even him, the great Apostle, has to deal with sin and the failure that comes with it. In chapter 8 however Paul explains that despite this reality, Christians have been given the power to follow and do what is right despite the constant urges and temptations to do wrong. Yes, you want to do right but end up doing wrong - but not always! It's not a foregone conclusion.
12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- 13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
In the end Paul says we're subject/influenced by sin - but we don't have to be slaves to it. We have the power to overcome it by the Spirit of God if we follow His lead and submit to His will.
The Nature of the Power
The next big question, especially for those who continually sin in one area. We all sin in various ways and tell ourselves that, well, this was an isolated incident - I'll do better next time. Pray, forgive yourself, move on. But sometimes there are sins that come back over and over again and for whatever reason we seem to fail more often than overcome.
So the question becomes, where's this power? How come I haven't overcome? I can win in other areas but not this one - why? When this happens many Christians make one of several mistakes:
- They stop believing thinking that their lack of success means that the gospel is not true somehow.
- They stop trying to deal with that sin thinking that it's impossible they might as well indulge in sinfulness in this area and just work on being a better Christian in other areas of life. For example I'll keep gambling secretly but increase my contribution to the church or work with the poor.
- They try even harder and deny themselves legitimate things in order to punish themselves for their guilty consciences and end up punishing everyone around them.
These methods and others never work and only lead to loss of faith, hypocrisy, or legalism and loss of joy. The nature of the power that God gives us through Christ and the Holy Spirit to overcome (not eliminate - big difference) sin in our lives.
- Eliminate = never sin
- Overcome = master sin
- You can overcome, overpower, master, an enemy without destroying him or it.
The power to overcome sin is contained in the 2 main promises that God makes to the Christian described by Paul in Romans 8.
Promise #1 - We will be judged based on our faith, not our performance.
So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.
- Romans 8:1
The day I believed, the day I obeyed the gospel in baptism, the day I confessed Christ as the Son of God was the day the sentence of death was lifted from me. The freedom I have is not freedom from imperfection, freedom from temptation, freedom from failure. I will eventually have this when Christ will resurrect me in my sinless glorious body. But for now the freedom I have is the freedom, the permission, to follow the Spirit - despite my imperfection - because there is no condemnation for me - I am saved because of my faith. Otherwise I, the sinner, the one always tempted, the one who struggles and sometimes fails or fails often - I would not be permitted, would not be worthy to follow the Holy Spirit with such an unholy life.
But, as Paul says, I let the Sprit control me, call me, draw me to a better life, a life where I can master sin, control it, denounce it, not be afraid of it, acknowledge it - even if I can't eliminate it altogether. The fact that I will be judged based on my faith rather than on perfect performance gives me the power to deal with my sin without fear or discouragement for as long as I live in this body.
Promise #2 - My sinful nature cannot separate me from God.
Oh, I know, many of you are thinking that this is a contradiction because the Bible says elsewhere that it is sin that separates us from God. (Isaiah 59:2). Well sin separates us from God but, faith reunites us with God in Christ Jesus. And once we are in Christ the power of our sinful flesh no longer has the ability to condemn us before God.
And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God.
- Romans 8:10
God loves us despite the sin we (both He and ourselves) see in us. The bottom line is that as long as we carry this body around there will be urges, temptations, failure but, like that hot Egyptian sun, we're not slaves to these things and they do not destroy our salvation because it is kept safe through faith in the power of Christ based on God's love - not the ability of our flesh to be righteous.
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:38-39
When he says nothing can separate, that includes our relative strength or weakness.
So, what practical lessons can we draw from Paul's teaching on the issue of sin and the power of God in the face of our sinful nature?
1. Realize that you're a sinner! If you're not a Christian, believe in Jesus and receive forgiveness for these by repenting of your sin, confessing His name, and being baptized as soon as possible. If you are a Christian realize that you're still a sinner - get over it! Stop feeling guilty, worried, afraid, discouraged or ashamed. It's what we all are - sinners who have been and continue to be forgiven. Don't be surprised or discouraged that you have to deal with sin, God knows that you'll have to deal with it your entire life.
2. Realize that you need Jesus. We all need Jesus Christ because only He deals effectively with our sins. He has paid the ultimate and complete price for every one of our sins and has made restitution with God on our behalf so we don't have to. He continues to defend and confess our name before God in heaven. He gives us the Holy Spirit who helps us mitigate the effects of our sinful flesh.
Instead of feeling guilty, or worried, or trying to justify ourselves with excuses or self-righteous hypocrisy. Why don't we just allow the Lord to save us and keep on saving us each day? Let His do the justifying and the saving and we'll do the believing and the persevering.
3. Realize that even if it's not perfect, your life is precious and you've got to get on with living it. You know after Paul finishes explaining this idea about freedom from sin - a little later in the epistle he spends several chapters teaching about how a Christian should live. Because as Christians our lives are no longer about sin.
Yes, there are sins and temptations, and that yappy Chihuahua devil always being a nuisance. But our lives are no longer defined by our sins, they are now defined and guided by the Holy Spirit of God, Who not only helps us overcome sin but also creates a new person in us. A person who is less and less affected by the sin in his nature and more and more resembling the character and conduct of Christ Himself.
The great promise of God to each of His sons and daughters is that if they patiently endure the burden of their sinful flesh and faithfully follow Christ - one day they will be completely like Him without reference to sin anymore.
22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
- Romans 8:22-23
In the meantime we wait patiently; we live faithfully, we maintain our hope diligently that this freedom from sin will enable us to live glorious lives now and be fulfilled as eternal lives when Jesus return - Amen.