“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves to sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Rom 6:17-18)

Ask any American what slavery is associated with - freedom or bondage? Most would agree, its bondage. Conversely, considering our history, most would associate freedom with the idea of liberty or self-rule. At the beginnings of our nation, our forefathers linked the idea of freedom with the idea of liberty, that is, self-government or autonomous self-rule. Our Declaration of Independence declared that we would be a free people, determined to govern ourselves, independent from the British Crown. Later in our history, we fought a bitter Civil War to preserve the Union, where all slaves formerly in bondage would be regarded as free citizens. Slavery is to bondage as freedom is to liberty or self-rule.

Ask the Apostle Paul what slavery is associated with – freedom or bondage? He would answer, Yes! In Romans 6, he relates these terms where everyone is a slave who is simultaneously bound yet free. However, he contrasts the nature of these conditions before and after our baptism. The back and forth nature of his discourse about these realities in Romans 6 can be a challenge to follow, so let’s begin by summarizing them briefly. We will then be better positioned to explore his reasoning and the “so what” about them in the life of the Christian.

First, it must be noted that the Apostle is not discussing the civil dimension of life but instead what Luther called things above us. These are the spiritual matters of the human condition where the Scriptures know nothing of human autonomy. Concerning things below us, the affairs of ordinary temporal living, there is much we can decide, do, and accomplish according to our own will and work. When it comes to the civil dimensions of life, freedom, and autonomy go together. In spiritual matters, however, the Scriptures (including Romans 6) teach us that freedom is tied to slavery and bondage. One is either bound to Christ or bound to sin. Before our baptism, we were slaves to sin (Rom 6:6, Rom 6:17) marked by impurity and lawlessness (Rom 6:19), and free from righteousness (Rom 6:20). Then, baptism united us to the crucified, dead, and buried Christ (Rom 6:3-6). Our union with Christ has set us free from the slavery of sin (Rom 6:6-7, 22) and made us slaves of righteousness and God (Rom 6:18-19, 22). The freedom of the Christian is the result of being bound to Christ, where, as slaves of righteousness, we do as we are. One is either ruled by the powers and principalities of evil or ruled by our Lord and his righteousness. In our baptism, these saving realities flow from our Lord’s will and work, not from deliberated decisions on our part. Concerning things above us, before our baptism and after, there is no such thing as human autonomy.

The freedom here is first to be as God has designed us to be, and then to do as we are. It has nothing to do with self-determination or voluntary commitments.

The sense of bondage in Romans 6 involves an important connection between being and doing. When it comes to spiritual things, we do as we are. Slaves of righteousness are righteous, and therefore, they render righteous service. In the Kingdom of God, only laborers who are already righteous work in the Lord’s vineyard. They labor because they are righteous, not in order to become so, much to the surprise of some (Matt 20: 1-16). The Scriptures often use a botanical model to help us understand this connection. Good fruit only comes from a good tree and bad fruit only from a bad tree (Matt 7:18). Moreover, grapevines yield grapes because that is how God has made them. Using this imagery, Jesus declared that he is the vine and we the branches. Abiding in him, we can produce some pretty good vintage (John 15: 4-5). What we produce flows from what we are. It is God who has so connected our being and doing. The freedom here is first to be as God has designed us to be, and then to do as we are. It has nothing to do with self-determination or voluntary commitments.

In spiritual matters, freedom is tied to God’s purposes in creation and redemption, not individual whims or religious proclivities. Notice how Paul explained this connection: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10).” We carry out righteous labor in God’s vineyard, only because we first arrived there as righteous laborers. From the righteousness of being, we engage in righteous works of doing. As righteous slaves bound to the righteousness of Christ in our baptism, our obedience of faith is active in righteous works that serve our Lord and Master in the needs of our neighbor. Slavery, freedom, and bondage; they all go together in the Kingdom of God. So says the Apostle Paul.

Is this the end of the matter for Paul about the Christian concerning things above us? Has the Apostle covered it all about the spiritual matters of baptized Christians? Has the Apostle come to his bottom line in Romans 6 about the baptized informing us 1) that we are united to the crucified and buried Christ but now also alive in him; 2) that we are no longer slaves of sin; but, 3) that we have now become slaves of righteousness and God? Is this all that he has to say about the slavery, freedom, and bondage of the Christian in this life? No, it is not. He moves on to the rest of the story in Chapter 7.

In Romans 7:14-20, Paul applies to himself everything he said about our slavery and bondage to sin before we were baptized. Is he, in effect, contradicting all we have summarized about the baptized, including himself in Romans 6? No, he is not. In Roman’s 7, he describes what he (and all the baptized) continue to be in this life apart from Christ - a fleshly self in which nothing good dwells, sold as a slave to sin (Rom 7:14, 18). Romans 6 describes the Christian in Christ, while Romans 7 describes the Christian apart from Christ. The baptized Christian is both; what Luther called simultaneously a sinner and a saint. The Romans 7 sinner in all of us will endure throughout this life, but the Romans 6 saint, bound to Christ, free to be a slave of righteousness, will endure forever.