Question: "What does it mean to be a slave to sin?"
Answer: Everyone is a slave in the spiritual sense. We are either slaves to sin, which is our natural state, or we are slaves to Christ. The writers of the New Testament willingly declared their status as slaves of Christ. Paul opens his letter to the Romans by referring to himself as a “slave of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1) and his letter to Titus by calling himself a “slave of God” (Titus 1:1). James opens his epistle the same way, “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). Most translations say “servant” or “bond-servant” in these passages, but the Greek word doulas means, literally, “slave.”
In John 8:34 Jesus tells the unbelieving Pharisees, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” He uses the analogy of a slave and his master to make the point that a slave obeys his master because he belongs to him. Slaves have no will of their own. They are literally in bondage to their masters. When sin is our master, we are unable to resist it. But, by the power of Christ to overcome the power of sin, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18). Once we come to Christ in repentance and receive forgiveness for sin, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit who comes to live within us. It is by His power that we are able to resist sinning and become slaves of righteousness.
Jesus’ disciples belong to Him and want to do the things that please Him. This means that the children of God obey Him and live in freedom from habitual sin. We can do this because Jesus has set us free from the slavery of sin (John 8:36), and thus we are no longer under its penalty of death and separation from God.
Romans 6:1–23 goes even further in this idea of a slave and his master. As Christians we aren’t to continue in habitual sin because we died to sin. Romans 6:4 says that since we have been buried and resurrected with Christ we are now able to walk in that newness of life, unlike the unbeliever who is still a slave to sin. Romans 6:6 goes on to say that, since we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that our body of sin might be done away with, we should no longer be slaves to sin. And Romans 6:11 says that we are to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
We are commanded by God to not let sin reign in our bodies, obeying its lusts, but instead we are to present ourselves to Him as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:12–14). In verses 16-18 we’re told that we are slaves to the one we obey, either of obedience to sin or of obedience to righteousness. We are to be enslaved to God from whom we receive our gifts of sanctification and eternal life. We do this because the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
The apostle Paul, the author of Romans, goes on to say that he knows how difficult it can be to not live in sin because he struggled with that even after he became a follower of Christ. This is important for all Christians to know. While we’re now set free from the penalty of sin, we still live in the presence of sin while we’re alive on this earth. And the only way we can be free from the power of sin is by the power of the Holy Spirit who is given to believers at the moment we come in faith to Christ (Ephesians 1:13–14), and this seals us in Christ as a pledge of our inheritance as God’s children.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives means that, as we grow in our faith and come to love God ever more each day, we’ll have the strength to resist sin more and more. Through the working of the Holy Spirit we are empowered to resist sin, not give in to its temptation, and live according to God’s Word. Habitual sins will become more abhorrent to us, and we’ll find ourselves not wanting to do anything that might hinder our fellowship with God.
Romans 7:17—8:2 is a wonderful encouragement to believers because we’re told that, even when we do sin, there is no longer any condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus. And 1 John 1:9 reassures us that, when we do sin as Christians, if we confess our daily sins to the Lord, He is faithful and righteous and will cleanse us from them in order that we might continue to live in a right relationship with Him. Throughout the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul encourages and exhorts us to walk as children of light (Ephesians 2:1–10; 3:16–19; 4:1–6; 5:1–10), loving one another as Christ loved us, and to learn what is pleasing to the Lord and to practice it. In Ephesians 6:10–17 Paul shows us how to be strong in the Lord by putting on the full armor of God each day in order to be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
When we commit ourselves as followers of Christ to grow and mature in our faith by reading and studying God’s Word each day and spending time in prayer with Him, we will find ourselves more and more able to stand in the power of the Holy Spirit and resist sin. The daily victories over sin that we have in Christ will encourage and strengthen us and demonstrate in a powerful way that we are no longer slaves to sin, but are instead slaves to God.