Romans 6:18-23 – Slaves To Sin
Over a century ago, slavery was a common practice here in this country. Plantation owners brought captives from the continent of Africa over to provide labor for their plantations. While there were some kind slaveowners who provided well for their workers, more often than not, conditions were horrible. Many slaves died in the service of their masters, some tried to escape and even in some cases succeeded. Finally, in the midst of the American civil war, President Lincoln freed the slaves – declaring that slavery was no longer to be tolerated within the borders of the Union. When the war was over, many of the former slaves found themselves free, but still in the same place they had always been. They didn’t know what to do or how to provide for themselves. Many took up the new practice of “share cropping” – working the land of their former owners in return for a share of the crop. They were now free – free to go anywhere and do anything they wished, but this freedom was left unused and they returned to the life that they had known before their freedom – the same slavery, but this time with a new free sounding name. The conditions were still bad, but they were just different enough that the former slaves could convince themselves that they were indeed “free”. Their freedom too often resulted in their own choice to return to the conditions of their enslavement, but this time of their own choosing.
In ancient Rome, slavery was also practiced. A slave, who had served a house for a long time, could, when he was about to be set free, choose to remain a slave, willingly serving the same master in the same capacity – a slave for life, by his own choice. This same theme can be found in every culture where slavery was practiced – that freed slaves sometimes simply returned to their same slavery, serving the same master, doing what they had always done – but then by choice.
The Holy Apostle Paul uses this same example when he talks about our spiritual state. He reminds us that in our fallen, natural condition, we were slaves to sin – serving the evil one without a choice. As slaves of sin, we reaped the wages of sin – that is death. But we were freed, he reminds us, by Jesus Christ. By His death and resurrection we were no longer enslaved to sin, but were now free of that enslavement. But he warns us that being free we must struggle to remain free. Just like those slaves who, when freed, returned willingly to their enslavement, so also we who have been freed from enslavement to sin were in danger of falling into the same trap. Because sin is all we knew, it is easy to return to it. However, God does not abandon us. Having set us free, He gives us wealth unimaginable in his freely flowing grace; He gives us a path to follow, the life of the Church; He gives us guides along that path, our pastors and the saints. He gives us all these things and then, as St Paul reminds us, just as before we “earned” the wages – death – of our former master, now we have the opportunity to obtain the gift of God – eternal life – from our new endeavor.
Notice how carefully St Paul chooses his words to us here. He clearly points out that in serving sin we have “earned” death – death is the direct result of sin in our lives. But when we turn from sin to righteousness, we do not “earn” eternal life, but rather God gives it to us freely. This tells us that death is cheap – it is easy to obtain and anyone can have it simply by working for it. But eternal life, on the other hand, is priceless. No matter how hard we worked, we would be unable to earn it. But God, the Giver of Life, does not require us to earn this priceless treasure – He gives it to us as a gift.
Why then do we struggle with our salvation? Why do we make war on our passions, why do we deny ourselves, why do we take up our cross? Could not God just give us this eternal life and be done with it? Of course He could do this and in fact He does do this. But the gift of eternal life, which we are given from the moment we turn away from sin, must be incorporated into ourselves. Eternal life must be lived, it must be actualized. We must learn to make use of it, to join the eternal life that God gives to us to our own lives. Thus when He gives us eternal life, He also gives us all those things we just mentioned – grace, the life of the Church, pastors and saints and all the other riches of heaven – so that we will be able to do just that. Righteousness does not earn for us the gift of eternal life – for we have that already. The life of righteousness, is the process by which that gift of life is made real in us, the process by which it takes root and transforms us into the likeness of Christ.
God gives us grace, which is His power, His energy, for our transformation. He gives us this grace in many ways. Primarily this grace is given to us in the Sacraments – first baptism and chrismation, later on confession and Holy Communion. The major events of our lives are also imbued with grace so that we can continue to work out our salvation – the sacraments of marriage and anointing for example. We also receive grace through prayer – both our own private prayers and the corporate prayer of the Church. When we neglect our prayers or neglect to attend divine services, we lose this constant and instantly available source of grace. St Seraphim reminds us that we can acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit in many ways but sometimes there are no poor at hand to whom to give alms, or sometimes we are not able to receive the sacraments – but we are always able to pray. This is the most constant source of grace that is available to us and we must not neglect it. We also receive grace through acts of righteousness – forgiveness, mercy, almsgiving, hospitality and so on.
In order to use this grace so that the gift of eternal life might become active in us, we are given a way of life that maximizes the grace that is available to us. That way of life is the life of the Church. The rhythm of the prayers and services, the cycle of the feasts and fasts, the standards of moral behavior, even the small things of how to dress, how to speak, where to go and where to avoid, what activities are beneficial and what activities are harmful to us. All of these things are provided for us as an instruction in how to conform ourselves more easily to the working of grace in our lives. Again, we neglect the traditions of the church – both great and small – to our own loss.
But rules are not enough and so we are given guides and teachers to help us know how to customize the life of the Church to our own situation, our own unique and personal condition and environment. For this we have first examples – the saints. The saints are those who have successfully traveled this path before us and who have safely arrived in the kingdom of heaven and who have fully incorporated the gift of eternal life in their own lives. If we follow their examples then we too will have the same results. For this reason it is good to read the lives of saints – to become familiar with them so that when faced with a situation or a choice, we can draw on the wealth of their experiences.
And in addition to these excellent examples, we are also given instructors in the faith – pastors and teachers. These are those whom God has raised up within the Church who are given the responsibility for guiding each and every soul placed in his charge into the Kingdom of heaven. These are our pastors and arch-pastors – the priests and bishops of the Church. These are the ones who apply the many “rules” and examples to each particular life. Our priests and bishops are the ones who have the primary responsibility before God to teach us, to instruct us, in the Christian life. While it is possible to find spiritual teaching and guidance from others – that teaching outside the Church is always polluted with error. Only the teaching of those within the Church can be trusted (and even then it must be in line with the tradition of the Church throughout the ages). If indeed you hear this or that example from a teacher not in the Church, from some other Christian confession or even from some other religion that sounds good – it must still always be tested against the teaching of the Church. Always, when you hear these things that “sound good”, it is necessary to bring them to your priest – to the instructor that God has provided for you within the Church – in order that you might not be unwittingly led astray from the path of salvation. The priests and the bishops are here to guide us, to lead us unswervingly on that path of salvation – and if we ignore them or neglect their instruction, then we do so at our own great loss and possibly even to our own peril.
Eternal life is the gift of God – but it is a gift that must be used, it must be put into practice. In order for that to be possible, God has given to us many helps, many aids. First of all He pours out upon us His grace which transforms us and makes us able to incorporate that life. Secondly he gives to us His Church and the way of life that the Church provides for us. Finally he gives us examples and instructors in the Christian life – the saints and our pastors and teachers – who guide us in the path of salvation. These are the helps the God has given us so that we might incorporate the gift of Eternal Life into our own life – that we might become like Him, no longer a slave to sin, but a child and heir of Jesus Christ and a recipient of the gift of eternal life.
SOURCE: Fr David Moser