Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of 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. Romans 6:16–18
When I was growing up, I did not have much of a category for grace. I looked around (and still do) and see a society that is dominated by performance and earning what we get. Want to get a good job? Then work hard for it. Want to get good grades? Then stop slacking off and get to work. Everywhere I turned, I saw people who worked and therefore received, and people who slacked off and thus were found wanting for a great many things.
Unfortunately, I connected these observations of society to my views on God. I had a list of things I needed to do (and probably a longer list of things I didn’t need to do) to earn God’s love. This led to a pretty burdensome life, filled with constantly striving towards earning God’s love and approval, often failing spectacularly. I was a slave to having to work for my spot in the kingdom of heaven. More than that, there were many things in my life that I had exalted above God in my life. Money, job status, relationship status, approval of man. Lesser things that aren’t able to satisfy. Lesser things that, truth be told, aren’t bad things. They just make terrible gods. If God is all about his glory and our joy (and I believe he is), then his beautiful design would tell me that he belongs at the center of my affections, not some lesser idol that overpromises and under-delivers.
So I had to come to the realization that I was a slave to these idols. But let’s call this what it really is. The realization I truly made, by the grace of God, wasn’t that I was a slave to thinking I had to work to earn my position with God, or to approval, or to money, or to job status, or to any other symptom of the real problem you want to point to. I was a slave to sin.
That’s not an easy realization to come to. A lot of us don’t like to think about our sin. I certainly don’t, but what I’ve discovered is that there is power in giving a name to your struggles. It brings the Devil out of the dark, and he doesn’t like to be out of the dark. Bringing him into the light gives us the ability to punch him in the mouth with the power of the restorative, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.
How do we stop being slaves to sin and become slaves of righteousness? It starts with a right understanding of who we are, as outlined in Scripture. We are a rebellious people, bent from birth on exchanging the truth about God for a lie and worshipping and serving creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25).
The second ingredient is confession and repentance. It’s amazing what the Holy Spirit can do to restore and redeem when we are open and honest with where we are, instead of trying to hide our brokenness and pretend we’re doing fine. He wants to minister to the wound, which isn’t easy when you are desperate to keep it hidden so no one else will know, lest they think differently of you. If we are in Christ, however, nothing changes God’s mind. You cannot out-sin the cross of Christ. He knew exactly what he was purchasing when he was up on that cross, and he didn’t come down. His death gives us life. His resurrection gives us hope. And his ascension to the Father leads to his giving us the Holy Spirit for help in the endeavor of dying to our own sin. Dead to sin. Alive to God. (Romans 6:11).
Finally, we must abide in him. It took me about 21 years to realize that the Christian life isn’t a morality check of dos and don’ts, but rather, the Christian life is a constant abiding in Christ and resting in his work on the cross. Morality can’t save me, church attendance can’t save me, my community group can’t save me. Those are all great and wonderful things, but awful saviors. They fall flat. Faith alone in Christ in his death and resurrection is the only thing that can justify me and put me into right standing with God. So, what does abiding mean or look like? I think it means figuring out what stirs our affections for Jesus and doing more of those things and cutting out the things that don’t stir our affections for Jesus. And it means to stop banking on our own merits to justify us, but instead learning to rest in the finished work of Christ for us on the cross, through which we receive access by faith into the grace in which we stand (Romans 5:2) and have peace with God (Romans 5:1).