A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

A Roman soldier leading captive slaves.

In Romans chapter 6, Paul uses strong visual imagery to ram home a theological point – slavery*.  This would have made a lot of sense in his day when slavery was a significant part of the Roman economic structure and everybody would have been fully aware of the issues.  Many of the early Christians would have been slaves; a few were slave owners and most of the rest would have aspired to own slaves.  At the time Paul was writing, possibly a third of the population of Rome were slaves.

Everyone knew that slaves had no freedom to choose.  They were quite literally the property of their owners and were not legally recognised as people.  They were assets which could be bought or sold.  They had to do exactly what they were told, or they were punished.

Imagine then a slave, let’s call him Maximus, who has recently been sold by his former owner, Brutus.  One day his new owner sends him out to do some shopping, but on his way to the market he meets Brutus, who tells him to go off on an errand for him.  What is he to do?  He knows he shouldn’t, but he’s afraid of Brutus who is a violent man, so he goes.  Of course, when he gets home late, he’s in trouble and his new owner wants to know where he’s been.  What can Maximus say to defend himself?  He’s a pawn in a power struggle who has ended up satisfying nobody.

"You have been set free from sin"

“You have been set free from sin”

Paul uses an argument just like this to put us in the place of Maximus.  Why are we still obeying sin when we have a new master?  Sin used to control us (Romans 6:17) but then we were bought (the Greek word exagorizo, which is usually translated ‘redeemed’, literally means “bought from the market”).  So we no longer have to obey our old master.  In fact, when he turns up, demanding obedience, we can tell him where to go, because we have a new master.  And Paul encourages us to obey him, so that we wholeheartedly belong to him (6:19).

All of us struggle to break the habits of our former lifestyles.  We learned sinful thoughts, attitudes, words and behaviour from our old master, and even though he now has no power over us, we’re in the habit of living in a way that would please him.  The new master has different standards, and we should make a strenuous effort to live in a way that shows we are now living according to his standards.  So the next time the devil comes knocking, remind him it’s a done deal and he’s not in charge any more.

Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, for sin shall not be master over you.  Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

 (Romans 6:12-18, edited)



*Health warning – it never does to take biblical imagery to extremes.  Certain aspects of the slavery motif can be problematic (e.g. did God do a deal with the devil to ‘buy’ humans out of satan’s control?  Are we slaves or free people?).  The Bible writers used imagery like this to convey a general example, not an exact parallel.