The word of the day is “slave.” Our society demands freedom. People insist on being free to do what they want and to be what they desire. But in today’s reading of Romans 6: 18-23, Paul declares, “Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness” OSB vs. 18). This language of slavery is bound to repel us. But today, we will set aside our aversion to the concept and reconsider the contrast between “slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness.” We will discover the positive sense of being a “slave to God.”
Today we are increasingly sensitive to slavery and its ugly history. We are so opposed to the unjust, brutal, and inhuman treatment of others as slaves that The Orthodox Study Bible is compelled to comment on our reading. It notes that Paul refers to slavery to describe the human condition. But the reference is in human terms, and we should not get the impression that God desires that we be His slaves. Rather, He wants us to be His children. (OSB comment on 6:19).
The Emphasis: Subservience to Sin or Obedience to God
Paul does say that he speaks “in human terms” (vs. 19). Thus, he suggests that his metaphor is imperfect. Nevertheless, there is an important assumption behind the image. The Orthodox Study Bible identifies Paul’s presupposition, “Though we choose our master freely, we are always a slave to someone or something” (OSB comment on Romans 6:16). With this principle in mind, Paul uses the image of slavery as a rhetorical device to contrast the subservience to sin and the obedience to righteousness (OSB Romans 6:16).
Like the Lord, Paul believed that “No man can serve two masters” (OSB Matthew 6:24). In Greek, the word for “master” is “lord’ (Strong’s #2962). Accordingly, we might say that something or someone will govern us as “lord.” The contrast between slaves of sin and slaves of righteousness does not provide any other option. We submit to one or the other. Paul puts it that if we are free from righteousness, we are “slaves of unrighteousness,” that is, uncleanness and lawlessness. And that rebellion against the law leads to more perversion (OSB vs. 19, 20). On the other hand, if we are free of sin, we are servants of righteousness (OSB vs. 22).
But What Do We Want?
We might object that we have the right to be free of anyone’s governance. We will not accept anyone as our “lord.” We insist on doing what we want. But the question is, what do we want? In Paul’s view, we want the “desires of the flesh” (Ephesians 2:3). The Lord taught the same. When the Jews insisted that they were free and had “never been in bondage to anyone,” Jesus replied, “Most assuredly I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin” (OSB John 8:34).
Thus, in this view of scripture, freedom is not release from obligation. To be free is to serve a Lord who liberates us from the bitter slavery of sin that leads to death (OSB vs. 21). Thus our reading teaches that in the service to God, we have the fruits of “holiness, and in the end, everlasting life” (OSB vs. 22).
The Lord put the point another way saying, “A slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (OSB John 35-36). To put the two thoughts together, “slavery” to God in Christ is liberty from sin and death to live a life of holiness while on this earth and a life everlasting in the resurrection to come.
Our reading presents a different understanding of freedom than the view of our society. This contrasting perspective distinguishes between “freedom from” and “freedom to.”
Our society’s view of freedom stresses “freedom from” restraint. In that release from bondage, we are free to make unrestricted choices. However, whenever we make a choice, we bind ourselves to its course of action and its consequences. We cannot be all and have it all. To choose one thing is to reject other things. We may have freedom from external forces at the moment we make a choice. But then we are bound to what we choose. Conversely, if we do not choose, we are captive to our indecision.
“Freedom To” Releases Us to Serve Our Creator and Redeemer
Then too, in the view of today’s study, our choices are not unrestricted. They are subject to our passions. In contrast, “freedom to” empowers us to pursue what is good, noble, and right. This kind of liberation still means that we are in bondage. But it binds us to goals and purposes beyond our own limited and egoistic interest and desires. In the view of today’s reading, this positive freedom releases us to serve our Creator and Redeemer in righteousness and to attain holiness and, in the end, gain eternal life.
St. Philaret of Moscow on True Freedom
St. Philaret of Moscow spoke about the person who thinks freedom means the ability to do whatever he wants. He writes, “But such a man uses external freedom only to more severely burden himself with inner slavery. True freedom is the active ability of a man who is not enslaved to sin, who is not pricked by a condemning conscience, to choose the better in the light of God’s truth, and to bring it into actuality with the help of the gracious power of God.”
 St. Philaret of Moscow, Sermon on the Birthday of Emperor Nicholas I, 1851. Quoted in <https://orthodoxchurchquotes.wordpress.com/tag/freedom/>