When Romans Turned to Christ

AS AMERICANS WE PRIDE OURSELVES on our freedom. We live in the “Land of the free” and see ourselves as leading other nations to government of, by and for the people. There is ample evidence for this statement. There is also evidence, however, that we are not free. Our country is rife with clinical addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex and gambling. So many lives have been ruined, so many families destroyed by people’s slavery to these addictions. On another level we see people so captivated by their electronic devices that they bump into other people, walk out into busy streets, and even cause fatal accidents while texting. The “free and the brave” have become slaves to Facebook and Twitter.

St Paul called the Romans – free citizens of the greatest city in the Mediterranean world – “slaves of sin.” Their way of life was characterized by the worship of many gods (which the Jews would see as idolatry) and by sexual license, abortion and infanticide (which were all sinful to God-fearing Jews). All these practices were considered acceptable, even normal, in Roman society. There was no social stigma attached to any of them. People were free to engage in behavior which the Jews found demeaning and sinful.

Some of these Romans had become Christians and were now expected to put aside such behavior. St Paul, however, does not exhort them to be free, but now to be slaves of righteousness. Why would he insist that people exchange one kind of slavery for another?

Dependence vs. Independence

Over the centuries Christians have explained Paul’s teaching in two ways. One way stresses that human freedom is always limited – if not by outside forces then by our own weaknesses. It has often been said that there is always slavery in the midst of freedom. It just depends on which freedom you pick and which slavery you pick.

Many of us, for example, are tied unthinkingly to a particular way of thinking or doing things – such as making money at all costs – which can lead to unrighteous-ness. As long as we are tied to the earth for its own sake, we run the risk of chaining ourselves to the things of the earth, which may lead to all kinds of baseness and humiliation. Thus while patriotism is surely a virtue, excessive patriotism (“my country right or wrong”) has lead people to imperialism, colonialism and international terrorism (“might makes right”). Dependence on God is the only “slavery” that does not degrade us.

St Justin Popovich, the twentieth century Serbian theologian and confessor, offers the second explanation. He saw our relationship to God in Christ as the only true freedom. “In truth there is only one freedom – the holy freedom of Christ, whereby He freed us from sin, from evil, from the devil. It binds us to God. All other freedoms are illusory, false, that is to say, they are all, in fact, slavery.” (St. Justin Popovich, Ascetical and Theological Chapters, II.36)

Choosing Righteousness 

The Roman Christians’moment of choice, according to St Paul, was in thepast: they had made the commitment at their baptism. This is why St Paul could speak of them as “having been set free from sin” (Romans 6:18).

There are two distinct but complimentary movements at our baptism. The first involves our choice. We reject the dominion of sin and choose to unite ourselves to Christ. The second is the work of God who immerses us into the death and resurrection of Christ. Through this two-fold process we are freed from the power of sin and death. We are called to ratify our baptism every day by choosing righteousness as a way of life. This is sometimes a struggle, but we know it is possible for us because of our union with Christ.

When we are buried with the Lord in baptism, we are granted the joy of His new resurrected life. When we live conscious of His life in us our lives take on a heavenly and uplifted spirit. To paraphrase St. John Chrysostom, if we believe the Lord is risen, we should believe it about ourselves as well.

Slaves or Friends?

In the Gospel, when the Lord was asked about freedom, He replied “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. And 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” (John 8:34-36). If, then we have been made free by our union with the Son of God who delivered is from the eternal power of sin and death, why does St Paul say that we should be slaves, rather than sons?

The answer is expressed clearly in the epistle: “I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh” (Romans 6:19).

When St Paul began forming new Christians by speaking of freedom, he was often misunderstood. People thought they were no longer bound to any standards of behavior – they were “free.” Paul did not dare tell people they were free – they were too immature to hear it. As he told the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able” (1 Corinthians 3:2).

St Paul then began using a different approach, as is evident in Romans. He does not contrast slavery and freedom, but contrasting their former slavery to sin to their Christian dependence upon God.

Later Christian writers spelled out St Paul’s distinction of spiritual milk and solid food in a systematic way. At the earliest stages some believers relate to God as slaves to a master: they fear God and seek to avoid His punishment by keeping His commandments. Believers at a later level of spiritual maturity relate to God as an employee to an employer. They seek to please God and thereby gain a reward. They expect their devotion to be paid off in heaven.

The most mature believers are the children of God. They know the love God has for all mankind – indeed, for all creation – and they love Him as their Father. These are the believers who know that God calls them to communion with Him and they strive to become one with God. They are the “sons” who abide forever.