Romans 6:19-23 Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds and shall find me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
The poem is Invictus by William Ernest Henley and while it is a great poem—it really is terrible theology. “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
There is much in those words that appeal to us—particularly as Americans—but they simply do not tell us the truth about ourselves.
Far, far from being the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls, the Bible says that everyone in this world—without exception-- is a slave.
You either belong to sin and death OR you belong to righteousness and God. You either serve sin and death OR you serve God and righteousness. Sin and death is your master OR God and his righteousness is your master.
We may love the illusion of autonomy and freedom that is found in the poem Invictus, but it is the Bible that tells us the truth about ourselves and who we truly serve. Under the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul wrote:
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Jesus told the Pharisees that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Peter said that the false teachers of the early church were slaves to corruption. Throughout his epistles Paul uses this slave imagery to describe our spiritual condition—either as slaves to sin and death OR slaves to God and his righteousness.
It was a vivid image, immediately recognizable and understandable by people in the ancient world, and he used this word picture so that this biblical teaching would be perfectly clear in our mind-- such is its importance to understanding our life with God.
Far, far from being the autonomous, independent, free people we imagine ourselves to be—every person in this world has a master they serve. Everyone! And that master is revealed in the actions of our members, that is, the parts of our bodies.
It’s like we learned in the old Sunday School song: be careful little eyes what you see—be careful little ears what you hear—be careful little feet where you go—be careful little lips what you say. Be careful: because the members of our body reveal the master of our soul.
For those who are slaves to impurity and lawlessness, their master is revealed in the words they say, the images they rest their eyes upon, the places their feet take them, and the things their hands do.
So it is for those whose Master is God and his righteousness, that their members also reveal a slavery—not to lawlessness and death—but to sanctification and finally, to eternal life.
That is why we are to be careful about the members of our body because they reveal (not only the identity of our master) but also the direction of our life and our destination in eternity. There is no such thing as just a little sin because lawlessness leads to more lawlessness and eventually that journey ends in death. The Bible says that:
When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.
When Paul says that those who are slaves to sin are “free” regarding righteousness, he does not mean that they are free to do righteousness or abstain from righteousness as they see fit, and as suits them, in a particular moment.
No! What Paul is saying is that the person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness is free FROM righteousness altogether! There is NOTHING in their life that pleases God—NOTHING in their life that God looks upon with favor—and certainly NOTHING in their life that he counts for salvation.
Those who are enslaved to sin and death do not have God as their Master and so their lives are completely free from ANY spiritual fruit whatsoever.
That person who is a slave to impurity and lawlessness may look like they have the world by the tail—they may view their sexual sins as conquests—they may see their money and status as security for the future-- but God says that it all leads to death and because of that-- sin is not something to take pride in-- but something of which to be ashamed.
The Roman Christians understood that. They could see the deadly direction they were headed. They recognized the destination of a life’s journey marked by slavery to impurity and lawlessness. They realized just exactly who their master had been-- because Christ, their new mater, had set them free. And so should we! The Bible says:
Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
What was true of the Roman Christians in Paul’s day is also true of us in our day: Jesus Christ has set us free from slavery to impurity and lawlessness. He has redeemed us with his own life’s blood as the purchase price to set us free. We HAVE been set free from sin!
But it is absolutely critical that we understand that we have not only been set free FROM something—we have been set free FOR something—and that is to serve God as slaves of righteousness. He is now our Master!
Right here in these verses is one of the most critically important concepts in the Bible and yet is widely misunderstood and too often ignored to the eternal peril of God’s people: that the freedom we have in Christ finds its true purpose in the whole-hearted service we offer to God as slaves of righteousness. Christian freedom and the fruit of good works go together without fail.
The Bible says: You were called to freedom, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. The Bible says: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus FOR good works.
God has not set us free from sin and death at the cost of his own Son’s life so that we can turn around and go right back to living in lawlessness and impurity! Who would voluntarily enslave themselves to sin and set out on a journey that would, without question, lead to hell?! No one would do that!
Instead, we have been set free so that we can become what God has created us and redeemed us to be: people whose only desire is to know and do his will: slaves of God and slaves of righteousness.
That we are free in Christ and that we are slaves to God is certainly paradoxical-- but these two teachings are not opposed to one another because the true purpose and meaning and value of our lives can only be found in our connection to God—a connection that is always fruitful unto good works.
Jesus said, I am the vine and you are the branches and in me you will bear much fruit. And so it is that as we walk with Jesus- and as we are filled with his Spirit- and as we are fed with Word and Sacrament--our lives begin to take on the shape they were meant to have—no longer turned in on ourselves—no longer focused on satisfying the desires of the flesh—but now turned towards our neighbor who needs our care—now growing in Christ-likeness as we receive his gracious gifts—now desiring to make God’s will, our will.
This is the life on earth that leads to eternal life---not because we have earned it by doing God’s will or walking in his ways—but because it has been given to us as a gift. The Bible says:
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is in this verse that we see a profound difference in human slavery and in spiritual slavery—whether to sin or to God. Earthly slaves earn nothing—they are paid no wage for their service--but those who are spiritually enslaved to sin and impurity earn, for themselves, eternal death.
Everything they have lived for—everything they have devoted themselves to: their much vaunted autonomy and independence is torn away as they enter into hell to be tormented forever with the one who has truly been their master.
Earthly slaves are given no gifts—they are unloved by their masters—they are regarded as property. And yet, slaves to God and his righteousness are given the status as God’s children- and are counted as heirs of the living God- and are given eternal life as a gift through faith in Jesus.
We have to admit that the words, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul” appeal to our flesh but the Bible says that there is a way that seems right to men but in the end leads to death and that is it.
Instead, the way to true and lasting riches—the way to a life of meaning and purpose—and most importantly, the way to eternal life is the way of slavery to God and his righteousness. Amen.