Jesus declares in John 8:34–36, “everyone who sins is a slave to sin … [but] if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” So why do I feel like a slave to sin, or at least to certain sins? What about you: can you stop sinning? Think of a particular sinful habit you have. Maybe it’s lust, or anger, or gossip, or grumbling, drinking too much, or a lack of love for others. If Jesus has set us free, why is our day-to-day experience so often more like slavery to sins we can’t seem to break free from?
To answer this question properly, we need to think about hearts and habits. As we do so, we will find good news in the power God has given us to fight sin, together with a sobering warning about what happens if we fail to fight.
You don’t have to sin anymore
The Bible has good news for us as we struggle to put our sins to death and live for God: we can now resist sin; we can now obey God. How? because God has transformed our hearts by the power of his Holy Spirit. God gave his sinful, rebellious people this wonderful promise through his prophet Ezekiel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will … move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
To follow Jesus is to be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is to be washed clean from sin and given a new heart that desires to serve and obey God. This means sin is no longer the controlling power, the master ruling our lives. There is a new king on the throne of our hearts, and we are free. I’m sure you’ve seen the classic cartoon scene where someone has a devil on one shoulder, tempting them to do what is wrong, and an angel on the other shoulder urging them to do what is right. In the gospel, we get something better than an angel on our shoulder; we get God himself in our hearts by his Holy Spirit. He also does more than just urge us to do what is right. He changes our hearts so that we want to do what is right.
Paul describes the impact of this transformation in Romans 6:
15Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
19I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul’s aim in this section is to convince followers of Jesus that we should not use our confidence in Jesus’ full forgiveness as a licence to keep on sinning. He pictures sin as a slave master, like Pharaoh in the book of Exodus. Twice he declares that we “have been set free from sin” (verses 18, 22). The whole logic of Paul’s appeal is grounded in the fact that Jesus has liberated us from sin’s enslaving power.
In the first section (verses 15–18), he urges us not to use our bodies to serve sin since we have been set free from sin and have instead become slaves to righteousness. He doesn’t mean “slaves” in the sense that we are trapped and serve righteousness (in other words, Jesus) against our wills. His point can be seen in verse 16: you are effectively the slaves of whatever you obey. Given that you now have a choice of whose slave to be – sin or righteousness – then serve righteousness. After all, you’ve been set free from sin, so it’s madness to go back to serving it!
In the second section (verses 19–23), Paul considers the “benefits packages” offered by the two masters we could serve. He urges us not to serve sin because it leads to increasing wickedness and ultimately rewards us with death. Instead, we should serve righteousness which leads to a harvest of holiness and is the way of eternal life through God’s free gift in Jesus. Again, at the heart of the section is a choice. We have now been set free from sin (verse 22), so we can choose who to serve and how to live. Will we decide to sin or obey God?
It’s often observed that you can summarise our relationship with sin in Romans with three Ps (we Christians love our threes…): penalty, power and presence. In Romans 3–5, Paul declares that at the cross, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin in full. In Romans 6, he encourages us that Jesus’ death and resurrection have broken the power of sin over us. Finally, in Romans 7–8, he explains that the presence of sin will dog us all our days until Jesus returns to bring us to glory and rid us of sin permanently.
Yes, but… if we are honest, most of us would admit that sin still seems to have rather a lot of power! I’m sure this is not just my experience. Sinful desires can feel like an engine relentlessly driving us to commit sins. We use our willpower to press the brakes as hard as we can, but we know that eventually, the brakes will give way, or we will drop our guard. Perhaps this is especially true when it comes to our experience of battling sexual temptation. Whatever Romans 6 says, we feel like sin is the power which rules us, the bully that we cannot beat. We might get better at resisting for longer, but sin always seems to win in the end.
So, what is going on? In what sense can Paul write in Romans 6:18 that we have been ‘set free from sin’? At this point help comes from an unexpected source: It is a 17th century Puritan theologian who rides to our rescue. John Owen is not an easy writer to read, but he thought and wrote more deeply about sin than anyone else in the English language. He says we need to be a bit more careful when we say the power of sin is broken. He observes there are two senses in which sin has power, and only one of these is fully broken by the cross. The first is power as dominion – the sense in which sin ruled over our lives (like Pharaoh ruled the Israelites), and determined our eternal destiny. We are indeed set free from the power of sin to rule over us through Jesus’ death. Colossians 1:13 celebrates this when it says “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”
However, there is a second sense in which we might speak about the ‘power’ of sin: power in the sense of the ability to do something. Sin may no longer be able to rule us, but we make a terrible mistake if we think this means sin has no power at all. The Bible teaches sin still has the power to do all manner of harmful things to us as believers: sin has power to tempt (James 1:14), to deceive (Hebrews 3:13), to entangle (Hebrews 12:1), to choke (Luke 8:7), to overpower (1Corinthians 6:12), to corrupt (Ephesians 4:22), and to lead to more sin (1Timothy 6:9-10; 2Samuel 11). Sin retains these powers until we die and are liberated from the presence of sin forever. Indeed, Owen points out that you only really discover how powerful sin is after you put your trust in Jesus and begin to live for him. He likens sin to a river – you find out the strength of a river when you stop drifting along with the current and begin to swim against it.
The upshot is that resisting sin will always be a struggle, but that there is now the power to behave differently. The glorious, revolutionary, good news of the gospel is that the same God who effected our forgiveness by sending his Son to die for us has also enabled our obedience by sending his Spirit to live in us.
Hallelujah! However, we can’t quite stop there because what we do in life is not only determined by the desires of our hearts. It is also driven by the habits we cultivate.
Every sin is resistible … but enslaving
Why do you do all your morning rituals? Think of all the things you do between waking up and getting to work or college, dropping the kids off, or whatever. How much of your routine do you actively think about, and how much is just done on autopilot? Most of us know the experience of finding ourselves getting dressed for work, even when it is a bank holiday. This is the power of habit. One recent survey published by the American Psychological Association concluded that 43% of what we do every day is done without thinking; it’s just habit. Researcher Wendy Wood conducted a variety of studies. My favourite was one involving people who go to the cinema lots and always eat sweet popcorn. She found that if they sat in their usual seat, with the usual kind of popcorn bucket, they would eat stale, sour popcorn without noticing. The habit of munching through a bucket of popcorn was so ingrained that they didn’t even notice that what they were eating was nothing like the sweet treats they thought they were enjoying! We really are creatures of habit.
It's not just psychologists who teach that the course of our lives is shaped by repeated behaviours. We find the same instruction in the Bible. The book of Proverbs is particularly relevant here because in a sense it’s all about habits. It is written as advice to young people, calling on them to learn to live by God’s wisdom early on in life so they develop habits which will enable them to flourish. In Proverbs 22:6, the writer observes: “Start children off on the way they should go,and even when they are old they will not turn from it”
You see something similar in Psalm 1, as David speaks about the way sinful attitudes become more and more ingrained over time:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the seat of mockers… (verse 1)
Do you see the progression? It develops from walking to standing to sitting. Over time our attitudes and actions become more settled. We harden into those habitual ways of thinking about God and about life.
The crucial thing to grasp is this: God gives us new hearts by his Spirit, but not new habits. Transformation of your heart happens instantly when you put your trust in Jesus. Transformation of your habits – of your behaviour – takes time and effort. New habits are only developed only when we act on the godly desires of our new hearts, again and again, day after day, rather than giving in to our sinful desires. Typically when our Bibles speak about “living” the Christian life, they are translating the word “walk”. For instance, Colossians 2:6 reads, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him”, but literally, it means “continue to walk in him”. (See also Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 4:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 1 John 2:6). This language of walking helps us see the Christian life involves learning new habitual patterns of life.
Habits can be positive or destructive, as Diane Langberg observed: “We get good at what we practice [sic]. The more we practice something, the more we’re able to do it without conscious thinking. We can do it while thinking of other things. That works great for tying shoes. It’s terrifying when it comes to deceiving ourselves and others” (Twitter @DianeLangberg, 17 May 2022).
Even as followers of Jesus, we can fall into sinful habits. The writer to the Hebrews speaks about this when warning that we should “not [be] giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing” (10:25). We saw this very thing in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. After the restrictions eased and we were allowed to gather physically as a church once again, there were some who rarely seemed to make it, even though they had come every Sunday before the pandemic. They had not made a conscious decision to disobey God’s command to come together as a church; they had simply gotten into the habit of not coming during lockdown.
This is why many of us are still struggling to break free from sinful patterns of thought or behaviour even after years or decades as Christians. Those sinful habits have become deeply ingrained; every time we sin, every time we fail to resist those temptations, we reinforce the habits, making them harder to change. The fourth-century theologian Augustine wrote in his Confessions about his struggle to resist sexual temptation. He described being enslaved by the “overwhelming force of habit” (Confessions 8.11).
The more we give in to particular sinful desires as if we were still slaves to sin, the more we will feel mastered by them. I think this helps to explain why Paul writes as he does in Romans 7. As he has just taught about Christ’s triumph over our sins in chapters 1–6, it is surprising to find Paul describe himself as still being a slave to sin:
14 We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … 18 For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out … 25 So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
We struggle to reconcile this with 6:18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” But we don’t struggle to reconcile chapter 7’s description with our experience of the Christian life. Paul is reflecting reality in his teaching: if you are a Christian, you cannot be a slave to sin since Christ has set you free., You can, though, be a habitual sinner, and this can feel a lot like slavery.
Ruts in our souls
I find it helpful to think of the problem in this way: when we sin, we are wearing ruts in our hearts and minds, along which our thoughts, our desires and our behaviour will naturally run. These habits of life are miserable, sin-diminished and far short of the glory to which God calls us. They can be ruts in our thinking – that inner monologue of grumble, self-justification, or playing with lustful fantasies. They can be ruts in our speaking – harsh, belittling comments, passive-aggressive quips, filthy jokes, and angry outbursts. They can be ruts in our behaviour – the amount I drink regularly, the speed I drive, the things I feast my eyes on, the way I spend my money.
If you visit the Roman ruins in some parts of Italy, you can walk along old marble roads that were laid down 2,000 years ago. Running down the middle of the road are parallel grooves, three or four feet apart and at least half a foot deep. Those grooves were worn by the wooden wheels of carts trundling along the road. Over time the wheels first wore down shallow little ruts in the hard, marble surface. Once the ruts had formed, the carts naturally slid into them and ran along them, meaning they got deeper and deeper.
Our habits are like those ruts. While our thoughts, in particular, seem of no importance, they are like soft, wooden wheels on the hard, marble pavements of ancient Rome; they wear ruts in our souls. The gospel gives us new hearts – a new desire to please God and a new ability to resist sin and live for Jesus. But the old ruts are still there, and it will take time and effort to grind out new ruts – to develop new habits of godliness. Unless I am willing to fight hard to steer out of the old sinful ruts each day, my behaviour will naturally slip into and run along those familiar, worn tracks. The power to steer a better course is there, but the deeper the ruts, the harder it is to navigate out of them. And each time I sin, I deepen those ruts. Each time I give in to lust, I deepen that rut. Each time I respond to my wife with a grumpy jibe or a snide little put-down, I deepen that rut. Each time I have “just one more drink”, I deepen that rut.
Interestingly, a wealth of recent research from neuroscientists has demonstrated that habits do indeed create their own neural pathways in our brains over time – literal ruts in our brains. (For those interested, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit explores this at a popular level.) This helps to explain why we can so easily slip back into old sins even after months or years of living free of them. I think of a friend who became addicted to alcohol. Eventually, with help, he managed to beat the habit. But he has relapsed a couple of times in the last decade, each time when he was feeling strong and thought he was in a good place. As soon as he lowered his guard, he fell right back into his addiction. Why is that? The ruts remain. Even after years of not drinking heavily – of not even feeling the urge to do so – the ruts are still there. So he needs to be careful and prayerfully dependent on God every day. It’s easier to resist the temptation when he hasn’t given in for years. But he will always be susceptible to the lure of alcohol in a way someone who has never developed that habit will not.
Start Fighting Sin Now
I hope you are as sobered by all this as I am. Some of us, though, probably feel more than sobered; we feel overwhelmed and hopeless. We know there are sins whose roots have grown deep into our hearts over many years; there are ruts of sinful habits that are already worn deeply into our behaviour. We may well wonder if there can be any hope for us. Is there any point in fighting if the habits are already so ingrained?
It is absolutely worth the fight! It will probably be hard, slow work. Sometimes, in his kindness, God gives a dramatic release from a sinful habit that has had us beaten for too long. More usually, it is a dogged struggle that takes years with plenty of defeats along the way. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.”
As hard and gruelling as the battle with sinful habits might be, the alternative is worse: allowing sin’s roots to continue to grow deeper in our hearts, and the habits to become more ingrained in our lives. Paul wrote the letter of Galatians to a church that was in danger of giving up the freedom they had in Christ for the hopeless slavery of legalism. In their case, they were trying to earn their own righteousness through their religious devotion. His warning, though, is just as apt for those who are in danger of trading the freedom bought for us with Christ’s blood for the slavery of living in patterns of habitual sin: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
There is an old Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second-best time is now… In the same way, waiting until tomorrow will only make our battle against sin harder. We must pray to God for forgiveness and the help of his Spirit and then start the fight today.
Think back to John Owen’s picture of swimming upriver. The current doesn’t get easier, but the more we swim, the fitter and stronger we become. The Christian life is not about settling into increasing ease and laziness; it’s about becoming braver and stronger. It’s about growing more dependent on God in prayer, more confident in the power of his Spirit, and so becoming able to tackle greater challenges for the glory of God and the good of others.
As we close, think about what this tells us about the grace of our Triune God. Perhaps we can just about grasp that our compassionate, loving Father would reach out to rescue and forgive us when we were spiritually dead, blinded and enslaved by sin. But surely, having brought us to life in Christ Jesus, and having given us new hearts by his Holy Spirit so we have the power to resist temptation, he would be justified in expecting us to pay for our own sins now? That would be fair and reasonable, after all. How amazing is the grace of God the Father that, in his love, he also forgives the ongoing sins of his children? How amazing that Jesus would go to the cross to suffer hell to pay for sins he knew we would be capable of resisting. How amazing that the Holy Spirit would continue to make his home in our hearts even when we insist on clinging to and indulging in sins that provoke his wrath and revulsion. That’s the thing about looking honestly at what the Bible teaches about sin; if we do it rightly, it will always help us see fresh wonders in the grace of Jesus Christ.
Questions to think about
Where have you experienced the power of God to resist sin in your life?
What habits of thinking/speaking/doing do you especially need to change?