Would Be Slaves

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty 1863, Brooklyn Museum


We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin. 

Romans 6:6

Some would be slaves. 

They would fight for the right. They would weep to return; and faithless forget the horrors. For fear of the unknown or to keep peace at home, they would stay enslaved. 

A line in Lincoln’s “Speech to an Indiana Regiment” launched this post. In the speech, he addressed the baffling matter of slaves who would fight for the Confederacy. 

Fellow Citizens…I may incidentally remark, however, that having, in my life, heard many arguments, — or strings of words meant to pass for arguments, — intended to show that this negro ought to be a slave, that if he shall now really fight to keep himself a slave, it will be a far better argument why should remain a slave than I have ever before heard– He, perhaps, ought to be a slave, if he desires it ardently enough to fight for it…[March 17, 1865]

Then I read the book of Numbers. The Israelites were about a year out of Egypt, and already they would return:

And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic (11:4-5). 

Why is the LORD bringing us into this and, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to EGYPT? And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt”(14:2b,5).

Why would a freed slave fight for the Rebels? Why would he return to Egypt?  Why would we turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves we want to be once more? Surely not to let our stomachs and screens play god? Or to let lust and greed rule; to allow pride or pity to throw parties? Why would we possibly be slaves to the world’s weak and worthless ways? 

Scripture offers (at least) these three reasons:

1. We choose slavery to sin because sin just feels good. 
For a second at least. We choose “to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin,” (Hebrews 11:25) because killing sin hurts and ice cream tastes good. Zipping our lips to blame and complaint is hard, and it’s not easy to open them to forgive and repent. Gossip rolls of the tongue, anger flies, and impatience and envy are so…comfortable. Status quo needs no fight. Natural need not deny the flesh. 

2. We choose slavery to sin because we have selective memory
We are faithless enough to think only of the “free fish and garlic,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” We choose to remember short-term security over the deadly wages of sin. We remember the pleasure, but forget to remember the bricks and the straw, the whips and the welts. We forget God’s provision in the past and ignore his promise to prosper.

3. We choose slavery to sin because we fear. 
Slaves, at least, know stability. Leaving Old Masters brings fear of unknown places, but also sworn enemies. When Jesus said, “If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off,” he wasn’t talking about peace in our time. His mind was on the kingdom that the violent take by force. We did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back again into fear (Romans 8:13-14a). But of little faith, we fear much.

But we would be slaves
Like Old Testament slaves, we have a choice in our service. He could choose to stay forever with a master he loved. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever” (Exodus 21:5-6). 

But Slaves-R-Us, whether to sin which leads to death or obedience which leads to righteousness. But this kind is not forced on us against our will. Either we see a) the pleasures of sin or b) the beauty of righteousness as more appealing. 

I think we will opt for b) if we:  

  • Remember right: the fruit we’ll will get (Romans 6:22), not the fruit we got. 
  • Wage war against the flesh: stop keeping the peace with our eyes and ears, our tongues and hands and feet (Romans 8:13).
  • Fear not, for our Master goes before us (Numbers 14:9). 

Like Lincoln said, “Perhaps he ought to be a slave, if he desires it ardently enough to fight for it.” 

And so, with the best of Masters, we press on in the good fight.

Since we would be slaves. 


Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Romans 6:16-18



For more on the parallels and imperfections of the slave metaphor for our relationship to God, I recommend John Piper’s sermon “Slaves to God, Sanctification, Eternal Life.”  

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