Once, we committed sins because we were under the power of sin… we did the things we wanted to do, and we reckoned them good. In that condition, we would have called righteousness slavery. But with a changed heart, we are want to be obedient. It isn't obedience in the way we previously imagined righteousness to be: forced and cold, and missing out on the things we’d really rather be doing if we weren’t pressed into this religious obedience. No! We have begun to pursue holiness from the heart –because God has changed our hearts– and because we now love to do those things.
What does that look like? The old desires and habits and hang-ups no longer give us the satisfaction they once did. We begin to take greater pleasure in pleasing God than pleasing ourselves. We begin to hate what God hates and love what He loves.
It isn’t accomplished perfectly or all at once. The faith that saves does not produce a perfectly lived righteous life of our own. Rather, it causes Christ’s righteousness to be reckoned to us. So the evidence of saving faith is not perfection, but changed direction. It’s imperfect, but demonstrable.
But what about being a slave to righteousness - what does that mean?
Paul says he’s using this slavery imagery so that we can understand. As horrible as slavery is, it was a part of the Roman world, and Paul knew that his readers would be familiar with it. He has also set this image up as a dichotomy: either one thing is true, or the other is. As he stated in verse 16, you’re either a slave either of sin or a slave of obedience and righteousness. You show yourself to be the servant of whichever master you go on presenting yourself to.
Just as we were formerly under the power of sin, we are now under the power of righteousness. In the instant that we first become believers, God justifies – He declares us righteous in Christ. He gives new life in regeneration. And in His initial act of sanctification, He breaks the power of sin over us. So this sanctification isn’t about being made to do something against your will. It’s that your will itself is held captive by that which you love. And now, the thing you love, the thing your will is being held captive by, is righteousness instead of sin.
When we were slaves to sin, sin was our master. Sin ensured our continued obedience to it. We went on sinning, powerless to change our status. In other words, we would go on serving our sin master until our demise in death. But being a slave to righteousness means just the opposite- righteousness will ensure our continued obedience to it- we will go on serving our growing desire for holiness on the path to eternal life. As Paul says in verse 22, "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."
Next time, we'll look more at what Paul means by "slaves to God," and how we can participate in the work that God is doing in us.