Sin Enslaves, But God Is in the Emancipation Business

emancipation-dayRead: Rom. 6:20–23


Years ago there lived a devout Christian man who attended a sound, Bible believing church every Sunday of his life (as, by the way, every Christian should). His wife was an unbeliever. She didn’t attend. They had a verbal routine every Sunday afternoon when he arrived home. She asked him, “What did the preacher preach about today?”

“Sin,” he replied, every time she asked.

“What did the preacher say about it?” she responded.

“He was against it.”

Sin’s hard times

I’m preaching about sin today, and I am against it. You should be against it, too. Almost nobody talks about sin these days. The voice recognition software on my computer would barely recognize the word. It wanted to put any word — “Sam,” “sound,” “Santa,” “soon” – but not sin. Even voice recognition software doesn’t want to recognize sin.

The idea of sin has fallen on hard times. Sin itself hasn’t fallen on hard times. Blatant, flagrant sin surrounds us. But our culture has given up talking about the idea of sin. There’s a very simple, and very bad, reason for this. Sin is a religious and theological term. Sin implies the existence of a God who holds us accountable. We live in a time of nearly uninhibited autonomy — people want the freedom to do anything they want to do regardless of the circumstances. The Triune God of the Bible gets in the way.

Solomon writes, “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ec. 12:14). These aren’t comforting words to people who revel in their own sin.

Why people resist the Gospel

This is also why most people resist the Gospel these days: not because they have intellectual problems with God. Not because they can’t believe that God can forgive them. Not because they believe that God allows too much suffering in the world. Not because they think that God isn’t fair and kind. No. Most people resist the gospel because they love their sin. They know that if they trust Jesus the Christ, they must repent of their sin and turn away from it (Ac. 17:30). Frankly, most people don’t want to do that. They want their sin more than they want Jesus Christ. And know this: you can’t have your sin and Jesus too.

The Fruits of Sin

Most of Paul’s letter to the Roman church is about (1) how sin got here, (2) how it exposed man to God’s righteous judgment, (3) how it polluted everything, (4) how God meets the terms of his own justice with man in judging man’s sin, and (5) and how God is cleaning up sin’s pollution.[1]

What sin is — and isn’t

Before we get to that, we need to make sure we know what sin is — and isn’t. The word for sin used most of the time in the Old Testament is missing the mark. We find this idea in the New Testament also (Rom. 3:23). But what mark is sin missing? That’s the big question. The answer is: God’s glory, what he created us for. God created us for his glory, and anything that destroys that design is sin. And therefore sin always makes the design fail. Sin, we might say, is the “epic fail.”

We know that sin misses the mark of God’s law. “Sin is lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4). God’s holy law is a picture of his holy character. We humans were created in God’s image. To live in God’s image means to live according to his character, reflected in his law.  The people who want to get rid of God’s law really want to get rid of God (Ps. 2:1–3).

Only God gets to define sin

But always remember that only God gets to define sin. This is the problem of legalism. Cigars and movies and dancing and micro-brewed beer and amusement parks and professional baseball games are not sinful. Of course, like anything good, they can become sinful when they’re perverted. After all, what is sin, but a perversion of God’s good creation? So if anyone accuses you of sin, make sure that he proves his point by showing you that the Bible declares or it implies that that action is sin. Man doesn’t get to define sin; God alone defines sin. Sin is missing the mark of his written law.

 Destroying God’s design

But sin misses the mark in an even broader way. God made us to love and fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus said that he came into the world so that people could share the communion of the Father and himself, the Son (Jn. 17:10–26). In eternity past, the Trinity enjoyed each other’s company so much that they said, “This is so wonderful, that we need to share it. Let’s create beings made in our image so that they can share this glorious communion too!”[2] That’s why God created us.

Now, sin causes us to miss the mark of this design. Sin breaks that communion (Is. 59:2), the very communion for which we were created. Sin destroys the very purpose for humanity.

Perhaps now you can better understand why God destroyed almost the entire human population with the universal flood (Gen. 6–7). Humanity, God’s image, had become so utterly depraved that his entire design was being destroyed. “This wasn’t what I intended,” God was saying; “therefore, I need to start over with a righteous man and his family.”

Sin contradicts God’s design, and that’s why all sin, every time, is self-frustrating.

Imagine, if you will, a strange architectural student who thought he could use a word processing software program to create a highly technical architectural schematic. No matter how hard he tried, or how frustrated he became, he would fail. He would fail because the operating system of a word processing program was never designed to create architectural schematics. The software writer had nothing whatsoever like architectural design in mind when he devised the program. He didn’t even include the basic digital building blocks by which one could alter the word processing program in order to make it an architectural design program. People, even well-intentioned people, who try to use the word processing program for something other than processing words are doomed to failure. Always. The same is true with sin. It fails. Always.

The bitter fruits

All of us are sinners (Rom. 3:23). We were born into sin. But we’ve all seen the utterly tragic effects of unrepentant sin among our friends and coworkers and family — we’ve seen what happens when you break the design, when you keep sinning and don’t give it up. These effects have touched every one of us.

What about the addictiveness of sin? In our own era the obvious examples are drugs and alcohol. Young people in the prime of life selling their bodies and their purity for just one more drug hit. Think of the lies alcoholics tell the closest family members just for one more drink. I know a young man in prison today, reared in a devout Christian family, who became ensnared in drug addiction of that entire lifestyle. Oh, how different his life could have been!

And then there’s sexual debauchery. The adultery that destroys lovely marriages and scars little children for life. I had a friend, a very gifted man, a man with a faithful Christian wife who committed adultery with a much younger Christian married woman. His sin destroyed those two marriages.

Some of you’re aware of the leader of the homeschooling movement whose adultery destroyed two ministries. Oh, the tragedy and heartache for his own wife and family and hundreds and perhaps thousands of others!

Recently I was talking to a faithful pastor in our area. He’s a godly man. He loves the word of God. He has a godly family. Last year a deaconess in an evangelical church in Seattle who had known this man when he was much younger slandered him. This slander caused great damage in his congregation. “One sinner destroys much good” (Ec. 9:18).

And what about materialism? The man or woman who lives for nothing but material goods and services and drive away the people closest to them because they don’t have time for love and friendship. We all know people who have destroyed lives and marriages by this materialism.

And that’s why Paul says in Romans 5:21, “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.” “[W]hat fruit were you getting?” Sin destroys. Sin kills. Sin perverts everything that is righteous. Sin pollutes and dirties and strangles everything that is beautiful in God’s good creation.

Why the sin?

Why, then, if sin is so obviously self-destructive, do people sin? First, because they we born with an appetite for it. Just as infants have a hunger for breast milk, so we have a hunger for sin. That’s why it’s not necessary to teach children to sin. It’s necessary to teach them not to sin.

But there’s another reason people sin. It’s the ultimate form of instant gratification. Sin is very pleasant at the beginning and very painful at the end. Sin is like the Venus flytrap. It lures insects by nectar. When consuming the nectar, they get caught, and then the plant closes the leaves, crushing the insect to death. That’s what sin does.

Sin’s “epic fail”

Now, actually, if you think about it, despite the tragedy, there’s also great relief in this. This means that in the end, there’re no successful sinners. Sin isn’t just destructive; it’s self-destructive, and self-frustrating.

We live in a God-rigged universe. It’s rigged against the success of sin. This means that all of the depravity surrounding us, the moral pollution that breaks our hearts — the pride, the hate, the abortion, the pornography, the crooked politicians, the drug and alcohol addiction, the broken friendships, the rebellious children, the broken marriages, and on and on — cannot last. If sin cannot go on, it will not go on. And according to God’s word, it cannot go on.

Because of what Jesus Christ did on the Cross and from the empty tomb, God is in the business of getting rid of sin. “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). Sin cannot go on, because Jesus is destroying it.

The Fruits of Righteousness

Breaking the slavery

Finally, we might ask: why then do Christians sin, if we’ve been freed from sin? Paul doesn’t leave us in doubt. He tells us in verse 19 to present ourselves to God as we once presented ourselves to Satan. We are the slaves of the one we obey (v. 16). We Christians still sin because we don’t constantly surrender ourselves to God. Paul’s point is as clear as it is powerful:  we enjoy liberation from sin when we determine to obey a new master. Let me put this another way. Paul teaches that God gives his people the power over sin when they surrender themselves entirely to him.

Let me make it even more concrete. When we rise in the morning, we need to pray, “Father, in Jesus’ name, I surrender myself entirely to you. I’ll do whatever you want, under all conditions, all the time. I must have the strength of your Spirit. I’ll pay any price to obey.”

Friends, this is the person that God empowers for consistent obedience. Because of indwelling sin, the Bible does not teach that we can live above all sin (1 Jn. 1:8). The Bible does teach, however, we can live consistently obedient lives. We can live above the power to sin. Sin no longer enslaves us. God enslaves us. This is to say, righteousness enslaves us (v. 18).

It’s fascinating that Paul uses the term “fruit” — the fruit of sin, and the fruit of righteousness (vv. 21–22). Fruit is what Satan used in the Garden of Eden to seduce Eve and Adam to sin. The fruit was seductive. The fruit fueled feelings of instant gratification.

When we surrender entirely to the Triune God, he starts drying up that sinful fruit. Then we start bearing the fruit of righteousness (Jn. 15). Understand this point: when we surrender to God, God just doesn’t get rid of our sin. He doesn’t leave us barren. He replaces our sin with righteousness. When we get a new master, we start bearing new fruit.


Let me review. We know that sin destroys everything that is beautiful and lovely in the world. That’s the very sin that once dominated our own hearts. The horrid pollution of sin “out there” starts “in here.”

But Jesus Christ came to liberate us from the shackles of sin. When we surrender ourselves entirely to God, sin no longer has any power over us. It’s as simple and profound as that.

In the mid-1860’s, the Emancipation Proclamation liberated all of the black slaves in all of the United States. They were legally liberated. But they didn’t experience their liberation until they acted on it. They had to leave their old master, and recognize that a new master, the federal Union, had liberated them.

The same is true with sin. The Father in Jesus Christ has liberated us, and we must surrender ourselves daily to our new, liberating master.

[1] Romans 1–5 deals mostly with God’s eternal judgment on sin. This happens at the Final Judgment. Sinners are guilty in God’s courtroom. God solves this problem by justification: he imputes, or credits Jesus’ righteousness to them when they trust in him. But Rom. 6:1f. isn’t about justification. It’s about sanctification: God’s cleaning his people from their sin and eventually cleaning up the entire world. Today, in the “Grace Movement,” there’s a lot of talk about justification and forgiveness of sins, but very little talk about sanctification and getting rid of sin. This approach conforms remarkably to our lawless age. People can have Jesus and salvation and still feel very comfortable in their sin. But there is no salvation without sanctification.

[2] Michael Reeves, The Good God (Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2012). I’m grateful to my colleague Brian G. M Mattson for alerting me to this delightful book.


2 thoughts on “Sin Enslaves, But God Is in the Emancipation Business

  1. Pingback: Salvation: God’s Wasteful Abundance | P. Andrew Sandlin

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