The apostle Paul had never been to Rome. He knew only a handful of believers there. So one might reasonably think that he would introduce himself to the church in that city by pulling out his resume and reeling off a list of accomplishments: inspired letters that he had written, signs and wonders he had performed, famous people that he knew, or perhaps that he alone had been translated into the third heaven and given the privilege of seeing things that are too glorious to be described (see 2 Cor. 12:1-10).
No. The first thing Paul mentions about himself is that he is “a servant of Christ Jesus” (v. 1a).
We often speak of the importance of Christians knowing who they are. Their sense of personal identity is crucial to how they live and minister to the glory of God. It is important that we understand that we are the children of God and therefore heirs, adopted and forgiven. But before Paul would call himself an apostle, before he would describe himself as a believer, Paul would loudly declare that he was a slave of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, the English word “servant” doesn’t adequately express what Paul meant by the Greek word doulos. The word doulos, by the way, appears no fewer than 130 times in the NT. A servant still retains freedom to do what he/she pleases. A servant can perform his/her duties and then return home to live however one pleases. But not a slave!
Most English translations avoid using the word “slave” for obvious reasons. It suggests an oppressive and even cruel dehumanization and domination of one person by another. It is quite difficult for us in the U.S. to think of a “slave” without our minds immediately rushing back to the race-based slavery that plagued our country and largely provoked the Civil War.
But race or ethnicity has absolutely nothing to do with being a “slave” of Jesus Christ. White believers are slaves of Christ. Black believers are slaves of Christ. Asian and native American Indian believers are slaves of Jesus Christ. So, if our being slaves of Jesus Christ has nothing even remotely to do with our individual ethnicity, why did Paul choose this term? Why did he make it such a vital element in his own sense of personal identity? I think there are a couple of reasons.
First, in most forms of slavery, one person is in some sense “owned” by another. This is true even in the case of economic slavery. In this instance, a person becomes the “property” of another in order to discharge or pay off a debt. But economic slavery isn’t a good analogy for what Paul means, because that was a form of slavery from which one could eventually emerge and obtain one’s freedom. But as we’ll see in just a moment, we who believe in Jesus will remain his slaves forever, into the far reaches of eternity future.
But is it really the case that slaves of Jesus Christ are in any sense “owned” by him? Can it be said that the Christian is someone else’s “property”? Again, I understand why saying Yes to this question can be quite offensive. So bear with me as I try to explain what it means to be owned by Jesus.
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing: In our world today, indeed in the totality of human history, the idea that one human could actually own another human is abhorrent. It violates everything we know of what it means for a person to be created in the image of God. But Jesus was more than a human. Yes, he was fully human, but he was also fully God. And he didn’t purchase people on an auction block by offering the highest price in dollars and cents.
The Apostle Peter, no less than Paul, also referred to himself in 2 Peter 1:1 as a “servant” (“slave”) of Jesus Christ. But Peter also made it clear that Christians were not “ransomed” or “redeemed” or purchased “with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Not the combined monetary wealth of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zuckerberg would be sufficient to purchase us out of slavery to sin and condemnation. The only purchase price that would avail was the precious blood of Jesus Christ.
In several places in the NT Christians are described as belonging to Christ. A couple of examples will suffice:
“For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8).
“and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Cor. 3:23).
“If anyone is confident that he is Christ’s, let him remind himself that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we” (2 Cor. 10:7).
“And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).
Clearly, then, there is a sense in which we are “Christ’s.” We belong to him. We are not the captain of our own souls. We can make no claim to anything in us or about us. Does this mean that he “owns” us? Yes. Listen again to the testimony of the NT:
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
“You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants [slaves] of men” (1 Cor. 7:23).
But doesn’t Christ’s purchase of us only apply to our souls? Isn’t it little more than a figure of speech? No. I, in the totality of who I am, have been purchased by Jesus Christ. He literally owns me. I belong to him, body, soul, spirit, mind, affections, abilities, talents, heart, will, and emotions. There is nothing in me or about me that belongs to me.
This runs directly counter to the mindset of our society where demanding one’s “rights” has become something of a national pastime. This world tells me that I have a “right” to do with my body whatever I want. I have a “right” to conduct my sexual life however I please. I have a “right” not to be treated disrespectfully by others. And on and on it goes.
No one has pushed back against this misguided notion more than did Jonathan Edwards (1703-58). Edwards believed he had no “rights”. Let’s be clear about this. We’re not talking about political rights or the right to vote or the right to an education or property rights, or any such thing. We’re talking about our relationship with God. Edwards rightly declared that he has no “rights” in himself, no claim to autonomous freedom, as if he can arbitrarily determine what he will do with his body or his time or his mind or his talents or his money.
Edwards, like Paul, understood that he had been “bought with a price”, the precious blood of Jesus, and has no claim to anything in himself or regarding himself. Neither he, nor we, have any “right” to look at whatever we please or think whatever we please or sleep with whomever we please or spend our money however we please or pursue whatever career or course in life as suits our fancy. We are not the “lord” of our lives. He is. We are not the captain of our own souls or the master of our fate.
What would life look like if we were to take this seriously, if we were to awaken each day conscious of the fact that the only reason we woke up at all is because God mercifully willed it so? My mind is not free to think whatever it wants nor my fingers to type whatever I please nor my eyes to read whatever they fall upon. Every fiber of my being, body, soul, and spirit, belongs to the Lord who loved me and gave himself for me. Like Paul and Peter, I am a slave of Jesus Christ. And there is no more glorious or higher privilege and blessing than that.
Edwards was only 19 years old when he made this declaration of personal resolve, as recorded in his Diary, on Saturday, January 12, 1723.
“In the morning. I have this day, solemnly renewed my baptismal covenant and self-dedication, which I renewed, when I was taken into the communion of the church. I have been before God, and have given myself, all that I am and have, to God; so that I am not, in any respect, my own. I can challenge no right in this understanding, this will, these affections, which are in me. Neither have I any right to this body, or any of its members: no right to this tongue, these hands, these feet; no right to these senses, these eyes, these ears, this smell, or this taste. I have given myself clear away, and have not retained anything, as my own. I gave myself to God, in my baptism, and I have been this morning to him, and told him, that I gave myself wholly to him. I have given every power to him, so that for the future, I’ll challenge no right in myself, in no respect whatever. I have expressly promised him, and I do now promise Almighty God, that by his grace, I will not.”
This is precisely what Paul had in mind when he identified himself, above all else, as a slave of Jesus Christ. Can you do the same? Will you do the same?
Second, Paul spoke happily of being a “slave” of Jesus Christ in order to make it clear that his ultimate allegiance and loyalty was neither to himself, his family, his country, or to anyone other than Jesus. His time was not his own to spend. His mind was not his own to think whatever he pleased. He didn’t consider himself free to develop his own ideas about what is true and false, or good and evil. He couldn’t formulate his own worldview. What made sense to him didn’t matter. What felt right or fair to him didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was what Jesus said regarding truth and goodness.
In what sense, then, could Paul or any Christian say that he/she is “free”? For Paul, freedom was not the opportunity or power to do whatever one wishes. Freedom is not the liberty to choose one course of action over another. Freedom for Paul, freedom for the Christian, freedom for the slave of Jesus Christ is the joy of aligning our will with that of Christ, obeying Christ, doing whatever Christ commands.
The freest person in the world is the man or woman who lives life as a slave of Christ!
Thus, being a slave of Jesus means that we are altogether loyal to him. What he says is true, is true, because he says it. We are not free to disagree. To disagree is sin. What he says to do, we do. We are not free to disobey. To disobey is sin. This may strike some of you as horrible, but it is in fact where true joy and heartfelt satisfaction are found. God knows what is true and right and what brings greatest delight to the human heart.
Let me press this point. When the Bible clearly teaches something as true, the slave of Jesus Christ cannot respond and say: “Well, that may be true for you but not for me.” Or, “Well, God, that’s just your opinion.” When the Bible teaches something that you don’t like, what you like or don’t like doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to be mean or heavy-handed. But the fact is that there are things in the book of Romans that some of you won’t like. But if you regard yourself as a Christian, a slave of Jesus Christ, the only thing that matters is what he likes.
So, when the Bible commands a particular kind of behavior, like not committing fornication or stealing or lying, you are not free to do otherwise. If you are a slave of Jesus Christ, you can’t say: “Well, sorry, but it’s my body and I can do with it whatever the heck I please.”
The fact is, everyone is a slave. Either you are a slave to your sinful flesh and your own ego or the expectations of others, or you are a slave to Jesus Christ.
By the way, this status as the slaves of Christ is not for this life only. Don’t ever think that once we find ourselves in the new heaven and new earth that we will advance beyond slavery, that we will somehow gain a new freedom that releases us unto ourselves. No, we will be slaves of Christ throughout all of eternity. In his description of the new heavens and new earth, John the Apostle said,
“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants [lit., slaves] will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-4).