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What does it mean to be a “slave to sin”?8 min read

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Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34)

Few things annoy my atheist friends more than the claim that we humans are sinful, and worse than that, slaves to sin. But in Christian doctrine, this is more than a mere hyperbole or manipulation tactic, the central promise of Christianity is to deliver us from the dire consequences of living as sinful creatures is a fallen society and world. Here’s the doctrine expressed:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age (Galatians 1:3-4a NIV)

But what specifically does it mean that we are subject to, slaves of sin? Here’s a decent take.

1. The PENALTY of sin = death

According to scripture, God’s love demands not only mercy for the penitent, but justice and punishment for those who suppose that justice will never be done or catch up with them. It means that God’s love for the victims demands justice to the perpetrators.

So while sinful actions and attitudes certainly often have negative consequences in this life, scripture assures us that there is a more important consequence – that resulting from giving an account before God and either receiving life eternal, or being destroyed through a refusal of that life through Christ. This is seen everywhere in scripture, but here’s a few notable passages:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. (2 Peter 3:7)

because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:31)

on the day when…God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:16)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.” (Revelation 2:10)

Christ delivers us from the PENALTY of sin, which is death, through his sacrifice. And if we have not believed that, we are still under sin’s penalty.

2. The POWER of sin = addiction and slavery to passions

The brokenness of sin manifests itself through slavery to bodily passions, and often addictions. Certainly, these addictions have root in both our bodies and mind, but let’s separate out the issues of the soul and spirit from bodily appetites. Paul the apostle understood our struggle with the power of sin in our bodies:

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. (Romans 7:15-25) NLT)

2.1 The final redemption of our bodies

Figure 1: The Progress of Sin and Salvation

As you may be aware, salvation is a process that begins with the spirit (regeneration), continues in the soul (sanctification), and culminates in our receiving new bodies (resurrection), as shown in Figure 1 (click to enlarge). Unfortunately, since the bodily redemption is not until later, to a large extent, we still have to struggle with bodily passions even if our spirit and soul are on the journey with God.

However, scripture encourages us that now that we are renewed in our spirit and being renewed in our minds, we do have the power to rule our bodily passions, even if it is a struggle.

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)

3. The PERSPECTIVE of sin = despair and confusion

In Figure 1 above is a step in salvation called sanctification. This is the process of having our minds changed on a deep level by exposing them to the scriptures, which God then uses to change us into people of virtue.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (Colossians 3:10)

The effect of sin on our minds is known in theology as the noetic effects of sin. It means that our reasoning and intuitions are warped by worldly thinking, but progress is made by learning to see reality properly.

In secular terms, this is somewhat analogous to the process of reframing, or training your mind in positivity using NLP (neurolinguistic programming). Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has in fact written a new book on this useful practice.

And while earthly success and right thinking is very powerful in delivering us from hopeless and useless perspectives, being transformed in our thinking by the Spirit via scripture allows us to see things from a divine perspective, which is even more important.


The Biblical concept of slavery to sin is not merely a hyperbole or tactic to manipulate (though surely some may use it that way), it is a reality to be remedied. And not just by avoiding judgment in the future, but escaping bodily addictions and worldly, temporal thinking that can cause us to focus on the unimportant and unfulfilling.

And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? (Mark 8:36)