The Slippery Slope
(Romans 6: 15-23)
The Slippery Slope. That’s a term used quite a bit in the legal field. I’ve used it myself with clients and in legal arguments. Appellate Courts like to use it when they think an appellate lawyer is trying to get the court to engage in a dangerous and unstable line of thinking which is weakly supported by facts and logic. It’s an idea or course of action which will lead to something unacceptable, wrong or disastrous. That first, relatively small first step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant, usually negative, effect, resulting in some unacceptable unintended consequences.
As an attorney, clients would come to me with some sort of plan or scheme that would help them avoid accepting responsibility for their actions, or so they thought. They usually weren’t thinking clearly and only had the short term in sight. Thinking with a clearer head, and not having any skin in the game, I could look further down the road and identify some of the problems with their “perfect” plan. I would caution them that such a path was not wise and once they started down the slippery slope it would be hard to keep their footing and once they got to the bottom and realized the error of their ways, they wouldn’t be able to get the traction they needed to climb out. They would need a mighty big hand to lift them out of the hole.
This slippery slope is exactly what the Apostle Paul is talking about in our scripture reading for this morning. I’ve intentionally used the translation found in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, The Bible in Contemporary Language. In the other translations we are most familiar with, the Apostle Paul talks about being a slave to sin and that, with God’s help, we can become a slave to righteousness. Slavery is a word that can send us freedom-loving Americans off in different directions. Our country fought a bloody war over slavery less than 200 years ago and some wounds still haven’t healed. Even in Paul’s time on earth slavery had a negative context but it was viewed through a different prism. The Message’s translation puts Paul’s argument in terms we can better understand and to which we can more easily relate.
Paul starts out by asking, So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want? Since we’re free in the freedom of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Peterson interprets what Paul is saying to mean that since we are free in Christ, we are free to do whatever we want, that we are free to abuse our freedom. He understands Paul to say, Hardly. You know well enough from your own experience that there are some acts of so-called freedom that destroy freedom. He’s calling us to remember our past and those times we exercised our free will and did something that we knew wasn’t right that ended badly. We knowingly took that first step and the slope immediately got slippery and down we went. Paul is essentially saying that when you offer yourselves up to sin, that offering becomes your last free act because sin takes control. I’ve seen this happen often in my experience as a Drug Court prosecutor when we’ve worked very hard to help someone get clean and sober and graduated from the program. Things are going good, and they begin thinking they’ve got it under control so maybe having one little drink or drug-of-choice won’t hurt. They’ve exercised their free will and taken that first step on the slippery slope and, before they realize it, they’ve slid down the slope and are back at the bottom, a slave to their addiction once again. A life out of control, out of their control.
Paul continues by telling us to offer ourselves to the ways of God and, if we do, the freedom never quits. He points out that all our lives we’ve let sin tell us what to do but, thank God we’ve started listening to a new master, one whose commands set us free to live openly in his freedom. In Peterson’s translation Paul says, I’m using this freedom language because it’s easy to picture. You can readily recall, can’t you, how at one time the more you did just what you felt like doing, not caring about others, not caring about God, the worse your life became and the less freedom you had? After that had sunk in, he asks the follow-up question, And how much different is it now as you live in God’s freedom, your lives healed and expansive in holiness?
Paul is basically asking us two thought-provoking questions. First, what are some of the consequences of living a life under the control of a desire, a lust or a habit that you know is wrong and not good for you? Well, you’re living a life that’s a lie. You’re consumed by shame. You fight it, but you eventually give up and it controls your every waking moment, robbing you of your best self. The flip-side question is, what are the benefits of living a God-centered life with an outward focus? There is no secret life you spend all your time hiding from others. You have a clear focus on living a productive life with meaning. You have a positive attitude that leads to a healthy lifestyle that produces fruit.
Paul continues by saying that as long as we did what we felt like doing, ignoring God, we didn’t have to bother with right thinking or right living, or right anything for that matter. He asks the rhetorical question, But do you call that a free life? What did you get out of it? Nothing you’re proud of now. Where did it get you? A dead end. By this time, you’re starting to squirm in your seat because you feel as if Paul is writing directly to you. Okay, you say quietly to yourself, what’s the answer. Now that Paul has your attention, he gets to the point. He says, But now that you’ve found you don’t have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life, he says, and your pension is death. But God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master.
Paul makes it sound so simple, clear and easy to understand. Once you get it, why would you ever want to go back there? It begs the question, why do believers in Christ continue to struggle with sin? I liken sin to water and wind erosion. It has nothing but time. It never stops trying to wear you down. It looks for weakness and opportunities to get you back, to bring you back down. The long-term effects of choosing to continue in a pattern of sin is a downward death spiral to the bottom that can and will kill you mentally, spiritually and physically. You lose everything, including your life.
So, what can a believer in Christ do to break free from sin? You pray, and you seek help from other believers. You’d be surprised, they may actually know exactly what you are going through as they too may have walked the slippery slope. You join support groups because it’s easier to go through it with others than on your own. There is strength in numbers. You find a healthy, outward-focused outlet that helps you change your perspective. Once you’ve turned your back on sin and have embraced righteousness, you’ve been freed from sin and you get to begin each new day thinking victory, not defeat, not dreading what the day will bring. You awake to grace, not shame and despair. You get to encounter each temptation with thoughts like, I’ve got Jesus on my side, in my corner, he’s my Lord and Savior, and I am a child of God, liberated and depending upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead me on, and show me the way. Won’t you reach up and take the hand of Jesus and allow him to pull you up and put you back on the path of righteousness?
Please pray with me.
Most gracious and loving God, how grateful we are for the freedom we have in you that never quits. We are so grateful for the life we now have living in your freedom, a life that has been healed and is expanding in your holiness. Through your love and compassion, we now can enjoy a whole, healed, put-together life secure in the knowledge that there is more life, in you, on the way. We thank you for your gift of a real life, and eternal life, delivered to us by your son, our master, Jesus Christ. Amen.