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A Surprisingly Liberating Truth: Servant vs. Slave of Christ

Jesus Holding Man's Hand
September 15, 2020

Perhaps—like me—you’ve felt a tad bit uncomfortable when reading New Testament scriptures like these, “Ye are bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) and “Ye are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19).

Slaves are bought and owned, right? These verses sound bizarre and just plain wrong.

Nevertheless, I’m writing this article because of the ironically liberating impact this truth has had on me:

Christ already owns us. He has already purchased every one of us, whether we know it or not. 

But hold on . . . it all makes perfect, beautiful sense in the end. I first understood this truth about four years ago. Like yeast in a very slow-rising dough, it has swelled within me all these years. This knowledge has blessed me in surprising ways. I believe it will do the same for you.

I’m not intending to antagonize or frighten anyone. This is a positive and scripturally accurate message, as you will see from the numerous scripture citations below.

Note: This article is intended to be practical and helpful, not theoretical or academic. I credit the research and writing of John MacArthur in his book The Gospel According to Jesus and one of his sermons for eye-opening insights.

Friends or Slaves?

We can have many relationships to Christ. However, in this statement to His apostles on the night before He was crucified, Jesus Himself chose to focus on the concept of slaves and masters:

No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15, NKJV)

But wait a minute! This scripture says “servants” and “friends,” not “slaves” and “friends.”

It turns out that the Greek word “doulos” translated most often as “servant” should always . . . that’s always . . . be translated as “slave,” not “servant.” (You can read the MacArthur article for possible reasons why Bible translators through the centuries have purposely avoided rendering “doulos” as “slave.”)

Really? See for yourself and stay with me to the tail end of this article to see why this is such a big deal. Trust me, this is positive, important, and not just shock-effect.

There are MANY references to Christians as slaves in the Bible. Did you know that when Paul introduces himself as the author of his many letters in the New Testament that he does so in the Greek language as: Paulos, doulos Iēsou Christou, which is literally saying, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.” (See Romans 1:1 and scroll toward the bottom to see the Greek word-by-word translations.)

Wow, that’s a surprising introduction by our beloved Paul, in his own words.

Finding this incredulous? Lunacy? Not quite.

Let’s get clear on the correctness of the translation of “doulos” as “slave.”

The Slave and His Lord

Here’s what Bible scholar and pastor John MacArthur had to say about the Greek word “doulos.” Referring to Kittle, the set of Greek language reference books that are widely considered “the last word, the consummate word, more than you ever need to know or care to know, about every Greek word,” he explains the meaning of doulos:

There is no need to trace the history of this word; there is no need to discuss the meaning of this word; it has never meant anything in any usage but slave.” That is just very rare in that kind of vast lexicography [such as Kittle] because they will give you every possible nuance, every possible translation, in classical Greek, or in Koine Greek, or in any other usage, biblical, non-biblical.

“[Slave] is the universal meaning of the word doulos, and it is the word which most uniquely describes the believer’s relationship to Christ. In fact, to press the issue a little further, it has a companion word – a necessary companion word, without which doulos doesn’t make sense – and the companion word is kurios. Kurios means lord. There’s no such thing as a lord or master without a doulos, so this is the dominant paradigm in which we are to understand our relationship to Jesus Christ: He is Lord, and we are His slaves.”

Rest Assured – We are Born Free

Now, before you send the people with the white jackets to tie me down and haul me away, let me say that I know and have a certain witness in my heart that God our Heavenly Father most assuredly granted each and every soul born to this earth their agency, meaning their free will to choose their thoughts, words, and deeds.

We are free. We are born free. All of us. Nothing can change that except two things: Our own sins and the proponent of sin, Satan.

The Bible has this bit of bad news for us, by the way:

Without Christ, none of us lives a free man or woman. None has escaped spiritual bondage. None.

More on this soon, including how that bondage relates to our becoming slaves of Christ. (See John 8:34 and Romans 3:23.)

In What Ways Are We Slaves of Christ?

In terms of human slavery, we know that slaves are chosen, purchased, owned, subject to their master’s will, totally dependent on their masters for sustenance, accountable, evaluated, and rewarded or punished by their masters.

You’ll recognize that these conditions are clearly paralleled in New Testament scripture, cataloged for us by MacArthur:

The fundamental aspects of slavery are the very features of our redemption that Scripture puts the most stress on. We are chosen (Eph. 1:4 – 5; 1 Peter 1:1; 2:9); bought (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23); owned by our Master (Rom. 14:7 – 9; 1 Cor. 6:19; Titus 2:14); subject to the Master’s will and control over us (Acts 5:29; Rom. 6:16 – 19; Phil. 2:5 – 8); and totally dependent on the Master for everything in our lives (2 Cor. 9:8 – 11; Phil. 4:19). We will ultimately be called to account (Rom. 14:12); evaluated (2 Cor. 5:10); and either chastened or rewarded by Him (Heb. 12:511; 1 Cor. 3:14). Those are all essential components of slavery. (MacArthur, John F., The Gospel According to Jesus (pp. 35-36). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

Treat yourself and read each of those references. Each one. Watch and see if a complete picture of the lordship of Christ as our Master does not emerge in astonishing, blunt clarity. (By the way, the BibleHub website linked from these scriptures enables you to study each of these verses across various translations, including the Greek, if you scroll way down. It’s easy and it’s really awesome.)

The Good News of Being a Slave of Christ

By now, you’re probably at least considering the possibility that this concept of spiritual slavery to Christ is scriptural and correct.

But a HUGE, glaring issue remains. Most of us equate slavery with dehumanizing cruelty that deprives the slave of all ability to act for him or herself. We think of the former inhabitants of Africa being packed into the hulls of boats so tightly that they could hardly move or breathe for weeks of torturous suffering. We think of the savage consequences that slaves experienced for the slightest disobedience. We think of slave owners who cared nothing for the wellbeing and eventual freedom of their bought and purchased slave property.

But none of those awful conditions applied when Jesus said, “No longer do I call you [slaves] . . . but I call you friends.” None.

Even so, consider the aspects of human slavery that were not altogether cruel. The slave owner provided the slaves with food, shelter, clothing. In some cases in early American history, they were provided with education to help them succeed when they were freed.

Red x painted on brick wall
Photo by Andrej Lišakov on Unsplash

But being a slave of Christ looks nothing like the frightful institution of human slavery. We need to “X” out the human concept of slavery from our minds. Being owned, cared for, commanded, and nurtured by Christ is a totally different concept.

Here’s why being a slave of Christ is a good thing and a scripturally correct concept:

  • We have all lost our spiritual freedom to varying degrees already. Why? Because “whosoever committeth sin is the [doulos] of sin,” said Jesus (John 8:34, KJV). That’s not a “servant” of sin, but a “slave.” Any illusion that we are fully free without Christ is self-deception. If this seems far-fetched to you, I encourage you to ask God to help you understand. For most of us, we think we are perfectly free until we try to change (repent) and strive to obey Christ’s commandments and follow His example. At that point, the inertia of our darkened, wandering, rebellious, captive hearts becomes more obvious.
  • Until we believe in and obey Jesus as our Master and Savior, the devil is to a significant degree our master. Some of us are more in bondage than others but ALL of us are in bondage, whether we believe it or comprehend it or not. When the devil is our master, he truly robs us of our ability to choose and to act. Ultimately, he wants to treat us with all the cruelty of human slave masters.

Recognizing and accepting our own captive predicament helps us understand our desparate need for Christ.

  • The atonement of Jesus, meaning His suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha, constitutes the awful, painful price—the money that he paid to purchase us. There is no refuting this. One cannot accept the Bible as the word of God without acknowledging that, “Ye are bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20) and “Ye are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19). Consider asking God (see James 1:5) to help you comprehend the import of these statements and how the atonement of Christ results in our becoming the purchased property of the Son of God. It is a fact and I thank God that He has helped me understand it, because it is LIBERATING.
  • Having Christ as Master liberates me from a cruel master, Satan, who is intent on my misery and ruin. It’s true. Despite the mocking way the world around us may refer to “the devil,” he is real and terribly powerful when we submit to him through our sinful thoughts and deeds. When we sin, we have stepped into the dark side, to leverage a Star Wars analogy, and by God’s laws of justice, we receive our wages from the master we obey. (See Romans 6:16)
  • Having Christ as Master does NOT deprive us of our essential God-given freedom to choose. We can choose to be an obedient slave or a rebellious slave. But we are a slave. We can kick and fuss and complain and say mean things about it all day long but that does not change the fact that we are slaves to Christ—at least for now.
  • Having Christ as Master empowers me to become my best self. Here is the main point of this article. Through Christ, we can fully become the kindly Dr Jekyll and fully abandon the hideous Mr. Hyde, who dwells in each of us. How does Christ’s ability to save us from evil work? I have personally experienced each of these:
    • Christ provides for my sustenance like the beloved Psalm 23 so beautifully describes.
    • Christ gives me commandments that lead to positive outcomes for me. All of His commands are, in fact, designed to help me grow until I become free. My complete freedom is His ultimate objective. It is the reason that He purchased me to begin with. (How unlike human slavery! Whoever bought slaves just to save them from their suffering and prepare them to be independent and successful?)
    • Accepting that I am a slave of Christ is profounding humbling. It helps me get past my relentless pride. It changes my attitude to face-in-the-dust, abject humility. My slave-status helps me see the ridiculousness of thinking that, “I’m doing a God a favor” by doing what He says. It helps me see that anything short of full obedience and trust in my Master is not obedience but in part rebellion.
    • Accepting my slave relationship helps me overcome my sins and weaknesses. In ways that I cannot fully describe, my most thorny, troublesome weaknesses are absorbed by His power as I keep my eyes fixed on Him as my kindly Savior and Master and I say to Him, “I can’t do this on my own but I want to be fully obedient. Please help me.” Then I feel a power outside of me changing me, helping me, and giving me grace to do what He wants. Think of it. A Master who helps us obey if we simply ask in faith!
    • Honoring Him as my Redeemer (which is a more gentle word for “purchaser” or “slave owner”) increases my worshipful feelings and my ability to, “Love God with all [my] heart, and with all [my] soul, and with all [my] mind, and with all [my] strength” (Mark 12:30).
    • God seeks to advance our spiritual standing with Him from a slave to an heir by His side. These are the improved spiritual stations that God has told us He has in store for us.
      • Steward/Manager. This is different than the Greek “doulos,” with significantly higher standing than a slave.
      • Friend. What a beautiful thought for Jesus to consider us a friend. (See John 15:15.)
      • Son. How intimate! What an unspeakable privilege! (See John 1:12-13.)
      • Heir of God. To dwell with God to become a joint heir with Christ is beyond comprehension, but it is explicitly stated in scripture. (See Romans 8:17.)

The Bottom Line: A Rapturous Metaphor

How can anyone not say, “Sign me up! This is a great deal. This is the bargain of an eternal lifetime!

For such a concept to take hold in the positive and empowering sense that God intended it, we need but envision this scene and never lose sight of it:

  • You and I have been foolish and taken captive by the hateful, powerful ruler of darkness: Satan. We are behind bars, so to speak, never to be freed because we have not the power. . . unless someone else can release us.
  • The ever-loving, infinitely powerful Jesus Christ—the God of the universe—comes to see us in prison! He stoops to our level, looks into our eyes, and says, “Don’t you know? I’ve already paid your evil master off. You owe him nothing. The prison door is already unlocked. Push it open by believing My words right now.”
  • We are stunned as we walk out of the cell and ask, “What should we do now? Are we free to go our ways?”
  • He replies, “In a way, yes. But know this: I have bought and paid for you. You are mine now and duty-bound to serve me. As my slave, you can still choose to rebel. But if you do, there are painful, terrible consequences and you may very well end up in the devil’s bondage again—forever. Do you really want to be that foolish?”
  • We look at each other with concern. Slaves to Jesus? Or to the Devil? We recoil at the thought.
  • Our new Master looks at us with a smile. “With Me as your Master,” He says, “you will be cared for in every way. I’ve not bought you for My sake but for yours! I will feed you, teach you, and help you. I will nurture your spiritual development because I want you to become My friend and My Son, not just here on earth but forever. Believe My words.” He says as we look at each other, speechless.
  • “While I love you more than can understand, don’t treat Me lightly or mock Me by forgetting Me. In the economy of eternity, you owe Me. I say this not to make you feel guilty but to teach you a fact of life. You are forever indebted to me. You can never repay Me nor should you try to do it. But you need to become as humble as the dust itself and stay that way. Have you not heard that he who humbles himself, I will exalt?”
  • We nod, “Yes, we have heard that, Lord, but we had not understood it before.” (See Luke 14:11.)
  • “I intend to exalt all those who humble themselves but you must honor Me and obey Me as Master. Know that I am forever your loving Master—the one who has ‘engraved you on the palm of my hands.'” (See Isaiah 49:16.)
  • In a final astonishing statement, He says to us, “And know this: Those who humbly strive to serve Me will receive of my infinite power any time, all day, any day. I will help you all the days of your life to overcome your sins, to wash away your guilt, and help you rise above the prisoner you once were in the devil’s cell, where you rightfully belonged. No more! You will become a true and fitting heir, a godly person, one who loves what is good and is becoming good—through Me and purely because of Me—and not of your own doing. Your responsibility is to believe in Me as your rightful Master and choose to obey. You can do that, can’t you? Because I can’t do that for you. You must believe and choose.”
  • We no longer hang our heads. We look up to Him and then at each other, smiling. “Yes, Lord. We can!” We run off spritely, with a clear understanding of what a truly “good deal” we have received. Too good to be true!

But it is true. I so testify in the holy name of Jesus Christ.

R. Christian Bohlen portrait in church with pews and stained glass behind

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