Seminary Viewpoints

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Freedom from Addiction as Slaves to God

Jim Berg | April 7, 2022
Theology Thursday

Excerpted and adapted from Jim Berg’s Fall 2021 JBTW article and discussed on The Steve Noble Show on April 7

“Read your Bible, pray every day, and the addiction will go away.” Too many believers think biblical counselors are kidding themselves to claim that the Bible has answers for overcoming a physical problem. However, they are often conflating drug dependence and true addiction.

To remove the mystic about addiction, a person must understand the difference between physical dependence and addiction. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) correctly states that “physical dependence in and of itself does not constitute addiction but often accompanies addiction.”1

  • Physical dependence occurs when drug use develops tolerance (and its subsequent withdrawal discomfort) as the body begins to depend upon the drug to feel normal.2 Most patients prescribed narcotics do not welcome the negative side effects (drowsiness, sedation, brain fog, etc.) because they interfere with normal activities (family, job, hobbies, sports, etc.). Though these patients may develop dependence, they are not necessarily addicted. Physical dependence is treated by detoxification, which must be medically supervised when a drug’s withdrawal has possible severe side effects.
  • Addictions occur when the experiences — the mood-altering or mind-numbing side effects of a drug or other behavior — are welcomed as a means of dealing with problems which can be resolved only in the soul (guilt, shame, loneliness, boredom, anger, anxiety, fear, despair, etc.). Some secular experts call this “true addiction” or “psychological addiction.” The enslaved individual depends upon his own strategies to find joy, peace, and fulfillment apart from God (Jer. 2:13; Prov. 3:5-6). The desire-driven repetition of the activity becomes a compulsive behavior as the body reinforces the choices of the heart through a learned process of habituation. The person is now addicted (enslaved) as sin “reigns” in his body. Addiction requires heart transformation through progressive sanctification.

Not only do believers misunderstand the root of true addiction, they don’t apply foundational biblical truths. As redeemed sinners, Christians are not immune to any sin, including addiction — enslaving, habitual sin. However, Paul illustrates in Romans 6:16-23 that believers can and should conquer addiction because God, not sin, is our master.

Old Master to New Master

In Romans 5 Paul teaches that believers no longer live in the realm of the law but in the realm of grace. In chapter 6 he raises and answers two subsequent questions, the second being, “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (Rom. 6:15 ESV). “By no means!” he says. In other words, sin and grace are incompatible.

To help Roman believers understand this incompatibility, he employs the slave-master imagery. They are either slaves to sin or slaves to God. But believers, as Paul illustrates in verses 16 and 17, transfer to a new master upon conversion.

Before conversion, when sin was their master, they lived for their lusts (6:19), rejected the restraining influence of righteousness (6:20), experienced no shame for their evil and deserved the judgment of God (6:21).

As slaves to God with Him as their master, they now can experience freedom from sin’s bondage (6:18), participate in increasing sanctification (6:19, 22) and enjoy the blessings of eternal life (6:22-23).

The Choice to Obey the New Master

For believers who have entered this new relationship with God as master, new privileges bring new responsibilities. To experience the blessing of having a new master, they must choose to obey Him in the power of God’s Spirit.

Paul repeats variants of “obey” in Greek to reinforce the slave-master imagery and to condemn a false sense of freedom from God’s standards. In fact, being slaves of God is so intertwined with obedience that he also describes their status as slaves “of obedience” (6:16), of “that form of doctrine which was delivered you” (6:17) and “of righteousness” (6:18, 19, 20).

Believers cannot grudgingly obey and enjoy God’s blessings, however; Paul demands wholehearted obedience to God and His ways instead of wholehearted obedience to sinful desires. “From the heart” (ἐκ καρδίας) demonstrates willing submission to the new master, removing any thought of cruelty in the imagery.

Obedience may seem daunting, but believers don’t have to — they can’t — overcome sin and its enslaving outcomes alone. God enables His children to obey, as the passive tense “have been set free” and “have become slaves” indicates.

The Myth of a “Third Master”

By employing the slavery imagery and offering only two options, Paul implies that no third alternative of man’s independence and autonomy exists. Just because believers aren’t under the law doesn’t mean they can serve both Christ and sin. Wholehearted obedience to the gospel which Paul commands must characterize the new relationship (6:17). It transfers the believer out of sin’s rule and into the realm of a new master, with no third option and no neutral position (6:17). Consequently, if believers choose to sin, they choose sin as their master and ultimately choose death.

So don’t let sin passively reign in your life. “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” or similar mindsets of irresponsibility and inability are false. Choices to sin reveal “voluntary slavery” to it, for “You are slaves of the one whom you obey” (6:16 ESV). But praise be to God that you do not have to sin — because God enabled you to obey.

Romans 6 paints a wonderful contrast between the experience and outcome of two masters. Becoming a “slave of righteousness,” through progressive sanctification is not an event, like justification. Obedience to God’s Word (taken in large doses) in the power of the Spirit over time begins to produce the fruit of righteousness in the believer who will willingly and wholeheartedly submit his whole being to his new Master, Jesus Christ.

See Also: A Biblical Understanding of Addiction


1 “https://nida.nih.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/frequently-asked-questions/there-difference-between-physical-dependence-addiction

2 Recreational use of opioids can quickly develop into both dependence and addiction at the same time.