Have any of you ever heard of the Alcan Highway? If you’re not familiar with it, it was built during the Second World War to connect Alaska with the Lower 48, running through northern British Columbia and the Yukon. It was an adventure to drive the Alcan then; it still is, though at least all 1,387 miles of it are paved—except where the weather has destroyed the pavement, anyway. Well into the 1960s, however, it was all gravel, and a challenge only a bold driver with a tough truck would want to face. The difficulties of the Alcan in those days are neatly captured in a story told by Ray Stedman, a longtime evangelical pastor and writer in the Bay Area out in California. Why he was driving up there I don’t remember, but he told of crossing the border into Alaska and seeing a sign that read, “Choose your rut carefully—you’ll be in it for the next 200 miles.”
Choose your rut carefully. It is, I can attest, good advice on any four-wheel-drive road; and it’s wise advice for life more generally, because it reminds us that our actions and decisions are not independent of each other. As the old aphorism has it, “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Every thought we entertain, every step we take, every choice we make, influences the thoughts we will have, the steps we will take, the choices we will make, in the future. What we do and think in this moment isn’t just about this moment, it influences what we will do and think, and who we will be, tomorrow and the next day. Repeated thoughts, repeated actions, create ruts in our lives that become the path of least resistance; with enough repetition, habit makes our decisions for us.
We tend to resist Paul’s language in this passage, and even to resent it; we don’t like the idea that we’re either slaves to sin or slaves to God. There is something in us that wants to believe, as William Ernest Henley put it in his poem “Invictus,” that we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. The truth is, though, that Paul has the right of it. Left to ourselves, our habits will master us, and they will be driven by our desires and shaped by our fears. We may think of that as freedom—the freedom not to be righteous, as Paul notes—but it’s no such thing, because in that state we cannot choose anything else. We are firmly in the grip of sin.
Only Jesus can set us free; and once he’s done so, he calls us to follow and serve him. From that point on, everything we think and say and do serves either to lay down a new groove in our lives, to build and reinforce new habits and patterns which are pleasing to him and in accordance with his will, or to put us back in the old rut. There are no other options, because every thought and every action either serves Jesus, or it doesn’t—and if it doesn’t, then it’s in service to sin. There’s no middle ground here, as if there were some other good out there besides God. As Bob Dylan put it, “It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Therefore, Paul says, “You are slaves of the one whom you obey,” whether that be God or sin. Which raises the question: does that mean we can actually be re-enslaved to sin? Is he suggesting that we can lose our salvation? No, for he makes it clear that God has set us free from sin, and what God has done, no one can undo. But though we cannot lose our salvation in the life to come, we can most certainly lose the blessings of salvation in this life—as so many of the people of Israel did. Remember the passage from Exodus last week, how God delivered Israel by opening a road for them through the sea? Well, when the Israelites saw Pharaoh’s army come over the horizon, do you think they responded with faith that God would deliver them? No, they complained to Moses, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians? It would have been better for us to stay in slavery than to die out here in the desert.”
That wasn’t a one-time complaint, either. Exodus 16:3:
The Israelites said . . . “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
The people . . . grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
The Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! In Egypt, we ate fish at no cost—we had cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we’ve lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”
All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! . . . Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
And on, and on, and on . . .
Now, mark this. When the journey was tough, or when they wanted something they couldn’t have in the wilderness, did the Israelites tell themselves that it was worth it to be free? No, they whined and complained and talked about the good old days when they were slaves in Egypt. God had freed them from their slavery, and he was leading them to the land he had promised them, a land where they could prosper—but that meant they had to serve him, and they didn’t want to do that. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, keep their focus on the blessing God had given them, much less the blessing he had in store for them; they couldn’t see past the pleasures they’d left behind, even though those pleasures had come with the agonies of slavery to a king who hated them. As a result, they made themselves miserable, they trained themselves to distrust God, and most of them never got to see the Promised Land at all.
You see, that’s the foolishness of “taking advantage” of grace, of using it as an opportunity to sin: it misses the whole point. Paul says at the end of chapter 5, “Where sin abounded, grace superabounded”—but how? In blessing for Israel? No, as Israel continued to rebel against God and refuse to trust him, God had to keep judging them, repeatedly and drastically. He remained faithful to them despite their faithlessness, he kept them together as a people and kept his promises to them, which he ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and in that, he showed them grace far beyond their sin; but they still missed out on much of the blessing God had for them.
Sin bears fruit, but its fruit is poisonous; it pays its soldiers what looks like a good wage, but that wage is death. Following Jesus, you don’t get free food in the land of slavery, you get a long road through the wilderness, and sometimes it’s hard and stony, and sometimes it’s full of thorns; but the end is life, and along the way, you learn that the wilderness is a beautiful place. It’s not pretty, it’s not comfortable, it’s wild and unpredictable and unsafe; but it’s beautiful, and it’s an adventure, and the adventure is full of the wild and unpredictable glory of God—and if you hang on to him, he will always bring you through. As John Piper put it, “If you live gladly to make others glad in God, life will be hard, risks will be high, and your joy will be full”—and it will be worth it.
Every choice you face either takes you deeper into the wilderness, where Jesus leads, or back toward the safety of slavery in Egypt—and makes you a little more likely to go that way with the next choice. Choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it a long time.