Brooks Hatlen was an old man by the time he finally got out. Back in his youth, around 1905, he committed some serious crimes and ended up in Shawshank State Prison. There he spent almost the rest of his life. He became the prison librarian and settled into life on the inside. But finally, in 1953, Brooks Hatlen was paroled. He got out, he was placed in a half-way house, and took up a job at a local grocery store. However, this was a vastly different world and Brooks Hatlen wasn’t prepared for it at all. He didn’t know how to cope. He contemplated killing the grocery store manager just so he could be sent back to prison. Instead, he decided to hang himself.
Now that’s a fictional story from the gritty, realistic prison film The Shawshank Redemption. Yet the story is not farfetched. It’s a well-known phenomenon. Prisoners who spend long stretches of their life in prison often become institutionalized. They have become so accustomed to life in prison that, if they finally get out, they just can’t cope. They know how to survive in prison, but not on the outside. They don’t know anything about everyday things like paying bills or making meals. Sometimes they re-offend just so that they can go back to what they know and what they’re comfortable with. It’s sometimes called the jail-house mentality.
The Bible is clear that man in the unregenerate state is enslaved to sin. Slavery is like a form of imprisonment. In fact, while Romans 6:17 speaks about slavery to sin, Romans 7:23 describes it as being held captive. Apart from Christ, we are in prison. We are not free — we can’t not sin. But Romans 6 gives us the glorious message that Christ frees the prisoners. According to verse 6, we have been crucified with Christ and therefore are no longer enslaved to sin. Through Christ, we are free! Sin no longer has dominion over us, because we are under grace.
That’s the way things are in principle. In the sight of God, everyone who believes in Christ has had their sin crucified with him. Sin is gone, it’s dead and out of the way. Moreover, this makes a difference for the believer living on this earth. Before Christ, we can’t not sin. After Christ, we can not sin. Our wills are made alive by the Holy Spirit, and we can choose not to sin. However, we don’t do this consistently and we will never do it perfectly while we live in this world, but the possibility of saying no to sin is there for Christians.
The problem is that we often have what could be called a jail-house mentality. Those who have been imprisoned by sin find it difficult to live free from sin. Like prison, sin can become familiar and comfortable. Prison is an awful place, and so is sin, but you get to know your way around it. You can grow to like it, despite its downsides. Even as Christians we can feel drawn back to sin, just like institutionalized ex-cons feel drawn back to prison. Every day we have a struggle to live free. Every day we have to struggle to get it out of our minds that sin is better than Christ. This battle has a name: repentance. Repentance means to have a change of mind. We have to change our mind about sin and being imprisoned to it.
Being a Christian therefore involves a daily battle. It’s been said that we have peace with God through Christ, but this is a peace that starts a war. The war is with our enemies, the devil, the world, and most of all with our own flesh. We have a peace that starts a war, and every day that war needs to be fought. It’s a fight to be free from the enslavement and imprisonment of sin. It’s a fight to live like people who are free in Christ, to be who we really are in him. That fight starts on the inside with heart, mind, and will. It begins with our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. But it carries through into the concrete ways we live each day. All of this is hard. We can’t pretend otherwise. But we need to keep that in perspective. We need to compare that with sin, what it promises and what it delivers. Sin by its very nature is deceptive. Sin looks easy and fun. It promises good times. But in the end it bites you hard and destroys you. Already in this life, it will mess you up and the people around you. Afterwards it will leave you imprisoned forever under God’s wrath. You don’t want that, do you? So instead, turn from sin every day. Learn to hate it and flee it. Bring it to the throne of grace and have your sin washed away through Christ. Learn then to love God and to express your love through following his will, for his glory. Dear readers, “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). Battle to live free.