For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Why We Should Not and Cannot Go on Living in Sin
Our focus this morning is mainly on the three great contrasts in verse 23. "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." But before we look at them, recall this. Romans 6 began with the question, "Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?" And the question was asked again in verse 15, "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" The answer to both questions was a resounding no. You shall not and you cannot. All the rest of the chapter is to explain why not.
So keep that in mind as we look at the last verse in the chapter, verse 23. It's the closing argument in this chapter for why we should not, and cannot, go on living in sin or being ruled by sin if we are under grace. We will come back to this at the end to show how verse 23 is part of our practical triumph over sin in our lives.
First then, let's look at the three contrasts in this verse. "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." The three contrasts are:
- sin vs. God,
- wages vs. free gift, and
- death vs. eternal life.
Let's look at these contrasts. The first two we need to take together.
Sin Vs. God, and Wages Vs. Free Gift
Something begs for clarification immediately. I think most people hear the phrase "wages of sin" and think the meaning is something like, "the wages you get when you sin." So "wages of sin" they take to mean "wages of doing sin." In this picture, "sin" is the actions done to get the wage. I don't think that's the picture Paul has in his mind. It doesn't fit the context of verse 22 or the contrast with God in verse 23.
If you take "wages of sin" that way, you should probably take "free gift of God" that way. But you can see right away that that doesn't work. "Free gift of God" means "free gift that God gives." So the parallel would be "wages that sin pays." In this picture, sin is not what you do to earn wages. It is the master who pays you when you serve him as a slave. And I think that is the picture Paul has in his mind.
The contrast in verse 23 is between two masters, sin and God. That is what Paul has been developing with the slavery image all through this chapter. Verse 22 says, "But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life." You can see the contrast between sin as one slave master and God as another slave master. They are two competing slave masters. "Freed from sin and enslaved to God." So the point Paul wants to make is a very striking, even shocking one in verse 23 – it's one of the reasons he apologized for using the slavery imagery.
How so? Well consider how these two masters pay their slaves. "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." The slave master, sin, pays wages, and the slave master, God, gives gifts. One master pays. The other master gives.
What's the difference between a wage and a gift? A wage is something you earn. A gift is something you don't earn, and can't earn. A wage is a matter of debt and justice. A free gift is a matter of beneficence and grace. You can take somebody to court for not paying you your wages; but you can't take anyone to court for not giving you a free gift. You deserve your wages. You don't deserve a free gift. Otherwise it wouldn't be free.
The One True Slavery
Now ponder this for a moment. Coming home to God – being indentured to God as our master – is the true slavery for which we were created. It's the one true slavery because God really owns us. He made us, and therefore he owns us. When we do what he tells us to do, he owes us no wages. Owners don't pay their possessions wages in a true slavery. And there is only one true slavery in the universe: our slavery to God. Only God owns human beings ultimately. So to be enslaved to God is a homecoming to our true master. Why is that good news?
What makes this so good is that the one true master and owner in the universe gives gifts, not wages. Why is that good news? Because earning wages depletes us and we hope that the wage will make up the depletion. But getting gifts depletes no one. Wages imply that the master needs our work, and so has to recompense it. Gifts imply that the master does not need our work and does not have to recompense anything. The one true Master in the universe has no needs. And that is why he never pays wages. To those who trust him, he only gives gifts. That is why his yoke is easy and his burden is light. It's the sweetest slavery in the world.
But sin is another kind of master. He pays wages. Sin was never meant to be the master of the creatures of God. He is an alien master. Human beings were not meant to serve sin. They were meant to serve God. We were meant to be dependent on God's grace, not debtors to sin's wages.
There is something very deceptive and insidious about sin as a master. His demands all seem pleasant. No one sins out of duty. Sin exercises his power as a master by the pleasures he promises. So when we obey sin, it feels like freedom. It doesn't feel like we are earning wages. It feels like we're getting gifts of pleasure and freedom – to do what we want to do.
So why does Paul say that sin exacts wages? At least two reasons. One is that sin's demands really do deplete us – just like work for wages depletes us, and we hope that the wage will make up for the draining of energy and time. Sin does not restore. It takes and does not give. It takes and takes and takes. Every time you sin, you lose. With every sin, life is being drained out of you. It's as though some perverse vampire devised a way to give his victims a high every time they gave him a pint of blood. And so they protest in their blindness, "We aren't losing. We're gaining. See how good this feels," when all the while their life is draining away.
The other reason Paul says that sin exacts wages, even though it doesn't feel that way to his slaves, is because we really will deserve in the end what he pays. We never will deserve eternal life. That will always be a free gift. But we will deserve the wages that sin pays. And the cruelty of this master, sin, is that the sum of all his wages is death. That's the wage he gives for all our obedience to his desires. And he laughs like a hyena in the end.
O how we should hate the master, sin, and love the Master, God!
Death Vs. Eternal Life
Consider now the third contrasting pair, death vs. eternal life. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Sin's ultimate and summary wage is death. God's ultimate and summary gift is eternal life. And since the life is eternal, the death spoken of here is eternal. All sin's benefits are summed up in this: eternal death. All God's benefits are summed up in this: eternal life.
And here the parallel between the two masters utterly breaks down. Sin will have absolutely no say and no hand in the gift of eternal life. But God will have total say and a sovereign hand in the wage of eternal death. Here is another great tragedy about sin's slaves. They keep thinking he is a true master because he seems to reward them with things they like. In fact, he is no true master at all, but a pretender to the throne. And in the end he simply disappears and leaves his slaves before the judgment of God. That's the real meaning of death, the judgment of God.
Hell is the wage that sin pays in the same way that a prostitute's venereal disease and prison sentence is the wage that a pimp pays. They don't really pay it. They just lure and deceive and lie and drain and ruin, and then disappear, and leave their slaves sick and guilty before the courts – before the judgment of God.
In Romans 2:7-8 Paul contrasts eternal life with the "wrath and indignation" of God. That is the ultimate meaning of death in Romans 6:23. Not just ceasing to exist, but eternal conscious torment under the just and holy wrath of God. This is the final "wage of sin." The slave master, sin, seduces his slaves to disobey God and then disappears and leaves them to perish at the judgment of the Almighty.
But all the slaves of God go into eternity with God as their Giver. That's what eternal life means. God remains the giver forever and ever. There will never be a time when God is not giving more new joys to his people. God will never run out of gifts and cease to be Giver. He will never cease to be God.
Ephesians 2:7 is one of the most amazing promises in this regard. Paul says that God raised us up with Christ, "so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus." Do you see what this means? It means that eternal life is what it will take for God to exhaust the riches of his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. The gifts he has for us in himself are infinite in number and perfection. Therefore it will take eternity to give them to us for our enjoyment. There will be a never-ending display of new and wonderful things about God and from God for us to enjoy.
There will be no boredom in the age to come. His mercies will be new every morning. Therefore the reservoir of blessings to prompt the pleasures of gratitude will grow larger and larger. And the river of blessings still flowing from the future will never decrease, because the source is infinite. And you remember the definition of infinite: something is infinite if it can give away forever and never get smaller. Infinite gives and gives and gives and never becomes less. Eternal life will be the never-ending giving of God to make us ever-increasingly happy in all that he is for us in Jesus.
In Christ Jesus Our Lord
This brings us to the last phrase in the text. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Here is an all-important phrase: "in Christ Jesus our Lord." We should, of course, ask: How can sinners like you and me hope to receive eternal life? Why should we get the gift of life and not the wage of sin? And the answer is that we are "in Christ Jesus our Lord." In him we are righteous. In him we are forgiven. In him we are loved.
And how did we get into him? And how do you know you are in him? In the only way that accords with a free gift, and not a wage. That is, by faith. Faith sees the offer of a free gift of grace held out to the world at Christmas and Good Friday and Easter. And faith receives the gift as a treasure. If you will receive Jesus Christ as your treasure, then you will be "in Christ Jesus" and have eternal life. And Romans 6:23 says that "the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Now I promised I would come back to the overarching question of the chapter: Shall we continue in sin that grace may increase? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Well here we are and we are out of time. So that will be the message, Lord willing, next week. How does it all fit together in this chapter? How does sanctification fit in with the free gift of life? The answer is that sanctification too is a gift. And I would like you to see that and receive it on Christmas Eve next week.
In the meantime, abide in Christ Jesus, by trusting in him as the treasure of your life. For the Word of God to us this morning is clear: "The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."