This message is from the Desiring God 2015 Conference for Pastors, in partnership with Bethlehem College & Seminary. Eleven other sessions are also available.
The following is an abbreviated manuscript of the message.
Let me begin by expressing my gratitude for this opportunity to be with you and to bring God’s word to a gathering that largely comprises my fellow soldiers in the ministry.
In the conference bulletin there is a summary of a message I preached in my own church ten years ago. I state there that the book of Romans is like a mountain range with a number of exhilarating high points. One of them is the statement that I have quoted there, Romans 5:20–21. Another one is the very last verse of chapter 6, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I am sure you have heard it enough to memorize it by now. You come to a verse like this and you want to sit down and let the breeze of the Holy Spirit refresh your soul from it. You sense that there are heights of truth here that you cannot scale. Hence, you want to take off your shoes and worship!
Chapter 6 of Romans is occupied with answering the question posed in its very first verse, which in turn arose because of the freeness of grace that Paul expounded in chapter 5. If God has so lavished us with his grace that however big a sinner you might be, God’s grace is big enough to cover all your sin, then does that not give us a licence to sin as much as we can? After all, God’s grace will still cover those sins!
I do not have the time to open up the whole chapter to expound Paul’s answer. Suffice it to say that his response is that such a position is in reality untenable because God has not only dealt a deathblow to sin in our record in heaven, he has also dealt a deathblow to sin within our hearts on earth (Romans 6:10–11, 22).
Why our text, then? It is a summary statement that Paul makes before he begins a further argument in chapter 7 where he will be showing the role of the law of God in bringing us to our conversion and how we relate to it after our conversion. This summary statement is meant to remind us once again of the seriousness of sin and the abounding grace of God to sinners.
Let us plumb something of its depth in the few minutes we have together in this session.
Sin Has Serious Consequences
To begin with, this statement is telling us that sin has serious consequences. Paul says, “For the wages of sin is death…” He figuratively uses the word “wages” to imply that this is something you are getting because you deserve it – you have, as it were, worked for it (6:20–21). Paul opens the salary bag of a sinner, and all he finds in there is death. Our first parents were warned about this in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:16–17). They did not listen and the payment they got, which has become ours also by inheritance, was death (Romans 5:12). Yet, we do not only inherit this, but we also get paid when we “work” as we yield to temptation (James 1:15). This death, we must emphasise, is not just physical death but also eternal death – the second death (Revelation 21:8). That is what you ask for when you live a life of sin!
God Is Holy and Righteous
We need to pause and ask the question, “Why should death and hell be the inevitable result or payment for sin and evil?” It is because of the nature of God. He is holy and righteous. He must punish sin. The reality that almost led Martin Luther to go mad — the righteousness of God — is one that has been underplayed by our generation, including today’s preachers. We have turned God into some kind of flabby grandfather figure who does not mind how his grandchildren mess up his clothes.
No, the God of the Bible is holy and demands holiness from his creatures. He has given us consciences, his written law, and history to remind us of this reality. Where holiness is missing, his justice demands full payment. That is the only way you can explain Eden, Noah’s Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Israel’s captivity, and hell.
Salvation Is Paid for by Death
That is also the only way in which you can explain Calvary. Paul says, “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life is free to us because it has been paid for “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We should not miss that! This is Paul’s message throughout this book (Romans 1:4, 3:23–26, 4:25, 5:6–10, 21, etc.). All this was prefigured in the sacrifice of animals in the place of sinners in the Old Testament. Now, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” is here in the person of Jesus Christ the sinless Son of God. Due to this you receive eternal life as a free gift. It comprises unequalled joy and peace, freedom from sin, being in God’s immediate presence, eternal rewards, a new world, reunion with long departed loved ones, and more. All this is promised to you freely in Christ Jesus our Lord.
My fellow pastors, here we are standing on this glorious mountain range and feeling the breeze of matchless, infinite, and matchless grace. Being conscious of the fact that sin must be paid for and knowing our total depravity. Looking to ourselves leaves us in total despair. No one should ever entertain hope of escaping hell if they cannot rest in a satisfaction of divine justice. Our good news to the universe is that sin has been paid for on the cross “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
As Julia Harriette Johnston put it about 100 years ago,
Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt! Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, There where the blood of the Lamb was spilled.
Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold, Threaten the soul with infinite loss; Grace that is greater, yes, grace untold, Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.
Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that will pardon and cleanse within; Grace, grace, God’s grace, Grace that is greater than all our sin.
Let us devote all our beings to Jesus Christ and his glorious message of hope. Let us dedicate our time, money, energy and gifts to God – not because you want to win his favour, but in gratitude for that favour. Ours is the free gift of eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.