Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
These are very famous words. It is one of the great statements of Christianity. How important that we understand it. If we are going to reject the Christian religion then let us really understand what we are opposing. If we are sympathetic and seeking to know what the Christian faith teaches there could be no better place to start than here. The apostle Paul clearly enjoyed summarizing the whole of the Christian message in one sentence, putting it in a nutshell. He delighted in doing this and he did it again here. Dr Lloyd-Jones made helpful comments on this verse in his messages on the book of Romans. The first thing I want to draw to your attention is this.
1. THESE WORDS ARE LIKE A FORK IN THE ROAD OF LIFE.
What do we see here?
i] There are two possibilities confronting every individual who comes into this world, and only two. They are shown in this verse. “The wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The message of the Gospel is often put in such a way. There is a ‘house on the sand’ or a ‘house on the rock’. There is a ‘wide gate’ or the ‘narrow gate’. There is the ‘broad way’ or the ‘narrow way’. You serve either mammon or God. Inevitably, it is one or the other – that is the choice. There are only two possibilities.
All the non-Christian views confronting mankind belong in one category. The world makes a great deal, of course, of what are minor differences; but from the standpoint of the Bible, and of salvation, they are all one and the same. They start with man and so they end with man. People can divide themselves up into their various nationalities; they are divided by iron curtains or bamboo curtains; divided politically, socially, racially and in many other respects; but all such divisions are cosmetic. Such divisions don’t count at all in the light of eternity. This division made by the Bible is the only division, death or eternal life. There are only two choices, one fork in the road and one way only can be taken. The other is then rejected.
ii] Second, these two possibilities are completely different from one another. I emphasize the word ‘completely’. They are altogether and entirely different as this chapter has shown us. There is nothing in common between these two views. They don’t gradually shade off from one to the other; there are no shades in the spiritual realm. Everything is black or white, and you don’t gradually pass from one to the other. There is nothing like a spectrum here, but rather stark differences, absolute contrasts. I may never cease to emphasize this truth. There is nothing in common between the Christian world and life view and the non-Christian in a spiritual sense – nothing at all! They are absolutely different in their view of origins, the purpose of life and the goal we are going to. The Christian alone possesses the life of eternity, and it is altogether different from being ‘dead in trespasses and sins’. That brings us to the third and last general point,
iii] Each of these two positions, which are so essentially different, has its own internal consistency; each one is consistent with itself. Different from the other, but consistent within itself. In other words, each one of these two, leads by an inexorable law, to ends which are quite inevitable. Start off on the one road and you are bound to arrive at a given destination; set out on the other road and you’re bound to end at an entirely different destination. There is this inward consistency within the two, though they are so essentially different. Here, the Apostle is particularly concerned to emphasize the difference in the goal attained. And so these words are particularly concerned with the different ends of these two lifestyles.
2. THE FIRST ALTERNATIVE SET BEFORE US IS THE WAGES OF SIN.
When we were first married I needed a job. I’d just finished my studies and was waiting for a church to call me to be its pastor-preacher. We were living in Swansea and I saw a job advertised in the local paper which entailed working for the National Coal Board. I got the job as a wages clerk, working for the Cynheidre anthracite colliery near Llanelli. My wage was 12 pounds a week. I never expected to be paid a penny more – nor a penny less – for my employment. I worked from 9 through 5, Monday through Friday and I was paid that wage for simple and straight-forward work. Monday through Thursday I sat at an office desk working out the wages of the colliers, their overtime, their absences and so on, and then I went to various pits on Fridays and paid the men in cash. None of them thanked me for their wages as I was to them a mere hand giving them a pay envelope, the N.C.B. agest remunerating them for the work they’d done. I had no name, and what they got was no gift from me. It was what they’d earned in dirty, difficult and dangerous work half a mile underground cutting out coal in the narrow anthracite seams of the Cynheidre colliery which soon was to close as uneconomic.
There is a definiteness and certainty about wages. Wages are different from a spontaneous gift. A gift is often unexpected, and even wrapped up so that one doesn’t know what’s inside the package. Wages, unlike a gift, are fixed. A collier has done his week’s work; he presents himself at the little pay office to receive his wage and he is handed his manila pay packet. The amount is not debated; the National Coal Board doesn’t try to strike a bargain with the miner. The quantity of the pay has been determined beforehand, and the payment is itself a purely formal, impersonal affair.
What has all this got to do with Christianity? The familiar words before us, “the wages of sin” mean the wages paid by sin. They are telling us that sin pays every sinner a stipend. A Roman general in the first century would see that his soldiers would be paid in kind, in meat, in wine, in money, in lands or in booty. You can translate the word ‘wages’ by ‘rations.’ It is something earned; something that you deserve; something for which you have rendered a service, something you have worked for and deserved. So Paul says all who serve Lord Sin will certainly receive a payment from sin. By the word ‘sin’ he is talking of very concrete and real wickednesses. There is wrong as well as right. Not everything is grey. There is the liar; he boasts to his buddies that when he dated you that you were easy and he got everything he wanted from you. There is the bully who often beats up his wife, the banker who fixes interest rates and his company is fined a billion pounds for his lawlessness, the executioner who beheads on camera, the thief who breaks into your room and takes your I-pad and anything else that’s valuable. On top of that he picks up your wine bottle and pours the content over your bed and he also squirts tomato ketchup there too. Then he stamps on your photographs breaking the glass, and so he is defiling you. Or there is the strong and merciless and stinking rapist who follows you home one dark night and bundles you into a garden. There is the arsonist who pours petrol through your letter box and throws in a lighted match and so on. Such actions are wicked and such sinners are going to be paid for what they have done. In other words every thief and liar and cheat and abuser and killer is going to be judged for what he’s done. A wage is going to be paid him for his evil works.
The Lord Jesus has made that abundantly clear. The words of our Lord have at their very centre this conviction that there are wages that every sinner is going to receive. The wages are the righteous response of God, the holy disdain of a God of light towards all that is tawdry and mean and despicable and cruel and deceitful and violent. He is not indifferent to huma pain. No human law is complete without a sanction. A law without a penalty is altogether worthless and pitiful. Are the disapprovals of God a mere sad sigh? Just a tut-tut? Are they weak like that? Let’s look at this famous phrase . . . “the wages of sin.”
Consider the world in which we have to live our lives. You can see that there is an inexorable connection between our behaviour and its consequences. You offend against the laws of health and the result will follow – with a terrible certainty. You keep drinking excess alcohol and your liver changes for the worse. You keep snorting cocaine and your nose disintegrates; you keep taking amphetamines and you lose touch with reality. You smoke cigarettes, 20 a day, and your lungs get filled with tar. You constantly over-eat and you become obese. No refusal to acknowledge those consequences is going to change that reality. No excuses will avail. Brief highs, or strong sobs will count nothing. The retribution, however long deferred, is sure. In the sphere of physical life one thing is certain, that the wages of sinning is death.
But many people act as though the wages clerk can be cheated, that you can present yourself on pay day at the window and get a different and better wage from what you’ve earned. Do you really agree with that? Do you really think that in this bodily and physical accounting you can cheat? That you can drink a bottle of whisky a day and your health won’t suffer? We can nervously laugh and say, “My grandfather drank heavily all his life and lived until he was 90.” But even then that unique character still received his wages. No escape from that, though it might have been in his case a very rare delay. He didn’t escape the wages. They were just delayed. Somehow, maybe genetically, maybe by his own exaggeration, he put off the day of reckoning for some years, but still the final demand came in. He got was coming to him in the end, as it is with all men. There’s no escape in getting paid the wages of excess and folly for what we’ve done to our bodies.
And our souls? The same rule is found. A man cheats on his wife . . . a person fails to declare money he’s earned on his income tax returns . . . a cowboy builder uses shoddy materials . . . a student plagiarizes from another man’s thesis . . . a man lies to a woman telling her, “No I’m not married.” . . . a cyclist in the Tour de France takes drugs . . . a member of parliament makes false claims in his expenses account . . . a senior member of the armed services tells his government that an enemy country has weapons of mass destruction and they invade . . . a Muslim tells people that he heard a woman blaspheming the name of Mohamed and they stone her to death. . . a man fails to tell a girl that he is HIV positive . . . a political leader vainly promises voters that there will be no increase in taxation . . . in all those cases there are going to be consequences. I am saying that in the inner, moral sphere, just as in the realm of the physical and how we treat our bodies, there is the same inexorableness of the law. Please don’t deceive yourselves. God grant that you don’t hope to cheat, or lie, or exercise your physical strength, or be silent (when it’s your duty is to speak). God grant that you live your life responsibly, convinced of this divine law that the wages of sin is death!
It means death in every form. The moment man disobeyed God he died spiritually and that meant separation from God, and that mean inevitably physical death, the rending apart of body and soul. It meant also inner spiritual death, not a spark of love for the Lord in our hearts, not a flicker of living trust in him. And it means that we are heading for that place where spiritual zombies inevitably end their ghastly lives, the place of iniquity and uncleanness, the cesspit of the universe, the bonfire of the vanities. It is the place eternally outside of God’s life, with all its consequent misery and frustration.
I am saying that the wages have been fixed already. There is no debate when it comes to pay day – for all your dreaming that you’re going to get a million. You are actually going to get what you’ve earned, not a penny more and not a penny less. All the factors will be brought into consideration, every circumstance, every weakness, all the mysteries of your DNA and your genetic make up, the pressures that you’ve lived under, the influences that pushed you to the edge – the Judge of all the earth will consider every extenuating circumstance. The judgment will be absolutely fair. Every mouth will be stopped when the verdict is announced and God will determine our eternal destinies. There is no escape from the wages. You were not a mere victim in the way you hurt other people. You did it. It was your choice. It was not that the devil made you do it. It was not that you were trapped and there were no alternatives. We will reap what we have sown.
Think of the Sermon on the Mount. Is it great for its logical eloquence alone, yes great for that reason, but is it far greater than that because it’s true? Listen to what the Lord Jesus once said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. &:1&2). Have you dismissed someone without listening or thinking? Have you said, “That’s religion . . .” and refused to think further? You will not read Luke’s gospel. Jesus, you say, is not for you. Would you want to be judged in that same way, without any examination of your life? Have you casually measured a friend’s life with little sympathy and knowledge and said, “Too narrow . . . too extreme . . . not generous enough to other views . . . who can be sure about those things?” God will one day measure your life by his perfect standards. He will weigh you in the balances and find you wanting. You spent your life judging others and defending yourself. You too are going to be judged.
We live in a moral universe and we can’t escape receiving the wages. Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). You may have thought that if there’s not going to be a snuffing out, an annihilation into non-existence after death – if that is not one unthinkable option – then you, certainly, are going to be guaranteed a good eternity. Oh I hope so, but Jesus said, “Not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven,” not even everyone who is religious and speaks to God and calls him his ‘Lord.’ Just some . . . there’s going to be a great separation. Do you see this Biblical world view? Do you understand that the moral constitution of the universe is a very terrible thing? Let’s not think that we can trifle with this. There’s always the problem of the wages. Jesus once spoke to Judas about that one who was going to betray him (and they both knew whom he was referring to) and Christ told Judas that it would have been better for the betrayer that he’d never been born. All mankind, according to our Lord, is governed by an inexorable law and that law establishes – by an immutable decree – the fearful consequences of sin. The wages of sin is death.
2. THE SECOND ALTERNATIVE SET BEFORE US IS THE GIFT OF GOD.
“But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.23). Wages are not a gift. We’ve earned them by what we’ve done. What the vain man and the cruel man, the killer and the rapist deserve is judgment. We bring death upon ourselves by our actions, physical death, and then what the book of Revelation calls the second death, the place of woe, of separation from God, of condemnation for what we are and what we’ve done. But eternal life is not like that. It’s not a wage; it’s a gift, God’s gift. In other words we haven’t worked for it. It is unearned and utterly unmerited. Its beauty and breathtaking glory bears no resemblance at all to our just deserts. We haven’t merited it for being decent citizens. Rather it’s a present from God. It is solely the result of God’s goodness and God’s grace, his love and pity towards those who don’t deserve any kindness at all. It is a wonderful gift, personally given to us by our Father in heaven, to the unjust, men utterly unwarranted in receiving it.
What is ‘eternal 1ife?’ It doesn’t merely mean everlasting existence. It does mean that you continue everlastingly. We will live as long as God himself. It means that, but that is the least significant thing about it. Eternal life means especially the knowledge of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is our Lord himself who defines it in that way in John’s Gospel, chapter 17, verse 3: “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” That is eternal life – the intimate loving knowledge of God. Knowing the living Creator, and serving him joyfully, that is true life. Death means alienation from him, being a stranger to him, being shut out from his presence and his glory and all his blessings. Eternal life is the exact opposite. It is to know God personally; not merely to know about God, but to know him, and to know him with an ever-increasing degree of fulness. It means therefore all blessedness, unalterable and spotless righteousness, and imperishable glory. It means not only that we shall continue to exist, but that we shall go on living in the presence of God, we shall ‘see God’, we shall live in ‘the light of the Lamb’, and we shall be perfectly holy, our lives cleaned up. We shall be glorified; we shall be like our blessed Lord.
In other words, eternal life is our total fulfilment and self-integration. We shall realize our own full potential drawn out and perfected by the tender love of God. We shall be ‘without spot or wrinkle or any such thing’. We shall enjoy being in the presence of our Creator in a new heavens and a new earth that have been cosmically renewed and regenerated. We shall be enjoying the glory which God will give us, the glory that he gave to his Son, the man Christ Jesus when he raised him from the dead. We too shall be glorified, completely saved in every respect.
That is what eternal life means, sharing and enjoying the life of God to all eternity, without the slightest suspicion of an admixture of sin and evil, with no dilution of God, and ourselves utterly transformed to be at peace and joyful in his presence. There will be no sin there, there will be no sighs, no vain regrets, no groans of memories of past follies. There will be no grief, there will be no tears, there will be no partings. It will be glory unmixed and unadulterated, absolute glory, enjoying the perfection of God himself with all the holy angels. It means full life in every respect – body, mind, and spirit – the whole person entirely delivered from every vestige and relic of sin, and completely transfigured in every potential for goodness and creativity and righteousness. It will be something that even Adam didn’t enjoy. Before the Fall Adam was perfect, Adam was innocent, but he didn’t have eternal life. Once God gives you personally this gift of eternal life; it is yours for ever; you cannot die. The first Adam died. But in the last Adam, Christ, the tribes of Adam boast more blessings than their father lost – as Isaac Watts puts it. An un-losable life with God who is now our Father
This eternal life begins here in this world. Every child of God, everyone who has repented of their sins and entrusted themselves to the Lord Jesus has eternal life – from the very moment they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The life of God is in the soul of every true Christian; but in another sense we are yet to receive its fulness. We have it, but in a first installment, in a down payment, an earnest, a sample of what we will yet receive more fully when we see God.
All this is the gift of God! God’s free present to us! How is that possible? If it is not our wage at all, I mean that it is not something commensurate with our working and deserving then how can we get this? Paul tells us here very clearly, “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The life of God, the life of eternity is sincerely offered to mankind and is promised to all who are joined to “Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is because of him, united to him that we receive this incredible gift from God. It was Jesus Christ who worked for us; he fulfilled the law of God on our behalf; he fulfilled all human righteousness for us. That life of Christ and its reward is what is freely imputed to us. He made an effective atonement for our sins. He became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and forgiveness is ours because of what Christ did. We are justified in his blood. He became the one delivered for our offences and raised for our justification. It is all in Jesus Christ, his coming, his incarnation, his teaching, his life, his obedience, his agony and his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his session at the right hand of God, his providential working in our lives, bringing us into contact with Christians with the message of the gospel, with the preaching of the good news of the gift of eternal life through him, his determination that I should preach it this day and that you should be here to listen, nothing happening by chance, especially us hearing these eternal and important truths, but all through his mercy in Jesus Christ.
Without him all we have is ourselves! Our limited experience of life, our wits, our energy, our finite resources, our plans and that is all. No power outside us to help us, to guide us, to assist us in marriage and parenthood, in old age and dying – just us! But in Christ Jesus our Lord we have everything necessary for living the Christian pilgrimage. We are freed from the domination of sin. It has no more power over us. We are alive to God’s influence and assistance and enlightenment. Henceforth we can do all things necessary for a life pleasing to God and loving to our neighbours through Christ who strengthens us. Our estrangement with God is over and we know him as our Father. Our ignorance of what life is all about, and what we are to do with the rest of our days – it is all over. We know our vocation! To glorify and enjoy God for ever!
What makes any person a Christian? It is the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. There is no other explanation. Nothing else! Nothing of which we can boast! It is all due to God’s infinite kindness and compassion; it is all due to ‘the exceeding riches of his grace.’ It is because of his ‘abundant mercy.’ It is because God is love.
Oh may this love, this grace, possess us whole and so deal with us that we bow before the Lord, and receive him into our lives as our King, our Teacher, as the Lamb of God who removes our sin from us, henceforth to yield our bodies and minds, our every faculty and ability to serve him and all to his praise. Today have dealings with this God! Kneel before him and tell him you want to know him, and you want to receive from him the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ the Lord. And do not stop asking him until you know by an inner witness that he has heard and answered you. You are standing at a fork in the road. Two ways stretch before you. Will you come with us on the less traveled road that leads to life? The choice is made clear by the words of our text, the wages of sin or the gift of God, death or eternal life, living by my own works and wits or living by Jesus Christ my Lord. The Christian is someone who has turned from the road of self and put his hand into the hand of Jesus Christ and taken the road that leads to the enjoyment of God for ever. Step out today with my Saviour!
24th May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS