The book of Romans is like a mountain range with a number of exhilarating peaks and features. One of them is the statement in Romans 5:20–21. Another 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.” These are verses worth committing to memory and consideration in our hearts. You come to a verse like Romans 6:23 and you want to sit down and let the breeze of the Holy Spirit refresh your soul by it. You sense that there are heights of truth at once both hard to scale and supremely inviting.
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!
God has not only dealt a deathblow to our record of sin in heaven, he has also dealt a deathblow to sin within our hearts
Paul’s response is that such a position is absurd and untenable because God has not only dealt a deathblow to our record of sin in heaven, he has also dealt a deathblow to sin within our hearts on earth (Romans 6:10–11, 22). Romans 6:23 is a summary statement before Paul begins a further argument in chapter 7 explaining 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.
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 purse 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 rightly received what has become ours also by inheritance: death (Romans 5:12). This death, we must emphasise, is not just physical death but also eternal death – the second death (Revelation 21:8). That is your payment or reward for 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 many preachers. We have turned God into some kind of flabby grandfather figure who does not mind his grandchildren’s mischief and naughtiness.
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.
But 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 goes on in Romans 6:23, “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.” Do not miss that! This is Paul’s message throughout this book ( Romans 1:4, 3:23–26, 4:25, 5:6–10, 21). 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. In him and because of his death we 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 other Christians in glory, and more. All this is promised to us freely in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The good news to the universe is that sin has been paid for on the cross meaning we do not receive the wages our sin earned but eternal freely from God
Here we are, standing on this glorious mountain range and feeling the stirring breeze of matchless and incomparable grace. Being conscious of the fact that sin must be paid for and intimately knowing our own sins. Looking to ourselves leads only to despair. No one can entertain hope of escaping hell if they cannot rest in the satisfaction of divine justice. The good news to the universe is that sin has been paid for on the cross meaning we do not receive the wages our sin earned but eternal life freely from God.
As Julia Harriette Johnston put it about 100 years ago:
Marvellous 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 his gracious favour. Ours is the free gift of eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.
This article first appeared at Desiring God and is used here with permission from both Desiring God and Conrad Mbewe.