In Romans 6, Paul addresses an obvious distortion of the Christian message: “Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” (Romans 6:15 NASB; cf. Romans 6:1). The apostle vehemently answers in the negative asserting that the assurance of grace does not promote sin (Romans 6:15-23). The chapter concludes with a triumphant summation shrouded by a solemn warning (Romans 6:23).
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23 NASB)Romans 6:23 restates the chapter’s central theme and returns to its imagery of bondage (Romans 6:6, 12, 16-17). Sin, personified as a wicked slave master, is naturally juxtaposed with God. Paul’s supposition is that all are slaves, either to sin or God. Each human faces a binary choice of master. Paul evaluates that decision by relaying the inevitable consequences of each option: death and eternal life (Romans 6:23).
Justifiably Romans 6:23 has become a well known verse in Christian circles as it cuts to the core of the gospel. It is a featured stop on the famed “Romans Road to Salvation” (Romans 3:23, 6:23, 5:8, 10:13, 10:9-10).
Robert J. Morgan (b. 1952) applauds:
With the possible exception of John 3:16, no other text in Scripture better sums up all sixty-six books and thirty-one thousand verses of the Bible. This is the ultimate Reader’s Digest version of God’s Word. (Morgan, 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know by Heart, 57)
Romans 6:23 draws upon two analogies. C.E.B. Cranfield (b. 1915) relays:
Sin is...personified, and is here represented as either a general who pays wages to his soldiers or – and this suits better the prominence of the idea of slavery in the preceding verses – as a slave-owner who pays his slaves an allowance or pocket-money (among the Romans this was normal practice.) The wage which the slave of sin has to expect is death. God, by contrast, does not pay wages, since no man can put Him in his debt; but the free gift which He gives is nothing less than eternal life. (Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary, 146)In contrasting the inevitable outcomes of serving Sin and following God, Paul states that the wages of sin is death. The “wages of sin” deliberately builds upon a previous passage in Romans: “his wage is not credited as a favor” (Romans 4:4 NASB). Due in part to the verse’s popularity, the Greek opsonian is consistently translated “wages” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). The Message paraphrases the thought as Death being Sin’s “pension”.
Opsonian is derived from two words meaning “cooked food” and “to buy”. It is used only four times in the New Testament (Luke 3:14; Romans 6:23; I Corinthians 9:7; II Corinthians 11:8). The term originally referred to ration money paid to soldiers; all three times the word is used in the Septuagint refer to a soldier’s salary (I Esdras 4:56; I Maccabees 3:28, 14:32). Though the word eventually took the broader meaning of payment for labor, its most frequent use remained the pay of soldiers. It connotes a pittance, a soldier’s wage.
James R. Edwards (b. 1945) examines:
The imagery of fruit...is here abandoned for the military imagery of Romans 6:13. Sin and God are depicted as warlords, the one paying the wages of death, the other offering release and freedom of life. There is a telling contrast between the wages of sin and the gift of God. Hans Heidland [1912-1992] notes that opsōnia, “wages,” were subsistence payments to soldiers. Thus, in the present context, sin promises to pay subsistence wages, to provide for our needs, but that is an illusion, for in reality it pays death. Again, opsōnia were not a flat sum but installments paid over the duration of a soldier’s service. If Paul is true to the metaphor, the death he refers to would not be death as a “lump sum,” i.e., physical death, but the shadow and consequences of death already in life. Most importantly, wages and gift are two entirely different things. In Heidland’s words, “Man has rights only in relation to sin, and these rights become his judgment” (TDNT, volume 5, p.592). (Edwards, Romans (New International Biblical Commentary), 175-76)The wages Sin pays are valued at literally less than nothing, a negative on one’s ledger. And that wage is a flat rate. No matter how hard or little one works for Sin, the result is the same: death. Most, however, work diligently towards this end. In a tragic irony, Sin’s servants slave for death.
David L. Bartlett (b. 1941) sees a modern parallel:
Have you noticed how hard the tobacco industry has to work as its death-dealing subservience? The industry employs highly paid lobbyists and pseudo-scientists. It pays for ads enticing younger and younger people to take up the habit their elders are beginning to let go. It establishes international networks to sell abroad the stuff that is not selling as well at home as it used to. The enterprise is frantic. Corporations deal biological death to stave off economic death. Every paycheck has a price tag. Sin will do that to you, wear you out in its service and then send you out to die...Paul says that if you go chasing sin you will get paid in the end. You will get what you work for, and what you are working for is death. (Bartlett, Romans (Westminster Bible Companion), 65-66)The Death in question is not limited to the cessation of one’s physical life; it also evokes a spiritual death. Millard J. Erickson (b. 1932) diagnoses:
Spiritual death is both connected with physical death and distinguished from it. It is the separation of the entire person from God...The essence of spiritual death can be seen in the case of Adam and Eve. “For when you eat of it [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die” [Genesis 2:17] did not mean that they wold experience immediate physical death. It did mean...their potential mortality would become actual. It also meant spiritual death, separation between them and God...Sin results in alienation from God. This is the wages of sin of which Paul speaks in Romans 6:23. (Erickson, Christian Theology, 631)Even those who are not oblivious to the oblivion resulting from sin often choose it. Paul J. Achtemeier (b. 1927) explains this calamity:
Sin uses the law to make us think we do not need to rely on mercy but can, somehow, make it under our own power, as it were. It lets us think we can, somehow, establish our worth in such a way that we do not need God’s mercy. We want that “boast before God” that not even Abraham could muster [Romans 4:1-2]. We want our salvation as wages, not mercy. In short, we want to do what only God can do: Furnish the grounds for our being declared righteous and hence acceptable to God. (Achtemeier, Romans (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 79-80)As such Sin not only results in death but carries the additional byproduct of a compulsion to choose it and with it Death.
Sin is intentionally juxtaposed with God; what is the opposite of God? Do you perceive yourself as a slave (to either sin or God)? What is the connection between Sin and Death? Do you consider the consequences of a decision before you act? What is the alternative to serving Sin?
Unlike Sin, God does not pay wages, but instead offers a gift, charisma. This word is universally translated “gift” (CEV, HCSB, KJV, NIV, MSG, NKJV) but some translations accent the term by rendering it as “free gift” (ASV, ESV, NASB, NLT, NRSV, RSV). God’s gift is the polar opposite of Death: Eternal life.
Eternal life is given as a gift because it cannot be earned. While the believer’s actions are consequential (Revelation 20:12-14) one cannot merit eternal life on the basis of her works (Romans 3:20, 27-28, 4:2-5, 14; Ephesians 2:8-9; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). The believer’s salvation is fully attributable to grace.
Brendan Byrne (b 1939) clarifies:
To clinch the matter in a final supportive comment (Romans 6:23) Paul ironically points to death as the “wages” (opsōnia) paid by the slave master “Sin.” On the positive side, there is no talk of “wages” at all. That might suggest some kind of reward for righteous behavior and, while Paul may not have been as nervous about this as many of his later interpreters (cf. II Corinthians 5:5; also I Corinthians 3:14-15), his theological tendency is always to preserve the initiative of God. Hence he reaches for one of his favorite words—charisma (cf. already Romans 5:15, 16). The ultimate concrete expression of grace for the faithful “slave” will be the “gracious gift” of “eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” (Byrne, Romans (Sacra Pagina), 204)
Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) testifies:
Eternal life...is not something earned by the believer, even if he or she behaves in a holy manner, for holiness is obligatory, not optional, for the Christian. Eternal life is a grace gift. Even if Christian persons managed to live an entirely sanctified life, this would not oblige God to reward them with eternal life, for they will have done no more than what was required of them. Thus Paul does not see eternal life as some sort of quid pro quo for holy living in this lifetime. Salvation is indeed a matter of grace, received through faith, from start to finish. (Withertington, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 174)Paul presents the full trajectories of serving both Sin and God. As when shooting a bow and arrow, a small adjustment in aiming leads to a wide variance at the target, in this case from death to life.
John Murray (1898-1975) summarizes:
In the clause, “the wages of sin is death”, there are two thoughts: (1) that the death with which we are inflicted is no more and no less than what we have earned; (2) that death is the inevitable consequence of sin. Rectitude governs the payment of wages and we therefore receive exactly and inevitably what we owe. In the clause, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” the governing idea is that of God’s free grace in contrast with the notion of remuneration, and the magnitude of this free grace is emphasized by the nature of the gift bestowed. The thought is not that the free grace of God issues in eternal life for us, though this is in itself true. But the precise thought is that the free gift consists in eternal life. When wages are in operation our lot is death, inescapably and in its ultimate expression. When the free gift of God is in operation our lot is life, eternal and indestructible. How totally alien to such contrasts is the importation of merit in any form or degree into the method of salvation. (Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, 238)Sin gives no gifts but instead pays and pays horribly at that. God, the giver of life, counters Sin’s offer of Death, dispensing far better than wages: the free gift of eternal life. Despite having death as its enticement, Sin is well served. Given God’s much more appealing provision, God should be served all the more diligently.
The lesson is strikingly simple: serve God, not Sin. Choose life, not death. And yet most of us frequently choose poorly.
If the results are so disparate, why do people choose sin? Will you take the wage or grace? Do these life and death results cast shadows into the present or are they only eschatological? Are you experiencing God’s gift of eternal life? If you have accepted the gift, do you still appreciate it? Who are you serving, God or Sin?
You have a choice. Live or die.
Every breath is a choice.
Every minute is a choice.
To be or not to be. - Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962), Survivor, p. 161