This article is part of the What Does It Mean? series.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 6:23
Near the end of the New Testament period (mid-to-late first century), a document called The Teaching (didachē, pronounced DID-a-kay) appeared. It was an early church manual of faith and practice. It begins with these words: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways.”
How true! The Teaching may have been drawing on Jesus here, as it does elsewhere, for Jesus depicted the way that leads to life—to him and to his kingdom—in starkly binary terms:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt. 7:13–14).
Life is complex. Gray areas abound. Yet Jesus taught that we all face a simple but fateful either/or: a wide way leading to woe, or a narrow way leading to life.
Four New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the books of Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, and Galatians, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and applying them to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary series.
Romans 6:23 echoes Jesus’s conviction. The word translated “wages” often referred to the pay a soldier would receive, or to a worker’s paycheck more generally. In Romans, “sin” is said to “reign” (Rom. 5:21; Rom. 6:12), like a military general or a despotic boss. What is sin’s compensation package? Paul summarizes with one word: “death.”
Paul's great epistle to the Romans is a brilliant summation of the gospel. But Romans also speaks much of death. Of Paul's fifty uses of that word, twenty-nine of them occur in Romans 5–8. Happily, offsetting the morbid prominence of death, Paul mentions “life” twenty times in Romans, far more than in any of his other letters.
God, so gracious and merciful, offers eternal life as a free gift on the basis of Jesus's death and resurrection.
Life, unlike death, is not wages. Life is rather “the free gift of God.” Moreover, this is not simply life in terms of daily earthly existence. Rather, Paul speaks of “eternal life.” This implies duration: a life that never ends. But it also implies quality. Eternal life means living in God's presence, enjoying fellowship with Christ, bearing the fruit of his Spirit, worshiping and serving in his name.
Paul stresses free gift because in his day as in ours, people believe they can bargain with God. We can do enough to earn his favor. We can be better than most other people and are certainly not as bad as lawbreakers and criminals.
Paul anticipated such wishful thinking in Roman 3. He quotes the Old Testament to remind us that no one measures up to God‘s perfection and holiness. To appreciate Romans 6:23, we must recall Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As Paul writes elsewhere, in ourselves we are without “hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).
Two Great Truths
To sum up: Romans 6:23 points to two great truths about what Jesus Christ has done for us when we face our hopeless state and look to him:
(1) We are liberated from the black hole of seeking to earn God's favor by working for wages. Our sin incurs a debt that we have no ability to pay.
(2) God, so gracious and merciful, offers eternal life as a free gift on the basis of Jesus's death and resurrection. As Romans makes clear elsewhere, we receive this gift through faith, which means trusting in Jesus's death for our sins and in faith presenting our lives to him, to serve him as our resurrected Lord and master.
The glorious outcome of receiving this free gift of God, which “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” is not passive complacency as if no response to this gift were called for. Rather, there is a profound practical effect. There is a break with sin. Being “in Christ Jesus” implants a zeal for righteousness in the form of godly living.
Another verse in Romans 6 depicts the change of heart and behavior that God's free gift received sets in motion. Note the contrast between death and life:
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness (Rom. 6:13).
Romans 6:23 means Jesus Christ delivers those who trust him from the treadmill of sin and condemnation (death), as he grants us the free gift of fellowship, hope, and purpose right now and in the age to come (eternal life).
Robert W. Yarborough is a contributor to the ESV Expository Commentary Series: Romans–Galatians (Volume 10).
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