Romans 6:23 is one of the passages I memorized as young Christian.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
The passage was part of the Romans Road, a brief summary of the way of salvation from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
- All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23
- The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.. Romans 6:23
- But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
- If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Romans 10:9
- Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Romans 8:1
Believers were encouraged to memorize this scheme and use it to evangelize non-believers. It captured what its creators believed to be the essence of Christianity.
The passage was often used to contrast a religion of works with Christianity as a religion of grace. Those who pursued salvation or righteousness by works, it was said, received their due payment. Works righteousness can only lead to death since no one can really fulfill God’s law. Eternal life comes only as a free gift, not by works but by grace through faith. When used as part of the Romans Road, Romans 10:9 appears to say that heart-belief and verbal-confession comprise the way of salvation.
I think it’s important to recognize, then, that Romans 6:23 is not set in a discussion of works versus gifts, but in a discussion of two kinds of slavery or bond-service. In fact, the verse that immediately precedes 6:23 also mentions the way to eternal life.
But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. (Romans 6:22)
Here, eternal life is the end result of sanctification (or being made holy), which itself is the product of choosing to be personally bound to God like a slave.
The whole of chapter 6 was written to refute the idea that Christians can acquiesce to sin because God is gracious. The chapter is divided into two sections. In verses 1-14, Paul uses the metaphor of death and life. We have been united to Christ in his death, and our sins died with him. Now, we only live in union with Christ in his resurrection. Therefore, Paul says, don’t give yourself again to sin. That’s not where you will find life.
In verses 15-23, Paul switches metaphors to that of slavery or bond-service. This is not the space to discuss the Roman institution of slavery in its entirety. Paul’s argument is verses 15-23 is based on one rather simple aspect of Roman slavery. People sometimes sold themselves into bondage because of their economic circumstances. It was a way to payoff a debt or maybe even to put food on the table. Bond service, then, was a way to survive. It was not a desirable life, but it was life.
It is estimated that as much of 1/3 of the population of Rome was enslaved when Paul wrote his letter to the church. Another 1/3 were freedmen who had been enslaved at some point in their lives. Those who sold themselves into slavery might do so for only a defined term of service. Unlike their American counterparts, Roman slaves could live on their own and have families. Their children were not born into slavery. They could earn money and buy their freedom. Their masters might even pay them a token wage. Still, slaves owed their masters not only their obedience but their personal loyalty. There was supposed to be a personal bond between the servant and master. Paul’s audience in Rome would have understood the slave metaphor, which, Paul acknowledges, has its limitations.
In 1979, Bob Dylan released Gotta Serve Somebody on the album, Slow Train Coming. It was Dylan’s Christian phase. Dylan wrote:
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Dylan was echoing Paul in Romans 6:15-23. You’ve been set free from slavery to sin, Paul argues, but doesn’t mean that you’ve become a freelancer with no allegiances. That’s neither possible nor desirable. You will serve either sin or righteousness. The personal allegiance you once offered to sin is properly due to the God who saves you from sin. It is only in his service that you will find life and freedom.
If you voluntarily walk back into the life of sin from which Christ died to free you, you’ve made yourself a slave of sin once more. You know that your enslavement to sin did not produce what you hoped it would. Your life apart from God was not just empty, but shameful and draining.
It is in this context that Paul writes 6:23. Those who have given themselves as slaves to sin will find their paltry wages disappointing. They will never be able to buy their freedom and they will die in bondage to a cruel tyrant. The slave wages paid by sin are poison, not provision. They lead only to death.
Those who bind themselves to God in personal loyalty and obedient service, on the other hand, will find that God doesn’t just pay an ample wage. God’s extravagance can only be called a gift. In Christ, we receive far more than what any standard of justice could demand. God gives what we could never earn. It’s more than a billion dollar bonus for a minimum wage employee. Binding oneself to Christ leads to eternal life. That is a gift we could never buy, even with all the money in the world.
God is not in the business of selling heaven or trading it for good deeds. God gives the gift of eternal life just because he loves us and desires to rescue our messed up world. But notice that God gives the gift of eternal life “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul is not speaking here of solely of beliefs or confessions. To be “in Christ” involves the whole self and every part of one’s life. It is trusting in Christ in every circumstance and every moment. It is abiding in union with him in the communion of his church. It is listening for the voice of the one who delivered us from the power of sin and obeying his every word. It is living in faithful allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave his life to rescue us from death.