What is the meaning of Romans 6:23, "the wages of sin is death"?
Romans 6:23 reads, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." What does this mean?
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The answer is found in the second half of verse 23. In contrast with death, the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus. The verse is not speaking of physical death, but is contrasting spiritual death with eternal life.
The person who does not place his or her faith in Jesus Christ will receive the wages of sin. "The wages" refers to a payment. When a person works, the person receives a wage or payment for the work. For example, James wrote of "the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields" (James 5:4). First Corinthians 3:8 teaches, "each will receive his wages according to his labor."
Those whose "work" is sin will receive a payment of spiritual death, which is ultimately eternal separation from God in hell. While this is a dreadful situation, the verse immediately includes an answer to this problem. Through faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, the gift of eternal life is given. It is not earned through human effort (Ephesians 2:8-9), but is instead freely given through God's grace because of what Jesus did on the cross, dying as a substitute for our sin.
Earlier in this same chapter, the apostle Paul wrote, "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death" (Romans 6:20-21). In other words, prior to faith in Christ, we are slaves to sin, but the outcome is death. Often the death is experienced both in the present and for eternity. The sins of the moment may seem fun or liberating, but they are ultimately unfulfilling and do not result in the eternal outcome we desire. The solution is faith in Christ.
After we have put our faith in Christ, it is still possible to experience the symptoms of spiritual death. Our eternity is secure and we will not be separated from God in hell. However, when we live out of our old natures rather than out of our new natures (2 Corinthians 5:17), we experience a sense of separation from God. This is very similar to what occurs when a child disobeys a parent. The child's status as a family member and the parent's love for the child do not change. However, the vitality of their relationship is damaged. Thankfully, this relationship can be restored. All we need do is confess our sins and turn back to God (1 John 1:9). We may still experience the natural consequences of our sins, but our fellowship with God can be restored.
How can we avoid the "wages of sin" and escape the spiritual death Romans 6:23 mentions? First, we must place our faith in Christ. Only He can save us (John 14:16). Then, out of our trust in Him and our love for Him (in response to His love for us; 1 John 4:19), we obey Him (John 14:15; John 15:1-11). Our obedience leads us to a more vibrant experience of true life (John 10:10). Paul wrote in Romans 6:22, "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life." As Christ-followers, we are free to live in obedience to God and undergo the process of sanctification. As part of that sanctification, we begin to experience eternal life even while on this earth (John 10:10; John 15:11). And, ultimately, we will spend eternity with God.
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