Wages versus gift

John M. Folwer is an associate editor of Ministry.

"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).*

Paul's famous statement contains two flaws, yet it states beautifully the core of salvation—and therein lies both the mystery and the majesty of the Christian gospel.

First, a grammatical flaw. Had I written such a sentence for my high school composition class, my English teacher would have taken me to task for committing a grammatical gaffe, which in her unrelenting commitment to the queen's English would have been as unforgivable as saying that Shakespeare learned his drama in Calcutta. The grammatical error is a lack of parallelism, which if strictly followed would have the statement read: "The wages of sin is death, but the wages of righteousness is life."

Such a statement would be grammatically correct. Sin has its own payment. No one commits sin without drawing the resultant consequence. No one can be a servant to sin and expect not to receive its wages. And sin is a faithful paymaster, with its ultimate wage of death: "The soul that sins shall die" (Eze. 18:4). Sinners get what they deserve. At the end of the road, they meet their paymaster, and receive what they have earned, like in a contract. One might define that contract as cause-effect: it's natural enough to reap what one sows. Or one might even call it an essential part of a social or a moral contract: judgment call is a necessary consequence to social or moral infractions. Wages of sin is thus what one earns, merits, ultimately gets. As Robert L. Stevenson once remarked: "Sooner or later we all sit down to a banquet of consequences."

If the consequence of sin is death, does it not follow that the wages of righteousness is life? Grammar, particularly parallelism, might expect such a conclusion, but the apostle Paul is not writing the grammar of language. He, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is setting down the grammar of the gospel of Jesus Christ. According to that gospel, death is the natural "wages paid by sin;" 1 we achieve it; we deserve it; we cannot escape it. But eternal life is not the natural payment of our righteousness, for by nature we can never be righteous. So Paul's grammar of eternal life says that we can't achieve eternal life; we can't work for forgiveness; we can't earn freedom from sin. But we can receive eternal life; it is given to us as a gift.

Second, a logical flaw. If sin brings death, the opposite of sin must bring the opposite of death. If I earn death because of my sin, I should be able to earn the opposite of death by doing the opposite of sin. Such statements are quite logical. Indeed, whole philosophic and religious systems are built on the foundation that redemption from human depravity can be found within the human. For one thing, ancient religions have taught the innate capacity of the human soul to free itself from sin or to defy the finality of death. For example, the Hindu "holds that the goal of spiritual perfection is the crown of a long patient effort. Man grows by countless lives into his divine self-existence. Every life, every act, is a step which we may take either backward or forward. By one's thought, will, and action, one determines what one is yet to be." 2

For another, secular humanism has affirmed the adequacy of self to be its own savior and its own destiny. Either way, the assertion is clear: if death is the wages of sin, life is the wages of righteousness. Therefore, the primary human quest must remain, philosophically speaking, in the will to do and the will to be.

But Paul is not concerned with philosophy or logic. He is stating a fundamental truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ: We sin; therefore, we die; but we cannot do good to receive eternal life. Sinners have no innate capacity to free them selves from the consequences of sin. With tongue in cheek, Agnes Rogers Allen described the human predicament in matters a lot less trivial:

I should be better, brighter, thinner,

And more intelligent at dinner,

I should reform and take some pains,

Improve my person, use my brains,

There's lots that I could do about it,

But will I? . . . Honestly I doubt it3

But in the issue of salvation, the question is not will I or can I. The issue is the reality of sin and the nature of the sinner. According to the Bible, sin is not basically a lapse in conduct, but a rapture in relationship with the Creator, a rebellion against Him, and a refusal to be subject to Him (Rom. 8:7). Since rebel lion against God involves more than an individualistic mode of existence, and takes in the cosmic issues of His love, justice, and holiness, any human attempt to restore that rupture on the basis of human will and power is repugnant to the sovereignty of God. Being dead through trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1,5; Col. 2:13), and deserving "to die" (Rom. 1:32), the sinner lives in a state of alienation and hopelessness. The way out of the problem of sin, as the Bible sees, could only be by divine initiative and on divine terms. That initiative was God sending His Son to die on the cross, and those terms are receiving by faith the gift of "eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 6:23, KJV). Hence "the cross of Christ is our only hope." 4

The core of the gospel

Arnold Toynbee once said that all history is an exposition of the passage that "the wages of sin is death." Paul would agree with that, but adds a pro found exception: in human history there appeared an invasion of God in the per son of Jesus to deal with the problem of sin and provide a divine solution to it. That exception to Toynbee's definition of history is at the basis of Paul's ungrammatical and illogical conclusion in Romans 6:23: "But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

What Paul is saying is this. Until a sinner comes to Jesus, he or she remains subject to the inevitability of death and the impossibility of escape from death. But Jesus offers the free gift of eternal life. In contrast to the wages of sin, eternal life is not what one can earn or achieve or work for or even merit. The first condition of the path to eternal life is for self to strip itself of its pride to deny sin or of its pretension to solve the sin problem. Nietzsche was right in a way when he vented his venom: "Christianity needs sickness.... Making sick is the true hidden objective of the church's whole system of salvation procedures. . . . One is not 'converted' to Christianity—one must be sufficiently sick for it." 5

The anti-God philosopher perhaps did not grasp the truth of what he said, but it is true nevertheless: As a sinner I am not only sick, but I must recognize my incurable and terminal sickness, and be driven to the cross of Jesus. There I must stand alone, facing the Crucified One, and see in Him my substitute. I must acknowledge that He died for my sins (see Rom. 5:8; 14:15; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:14). His body was broken for me (see Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). His blood was shed for me (see Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). He died as though I were the only sinner on this earth. When I accept Him, His death cancels my death. His life becomes mine. I receive "the free gift of God [which] is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." As the old hymn says:

Nothing in my hand I bring,

Simply to Your cross I cling;

Naked, come to You for dress;

Helpless, look to You for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly;

Wash me, Saviour, or I die. 6

* Unless otherwise noted, Scripture passages
are from the Revised Standard Version.

1 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans
(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1959), vol. 1,
p. 238.

2 S. Radhakrishnan, An Idealist View of Life
(Bombay: George Alien and Unwin, 1932,1976),
p. 96.

3 In Halford E. Luccock, Preaching Values in
the Epistles of Paul (New York: Harper and Brothers,
1959), vol. 1, p. 45.

4 Ellen G. White, Testimonies (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol.
4, p. 503.

5 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ (New
York: Penguin, 1969), pp. 167, 168.

6 Augustus Toplady, "Rock of Ages."

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John M. Folwer is an associate editor of Ministry.

December 1993

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