“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” From St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is considered one of the greatest books in the Bible. Martin Luther described it as “the chief book in the New Testament and the purest gospel.” John Knox, a modern American professor, says that it is “unquestionably the most important letter ever written.” A Scottish New Testament professor by the name of A. M. Hunter declares it to be Paul’s magnum opus.
The book of Romans inspired the readers of St. Paul’s day, and continued to do so during the early days of the Church, and still impacts us today. The book contains the essence of Christian living, as well as revitalization and renewal of the devotion of the Church. It is interesting to note that It was while reading the book of Romans that St. Augustine of Hippo became a Christian.
St. Paul wrote this letter to teach important truths of which we must not lose sight. The portion we read today is written in the language of working and wages, to which all of us can relate. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This is Romans 6:23, and it a good one to memorize.
We all know the relationship between boss and worker bee, right? Or maybe Sergeant to the airman. We have Master Sergeants here, (and of course our esteemed Senior Master Sergeant as well) who know the chain of command quite well.
When a command is given, the airman, or the worker bee, acts. In this translation of the letter, the word slave is used here for the airman. This word is loaded with connotation that even some progressive theologians think that St. Paul promoted slavery in the context that we know it today, that is horrible and shameful.
In reality St. Paul advocated for freedom from sin and death through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Paul used the Greek word doulos which is translated in many other parts of the Bible as servant as well.
St. Paul is teaching about obedience here. When you present yourself as a servant to the one whom you obey, you are in essence taking an oath of obedience.
Now, you have a choice as to whom that is. You can present yourself as a servant to righteousness that leads to sanctification, or to sin which leads to eternal death. The point is that in the words of the Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord: you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
St. Paul is telling the Romans, and us, that once we were slaves of sin. In other words, we were giving ourselves over to be ruled by thing that we are now ashamed of. He is encouraging us to continue to avoid those vices, and live a life of virtue by the grace of God, and be free of slavery to sin.
St. John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on the book of Romans wrote this:
“After speaking of the wages of sin, in the case of the blessings, he has not kept to the same order (τάξιν, rank or relation): for he does not say, the wages of good deeds, but the gift of God; to show, that it was not of themselves that they were freed, nor was it a due they received, neither yet a return, nor a recompense of labors, but by grace all these things came about.”
Notice that Chrysostom points out that there are not wages for good deeds. We do not have to earn, and indeed, we could never do enough to earn eternal life. There is not some great store house in heaven to make payments on your eternal habitation. There is no escrow in heaven.
Salvation is a gift that one must receive for eternal life. Some will receive the gift, and some will not. There are increasing numbers in this world that reject this gift, because they have no idea what it really means. They don’t realize that it’s the difference between life and death. And when they reject the gift, where is hope? When there is no hope, there is fear and loathing. Once that sets in, a person acts only in their own self-interest. That leads to the kind of hoarding and price gouging that we have been seeing during this current pandemic.
And for some of these, they don’t believe there is eternal life. They believe that death is simply the end, and there is nothing to look forward to. By rejecting the gift of eternal life, they are accepting eternal death.
And there are Christians who don’t believe that God the Father would ever let anyone suffer such a punishment. They say that Jesus preached about love, and acceptance, and forgiveness. While that is true, he also preached about the destruction of those who will not accept him.
Remember this parable from Matthew 25?:
45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
So the unrighteous are condemned already. This is why they need to hear the good news of salvation through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And it is up to us to proclaim it. We are the ministers of the Gospel who serve our God as his agents in this world, acting as his hands and his feet.
But we are not alone in our work. It is accomplished by God the Father through grace alone. We may plant, and we may water, but it is God alone who gives the growth.
Listen to the words of our today’s collect again. Let us pray.
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.