Romans 6:23: A Pothole in the
For the wages of sin is death,
When we who maintain a strong biblical grace stance carefully study a familiar verse such as Romans 6:23, and discover it does not teach in context what we thought it did, it startles us. The very familiar Romans Road Plan of Evangelism posits that “eternal life” is a gift from God and that “death” means eternal separation from God. My purpose in this article is to examine each term in Romans 6:23, to determine whether this verse teaches eternal life is a gift and thus a present possession of the believer, and to give a word of caution to fellow grace advocates in how we use terminology.
First, we begin by restating the overall context. Paul dealt with the issue of justification by faith. The apostle states succinctly in Romans 5:1, “having been justified by faith.” The aorist participle asserts a general notion of antecedent of time. He now moves into the area of enjoying peace with God and boasting in the future hope of a restoration of sharing in God’s glory. This begins the futuristic eschatological emphasis that continues through Romans 6:23.
Second, the presence of sin (viewed as a power) is that which will interfere most with the believer’s enjoying peace with God. This power presently remains in the believer. In other passages it is variously called “the flesh” or “the old man.” Paul documents in Romans 5:12 how sin (viewed as a power) entered into the world and then how death (as a power) followed and spread to all men. Romans 6:23 deals with the issue of the power of indwelling sin versus the power of indwelling righteousness. This is the larger context for our discussion.
Third, the immediate context is Romans 6:22. Romans 6:23 begins with the connective word “for.” Thus, verse 23 gives the reader the reason for some element or statement in verse 22. Beginning with verse 22, a chain of effects starts with the believer’s conversion and identification with the death of Christ. The believer is (1) set free form the power of sin and (2) enslaved (voluntarily) to God. The result of this new arrangement is that the believer can now “bear fruit.” In this case the fruit bearing must be understood as good works or righteous deeds. Prior to this in verse 21, the same individual viewed as an unbeliever also “bore fruit.” The new believer however is ashamed of the fruit he bore in his former life.
The next step in the argument is the attaining of “holiness.” Holiness is the result of “bearing the right kind of fruit.” It seems self-evident that this new fruit is the product of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The result nuance is based on the force of the preposition “to” in verse 22. However, there is logically one more step in the argument. The outcome of holiness results in “eternal life”. It is necessary to supply the appropriate verb in this verse. Since “eternal life” is the outcome of holiness, this alerts the reader to the possibility that “eternal life” is NOT a present possession of the believer.
Let me digress for a moment. Paul wrote earlier in Romans 2:7 that “eternal life” is viewed in connection with eschatology, “the last days”. This earlier verse must not be overlooked in interpreting the passage in Romans 6:23 based on the interpretive principle of first mention. Notice that the Day of Judgment mentioned in the context of Romans 2:7 is that one of according to works. Also, Romans 2:7 defines “eternal life” as including the ideas of “glory, honor, and immortality.” The last term “immortality” is used by Paul to refer to the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:42, 50, 53, and 54. Interestingly, the second term translated “honor” can also mean “the position of a ruler” (cf. BAG, p.26). Finally, the term “glory” most likely refers to the “glory of God.” This is the future “glory” concerning which we exult in Romans 5:2. In any case, Romans 2:7 emphasizes “eternal life” as the quality of “life”, and not the length of it.
We need to notice one more thing before we leave the third point of our discussion of Romans 6:22. The verse says “the outcome of holiness results in eternal life” (author’s translation). The word “outcome” is often used for the judgment at the end of the age (Matthew10:22:24:6; 24:13, 14; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:13; Heb 3:14).
Fourth, the attentive reader will notice the ellipsis of the verb in both parts of the antithetical sentence in Romans 6:23. The translators commonly supply the equative verb “is”: “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” Since the translators supply the equative verb, we must be cautious. Romans 5:12 and the immediately preceding verse in context argue for a causative or resulting relationship between the subject “wages” and the supposed predicate nominative “death”.
Wages translates the Greek word opsōnia. In Luke 3:14 and 1 Corinthians 9:7 the word refers to the regular pay of the Roman soldiers; and in 2 Corinthians 11:8 the word refers to apostolic pay. It is apparent that no one would serve the power of sin if there were no benefit. We may think of the way various sins gratify our pleasure centers in the brain. However, the biblical argument is that sin, although it pays benefits, does not pay eternal benefits. To attain eternal benefits one must pursue righteousness.
Now what about death? If the wages of sin produce death, then what is death? Lopez (Grace in Focus, Sept/Oct 2004, p.3) recently dealt with various meanings and nuances of death in his article on Romans 8:13. He notes that it is insufficient to view the term “death” (thanatos) as a separation metaphor. Many writers interpret death as separation based on James 3:26: “for just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead”. (Note that Lordship thinking always wants to interpret dead = non-existence which it never means in Scripture). The verse in James, death must mean “non-productive” rather than non-existence. More to the point of the Romans passage under consideration, Wyngaards (“Death and Resurrection in a Covenantal Context [Hosea 6:2”] VT 17:1 : 226-239) has shown us the way to understand death in a different way. He argues that the understanding of death and resurrection must be understood within the technical terminology of the suzerain vassal language that is common in the Old Testament. Thus the idea of “killing” or “putting to death” is a technical term in covenantal terminology for “deposing a king.” Further, the idea of “life” or “resurrection to life” means “to enthrone a vassal” or to “grant a vassal dominion”. We may conclude based on his research that “dead” means “loss of dominion” in addition to being a separation metaphor. We can easily see this is the life of Adam and Eve who, not only were separated from God by being driven out of the Garden, but also lost their dominion over creation in the same judgment. Physical death only occurred many years later; however this was not the primary result of the disobedience.
This meaning of death fits very well in Paul’s discussion of Romans 6-8 where sin personified is a potential suzerain as well as righteousness. The individual is asked to present himself to the suzerain called “Righteousness” and to refuse allegiance to the suzerain called “Sin”. The basis of this appeal is a legal one. Since we are legally identified with the death of Christ, the legal relationship that bound us to the evil sovereign named Sin has been broken. This manner of thinking becomes clearer later in Romans7:9 where Paul says “he was alive apart from the law.” This must mean that he had dominion over the power of sin. Before he came under the Law, he was the king of his own life. Then the Law, which was designed to bring life and blessing, produced “death” in him. Paul further says in Romans 7:11, “Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it [the commandment] killed me.” Certainly the meaning here is metaphorical. Paul did not physically die. He simply was deposed as “king” of his life and had a problem with “all manner of coveting.” Thus, “life” means “dominion” and “death” means loss of dominion. In Romans 6:23 we could say “the wages of sin leads to loss of dominion. This loss of dominion applies to both this life and the life to come.
This metaphorical usage for the term “death” as “loss of dominion” is not an isolated case. For example, in Romans 8:13, death most likely means “loss of eschatological dominion.” In the preceding context in verse 11, the apostle is speaking about the future resurrection of the body. The argument proceeds from the past individual resurrection of Christ to the future resurrection of the believing community. With the future resurrection in mind, we are told that we are under “no obligation to live according to the flesh”. Indeed, if we choose to live “according to the flesh“, we are destined to die. Now to understand this to be a reference to “physical death” reduces the statement to an absurdity. Because, of the future tenses in the verse, the writer is speaking about a future experience of the believing community. The idea of spiritual death also is meaningless in this context. Indeed the idea of the death of the spirit is notably absent from the pages of Scripture. It appears to be a theological construct designed to explain the warning in the Garden of Eden episode where the first couple are warned that in the day they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they shall surely die. However, if we substitute the idea of death equals loss of dominion in this passage, then everything becomes clear. The believer who lives a life according to the flesh will die in the sense that he will lose dominion in the Kingdom of Christ. In other words, Paul is connecting our present conduct directly with our kingdom reward. How then are we expected to live? The answer is: “by mortifying (cutting off the blood supply) the political intrigues and treacheries of the body” (author’s translation)
In addition to the passage in Romans 8:13, there is another familiar passage where the equation death equals loss of dominion sheds more interpretive light. James 1:15 describes how temptation produces desires that gives birth to sin; and finally, sin brings forth death. A standing interpretation is that James refers to the “sin unto death”. In other words, the Lord steps in and judges the sinning believer in a temporal sort of way. There are examples both in the Old and New Testaments of the Lord doing this. The problem we have in our contemporary culture is seeing clear cases of this happening. Indeed, we may be crossing a line of demarcation warning us about judging our fellow believers, a prerogative that the Lord reserves to Himself. Our alternative understanding seems better. James has just told his readers that the “man who perseveres under trial” will receive the crown of the life. I have argued in another place that we must notice the definite article before the word “life” which makes the verse referring to the Kingdom. In essence “the life equals the kingdom”. Thus, the man who does not persevere under either trial or temptation loses the crown of the kingdom and thus experiences “death”.
The third verse where the formula death equals loss of dominion is 1 John 5:16. This is another passage normally understood as “the sin unto death.” John says that a “brother” is in view. So this must be a sin that a Christian can commit. We normally understand the term “brother” to mean a member of the New Covenant community. But this brother commits a visible sin. Someone has to see him “sinning a sin.” This would seem to rule out any hidden sins or internal mental processes. The sin that is observed is a special kind of sin. It has to “result in death.” This is the force of the Greek preposition pros. John envisions two groups of sin, those that result in death, and those that do not result in death and are amenable to intercession. It is difficult to determine the sin that results in death; however it seems like that in 5:21 it involves idolatry. The sin also involves some sort of involvement with the “evil one” mentioned in verses 5:18, 19. This would agree with Paul’s understanding that “idols” are nothing but that demons stand behind any sort of idolatrous worship. Therefore, if a brother goes back and gets involved in idolatrous worship, he will experience “death” in either a present or an eschatological sense. Indeed, he could be injured or harmed by the “second death.” What is seldom noticed in Revelation 19:8 is that the text says: “their part [an inheritance term] shall be in the lake of fire…which is the second death.” Now it does not emphasize that THEY shall be in the lake of fire. It appears only the inheritance is in view in this passage. Included in the group that lose their part or share are “idolaters and everyone who loves and makes a lie equals idol.” Thus, John may be warning his readers against false prophets who tell them it is legitimate to mix Greek pagan religious worship with biblical belief. This then would be the “sin resulting in death (i.e., loss of dominion”).
In these above passages we have seen that loss of dominion makes more sense than if we insert the idea of either physical or spiritual death. When we apply this to our verse under study (Romans 6:23), we understand: “for the wages of sin [result in] death” that is loss of dominion over indwelling sin now and loss of dominion in the Kingdom of Christ in the future.
In addition, there is a different result in the remainder of the verse. The conjunction “but” (de) indicates that something opposite of loss of dominion is in view. We need to look at the contrast more carefully.
The first issue that must be resolved is the meaning of “gift” in the phrase “the gift of God” or “the gift from God.” The noun is a very familiar word in Greek (charisma). Without exception, the word refers to spiritual or grace gifts given to the individual believer mediated by the Holy Spirit. It is never used as a synonym for eternal life anywhere in Scripture. This is highly significant. The usage in Romans 5:15, 16 where Paul is contrasting the sin of Adam with the spiritual gift of the Second Adam should be determinative here in Romans 6:23. It was pointed out above that Romans 5 is the larger context for Romans 6:23. When we note further the statement in Romans 5:5 that the Holy Spirit “was given” to believers and that sin as a spirit is being contrasted with the spirit of holiness mentioned in Romans 1:4, it is easy to see the fallacy of equating “the gift of God” with eternal life in this passage. What then do we receive as a gift when we come to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? We receive the “gift of justification” in Romans 3:23. We also receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit” in Romans 5:15, 17, but we never in Romans do we receive eternal life as a gift.
We have already established that eternal life is a future experience of the people of God according to Romans 2:7; 5:21; and 6:23. Now it seems good to ask how other parts of Scripture use the term “eternal life.” First of all, the student is surprised to learn of the scarcity of the term in the Old Testament record with the exception of Daniel 12:2 in the LXX where it is definitely a post resurrection experience. The Synoptics as well have interesting treatments of the term “eternal life.”
In Matthew 19 the writer stacks synonym upon synonym in his mention of the phrase. The phrase is introduced in 19:16 first of all. The rich young ruler asks the Lord what he must do to have eternal life. In verse 17, this having of eternal life is equated to “entering into the life.” In verse 23, having eternal life is then made equal to “entering the kingdom of heaven.” In verse 25, the disciples introduce the idea of “being saved” which here must refer to eschatological salvation. Next, in verse 28, the kingdom synonym of “the regeneration” is introduced. Then in verse 29, an inclusion with verse 16, repeats the term “eternal life.” It is clear that Matthew understood “eternal life” to be something future for the people of God and dependent upon a present willingness to sacrifice material goods (verse 29). Matthew 25:46 agrees with this, since it deliberately contrasts eternal punishment and eternal life, linking it together with the Son of Man sitting on his glorious throne.
Mark is interesting in this respect. Mark substitutes in the rich young ruler’s question the term “inherit” rather than merely “having” as in Matthew 19. The New Testament is consistent in the use of inheritance language. Inheritance always refers to the future. Inheritance is always earned. Inheritance is a rewards concept (Colossians 3:24). Thus, when Mark equates “the age to come” with “eternal life” (Mark 10:30), it is consistent. Luke adds nothing additional to our understanding since he too equates “the age to come” with “eternal life” (18:30). In keeping with our understanding of inheritance language, it is important that Titus 1:2 and 3:7 links eternal life with futuristic concepts of “hope” and “heir-ship.” In the letters to Timothy we see “eternal life” as not only a future concept but also as a rewards concept. Wilkin (Laying Hold of Eternal Life, Sept/Oct 2003, p. 1) quite properly deals with this issue. He correctly links “laying hold” of eternal life with “fighting the good fight” and “storing up a good foundation.” Both of these terms imply choices and commitment on the part of the believer. In fact the underlying Greek word often has the idea of “seizing” a prize or booty in a battle. Can we see here the idea of a crown to be won? The only other non-Johannine occurrence in the New Testament is found in Jude 1:21 where eternal life is the result of “keeping oneself in the love of God.” We will postpone the discussion of the usage of eternal life in the writings of John until the completion of another article since the material is so vast.
The last issue in Romans 6:23, is to determine the location of the prepositional phrase “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is apparent that this phrase should modify “the gift of God” rather than “eternal life.” The reason is because of the distinction between being “with Christ” and “in Christ.” Usually the phrase “with Christ” refers to our identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection or the future kingdom to come. Everything in between is described as being “in Christ.” So, if eternal life is a future experience of the people of God in this verse, then the grace-gift of imparted righteousness or the Holy Spirit is necessary to attain to eternal life since it is the means of dealing with the remaining power of indwelling sin and actually producing the righteous results in our lives that qualify us for the kingdom to come.
In conclusion this article has examined the context, the terms, and the grammatical connections in Romans 6:23. We have found that the normal understanding of the passage is deficient and misleading based on inaccurate translations and assumptions. The issue in this verse is not a believer versus an unbeliever contrast. It is dealing with the issue of indwelling sin. A life on yielding to indwelling sin leads to a loss of dominion in the present and in the future. Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, it is possible to lead a life of righteousness. God has enabled you to do this because of his grace-gift. That life of persevering in goodness and virtue will ultimately result in a post resurrection experience we can call “eternal life.”
© Dr. Rev. John M. Sweigart InTheBeginning.org