Thursday, July 20, 2006

But the free gift of God is eternal life!

Right at the end of Romans chapter six is this verse: For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I'd bet there are millions of references to "the wages of sin" out there on the web, and not nearly as many to "but the [free] gift of God is eternal life." Certainly I learned to recognize the phrase "the wages of sin" long before I knew what the rest of the verse said. I believe there's a conspiracy (I am serious here) to make God out to be an ogre. This conspiracy began in the Garden of Eden where the serpent asked Eve, "Did God say...?" And I think millions have bought into that conspiracy, which is why theology seems to be a dirty word these days.

But the more important question is this: What does it mean, this word "For" at the beginning of the verse? To find out, let's look at the preceding text. Paul says that before we came to know Christ, we were... hold on, I'll just put the whole paragraph here.
When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6.20-23

In other words, the "for" is there because he was just reiterating what came before, a contrast between two possible worlds. On one hand, there's a lifestyle of sin (slavery to sin, actually), free from the control of righteousness. Now remember that "righteousness" doesn't mean walking around in robes, etc. It just means "being who we're supposed to be." Meeting the spec, in other words. So slavery to sin, free from any guidelines, is a lifestyle leading to crash and burn.

In contrast to this idea of being sin's slave, free from righteousness, is the idea of being a slave of righteousness, free from sin (there doesn't seem to be any middle ground). But this isn't symmetrical. Slavery to sin involves a wage, a just payment, whereas eternal life is a free gift from God. This isn't some kind of contract like we see in many other religions, where you do something for the gods, and the gods do something for you. (In the New American Standard Bible, which is the version I memorized this verse in, it says, "but the free gift of God is....")

This is one of those foundational truths of the faith that, when I think about it, I still find astonishing. How could all this be?

The mercy and grace of God, to die for sinners (while we were still his enemies, insulting and spitting upon him) and give us the free gift of eternal life -- it's beyond human imagination. Which is a proof that this system must have come from God. No human could have come up with these ideas. More on that another time.

posted 7/23

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