Among the first times our text’s “The wages of sin is death” grabbed my attention was via a billboard. At that its grammar captivated me. I even remember asking my grammarian dad why Paul used a plural noun like “wages” with a singular verb like “is.”
Now when I drive past that same billboard, however, its grammar no longer seizes my attention. I sometimes get stuck, instead, on its theology. Why on earth, I wonder, does the billboard stop with “The wages of sin is death”? Why doesn’t it go on, as Paul does, to add, “But the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord”?
Of course, it’s not just billboards that shrink Romans 6:23’s message. Churches as well as street corner preachers also sometimes quit less than halfway through it. So why reduce Paul’s message to “The wages of sin is death”?
It may be at least partly because we’ve shrunk the meanings of “death” and “life.” We, after all, like to assume that we’re moral free agents who make rational decisions based on our insights and intelligence.
Yet throughout Romans 6 Paul calls us slaves. He, in fact, insists all people are slaves to something or someone. Bob Dylan may have understood that better than most. He, after all, sang in “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed,/ You’re gonna have to serve somebody./ Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord/ But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
By nature, humanity serves Satan and his allies, sin and death. They naturally dictate how we act, talk and even think. That unholy trinity calls the shots in the lives of those whom God has not yet freed from slavery to them.
Those slave masters that are Satan, sin and death even enslave our culture. So not just people but also society naturally obeys their orders about the use of things like power, sexuality, money and time.
Current protests against racism and racial injustice reflect humanity’s slavery. Our failure to treat African-American and other neighbors of color as those whom God creates us in God’s image are signs that we let Satan call the shots on our attitudes about and actions on race.
That’s especially despicable when Christians let the evil one shape our attitudes about race and racial justice. We no longer are, after all, Satan’s slaves. God has freed us to treat each other as fellow image-bearers of God. So Jesus’ followers who treat people on the basis of their race, skin color, socio-economic standing hand “the reigns” back to the devil.
Of course, some non-Christians seem more racially just than some Christians. That, we profess, is testimony to the enormous scope of God’s work. God, after all, generally graciously restrains us from being as bad as we could possibly be. We see what happens when God loosens those restraints not just in parts of the Middle East, but also in the violence that plagues some of North America’s homes and neighborhoods.
Of course, Satan, sin and death do pay their slaves. But Paul insists those paychecks consist not of a living wage, but of the death that is, among other things, racial injustice and violence. People cash those deathly “checks” every time we treat a fellow human being as someone less than someone God created, loves and care for.
Yet even Christians sometimes think of that death as the moment our hearts stop beating and brains stop functioning. We assume the apostle means those who sin eventually physically die.
Jesus’ followers may also think of Paul’s idea of “death” as eternal separation from God’s loving presence. In that view, people who don’t have a faithful relationship with God in Jesus Christ pay the price for their sin that is eternity in hell.
But what if Paul is talking about death as not just something people experience when and after we die, but also as something we experience here and now every day? We sometimes talk about “walking dead men” or being “dead on our feet.” By that we mean that while some people’s hearts are still beating, they have at least a temporarily shrunken quality of life.
In a similar way, those who remain slaves to sin may not just spend the rest of eternity in the death that is separation from God’s loving presence. They also live a kind of deathly life that settles for far less than the life God created them to live.
We naturally assume that we’re free to spend our money as we choose. But where does all that wealth and spending get us? If you think big spenders are happy people, you’re not watching the same media I am. Those who aren’t good stewards of God’s blessings live in deadly ways.
In fact, the wages of such sin isn’t just life lived eternally away from God’s presence. It’s also the kind of loneliness, unhappiness and discontent that plagues so many lives already here and now.
We sometimes think of God’s calls to obedience as God’s arbitrary demands that kill our joy. However, God’s law is our loving Creator’s guide to what will give that Creator’s creatures the most joy, purpose and satisfaction.
So people sometimes refuse to share their time and money with society’s people who are needy. But in the end they find themselves to be greedy hoarder of resources who will never have enough of them. It’s yet another deathly kind of life.
Paul insists that we find genuine life not in such disobedience, but in serving Christ Jesus our Lord. By his life, death and resurrection he has freed his followers from our slavery to Satan and his thugs, sin and death. Jesus Christ has freed God’s adopted children to serve the One who helps us to live in the most meaningful ways.
Satan, of course, wants nothing more than to drag people with him into the eternal death that is defiance of God and God’s good and loving purposes. To do so he often makes disobedience look and feel attractive. It’s part of the reason why even Jesus’ followers sometimes find disobedience so tempting.
But such service to Satan, sin and death is, as our first parents quickly learned, nothing but fool’s gold. When we trade service to God for service to the evil one and his goons, we find not life but death.
Of course, slavery to another human being or created thing is despicable. It demeans both the slave owner and the slave. Paul, however, insists that in slavery to God, we find our true life and glory as God’s beloved sons and daughters. God has graciously adopted us into God’s family. So God calls us to be and act like who we are: God’s treasured sons and daughters.
We can be joyful slaves to righteousness in Christ by acting in the ways for which God created and saved us. That, after all, leads to delight in God’s good creation. Not just in the new creation’s sweet by and by, but also here and now.
Paul insists Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters find our true joy and happiness living gladly inside what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “the moral boundary fences God has established.” Such “slavery” alone, after all, leads to a flourishing in all that God has so lovingly made and provides for.
C.S. Lewis writes about that kind of obedience in his book, The Problem of Pain. In it he notes that we keep slipping, sliding and falling away from God. Lewis then adds, “If we cannot put God first out of mere obedience, can we do so out of the knowledge that God is our greatest good?
“To live life on our own is to live a lie. We aren’t our own, and the pretense that we are is a kind of madness. The center of the heavenly life is self-surrender. See it and say it again and again.”
Of course, it’s hard to surrender to God and each other. We’ve, after all, believed the evil one’s lie that happiness is found in putting ourselves at the center of everything. Yet those who have ever tried that for any length of time know that we’re a tiny center that’s more like a cosmic black hole. You pour everything into yourself but find that it all quickly disappears.
It’s only in giving our lives away that we find real life. It’s only in living for God and God’s good purposes that God’s adopted children really live. People who really want to live find ways to give our time, love and self away to someone else who really needs us.
Of course, you don’t have to look at or read too much to know that self-surrender may carry a high price tag. No one needed to remind Paul’s first readers that people could persecute God’s slaves. Joyful slavery to God does not inoculate God’s dearly beloved people against suffering, sickness and tragedy.
Yet only wholehearted service to God leads to real life, not death. Slavery to God leads to joy, not despair. So God’s adopted sons and daughters trying to lean into all that goodness by giving everything we are and ever will be to complete service to God.
Some of us remember the movie “Chariot’s of Fire’s” Eric Liddell. In his book, For the Glory, Hamilton Duncan writes about Liddell’s life after he won a gold medal in the 1924 Summer Olympics.
Duncan says someone once asked Liddell why he was so willing to give up everything that succeeding Olympics still offered him. Liddell always answered, “Because I believe God made me for [mission] work in” China. There, as you may know, Liddell died in a Japanese concentration camp.
The more mundane good life for which God made us may look at least a little like that of two men who worked in a park in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Every day, 82-year-old Bud Caldwell visited a park bench that he bought and dedicated to his late wife, Betty, after she died.
He’d tell her about his day and deliver two gifts: a penny and a daisy. The gifts are tributes to songs the couple had loved during their 56 years together: “Daisy a Day,” and “Pennies From Heaven.”
But when snow covered the walkway that led to Betty’s bench that became too dangerous for Caldwell, he still made the trip but stayed in his car. Two park employees noticed his new routine, and moved by his devotion to his wife, decided to shovel the walkway to Betty’s bench. They vowed to keep the path clear all through the winter.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 28, 2020
Romans 6:12-23 Commentary