Passage: Romans 6:23
Your relationship with God is an unearned, undeserved gift.
Have you heard of the saying “first world problems”? Here’s the definition from dictionary.com: “a fairly minor problem, frustrating situation, or complaint associated with a relatively high standard of living, as opposed to the more serious problems associated with poverty.” In other words, calling something a “first world problem” recognizes a contrast between our standard of living and those in developing or 3rd world countries. For instance, we may complain about how often we need to take our car in for an oil change. But then someone might say to us or we might say to ourselves, “first world problems,” because the reality is that many people don’t have a car at all to drive. Or we may complain about the speed of the service we are getting at a restaurant or that our food isn’t cooked quite how we’d like it. But then we realize that many people don’t even have food to eat let alone someone to cook it for them and carry it out to them! “First world problems.”
This phrase points out to us the privileges we have in our life that we so often take for granted. As human beings, we tend to drift into ingratitude and entitlement. And we can do the same thing with our relationships with other people. Instead of feeling blessed by a relationship, we just see all the flaws and annoying things. We start to take the person for granted instead of enjoying them.
Today we are beginning a sermon series called “Bad News, Good News”. Sometimes people will ask us, “Do you want to hear the good news or the bad news first?” This series will have three messages and each one will focus on just one verse that tells us both the bad news and the good news. They tell us the bad news about our condition without Christ. And they tell us the good news of our new status with Christ.
There are two reasons we are doing this series. The first is that we easily take our relationship with God and our salvation for granted. We drift into ingratitude and entitlement with God. I want us to move from ingratitude, taking for granted, and entitlement to thanksgiving and joy. I want us to really feel the goodness of the good news of Jesus Christ.
That’s the first reason. The second reason is that I want us to feel excited to share this good news with others. By hearing the bad news, we will hear the condition people are in who don’t know Jesus - the condition of loved ones, family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, waitresses, baristas, cashiers. I want us to be filled with compassion for them because of the bad news. And I also want us to be filled with confidence and courage because of the good news. We really do have good news to share.
So the messages in this series are going to have a simple outline. First, the bad news and the good news for those who know Jesus. Second, the bad news and the good news for those who don’t yet know Jesus. Today’s verse is Romans 6:23. So let’s get started with the bad news for us.
For us to be thankful for where we are, we have to keep looking in the rearview mirror of where we have been - where we came from and where we would be if it weren’t for God. If we forget God and what he has done in our lives to get us where we are, we will fall into the false thinking of saying, “I got myself here. I changed my life. I figured it out.” And when we have that mentality, we become entitled, ungrateful, and we take God for granted.
Romans 6:23 is the clear and succinct summary of what Paul has been saying since chapter 5 verse 12. This verse tells us both the bad news and the good news of what Paul has been saying. The bad news is this: “the wages of sin is death.”
What does that actually mean? “The wages of sin is death.” Well we understand wages. You earn a wage for doing a job. You might get paid minimum wage or above minimum wage. The word here for “wage” was specifically associated with the wage a soldier would earn for serving in the army. It’s the word John the Baptist uses in Luke 3:14 when the soldiers come to him asking what they should do. And he answers them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” So this is about compensation and pay.
In this case, who is paying the wage? It says the wages of sin is death. Sin is paying us our wage. And what is the currency used to pay us? How are we compensated? It says the wages of sin is death. The image here is making sin our employer or master and as our employer, sin gives us a paycheck of death. That’s what we earn from sin.
Paul has been making this point since chapter 5 verse 12. His basic argument in chapter 5 verses 12 through 21 is: Adam brought sin, condemnation, and death into the world; but Jesus Christ brings grace, righteousness, and life. Throughout 5:12-21, he contrasts Adam and Christ: what did Adam bring into the world and how does God overcome it through Christ?
But Paul is picking up a story that started on the first pages of the Bible in the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, in Genesis chapters 1 and 2, God created a good world unstained by sin - unstained by selfishness, evil, pride, jealousy, violence, oppression, and wickedness. If the world didn’t start this way, then how did it get this way? Why do we have a world filled with these things? Why are we filled with these things? That answer is given in Genesis chapter 3.
In Genesis chapter 3, an agent of evil comes to the first humans, Adam and Eve, in the form of a snake. Through deception and doubt, this snake entices Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The snake lies to them about the consequences of eating from this tree and gets them to doubt what God has said by getting them to question God’s character. This leads to a desire to do what God has forbidden. They believe the lie that true fulfillment, happiness, satisfaction, freedom, and joy will be found outside of God’s boundaries and limits for them. So they ate from the tree.
What’s up with this tree? Whether there was a physical tree or not, the point is clear: this tree is a constant reminder to Adam and Eve that they are not God. They don’t decide what is good and what is bad. They don’t decide what is wrong and what is right. God decides that. We are not meant to define good and evil, right and wrong, on our own terms. God is the Creator and King, we are not. So it is his job to decide what is good and bad. To eat from the tree would be to reject God’s Lordship over them. It would be rejecting God’s authority. It would be telling God, “We don’t want you in charge anymore. We want to be in charge.” In that moment, they thought they could do a better job being in charge than God. And don’t we do the same thing in our lives? How often do our conversations with God amount to giving him a list of what we want in our life so that it will be a good life rather than thanking him and seeking his will for our lives?
God clearly told them the consequences of this choice: death. He said that the day they ate of the tree, they would surely die. If they don’t want God in charge, it means they’ve chosen death. If they want to rule their own lives, they are choosing death. After they eat from the tree, they cover themselves up in shame. They hide from each other and they hide from God. Even before God takes any action, there is already separation between each other and between them and God. When God questions them about what happened, they play the blame game, “It was her fault! And kind of your fault for giving her to me!” “It was the serpent’s fault!” Then God tells them the difficulty and hardship they have introduced into life on planet earth. And he sends them out of the garden, separated from his life-giving presence.
So did they drop dead on the spot? No, not physically. But you can see that eating the fruit has killed intimacy between them and God. The good relationship they had with each other and with God has been put to death. And God sent them out of his life-giving presence. Since then, humanity has experienced death on two levels: physical death and spiritual death. We will all one day physically die. And until we do, we are spiritually dead. Ephesians 2:1 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air (referring to Satan, the serpent in Genesis 3)” (Eph 2:1-2). We are separated from God. We are alienated from him. We have been exiled from his presence. All because Adam, as the representative of all humanity, decided he did not want God in charge.
So then we come back to Romans 5:12-21. Every human being on this planet is a son or daughter of Adam, the first human. And that means, every human being is born with the same corrupted human nature as Adam. As Article 3 in our Statement of Faith says, we are sinners by nature and by choice. Every human being is born with a broken nature and a broken relationship with God. And every human being will introduce brokenness into their relationships. We are born “in Adam” - united with him so that what’s true of him is true of us.
And in the letter to the church in Rome, Paul describes what this means for each of us. It means each of us is a sinner, each of us stands under God’s condemnation for our sin, and each of us has earned and deserves death. It means that each of us can confess what the Book of Common Prayer says: “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”
“The wages of sin is death.” That’s the bad news.
Good News for Those Who Know Christ
The good news is that God has made a way for us to be free of the penalty for our sin. We can be transferred out of the kingdom of death that sin reigns over. And this has been made possible through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
This is referred to as “the free gift”. Romans 5:12 says, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sin.” That one man is Adam. Then we go back to Romans 3:23 and we hear the same thing: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” But then it goes on in verse 24: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (verse 24) AND are justified by his grace as a gift (HOW?) through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24).
Romans chapter 5 is explaining where the sin we are all infected with came from. It’s explaining how we have gotten in such a mess - sinful, condemned, dead. But it also explains the free gift God has given us. It proclaims to us how God has overcome sin and death.
So where does this free gift come from? The free gift comes by the grace of God (5:15), meaning it is undeserved and unearned. What is the free gift? The free gift is justification (5:16). Justification is a legal term used in court. You are either condemned - “declared guilty” or you are justified - “declared righteous.” We are declared righteous not because of anything we have done but because God has given it to us. God declares the guilty to be innocent. How can this be? Because Jesus died as our substitute and representative. He took the penalty we deserve for our sin in our place. What is the result? The free gift of righteousness allows those who receive it to enter eternal life (5:17, 21). When we receive God’s free gift, we are no longer “in Adam” but “in Christ”. We are united with him so that what is true of him becomes true of us.
So this brings us back to Romans 6:23: the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The wages of sin is death: The result of Adam’s sin brought death and condemnation to all. But God graciously provides the free gift of justification leading to eternal life in and through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So what is eternal life? It’s returning to how things were meant to be: relationship with God. When Adam and Eve “died” in Genesis 3, what sort of death was it? It was the death of their relationship with God. They were alienated, estranged, exiled, and separated from God because of their sin. So eternal life is reentering that relationship where true life is found. “Eternal life” doesn’t mean: life after death that won’t end. In John 17:3, Jesus says he has been given authority to give eternal life to all whom God has given him and then he defines eternal life, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).
As opposed to the death that we earn as our wages from sin, eternal life is a free gift given by God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You might have expected Paul to say, “The wages of sin is death but the wages of righteousness or obedience or being a good person is eternal life.” But that’s not what he says. He says eternal life is a free gift. It’s free. We don’t earn it; we don’t deserve it. It isn’t compensation or payment for being a good person or doing good things. It’s a gracious gift: undeserved, unearned. It’s paid for by Jesus. That’s why all we can do is receive it, not show ourselves to be good enough or deserving enough. We just hold out our empty hands and receive it.
Let’s imagine we are listening to Paul. He’s teaching us this. And right here we stop him and say, "Wait, wait, wait. So what you are saying is that regardless of my sin, regardless of my obedience, and regardless of whether I've kept God’s law, I can be declared righteous? I don’t have to do anything. I can be a totally terrible person then just say ‘yes’ to receiving God’s free gift and I will be declared totally righteous and innocent? There won’t be any penalty for all the wrong things I’ve done? God will just forgive me and forget about it? God and I will be totally good?" Then Paul will say, “Yep. Exactly.” Which then should lead us to say, “That just sounds too good to be true.”
If that’s what we are asking, then we have finally heard and understood the good news. Because if the gospel doesn't sound too good to be true, we haven't heard the gospel. We have either heard some other false gospel or we have not understood the true gospel. If it doesn't lead to these questions, we haven't proclaimed the true gospel.
When we finally see that it is too good to be true, there are two possible responses. A person who doesn't like rules will say, "That means I can do whatever I want with no consequences!" A person who likes rules will say, "That means people will do whatever they want if there are no consequences!" And the apostle Paul experienced both of these as he preached the true gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. A British preacher named Martin Lloyd Jones said it this way:
“There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will recount all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding then it is not the gospel. If a man preaches justification by works, no one would ever raise this question.” (God’s Lavish Grace, 40; quoting D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The New Man, An Exposition of Chapter 6, Banner of Truth Trust, 1972)
Paul addresses this in Romans 6. He imagines someone would ask these questions. And his basic answer is this: In Christ, we are not only freed from the penalty of our sin but we are freed from the power of our sin to serve a new master: God. Jesus died to sin and was raised to live for God. United with him, we too must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Then Paul uses the imagery of slavery. He argues that whoever or whatever we present ourselves to as obedient slaves is our master. Sin was once our master, leading to death. But now we have been set free from sin to become slaves of God. We have not only been saved from something but for something: to live for God. The fruit of sin as our master leads to death but the fruit of God as our master leads to sanctification and eternal life. And then he writes Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Do you believe it’s too good to be true? Do you believe your relationship with God is too good to be true? Do you believe forgiveness for your sins is too good to be true? Do you believe your salvation is too good to be true? You, a sinner by nature and by choice, have been declared totally righteous and innocent by the God of the universe if you have received the free gift he offers you.
Our Big Idea for today is this: Your relationship with God is an unearned, undeserved gift. Write it personally for yourself: My relationship with God is an unearned, undeserved gift. The opposite is also true: Your separation from God is an earned and deserved payment. My separation from God is an earned and deserved payment.
Sometimes we might talk about the impact that someone has had on our life and we say, “I don’t know where I’d be without them.” Is that what you believe about Jesus? Do you believe that without Christ, the only thing you earn and deserve is death? Do you believe that Christ is your only hope? He is the only foundation on which to stand before a good and holy God. Do you believe that with Christ you have absolutely everything you need?
This passage declares to us the glorious truth that the thing we have been searching for all our lives is something given to us for free by God. All our lives, we have looked for something to relieve the angst we feel, the feeling that we are falling short, that we’ve let everyone down (God, ourselves, others), that we are a constant disappointment, that we will never measure up, that something is broken inside us and we can’t fix it. We have been anxious and insecure. We have dealt with it by working hard or hiding or through other coping mechanisms to ease the sense that we just aren’t good enough. And we find here that it was available to us all along. What is it that we need? We need to hear God say to us, “You are righteous. You and I are ok. In fact, we are great! I love you and there’s nothing you can do to change that. You didn’t earn it and you don’t deserve it. I don’t only love you, but I actually like you!”
Every morning before our feet hit the floor, before we have done anything good or bad, we can know that we are good with God. And we can say to ourselves, “What a privilege! I can't believe this! How could I be so blessed and fortunate? I have done nothing to deserve this! I could have never done enough to earn it!”
Bad News for Those Who Don't Know Christ
Now let’s consider the people God has placed in our lives: loved ones, family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, waitresses, baristas, cashiers. Let’s make this personal. Let’s write a list of the people God has placed in your life. Who are people you see on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? Which ones don’t know God? Or which ones are you unsure about? Write their name down if you know it. If you don’t, simply write what you know like they are a neighbor or a cashier.
What is their reality without Christ? The bad news is that the wages of sin is death. Each and every one of them has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. [Illustration] Many have said that if everyone on the planet lined up at the Grand Canyon and took a running start to try and jump across, no one would make it. We’d all fall short. Some people may be more athletic and be able to jump further than others. But no one would make it across. There might be people you know who have done really bad things. There might be people you know whom you’d describe as really good people. So some may jump a little further across the canyon separating them from God, but all will fall short. This is their reality without Christ. They are sinners by nature and by choice, they are under God’s condemnation for their sin, and they are dead in their sins.
Good News for Those Who Don't Know Christ
But God has given us really, really good news to share with them. You would not be hesitant to tell a cancer patient that there is a 100% effective treatment for their cancer. You would not feel like you are going to annoy them by giving them the news that even though they have a fatal disease, there is a cure that is totally free of charge and works 100% of the time instantly.
God has been and is preparing some of the people in your life to hear this good news. He has been working on them through the Holy Spirit. He has been softening their hearts so that when you tell them about Jesus, they will hear it as the answer they’ve been looking for. This verse clearly tells us that our response to Jesus is a matter of life and death.
Make this your prayer list. Put it somewhere you will see it and pray for them as often as you can. Maybe set an alarm in your phone that tells you to pray for them. Memorize this verse and pray it for the people on your list. I’d encourage you to write the verse out right now. Pray that they’d be awakened to the bad news and that they would be drawn to the good news about Jesus.
Here’s something else you can do. We are doing a series in the Fall on relationships called “Connected”. I designed this series to benefit us as a church and to be relevant for people in our lives. Grab some postcards and give them to people on your list. Another thing you can do is share about Connected on Facebook. Share it to your profile.
We are Good News Church. We are a people of the good news - people who live it, people who show it, people who tell it. That’s why we are here. We are people who had earned and deserved death from our sin. But God is entered into our lives, he reached down into our mess, and he gave us the free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus. We have gone from death to life not because of anything we have done but because he has done it all. Your relationship with God is an undeserved, unearned gift. My relationship with God is an undeserved, unearned gift. Our relationship with God is an undeserved, unearned gift. God has brought good news to us and he sends us with good news for others to tell them: You can have a relationship with God as an undeserved, unearned gift.