In the Book of Romans, Paul imparts deep theological truths and asks difficult questions to the believers in Rome. This letter also contains one of the most well-known verses in Scripture, especially for anyone familiar with the “Roman’s Road” of verses used to succinctly explain the gospel. Here it is:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23, ESV).
This common verse also contains one of the most prevalent juxtapositions (or contrasting ideas) in the New Testament, which is death versus life. It is easy for us to emphasize one part of this passage over the other because it is somewhat of a “bad news” and “good news” type of verse.
But if we are going to share the full truth of this passage, we have to work to understand what both halves mean or share the meaning accurately. For further reading, check out my previous article that explains how the “wages of sin is death.”
Now let’s deal with the second (and more positive) section by answering this question: What does it mean that the “gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”? I will try to answer this by unpacking the three short pieces that make up the phrase.
1. The Gift of God
A gift is the opposite of a wage. We earn death because of our sinful nature as well as the sinful work that we do. It is a reward that we deserve. But in contrast, a gift is given as a result of the generosity of the giver. In this verse, we see that the gift of life is the result of the undeserved grace of God.
Although we still have to die physically because of the “wages” of sin through our mortal bodies, those who receive Christ will never experience a second, spiritual death. Paul centers on the grace and generosity of the Giver (God) in his letter to the Colossians:
...having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Colossians 2:12-15, ESV).
Because of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement on the cross, God remains just, while gifting eternal life to those who receive Jesus, while those who do not still die in their sins.
2. The Gift of God Is Eternal Life
This is not the only gift from God, but it is the most monumental and, in a way, the gift that all other gifts come out of. The gift of eternal life is so important to understand, especially against the backdrop of what happened in the Garden of Eden that resulted in death for all of mankind. Paul explains this connection in the previous chapter:
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation [and death] for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:18-21, ESV).
This gift of eternal life is the remedy to the “contagion of sin” that we are born with. It is the cure-all prescribed for us by the Great Physician who donated it himself through the shedding of his blood on the cross. Apostle Peter (quoting the prophet Isaiah) said it like this:
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 1:24).
As I wrote in this article, physical death does not have the “sting” of finality for believers that it does for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we will also be resurrected to live forever in Heaven.
So, no matter what happens in this life, we can praise God for his faithfulness instead of worrying about our frailty, knowing that when God does allow us to die, we will be “translated” into the next life where there is no more “death… nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).
In fact, instead of spiritual death being the final judgment (as it is for unbelievers), Tim Challes describes death as more of a “doorway” to eternal life and joy with God for believers (turning death into a positive instead of a negative). As Paul boldly claims in Philippians 1:21, “to die is gain.”
Notice, also, that this gift is not temporary or partial as an earthly gift would be — it is eternal and everlasting. It cannot be removed from us and will never expire because “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39, ESV).
If the eternal life that God gives us could ever be lost or taken away, then it would contradict God’s faithfulness because “he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13, ESV). He is a “forever” God. Or think of it like this: There is no fine print built into God’s contract that would allow Him to take back his gift.
3. Eternal Life Is Through Christ Jesus Our Lord
Jesus Christ is the medium through which God imparts salvation and the bridge that God uses to connect us. This means that when we receive Jesus, we get this gift.
Leading up to Romans 6:23, Paul explained that our belief in and application of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in our lives is actually what frees us from our bondage to sin and penalty of death. This spiritual truth is demonstrated beautifully by believers’ baptism by immersion (Romans 6:4).
In other words, because Jesus died, we do not have to die, and because Jesus lived again, we can live again. This is the great hope that Christians have in Christ. John prophecies in the Book of Revelation that:
Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power (Revelation 20:6, ESV).
What Does This Mean?
We need to understand that while there are two options presented for everyone in this verse (death or life), God desires that we choose life. Someone once said that God is not against us because of our sin, he is with us against our sin. That is explained clearly in verses like:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance (2 Peter 3:9, ESV).
This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4, ESV)
Even more than that, God demonstrated that he wants us to receive life over death by sending his Son to the Earth as a substitution for us and taking the punishment of our death on himself. The Apostle Paul said:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses [and were by nature the ‘children of wrath’], made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:3-5, ESV).
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Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, and most recently as the Lead Pastor and Planter of Village Church in Churchville, Virginia. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the Gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.