What Does it Mean ‘The Wages of Sin Is Death’?

We cannot actually do anything about our sin to stop death because we are sinners by nature. Even doing good or religious things cannot save us. But thankfully, that is not the end. For if we choose it, eternal life is in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Robert Hampshire
Dead woods to a sunny garden connected by the cross

Our world seems to be full of gray areas, but the Bible contains distinctions and juxtapositions that give us a proper framework for reality. For example, Scripture is clear that we are either righteous or unrighteous before God, that our final destination will either be Heaven or Hell and that we are either children of the light or the darkness.

Probably the most common contrast in Scripture is between life and death. A person is either dead or alive. Contrary to the many sci-fi and apocalyptic movies, there is no in-between. It is the same for our spiritual condition, too: We are either dead in our “trespasses and sins” or alive “together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:1-5, ESV).

This leads to a well-known verse in Scripture that contains some important contrasting ideas:

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 verse is part of the “Roman’s Road” (a set of evangelistic verses in Scripture). In this post, we will focus mainly on the first part and then come back and explain the rest in order to fully understand its meaning and implications. Because, when studied in its entirety, this is one of a few “gospel in a nutshell” type Scriptures.

Let’s dig into what Paul meant when he wrote that the “wages of sin is death.”

In the Book of Romans, Paul is writing to faithful followers of Jesus in Rome that he cared for, prayed for, and longed to be with because of their encouraging and exemplary faith (Romans 1:7-15). Because of their faith, he seems to dive into the “deep end” of doctrines in this letter and answer some esoteric or complex questions.

Before our verse in question, Paul explains that our belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (demonstrated by baptism) is what frees us from our bondage to and penalty for our sins. In other words, because Jesus died, we do not have to die, and because Jesus lived again, we can live again.

Then Paul lays out another juxtaposition with freedom and slavery to explain that when we are “slaves of sin” we are “free from righteousness” and vice versa.

This leads us to Romans 6:23 where Paul writes that the rewards or “wages” of our sin and unrighteousness is always “death.” Since the word sin literally means to “miss the mark of God’s desires (Romans 3:23), then whatever consequences come along with falling short are deserved and appropriate. Our sinfulness naturally results in death and dying in three unique waves: emotional, physical, and spiritual. Let’s consider each of these.

Sin Brings Physical Death

God instructed Adam and Eve to eat from every tree in the Garden of Eden except the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil… for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17, ESV). But when they ate from the forbidden tree and committed the first sins of humanity (way to go guys!), they appear to actually die.

Instead, their choice began a process of physical death that would claim their lives, their children’s lives, and the lives of everyone else from then on (except for Elijah and Enoch, but that’s a different story).

Not only that, but physical death began to ravage all of creation. In Genesis 3, God had to kill an animal to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness. This was the first death in the Bible and a painful and “graphic demonstration” of the nature of sin as well as a foreshadowing of the “shedding of blood” required to cover sins. This sacrifice also ultimately pointed to Jesus who would later offer himself to humanity on the cross.

Then Adam and Eve’s firstborn son, jealously murdered his brother, people began “killing” plants for food instead of just fruit (Genesis 3:18), nature became more difficult with “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), animals began to eat each other, animals began to fear humans (Genesis 9:2), and humans even began to eat animals (Genesis 9:3). Mankind became so destroyed by sin that a few generations later, all but one family died in a worldwide flood!

As a side note, the idea of sin yielding physical death only makes sense within a literal, seven-day understanding of Creation. In order for evolution to work, countless generations of a less adapted species have to die for newer, more evolved, naturally selected species to thrive.

Even theistic evolution paints God as incompetent, Scripture as doubtful, mankind as arbitrary, and death as good or at least helpful and part of God’s original creation. This, however, is not true because death came as a result or “wage” of humanity’s sin.

Sin Brings Emotional Death

When Adam and Eve sinned, they began to suffer and experience death and destruction many other ways not as obvious or objective because it was felt in their soul. Their closeness with God was gone, their communion with each other was severed, they lost the Edenic garden, and more.

Still today, every human experiences innumerable “emotional” deaths reigning in their lives because of the “corruption” of sin (Romans 5:17; Galatians 6:8). We lie, cheat, gossip, slander, hate, kill, lust, act immorally, think pridefully, and live in idolatry against God, which divides and destroys areas of our soul (Galatians 5; Romans 1).

Just read through the Old Testament or turn on the news if you do not know what I mean! The end of the road for sin is always death (James 1:15; Matthew 7:13; Romans 7:13). Apart from God, even the grief that we feel from our sin leads to death (2 Corinthians 7:10).

Sin can be compared to an infectious virus that affects our personality, motives, thoughts, feelings, expectations, and every other aspect of our minds and hearts. Similarly, the 16th-century reformer, John Calvin, wrote that “none of the soul remains pure or untouched by that mortal disease.” And when we leave this “infection” unchecked, it leads us all to destruction.

To make matters worse, our sin deadens our moral senses so that we even lie to ourselves about the seriousness of it (Jeremiah 17:9). Even the most seemingly religious people have areas in their lives dead from sin.

For example, Jesus bluntly accused hypocritical people of being “whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones…” (Matthew 23:27, ESV).

Sin Brings Spiritual Death

The third wave of death from sin is spiritual death. While death in the body and soul are significant, spiritual death is exponentially more serious because it is eternal. In fact, Tim Challes explains that for unbelievers, physical death is merely the entrance into spiritual death.

Scripture calls this the “second death,” which must be granted to sinners because the holiness and justness of God demand it (Revelation 2:11; 20:6-14; Hebrews 12:29; Exodus 33:20). John describes this everlasting punishment like this:

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death (Revelation 21:8, ESV).

Scripture describes spiritual death as the final judgment for sinners in the form of eternal separation from God in a place of fire, darkness, sadness, and pain fit for the “devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41-46; Luke 13:28; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Hebrews 9:27).

The worst part of it all is that we cannot actually do anything about our sin to stop these waves of death because we are sinners by nature. We do not become sinners from the things we do, our sin is symptomatic of our infected condition (Romans 5:12).

Even doing “good” or “religious” things cannot save us. As John Calvin worded it, we are “descended from impure seed” and born “infected with the contagion of sin.” Left to ourselves, we are doomed to die.

But thankfully, that is not the end. There is another side of the “coin” that tells the other half of the truth. There is a “vaccine” that can eradicate the contagion and give us eternal life. Paul preaches: “...but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23, ESV).

That is by far the best news we could ever be given and the only hope we have to escape the consequence of our sin.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kevron2001


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.


Originally published September 11, 2020.