The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
July 26, 2020
“Life or Death”
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23
Sin pays wages. God give gifts. Sinners earn death. They deserve it. Jesus gives life. Nobody but Jesus deserves it. That’s because all, except Jesus, have sinned. The most unpopular doctrine of the Christian religion is the doctrine of original sin. The Bible teaches us that fallen humanity is spiritually blind. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:14,
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
This spiritual blindness leads to idolatry. People look for God. But their spiritual blindness prevents them from finding him. They manufacture idols instead. They enslave themselves with lies. The most damaging lies are the most popular. The most popular and spiritually destructive lie is the doctrine that, when it comes to spiritual matters, everyone is born free. They call it free will. This doctrine leaves people bound in spiritual chains.
We’re talking about spiritual ability, not physical ability. When it comes to the outward actions of the body, people can do as they choose. We are not puppets in someone’s hands. Whether we serve God or the devil we make choices every day. No one forces us to do this or that. We are free moral agents. We are responsible for what we do in these bodies, whether right or wrong, good or evil.
But we are not by nature spiritually free. We are slaves. We are either slaves of the devil or slaves of God. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to righteousness. As far as our outward actions are concerned, we are free to do or not do. But until God gives us eternal life we are slaves to sin. St. Paul writes about the native spiritual ability of all humanity later on in his Epistle to the Romans where he writes:
The popular 1971 movie, “Dirty Harry,” featured Clint Eastwood as a tough San Francisco police officer named Harry Callahan, or Dirty Harry. After a psycho-killer committed a gruesome murder, Harry told the mayor that he was going to kill again. The mayor asked, “How do you know?” Dirty Harry replied, “He likes it.” That’s why sinners sin. They like it. They do as they please and sin pleases them.
Sinners sin because they like it. Since they do what they want to do, they imagine that they are free. But they’re not. Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you: Whoever sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34) Sin isn’t freedom. It’s slavery.
Consider the Ten Commandments. Why do people worship false gods, misuse God’s name, despise his Word, dishonor parents, murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, and covet what belongs to their neighbor? It is because they want to. They sin by doing what they want to do. This is what enslaves them. They say they are free. They deny being slaves. But they are! St. Paul writes:
So much for free will! Oh, people flatter themselves on their so called spiritual freedom. Meanwhile they are slaves to appetites that will kill them. Willful sin enslaves. It is working as a slave under orders from a harsh master. The word St. Paul uses in our text for “wages” was used in Paul’s day to refer to the wages soldiers received for their service. The slave of sin is like a soldier. He’s under orders. He works for wages. And note that Paul doesn’t say that the wages lead to death or cause death. He says that the wages are death. Death is payment for sin.
Some years ago when I was serving a congregation in Minnesota, I called on a family that had visited our church. I told them that I hoped they would come back. To my surprise, they said they would not. I asked why not. They told me why. The beginning of the service, when we confessed that we were poor, miserable sinners, was just too depressing. Apparently they didn’t hear the absolution! The very idea that we deserve temporal and eternal punishment is too much to accept.
Folks want a religion that denies the reality of sin. Denying the truth won’t change it. The wages of sin is death. This isn’t a sectarian opinion. It’s not an open question. This is fundamental. You cannot believe in Christ or understand the Christian religion if you don’t know what sin is and what it earns. Instead of evading this, ignoring it, or denying it, we must confront it. Sin’s wages is death.
Everybody who has sinned has died. Everyone has sinned and so everyone dies. Everyone! You will die. Your heart will stop beating. You will stop breathing. Your brain will cease to function. Nobody gets out of this world alive. But death is far worse than what we can see and measure with our senses. Death is not just the cessation of bodily life. That’s only the first death. One can endure the first death and inherit eternal life. The second death is eternal punishment in hell. There is no escape from hell. Souls in hell work for wages that can never provide any peace or rest. Without the forgiveness of sins, there is nothing but hard labor that never ends. Sin pays off in death.
“The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Death is earned. Eternal life is the gift of God. We cannot earn it. But this doesn’t mean it was not earned. Jesus earned eternal life, not for himself, but for us. The wages of sin is death. Jesus is the only human being born into this world who had no sin. He didn’t inherit sin. He didn’t commit sin. He did not deserve sin’s wages. But he paid them. By his death he “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10) He shared our flesh and blood so that:
Jesus earned life for us. The life he lived among us he lived purely and obediently. He fulfilled the demands of God’s law, not for his own benefit, but for ours. He offered up his righteous life to God as payment to set us free from our sins. He did. His resurrection proves it. When Jesus tells us that our sins are forgiven, our sins are forgiven. When Jesus tells us we have eternal life, we have eternal life. Jesus gives what belongs to him. He gives freely. This is why we are forgiven and saved through faith alone. The only way to receive God’s gift is to believe God when he tells you it is yours. Gifts are given freely. They are not earned. To say that we do anything – anything at all – to get God to give us eternal life is to deny that it is a gift. All “work your way to heaven” religion is a denial of Christ. What St. Paul says here in our text – “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” – is what the Lord Jesus says in John chapter ten:
You are either a slave of sin or a slave of righteousness. You are either a slave of the devil or a slave of God. We are not born spiritually free. As we say in the baptismal liturgy:
One is either a slave of the devil or a slave of God. But Christians are children of God, are they not? Certainly! When God gives you eternal life in baptism he is making you his child. When he forgives you in the gospel, in the absolution, and in the Holy Supper, he is treating you as a child. But here in Romans 6 God says that his children are slaves of righteousness and slaves of God. Which is it? Are we children? Or are we slaves?
Slaves serve. They may serve under coercion, compulsion, and threats or they may serve under grace, mercy, and loving care. Those who serve sin serve their god under coercion, compulsion, and threats. They think they are free because they do what they want. They are slaves to their own appetites. Trapped by their own desires they work themselves to death.
Those who serve the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ serve as children. They are slaves – not by force or threats of punishment – but willingly as children who love him who loved them first. Christ Jesus has set us free. We are perfectly free. We don’t fear death. Jesus has destroyed it. We don’t fear our sin. Jesus has borne it. We don’t fear God’s punishment. Jesus has faced it. We don’t fear the devil. Jesus has crushed his head under his heel. We are free from these terrible enemies. They do not own us, control us, or plague us. We are free.
This is why we present our bodies to God in service to him. This is why we seek out in God’s law his will for our behavior. This is why we run away from lawlessness, uncleanness, and every other seduction to sin. There is no fruit but death in these things. We have everlasting life!
There are twin errors that have plagued the church throughout her history. They are the errors of legalism and antinomianism. Legalism teaches you that you gain God’s grace, his forgiveness, and eternal life by obeying God’s law. That’s a lie. It denies Christ. It enslaves sinners to their sins. Only Christ can set us sinners free from our sins and he needs no help from us to do so.
Antinomianism teaches that we Christians don’t need the law to know how to live a Christian life. After all, we have the Holy Spirit. Yes, we do. We also have sinful flesh. Our sinful desires mislead us. We are prone to sin until we die and sin is bondage to death. Only the gospel can free us from sin. The law has no power to give us life. But only the law can identify what sin is.
Legalists are trying to work their way to heaven. They cannot. It is a gift from God. He gives it freely in his gospel and faith alone receives it. Legalists are working their way to hell, not heaven. Antinomians claim to be living as God’s children while telling God’s law to shut up and leave them alone. So called Christians, in the name of God’s love, defend what God’s law condemns. They turn grace into license. Antinomianism is a lie. Christians need God’s law. The gospel is the power to love God and neighbor. We need the law to tell us what love requires.
We need God’s word, both law and gospel. When a crowd of four thousand people spent three days listening to Jesus teach them, he didn’t leave them hungry. He fed their bodies as well as their souls. He will do the same for us. Eternal life doesn’t begin in heaven. It is ours right now in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Rolf D. Preus