The Seventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| July 25, 2004
“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 6:23
There is a popular but false opinion that says that freedom means that we are not under anyone’s authority but our own. If that were true we would be our own gods. The Bible and history show us that human beings make bad gods.
It is not freedom to do as we choose as if we can make our own rules and set our own standards and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. It may appear to be freedom at first, but it is the very worst kind of slavery. St. Paul described the Christians in Rome before they became Christians: “You presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness.” There is no freedom in that. When you do whatever you want you become a slave to what you want. You live to please yourself. You become a slave to your own pleasure. There is no such thing as a truly independent person. There is no such thing as absolute freedom. Everybody is going to be under the authority of somebody, whether the true God, or a false god.
The sin is not in the system. The sin is not in the establishment. The sin is not in the organization. The sin is in you and me. That is why when we do whatever we want to do we sin. And Jesus said it plainly when He said: “Whoever sins is a slave to sin.”
Pick a sin: Getting drunk, starting a fight, using filthy language, having sexual relations with someone to whom you are not married, taking God’s name in vain, cheating, stealing, lying. Why do people do these things? Why do they set out to drink too much when they know that it’s a sin? Why do they become violent and start fights? Why do they engage in intimacy that God says is unclean and immoral? Why do they tell lies to gain what rightly belongs to the neighbor? Why do they lie about the neighbor? Do you know why? Because they want to, that’s why. They do what they want to do, and what they want to do is wrong. But they do it anyway because they want to do it.
That is slavery. It is the slavery of someone who doesn’t know God and doesn’t know Christ and doesn’t know freedom and doesn’t know what life is because he doesn’t have it. He thinks he’s free, but he’s not. He’s a slave to sin. The fact that it is his own sin, his own sinful desires that enslave him, in no way diminishes his slavery. It just makes it more pathetic. He thinks he’s free because he’s doing what he feels like doing but he’s a fool because what he feels like doing is being a slave.
And he’s dead. He thinks he’s alive. In fact, he thinks he’s really living because he’s doing what he really wants to do. But he’s dead. “The wages of sin is death.” Oh, he doesn’t know he’s dead and he probably won’t believe it when he is told that he is dead, but he is dead. Just as there are physical laws governing the universe, there are spiritual laws governing life and death. What goes up must come down. That’s the law of gravity. Sin pays off in death. That’s a law too, and it cannot be repealed.
God spoke to Adam. “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, “The soul who sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) St. Paul repeats the same irreversible truth; “The wages of sin is death.” Nothing and no one can change this.
Last week we saw that in our baptism we died with Christ and we rose with him. We saw how St. Paul refutes the notion that God’s grace is license to sin. When the Bible teaches that our good works don’t earn anything from God, it is not teaching that our good works have no value. They simply cannot have the value that Christ’s works have. To say that we somehow earn or merit or win eternal life by what we do is to insult Jesus. It is to place our righteous deeds in the same category as his righteous deeds. Now that is an outrageous thing to do! As if our sin-tainted works could compare with Christ’s pure, holy, and spotless obedience! No, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Our good deeds cannot help to save us. The Bible says, “For by grace you are saved, through faith, it is the gift of God, not of works.” (Ephesians 2:8) Doing good works does not help the one who does them. Some say that doing good works strengthens faith. That’s not true. God strengthens our faith through His gospel and sacraments. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life. He is the Author of our faith. But the fact that our good deeds don’t help to gain us eternal life does not mean that our sins do us no harm. Sin attacks and ultimately destroys faith.
We Christians need to take this seriously. To live according to the flesh will kill you. To live in sin without repentance will kill you. Sin kills. Period. It cannot be any other way. If you are living in sin and do not repent you are killing yourself. You are expelling God from your life. The wages of sin is death. You cannot change that. You cannot wish that away.
The wages of sin is death. This is why we all die. If we were not sinners we would not die. Only sinners die. The righteous never die. They say that only the good die young. But that’s not true. If they were good, they would never die. Nobody good ever died. The wages of sin is death. You say that Jesus was good and Jesus died. That is true. But Jesus took our place and when He did, He took on Himself our sin. The Bible says, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) When Jesus took our place, He became sin for us. He suffered death for us. He paid the wages of sin, and He paid it in full. He purchased life by paying the wages of sin. He won life by defeating death. The wages had to be paid and Jesus was willing and able to make the payment. He made the payment for all sinners who have ever lived or who will ever live. This is why the apostle says that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Only Christ has fully paid sin’s wages. He had to die to take the place of sinners. He died as the sinner. He died as the one to whom all sin was imputed or reckoned. Without that holy death there could be no gift of eternal life. The wages of sin is death. That remains true. The wages of our sin was Christ’s death.
How God did it, I cannot understand, but there on Calvary’s cross Jesus suffered eternal damnation in the place of the whole human race. Life and death faced each other and Life destroyed death by paying the bitter wages of sin. God’s gift of eternal life was earned. Jesus earned it. God gives it freely but it wasn’t free. If you try to pay for it you insult the God who freely gives it. Life cannot be earned except by the one who never sinned. You and I haven’t earned life. We’ve earned death. In Jesus is life and Jesus alone can give us eternal life. He gives it. He won’t sell it or let you negotiate for it or put it on layaway while you make payments for it. He gives eternal life and the only way to receive eternal life is to receive Jesus. Jesus said, “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Jesus earned eternal life for us on the cross. Jesus gives eternal life to us in our baptism. We receive this eternal life by believing that Jesus gives it to us. If you believe what the words of the gospel and sacraments say to you then you have what those words promise. If you do not believe, you will receive what you have earned and that is death. Not just physical death when you body fails, but also eternal death in hell, what the Book of Revelation calls “the second death.”
Sin pays off in death. Only those who receive Christ have eternal life. The Bible makes it crystal clear how to receive Jesus and with him the eternal life that he gives. Peter preached a tough law sermon to the crowd on Pentecost who were cut to the heart. They asked Peter what they should do. He replied, “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” When the terrified jailer at Philippi asked Peter how to be saved (Acts 16:30) Peter told him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Immediately he and his entire family were baptized.
So we live in our baptism, daily dying and daily rising. Any other life is slavery and not worth living. The life of daily repentance seems at times so frustrating, and I guess it is. The same old sins, the same old temptations, the same old confessions to the same old God. But this gracious God is the living God who has life to give. It is what Jesus called the abundant life. Sin pays its wages but leaves us no rest or peace. God’s gift is given to those who are tired of working for wages and falling deeper and deeper into debt. His gift is a life of freedom. And despite the struggles of our sinful flesh against the Holy Spirit, despite the frustrations of having to repent again and again of the same old besetting sins, and despite our pathetic weaknesses and painful failures, it is a life of joy. Deep down we have a rest and a peace in Jesus that nobody but a Christian can ever know. St. Augustine was on to something when he said in his famous prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our souls are restless until they find their rest in you.” That rest, that peace for which our souls long can be found only in Christ. As we sing in the hymn:
In Jesus I find rest and peace the world is full of sorrow
His wounds are my abiding place, let the unknown tomorrow
Bring what it may, here I can stay, my faith finds all I need today
I will not trouble borrow.