In Romans 6:23, Paul says:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Aside from the obvious quip (“That’s fine, thanks – I’ll sin on a voluntary basis”), I’ve been reflecting on this recently, and my own experience of sin and death. Sin, for the purposes of this post, is anything which is contrary to God’s will, plan, or nature. It must be kept that in mind that God, and Jesus’ sacrifice, are far greater than any sin we could conceieve of, or do – however bad we are (or feel we are), God always has the last word, and sees us as pure and sinless if we allow Him to.
Back to the verse; I’ve been wondering if this is a verse that operates on several levels (as a lot of them do), and it is referring to all three of literal/physical, metaphorical, and spiritual death?
The spiritual element is perhaps the most transparent reading, especially given the contrast with eternal life in Christ. If we reject God’s gift, we are choosing to spend eternity without God – separated from him by our own sin. Amazingly all we have to do is confess Christ as Lord, and repent of (i.e. say sorry, and turn from) our sin, and God’s gift is that He sees us just as if we’d never sinned. I think the spiritual means in the here and now also – in that sin robs of us the fullness of life. When we do stuff wrong, we feel guillty, grumpy, fed up, and of course separated from God. There is some overlap with what I describe as metaphorical death below – perhaps a better expression for that would be abstract or metaphysical. Not sure!
The physical/literal is an equally valid reading, in my opinion. If we (persistently) sin, our physical bodies pay the price here and now. This may be through the direct abuse of our bodies (drinking, smoking, drugs, driving when tired, not getting enough sleep, over/under eating, unfitness, suicide at the extreme). We’re told elsewhere in scripture that our bodies are temples or the Holy Spirit, and therefore anything we do which damages our body is out of kilter with God’s plan.
It might also be the direct effect of others’ sin. The obvious current example is the so-called IS. Their torture and murder is sin, but the consequential death is that of the victims. The refugees drowning are another group in this category – there can be no doubt that their plight is a direct result on sin on the part of others. Finally, physical death can be the direct effect of our corporate sin – whether that’s hubris (for example, arrogance around an unsinkable titantic, or building houses on fault-line/flood-plans, or tearing up mangroves), or our sin against creation – extreme weather, some forms of cancer.
But I think there is a third interpretation, which is metaphorical death. It’s probably easiest to explain this by example. If I sin against my wife (for example, by having an affair or using pornography), that will ultimately lead to the death of our marriage. It will lead to ‘little deaths’ in the short-term, as trust and intimacy is eroded, and long-term to the death of the relationship. Similarly, if I sin against my employer, by stealing from work, or not doing my job properly, this will lead to the death of my job (i.e. I get the sack), and possibly my career. If I sin against my children by being short-tempered, or abusive, that leads to the death of the relationship. If I am in a position of trust, and abuse that, it will lead to the death of that position.
Of course, there is death without sin. Bad stuff happens sometimes. But from what I see, sin always brings death, sooner or later, in one form or another.
All of the above said, Christians are also Easter people, and recognise that death isn’t the final word. Just as Jesus was resurrected, so is death ultimately beaten. This means even if (say) a relationship has died, there is still the hope of resurrection! As our physical bodies die, so is there hope (sure hope) of resurrection and eternal life with Jesus.