Romans 6.23 Sin pays its wage - death.
For some, an enduring puzzle is how easily the first
Christians seem to have accepted an oppressive social system, and in
How, they ask, can Paul talk about freedom and then
advise his fellow-Christians, "Slaves are to submit themselves to their
masters and please them in all things" (Titus 2.9)? Surely this is a
contradictory approach from one who wrote that, " ... we wait for God to
make us his children and set our whole being free" (Romans 8.23)?
The answer lies in the norms of Paul's society. Personal
freedom as we know it today was, except for rulers and the very rich,
relatively limited. For example, even though he was a Roman citizen, Paul
could be whipped three times without what we would regard as a fair trial
(2 Corinthians 3.25).
Slavery as an institution was not then often questioned.
It was part of the backdrop of people's lives, largely taken for granted.
To suppose that it was wrong in itself is like a person today saying that
banks are wrong. These, like slavery then, are simply part of the system.
Most of the time we don't question their existence, even though some of
their business practices should perhaps be put to the test.
In short, slavery wasn't wrong in New Testament times.
We are mistaken if we hold it against our Christian ancestors that they
either kept slaves or failed to protest against slavery.
Paul can use the image of slavery to make a theological point precisely
because slaves were part of the social backdrop of his time. In exactly
the same way he uses religious categories of the first-century to put over
what Jesus meant for him - images such as sacrifice to appease God's
anger. Such categories were for him part of a normal and accepted way of
Just as we have to adjust our perceptions of what slavery and freedom
meant in Paul's time so also, it seems to me, do we need to modify how we
understand Paul's view of death. He uses the ancient tale of Adam and Eve
to back up his assertion that "Sin came into the world through one man,
and his sin brought death with it" (Romans 5.12). Hence his well-known
phrase, "The wages of sin is death."
It's clear from his letters that Paul and (most probably) most
Christians of his day hoped they would not die. They looked forward
eagerly to what we today call "the end of the world." They expected Jesus
to usher in God's new world-order in their lifetimes.
Two thousand years later our understanding of death has changed. We
know with near-absolute certainty that we will all die. That fact has
nothing to do with sin and everything to do with the way we have been
created. Death is natural. And if we think that the universe is God's
creation, then what is natural must also be good.
For me personally, this is a wonderfully reassuring affirmation. I need
no longer link my death with something rotten in the state of humankind.
Nor do I need to worry, as do so many Christians and others, in case
something I do now jeopardises life after death for me. I may or may not
live after death. For the time being I have no evidence one way or the
When I die, then, it is because that's what God has ordained for us
all, and not because of some "spiritual" sin or moral illness at the core
of my being. There is no link between sin and natural death.
It's true that I, like everyone else, fall short of perfection - what
we today call maturity. Partly through my own fault, I am unlikely
to fulfill my potential. That is, I won't turn out to be the person I
might have been if my circumstances and personal choices had turned out
differently. But that's not the same thing as being punished by death for
not being "perfected".
The implication of much traditional theology that I will die because of
my sin and the sin of my ancestors is not true. Just as we should realise
that Paul's idea of freedom differs from our own, so it makes good sense
to recognise that we and he perceive death differently.
I for one feel liberated by that realisation. Death, even when
premature, isn't to be feared - though the pain of dying may be - because
that's the way God does things in nature. Part of having faith is, dare I
suggest, to accept things the way God made them.
When I recognise that death is good and that it comes to me as God's
gift, then I'm free to cease fearing it and to concentrate instead on
living. To put it another way, living rather than avoiding death becomes
my main priority. A positive takes over from a negative.
Paul, using categories familiar to him, spots a potential problem with
this approach. He writes, "Shall we sin because we are not under the Law
...?" (Romans 6.15). In modern terms, if avoiding death is replaced by
living life to the full, isn't that licence for any kind of behaviour?
Not so, says Paul, because we have become "slaves of righteousness"
(Romans 6.18). In other words, release from fear of death isn't also
release from our uniquely Christian calling to "Love your enemies and do
good to those who hate you" (Luke 6.27).
Bernard Shaw wrote that "Liberty means responsibility. That's why most
men dread it." I sometimes wonder if we tend to focus on conquering death
in order to avoid full engagement with life in all its risks, compromises
Freedom from the hatred and fear of death isn't an easy thing to grasp.
For that freedom calls us to live in a particularly self-sacrificing way
for the good of ourselves and others, to be "slaves of righteousness."