Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s famous words in Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” They would seem to mean that disobedience to God earns the punishment of death. Although Paul’s declaration might explain why we all eventually die, it does raise some questions about the relationship between sin and death. For example, is physical death the only punishment for sin? If we have been forgiven of our sins, why do we still die? And once we are believers, can we sin without fear of death? I hope to answer those questions in this article. Let’s start by laying a foundation about the three kinds of death that are mentioned in Scripture.
Here’s something interesting to think about: If you observed an average healthy baby grow and develop from birth to 18 years of age, and you didn’t know that everyone eventually dies, you would not suspect that death was in his future. The reason is because you would have witnessed non-stop, miraculous, physical and mental progress the entire 18 years. It would therefore be logical to expect that miraculous trend to continue.
Beyond that, you would likely have observed that every time he got sick during those 18 years, his body amazingly healed. His immune system would have fought off many deadly invaders. And if he hurt himself in some mild way, his body also healed itself.
Observing the body’s miraculous physical and mental growth along with its miraculous ability to fend off sickness and heal itself, you would logically conclude that God designed peoples’ bodies, barring something catastrophic, to live forever. You would never expect that such marvelous, amazing, complex, ever-improving, self-healing, divine creations would stop working and become lifeless.
If you continued to observe, however, at some point you would notice a reversal in the upward trend. You would be able to plot a peak on a graph that would be followed by a gradual physical demise. Healthy eating, exercise, and good genetics might slow that demise, but they couldn’t stop it. In the end, you would observe that amazing, miraculous body die. Again, if you had never previously observed the aging process, that death would surprise you, and you would likely think that something had gone very wrong.
Obviously, if God created human bodies, generally speaking, to thrive for the first 20 years, He could have made them thrive for the first 100, 200, or 300 years (and if you believe the book of Genesis, He once did). In fact, He obviously could have made them eternal (and if you believe the Bible, you know He is going to do that in the future).
So the question is, “If our bodies initially seem to be eternal, and obviously God could have made them eternal, why didn’t He?” Why do we die?
The logical answer, even if you don’t know what the Bible teaches, is that God must be upset with us, and His punishment is death. And that, in fact, is the biblical answer. I’ve already quoted Paul’s famous words from Romans 6:23. He was actually reiterating what he wrote one chapter earlier, but using different words:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned (Rom. 5:12).
Speaking of Adam, you will recall that God warned him that if he disobeyed, he would die that day (Gen. 2:17). Thus theologians rightly remind us that Adam must have “died spiritually” the day he sinned, and he died physically some 900 years later.
In a similar fashion, every one of us died spiritually when God first held us accountable for our sin (see Rom. 7:9), when we were no longer children. Like Adam, we generally don’t die physically until some later time as adults. The spread in time between those two deaths is an expression of God’s mercy, because the day we die spiritually is the day we deserve to die physically. God, however, mercifully gives us time to repent. Every time we adults look in a mirror, we see merciful reminders of the inevitable death that is slowly creeping up on us. For those who have not repented, every wrinkle and gray hair is a call to repentance!
What does it mean, specifically, to “die spiritually”?
The New Testament teaches that we are tripartite in nature—spirit, soul and body (see 1 Thes. 5:23). Our body is our flesh and blood, physical self. Paul calls it our “outer man” (2 Cor. 4:16).
Our soul is generally thought to be our emotional and intellectual self, and perhaps also our will.
Finally, our spirit is our spiritual self whom Paul refers to as the “inner man” (2 Cor. 4:16) and Peter calls the “hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet. 3:4). So our spirit can be considered to be a “man” or “person.” If you’ve ever listened to the stories of people who died during a surgical procedure and were revived, they often say something like, “I left my body and was looking down from the ceiling as the doctors tried to revive me.” Their spirits had left their bodies, but they say, “I left my body.” The spirit is a person. If you could see into the spiritual realm, for example, you would be able to see human spirits that have forms and features just as do physical bodies. (God is a spirit, and He also has a form; see John 4:24; 5:37.)
It is our spirit that “dies” when God first holds us accountable for our sin. That does not mean that our spirit ceases to function, but that it is dead to God, alienated from Him because of sin. Paul taught that those who are spiritually dead actually possess, at least to some degree, Satan’s nature:
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:1-2, emphasis added).
Although there is plenty of mystery to the idea of spiritual death, we know that it can be reversed through the new birth, and those who are “spiritually dead” can become “spiritually alive in Christ,” all because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
A Third Death
There is yet another death that awaits the unregenerate after their physical deaths. Scripture refers to it as “the second death,” when the unsaved are cast into “the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.” It is mentioned in Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.
Anyone who dies physically while in the state of spiritual death will suffer the second death. The only way to escape spiritual and eternal death is through repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no way to escape physical death—unless you are one of the blessed believers who will be alive when Jesus returns, at which time you will “be caught up together…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes. 4:17). For most of us, however, Jesus’ death and resurrection does not save us from physical death. Jesus Himself promised: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25).
In any case, when Scripture tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), it is not kidding. Sin results in a total of three deaths—spiritual, physical and eternal. To say that “sin is deadly,” would seem like an understatement.
Oddly, however, many professing Christians who whole-heartedly affirm the truth that “the wages of sin is death” only believe that is true for unbelievers. Since Jesus died for all their sins, including even their future sins, they don’t have to be concerned that they might open the door to death through sin. In fact, they are often quick to say, “The rest of Romans 6:23 says, “but the free gift of God is eternal life.’ Since it is a free gift from God, it can’t be earned or forfeited.”
But such folks fail to note that Paul actually didn’t write in Romans 6:23, “but the free gift of God is eternal life,” but rather he wrote, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gift of eternal life only belongs to those whose Lord is Jesus, which means those who have repented and who are seeking to obey Him.
But how can it be said that eternal life is a free gift if there is a requirement of repentance and ongoing obedience? Here is an illustration that will explain:
The Gracious King
Imagine a great king who rules his kingdom in truth and righteousness. Also imagine that there are enemies living within his kingdom who break his laws, and whom he discovers are plotting to overthrow his rule. When he learns of their plot, he laughs, knowing that his enemies are no match for his armies, and because his informants know of his enemies’ every move and intent.
Then imagine him publishing a gracious decree that offers all of his enemies a ten-day window to be pardoned. He promises that, if they will come to his palace within ten days, surrender their weapons, and pledge their allegiance to him, he will pardon them. But if they don’t, his soldiers will round them up to be executed. Now imagine that many take him up on his offer of mercy.
Every rebel who comes to the palace, lays down his weapons, and pledges allegiance to the king is “saved by grace.” They can’t be saved any other way, as they were all under the sentence of death. They stood condemned.
In fact, it could be said that they were “saved by grace through faith,” because they had to believe the king’s promise to receive the benefit of his grace, and because they believed, they repented.
Their salvation was not a result of a combination of good works plus faith. Their salvation was a result of the king’s grace, which inspired some rebels to believe and repent.
But how do you suppose the king would have reacted if rebels who pledged their allegiance to him and whom he pardoned returned to their former rebellion? Was his pardon a license to break his laws? Of course not. So, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Back to Romans 6:23
Remember, the same person who wrote Romans 6:23 wrote Romans 8:12-13 minutes later:
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live (emphasis added).
It seems that Paul believed that “the wages of sin is death” even for those who have the Spirit in them. And how could Paul only have been warning about physical death? All of his readers were destined to eventually die physically.
James similarly wrote to believers:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust [desires]. Then when lust [desire] has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren (Jas. 1:13-16, emphasis added).
It seems James believed that “the wages of sin is death” even for his “beloved brethren.” He affirmed that a second time at the end of his epistle:
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (Jas. 5:19-20, emphasis added).
And regarding the idea that “Jesus died for all our future sins, so the wages of our future sins cannot possibly be death,” the author of Hebrews (I think Paul) wrote:
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31).
Clearly, unmistakably, there is no sacrifice remaining for sins of those who, after receiving (not just hearing) the knowledge of the truth, continue in sin. That tells us, along with scores of other New Testament scriptures, that true Christians are marked by initial repentance and ongoing obedience. If they sin, they always have the option to confess it and be forgiven and cleansed (1 John 1:9).
Paul in Context
Not only are the last five words of Romans 6:23 (“in Christ Jesus our Lord”) vitally important to understand the entire verse, so is the first word, which is “For.” That indicates that what Paul said prior to Romans 6:23 leads up to it. So let us consider the leading context:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? (Rom. 6:15-16).
In Paul’s mind, believers in Jesus are those who have “presented themselves as slaves for obedience,” just like the rebels whom we previously considered who were under the sentence of death. They pledged their allegiance to the king who so graciously offered them a pardon. Having benefitted from his grace, should they then ignore his laws? The idea is absurd, which is why Paul wrote, “May it never be!” Ignoring his laws results in death!
But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:17-18).
That is Christianity 101. Christians have committed themselves to obey from their hearts, and they have been freed from sin. They are “slaves of righteousness.”
I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification (Rom. 6:19).
Although Christians were formerly impure and lawless—and they obviously still have the capacity to return to the same behavior—now they should do what is righteous, and as they do, it results in their “sanctification” or “holiness,” as some translations say.
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Rom. 6:2-22).
Christians are ashamed of their former behavior, which indicates that their behavior has changed. They know that the outcome of their former behavior was death. Therefore, they don’t think that they can return to their former behavior and escape death! Beyond that, they have been “freed from sin and enslaved to God.” The benefit of that blessing is “sanctification” or “holiness,” and the outcome of sanctification/holiness is eternal life. So the outcome of holiness is eternal life, whereas the outcome of sin is death.
And all of that leads up to Paul’s summarizing statement, which we can now read in context:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It is easy to see that sentence summarizes everything Paul wrote in the passage that leads up to it.
Only some of us will escape physical death. Our consolation is that “although our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man [our spirit] is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Beyond that, we are promised new bodies one day (see Phil 3:21).
Praise God that all of us can escape spiritual death and the second death by God’s gracious gift through our repentance and faith. That gift includes His pardon of all our former sins as well as His empowering through the indwelling Spirit to overcome sin. But we must cooperate, “by the Spirit…putting to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13), as Paul wrote. And that is why Paul also wrote:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13).