The wages of sin, as Romans 6:23 tells us, is death; but what are the wages of righteousness? Or is there any wage paid for being righteous? Can one earn anything by overcoming sin and becoming righteous?
Righteousness, or right doing, is the opposite of sin. And of course the opposite of death is life. So if sin results in death, doesn’t it stand to reason that righteousness should result in life? Can it be that salvation – that is, being saved from death and given eternal life – is the wage paid for being righteous?
Or is salvation nothing more than a free gift? You’ve been taught that it is. Traditional Christianity teaches that one cannot earn salvation. It teaches that salvation is completely UNmerited. The belief that salvation is simply a free gift, and thus something that we do not -- and CANNOT – earn, is axiomatic in the world of traditional Christianity today. It’s accepted as fact. Few churchgoers today would even think to question it.
But is it true? Is that what the Bible teaches?
Chances are that you would be absolutely astounded to learn what the Bible actually teaches on this subject. But why should it surprise us to find the teaching of traditional Christianity in error on a subject as fundamental as salvation? The Bible says that Satan has deceived the entire world (Revelation 12:9). And in this world more people call themselves Christian than any other religion. Is it possible that traditional Christianity is part of the deception?
Traditional Christianity is often blinded to the simple truths found in Scripture because it looks at the Bible through the lenses of its long established traditions. A tradition is simply a long established way of thinking. And traditional Christianity is based on a number of long established ways of thinking about the Bible -- which is why I call it traditional Christianity.
But just because a way of thinking is long established doesn’t necessarily make it true. In the days of Copernicus the long established, traditional way of thinking was that the earth was the center of the universe. Few people at that time even thought to question it. And yet we now know that Copernicus was correct to challenge the long established, traditional way of thinking of his day.
Challenging the traditional thinking of the churches is a daunting task. So much has been falsely assumed and accepted as fact that it’s hard to know where to begin. Most of the churches don’t even know what salvation is.
Saved From What?
Salvation of course means to be saved. But saved from WHAT?
Traditional Christianity thinks that being saved means being saved, not from death, but from an eternity of punishment and torture in hellfire. But Scripture says that the wages of sin is death! “The soul that sinneth it shall die!” That statement is found twice in Ezekiel chapter 18. And Jesus said, “Fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus said that God can destroy the soul. The soul is not immortal.
But what does traditional Christianity teach? It teaches that the soul is immortal. Ironically, the same people who quote Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life,” as a proof text to try to show that eternal life is an unmerited, free gift don’t really believe what it says! Most of them don’t believe that we need to be given eternal life. They think we already have eternal life. And they don’t believe that the wages of sin is death. They think that “the soul that sinneth” will exist for all eternity -- either in heaven for those who profess to accept Jesus, or in hell for those who don’t “get saved.”
I don’t think there is a church organization in the world today that actually believes Romans 6:23. Even those few churches which recognize that the soul in man is not immortal don’t really believe that the wages of sin is death. They preach a message of “not sinning as a way of life” -- but don’t believe it’s possible to live without sinning. They believe in trying to overcome sin, but they don’t believe that it can be completely overcome. And because they believe that it’s impossible to overcome all sin, they think they’ll get a free pass. In other words, they think that God will somehow excuse the fact that they continue to sin and that He won’t actually reward them with the wages of sin.
But Scripture is quite clear on this matter. Sin results in death!
But what is it that results in life? The law of cause and effect says that for every result there is a cause. And there is a cause that results in life eternal!
The Whole Truth
There’s a reason why in a court of law witnesses are sworn to tell the whole truth. It’s because a half-truth is misleading. When we hear only part of the story -- even if the part we hear is true – we can easily be led to draw the wrong conclusion. And what you’ve heard about salvation is only part of the story. You’ve heard some of the truth, but not the whole truth.
What you’ve heard about salvation is based on the partial testimony of Scripture. It’s based on just a few passages in Scripture. And if these few passages were our only witnesses, we might well be justified in concluding that salvation is indeed simply a free gift. But there are other passages in Scripture that also bear witness to the truth about salvation. And if we are to come to the correct conclusion, we must hear their testimony as well. One such passage is found in Matthew 16:27, where Jesus says:
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward (Greek, apodidomi) every man according to his works.
So there is a reward coming to every man; and it is to be given according to our works. Our works are simply what we do. There’s no question of whether or not we have works. Everyone has works. The only question is whether our works are good or whether they are evil. And as we have seen in Romans 6:23, the reward for evil works—sin -- is death. But what is the reward for righteous works?
The answer is found in Romans 2:6-7, where Paul begins with a statement that is almost identical to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:27. But then he goes one step further and tells us what the reward is.
Who [God] will render (apodidomi) to every man according to his deeds (ergon). To them who by patient continuance in well doing (agathos ergon) seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life (Romans 2:6-7).
Notice that the word “render” here is from the very same Greek word – apodidomi -- translated “reward” in Matthew 16:27. And the reward is ETERNAL LIFE! It’s not an unmerited gift. It’s a reward given according to our “deeds” – according to what we do! It’s given to those who patiently continue in “well doing” – agathos (good) ergon (works).
The idea that works have anything to do with salvation and eternal life is vehemently denied by traditional Christianity. But is that what Jesus Christ taught? Notice Jesus’ teaching on this subject:
And, behold, one came and said unto him [Jesus], Good Master, what good (agathos) thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:16-17).
Now why didn’t Jesus tell this man that there are no works required for eternal life? He could have said, “Eternal life is a free gift. There’s nothing for you to do. Just believe on me. I’m going to do the works for you.” But He didn’t! He said, “Keep the commandments.”
Jesus didn’t preach the same doctrine that you’ve heard about salvation and eternal life. He preached a doctrine of works! He taught that righteousness – right doing -- keeping the Commandments --is REQUIRED for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven!
For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
What we do matters. Just as the laws of the physical universe dictate that for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction, so the Commandments – the laws which regulate the spiritual universe -- dictate that for every action there is a consequence. The consequence of sin is death; the consequence of righteousness is life. There is a cause for every effect! Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Galatians.
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting (Galatians 6:7-8).
Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap! Think about that. THAT IS NOT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN TAUGHT! You’ve been told that you can continue to sin and still be given eternal life. Paul was inspired to write, “Be not deceived.” And most of you reading this have been deceived! You’ve been told that eternal life is simply a free gift. You’ve been told that there is no cause and effect relationship between sin and death, between righteousness and salvation. But your Bible says otherwise.
Of course we must not jump to a conclusion based only on the passages quoted above. But neither can we accept any conclusion that contradicts them. Unlike a human court of law, where witnesses can lie, the witnesses in Scripture never lie. (All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 2 Timothy 3:16). And if we are honest we must recognize that the passages quoted above contradict what we’ve been taught. Thus we cannot accept what traditional Christianity has taught us about salvation.
The truth about salvation is consistent with all the passages in Scripture. There is no contradiction in Scripture. And yet Paul says in Romans 6:23, “The gift of God [is] eternal life.” So how then are we to understand this verse?
The Gift of God
If we are to understand the true meaning of Romans 6:23, we must understand what is meant by the phrase “the gift of God.” And rather than trying to interpret it ourselves and reading our own meaning into it, we must allow the Bible to interpret itself.
In the Bible the phrase “the gift of God” is primarily used to mean the Holy Spirit. Of course “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17); so in one sense even the material blessings of the earth and the ability to enjoy them is “the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19). But primarily in Scripture “the gift of God” means the Holy Spirit. Notice Jesus’ use of this phrase when speaking to a Samaritan woman He encountered at Jacob’s well.
Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water (John 4:10).
So Jesus uses the phrase “the gift of God” to mean the “living water” that He would give. And later John plainly tells us that the “living water” is the Holy Spirit.
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy [Spirit] was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:37-39).
Jesus’ promise to give this living water – the Holy Spirit -- began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost that inaugurated the New Testament era of the Church. Notice that Peter calls it “the gift.”
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy [Spirit] (Acts 2:38).
Again speaking of the Holy Spirit later in the book of Acts, Peter calls it “the gift of God.” In chapter 8, we read of a man named Simon, who was a sorcerer. He had seen the miracles that were done through the power of the Holy Spirit and he offered money to the apostles if they would give him the same power.
But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money (Act 8:20).
Now let’s look at how the apostle Paul uses the phrase “the gift of God.”
Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands (2Timothy 1:6).
In this passage “the gift of God” is undoubtedly the Holy Spirit. Numerous passages bear witness to the fact that the Holy Spirit is imparted through the laying on of hands. Notice also the context of verse 6: “For God hath not given us the SPIRIT of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (verse 7).
Thus far the passages we’ve looked at containing the phrase “the gift of God” have directly referred to the Holy Spirit. But Paul also uses it as an indirect reference to the Holy Spirit. That is, he uses it to describe something that comes through the Holy Spirit.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The gift here is faith. Although some have argued that the phrase “and that not of yourselves” refers back to how we are saved, logic dictates that it must refer to faith. Having just informed us that we are saved by grace, it would be redundant to tell us that we are not saved of ourselves. Paul’s readers are not likely to think that they must supply their own grace, but many have thought that they must supply their own faith to be saved. Hence Paul tells us that faith is a gift from God.
And faith being a gift, it is not something that we receive because of works. It comes through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). And the Spirit itself is, as we have seen, a gift from God.
This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:2)
This is why Paul says, “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” He is talking about how we receive faith, which is imparted through the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is not given according to our works; but as we read in Acts 2:38, it is a gift given to those who repent. (That it is not given on the merit of good works should be self-evident from the fact that repentance is required. Repentance is a decision to cease from evil works, and thus is not required where one’s works are good.)
It has been commonly assumed that “not of works” is talking about how we are saved. But “not of works” is a continuation of the preceding statement, “and that not of yourselves.” It’s easier to see the continuity of thought in the Tyndale translation (the first English translation of the Bible to make direct use of the Hebrew and Greek texts): “For it is the gyfte of God and commeth not of works.” In other words, Paul is still talking about how we receive faith.
So “the gift of God” -- at least in the four passages we’ve examined thus far -- is referring to either the Holy Spirit or to that which comes through the Holy Spirit. But there is one more passage in the New Testament that contains the phrase “the gift of God.” That passage is of course Romans 6:23.
The Gift of Righteousness
What does Paul mean by “the gift of God” in Romans 6:23? The other four times this phrase occurs in the New Testament it is a reference either to the Holy Spirit or to that which comes through the Holy Spirit. Is it possible that Paul means the same thing here?
For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).
Is it possible that what Paul means here is simply that sin leads to death, and the Holy Spirit (or that which comes through the Holy Spirit) leads to eternal life? Let’s examine that possibility. If we go back to the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, we see that there is a definite connection between the Holy Spirit and eternal life.
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:14).
Remember that in John 7: 37-39 Jesus calls the Holy Spirit living water. And twice in the book of Revelation the Holy Spirit is called the water of LIFE.
And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely (Revelation 21:6).
And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1).
So the Holy Spirit has the ability to impart life eternal to those who partake of it. It isn’t eternal life of itself, but it gives eternal life to those who drink of it and who allow it to produce in them the fruit of righteousness.
For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting (Galatians 6:8).
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness (Romans 8:10).
With these passages in mind we now go back to Romans 6:23. Earlier we asked the question: is it possible that what Paul means here is that sin leads to death, and the Holy Spirit (or that which comes through the Holy Spirit) leads to eternal life? And we’ve seen evidence that supports that conclusion.
We’ve seen that the other times it appears in the New Testament, “the gift of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen that the Holy Spirit is something that imparts eternal life to those who “sow to the Spirit” and reap the fruit of righteousness.
But does that conclusion fit with the context surrounding Romans 6:23? Let’s test our hypothesis. In the preceding chapter Paul uses the phrase “the gift” six times, and in verse 17 says that those who receive “the gift of righteousness shall reign in life.” And notice verse 21:
That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:21).
Can you see the similarities between this verse and 6:23? Can you see how it fits with our hypothesis that 6:23 is showing the cause and effect relationship between sin and death, and between righteousness (which comes through the Holy Spirit) and eternal life? Notice now the verses that immediately precede 6:23.
For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (Romans 6:20-22).
It should be clear now that our hypothesis is correct. It fits the surrounding context and it fits with the testimony of the rest of the Bible. To conclude anything else makes no sense either in the context of the surrounding verses or in the greater context of all Scripture. Below are some of the many passages that contradict the idea that eternal life is nothing more than a free gift disassociated from righteousness (good works).
And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal (Matthew 25:46).
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28-29).
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:16-17).
And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1Peter 4:18).
As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (John 17:2 -3). [He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him (1John 2:4)]
Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him (James 1:12). [For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (1John 5:3).]
He that overcometh [sin], the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels (Revelation 3:5).
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works… And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12, 15).
Clearly eternal life is for the righteousness. Thus salvation is about becoming righteous. But how does one become righteous?
Not one of us has the power to make ourselves righteous. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Now this does not mean – as has been erroneously taught -- that we cannot become righteous! (There are scores of passages in Scripture that speak of the righteous – from righteous Abel (Hebrews 11:4, 1 John 3:12) to the “righteous man” whose prayers are heard in James 5:16). No, it simply means that no human being has, of his own volition and of his own resources, made himself righteous. It means, as Paul says, that we must be “made righteous” by Christ (Romans 5:19).
Even the desire to become righteous comes from God. “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11). Again, this does not mean that no one has ever sought God. It means that the desire to seek God does not originate from within us. It comes from God. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44).
God draws us to Jesus. We do not seek Jesus out of any innate goodness within us. God makes the first move. He chooses us! As Jesus said to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” God begins the process of making us righteous by leading us to repentance.
Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:4).
This is not to say that we have no part in the process of being made righteous. God does not force us to repent. He draws us to Christ. He leads us to repentance. We must choose to follow His leadership. Those whom God draws to Christ must make a choice. They choose whether to obey or whether to disobey. God does not force us to make the right choice. But He does force us to choose.
It’s the same choice that the ancient nation of Israel faced some 3400 years ago. As they stood at the threshold the Promised Land, God made a contract – a covenant -- with them. He did not force them to obey the terms of the contract. They were free to choose to disobey. But they did have to make a choice.
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Notice the similarities between those ancient Israelites and the true Christians of today. The Israelites did not choose God. He chose them. We did not choose God. He chose us. And God did not choose the children of Israel because they were a mighty people.
For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people (Deuteronomy 7:6 -7).
Nor has God chosen us because we were the great and mighty of this world.
For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1Corinthians 1:26-27).
And, as with the Israelites, God has chosen us to be a holy people.
But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light (1Peter 2:9).
In fact, the nation of Israel is called “the church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) and the New Testament Church is called “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Salvation is “of the Jews” (John 4:22) and Christians must be circumcised in heart (Romans 2:29) and must become spiritual Israelites -- in a spiritual sense the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). The covenants and the promises pertain to spiritual Israel (Romans 9:4-5, 24-26).
And just as God made a covenant with ancient Israel, He makes a covenant with spiritual Israel. And the choice is exactly the same: life or death. The difference is that if we choose to obey, God promises to write His Law in our heart and mind (Hebrews 8:10, 10:16). And God’s Law simply outlines His way of righteousness. In other words, if we choose to obey Him, God will create His righteousness in us. Paul puts it this way:
Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? (Romans 6:16).
…to be continued