Romans 6:23 concludes and gloriously summarizes Paul’s argument that you are not to sin, a question raised in v. 1 and repeated in v. 15. The verse is a triple contrast: wages oppose a free gift, sin is contrasted with God, and death is replaced with life eternal.
While recognizing the inadequacy of the illustration, he uses the institution of slavery (common in his world) to describe your life as a Christian. You used to be a slave to sin. Despite the illusion that you might have had that you were free from God, you were free only from righteousness. Your only fruit was things of which you are now ashamed. Even a slave gets some compensation, and Paul reminds you that the wages of sin is death.
Paul has at least three reasons for focusing on sin here: a) if you are not in Christ you need to understand the seriousness of your situation; b) if you have been redeemed, you can appreciate the radical transformation and give thanks to God; and c) even as a redeemed Christian you need to beware of the deceitful, enslaving power of indwelling sin (see Rom. 7). John Owens, the powerful 17th Century preacher, was vice-chancellor at Oxford, where he preached to the students, teen-age boys, focusing on the heart issues they faced. His language may be a bot difficult to read today, but as a friend of mine says, when you read Owen on sin, it is as though he is looking into your heart.
Owens warns: [Sin] will so take up and possess the mind and affections with the baits and desirableness of sin, that it shall divert them from an actual and practical contemplation of the danger of it. . . . [Sin] will use a thousand wiles to hide from [the soul] the terror of the Lord, the end of transgressions, and especially of that peculiar folly which it solicits the mind unto. (John Owen, Indwelling Sin in Overcoming Sin and Temptation, p. 330, © 2006, Edited by Kapic and Talyor. Pub. by Crossway Books.)
He is quick, however, to point you to the cross as the remedy (and don’t forget the resurrection, so prominently emphasized in Romans 6). And that is the good news part of the contrasts Paul makes in Romans 6. You have received, not what you have earned, but a free gift. The Giver is God in the Lord Jesus Christ. The whole Trinity is involved in your salvation!
The result? Life! Life in all its fullness of fellowship with God. Life eternal (something that is a present as well as a future reality). True freedom does not mean no restrictions. Rather, in what seems paradoxical to us, real freedom is found in being a servant of God. As a slave of God you bear fruit that leads to sanctification, and to its end or goal, eternal life.
(Reflections in preparation for the message on September 19, 2010)