Romans 6:23 is one of the most common verses used in evangelism:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. (NLT)
It’s a key feature on the Romans Road Bible tract and in general serves as a summation of the gospel message we’ve been taught to spread:
- You’re a sinner who deserves death/hell
- Believe that Jesus died for your sins and you’ll be saved and given eternal life
Both of these things are very true. Both of these are also very incomplete.
An incomplete gospel is a false gospel.
So what are the repercussions of spreading a false gospel? The answer: A lot of people think they are Christians who really aren’t…
The 6th chapter of Romans is not about how to go to heaven; it is about not sinning here and now. These are two entirely different things. If you look at the above two bullet points, do you see anything about not sinning anymore?
In short, there are scores of “Christians” who have prayed a prayer that Jesus will forgive them of their sins and let them go to heaven, meanwhile they live their lives completely oblivious to obeying God’s commands laid out in Scripture. Thinking they are forgiven of all of their sins, they live completely comfortable in their sins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this “cheap grace.”
This person is a not a Christian. But don’t take my word for it, take the Apostle Paul’s laid out in Romans 6. (And remember, the verse numbers i.e. v.23, were not a part of the original manuscripts, making plucking one phrase out of context like we’ve done in v.23 extremely dangerous) Look at the type of language Paul uses to describe an actual Christian. These are the types of words we ought to see on a Bible tract, but never do:
Romans 6:4 we too may live a new life
Romans 6:6 our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with
Romans 6:11 count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Romans 6:13-14 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
Romans 6:16-18 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Romans 6:19 Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness.
Romans 6:20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.
Romans 6:21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!
Romans 6:22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This passage is not talking about heaven and hell, it’s talking about how we live today. It’s talking about who is in charge of our lives: us or God? It is extremely clear that Christians are to be slaves to God and that non-Christians are slaves to sin. And it only offers two choices. Slaves to God follow his path of life; slaves to sin follow its path of death.
A couple of chapters later, Romans 8:6 adds: So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace.
Slavery is all about ownership and control.
Who’s in charge?
Does God own you?
Does God control you?
How does this happen? You surrender your dead life in exchange for his alive one. You give him the keys to your car. You take the king’s crown off your head and put it on his. You take the “boss” badge off and clip it to his shirt. You sit in the student’s chair and give him the professor’s podium. You do what his blueprint says. You follow his road map. You are faithful to him and don’t cheat on him. You submit. Your surrender. You obey. You read the Bible and do what it says.
Are we saved through this obedience?
Absolutely not. Romans 7:6 couldn’t make this any clearer, Now we can serve God, not in the old way of obeying the letter of the law, but in the new way of living in the Spirit.
But we are saved when we surrender the ownership of our lives over to God. It’s by Jesus’ shed blood on the cross, taking the place of our sin’s punishment and forgiving us of our sins that this exchange of ownership is able to take place at all (Romans 8:3-6). But the exchange of ownership to the Holy Spirit’s ruling of our life is what marks a true Christian.
Believing that Jesus died on the cross for your sins will not save you. James 2:18-20 tell us even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror as a result. (Specifically, James 2:19 says the demons believe “there is one God” or that “God is one”, referring to Jesus being God; the foundational claim of Christianity being that Jesus must be God in order for his death on the cross to conquer sin)
But believing Jesus died on the cross for your sins so that you can be a slave to God, doing what he says, getting to be in this life-giving relationship with him, will most definitely save you.
- This isn’t about being perfect. Or fearing that if you sin too much you’ll lose your salvation. It’s about your identity. It’s about who owns your heart. Whose slave are you? Whose child are you? The question isn’t so much “Do you do what the Bible says or not?”, the question is “Do you care if you do what the Bible says or not?” Do you care if you sin? Do you care if you’re disobeying God? Are you doing anything about it? Have you surrendered to God or only believed in him? Because believing without surrender will not save you.
- This isn’t about bondage–in fact it’s just the opposite. Romans does a masterful wordplay with the slavery imagery here. We think slavery and we think bondage, we think abuse, we think the opposite of freedom. This is in fact the type of slavery we are under when we are away from God. This is the type of slavery we are under when we are in our sin. Romans 6:13 tells us, for you were dead, but now you have new life; 6:14 says, Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace, 6:15 God’s grace has set us free, and 6:18 tells us, Now you are free from your slavery to sin. When Jesus is your slave-owner, you are FREE from the things that bring DEATH. You are now FREE to do the things that bring LIFE, whereas under your old slave-owner (sin), you were unable to do the things that brought life. Life was nowhere on your radar. You were on a fast track to death. Death present. And death eternal. But when Jesus becomes your slave-owner, oh what an owner he is. He is your shepherd. He speaks and we his sheep listen. He guides us to the path of life. His will is the path of life.
If you’re alive in Christ, you will not live in a casket. In fact, you can’t. It’s impossible. Yes, you will sin. You will stumble. But your allegiance is to Jesus, not to a casket. You let Jesus purchase you. Jesus owns you now (1 Corinthians 6:20, 1 Corinthians 7:23). You are his slave.
What is tragic are the scores of people who think they are Christians because they believe Jesus died on a cross to punch their ticket to heaven, yet they live without a care in the world toward obeying almost anything the Bible says.
Don’t listen to what Romans 6:23 says about being a Christian.
Listen to what all of Romans 6 says about being a Christian.
Jesus didn’t die so God could punch your ticket to heaven. Jesus died so God could have your allegiance. Jesus died so we could be reunited in life-giving relationship with the Source of all life, God himself. Jesus died so sinners and the Holy Almighty God could eat at the same table. Jesus died so we could be plugged back in to God, allowing God’s Spirit to flow through us, producing fruit according to God’s commands for how we are to live.
The question isn’t, “Have you asked Jesus to forgive you of your sins?”
The question is, “Have you let Jesus buy you from your old slave master, fully surrendered to your new one?”
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Great post, love the focus on the here and now and not the hereafter alone. Have often thought the gospel gets shortchanged as only/mainly the forgiveness of sins to go to heaven, when Jesus’ invitation is to draw near, enter in and find union with God in Christ now. . . that there’s a reality to things now. Not for salvation, but obedience does matter to growth and maturity.
Hebrews talks about God’s rest in Christ for us and two phrases, “…unable to enter because of unbelief” and, “…failed to enter because of disobedience,” bring the possibility of just missing it. Maybe the most miserable place to be in this world is to have spiritual knowledge of God and Christ and yet have neither the faith or obedience to follow Jesus.
Faith saves, but faith without obedience does little to conform to Jesus in this life. Speaking from experience, so often repentance is only to feel better, not be better. Used to think that having the heart all in with Jesus – who He is and what He’s done – is enough. Finding that the heart needs to be as all in with what He says to do. . . that the fruit of that practical obedience is the reality of being like Jesus in this world.
Great phrase Alan. And what I’ve found is people who have “prayed the sinners’ prayer” but who don’t actually want this union with God, because union with God has ramifications of obedience to it!
But important to remember that James 2 lays out the argument that faith that doesn’t have any obedience to it really isn’t faith / won’t save you. It’s not that the works save you, the works just show it’s real faith. Some of it is just semantics of language. In modern day English, I see it as the difference between “belief” and “faith”. I do not think that belief with save you. Defining belief as the cognitive acknowledgement of something. Whereas the very definition of faith is that we are stepping in to something. It’s not a work, but it is an action. Like the old analogy that you have to actually sit in the chair, not actually believe it’s there.
Often seems like the church views/uses the sinner’s prayer like Muslims view the Shahada, that just repeating words effects spiritual reality. It’s like taking the verse saying no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit to mean that mechanically saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ means that the Spirit is actually present. Thinking that it’s more on the church than sinners that things are this way. Trying to remember and failing to of anytime where saying the sinner’s prayer was encouraged where the possibility of the reality of union with God in Christ was even presented. Don’t mean to broad brush, just seems like the gospel is more often about our sin than what’s real and possible in Jesus.
You’re right about faith and obedience. Faith is living like everything else with God and it always produces. Used to get confused about the faith/works thing but what brought peace is viewing the cross as a dividing line. . . that before the cross works count for nothing, but knowing/following Jesus that works and acting faith are the point of things. Not that works get you anywhere but that being in Christ just means doing God’s will and in doing real change within happens. Fail often but that where’s my heart’s at.
Couple of weeks ago on the Helpful Words post you wrote something that’s still not registering. You advised Brian that you can’t show love without judgment to his church friend like you can to non-Christians. Won’t repeat here what I posted there but when you have time I’d appreciate your help in sorting things out.
I think we have to be careful that we don’t get into the works issue here for we are saved by the blood of Christ and Christ alone and nothing else – but that point of salvation brings us to repentance (change your mind) and we are new creatures in Christ and want to obey and do His will because of SINCERE repentance and that He took our sins – MY SINS that day on the cross.
I definitely agree with you Mom, but I’ve found because Evangelicals are so afraid of being accused of being “works based” with salvation that they/we stay away from any Scripture or any conversation about how if there isn’t some sort of fruit in your life, you probably aren’t saved–and there’s a lot of Scripture like this. Several of my friends in high school prayed the sinner’s prayer at youth group events, but they never actually repented of anything as there never was any sort of fruit or life change, or really any care about God at all after that. But the “sinner’s prayer” was sort of taught to me as being these magical thing that saves people. But it doesn’t, and that’s part of what I’m trying to communicate with this post. Another good example is with many of the youth and teens who come to our inner city park programs in Lansing, or even several of the adult guys who I played football with on the Stealth. They went to their grandma’s church growing up and they can recite to you that “Jesus died on the cross for my sins” as if it were a nursery rhyme or the weather forecast for the day, but there is zero evidence of the Holy Spirit’s leading in their lives or any fruit or any real care about God in the way they live. They are living in open rebellion to God in almost every facet of their life, without any evidence whatsoever of a relationship with him, minus an occasional tattoo of a cross or Bible verse. I’m not walking around telling people they are going to hell, that’s thankfully certainly not my job, but proper teaching does need to be given on what Paul and Jesus were actually saying the gospel was, rather than the fire insurance magic words that many in American Evangelicalism has mistaken for the gospel. Even within Romans 6, it’s clear we are saved by Jesus’ shed blood on the cross, as I mention, but his shed blood is what makes our relationship with God possible. I think the fire insurance people want the shed blood, but not the relationship of lordship that it connects us to.
Julie Nemire says
Thanks Noah, this really clears up “take up your cross DAILY”. It’s not about a moment in your life, it’s about your LIFE.
You’re welcome Julie. Ya I definitely agree. Growing up, I wondered why I had friends who prayed the “sinner’s prayer” but who didn’t care about God at all afterward. There is that fine line in communicating grace vs. works but I know “the sinner’s prayer” mentality ignores some essential texts about what the gospel is, such as Romans 6 and others that talk about the transformation that a true gospel encounter initiates.
Ken Richardson says
Great post Noah! Timely as well. I really appreciate the inclusion of DH’s words. I’ve found a lot of churches lately, outwardly successful looking ones that are preaching exactly the kind of false gospel you outline here. They all seem to not want to face the “sin” issue that each of us must come to. They seem to believe that God does not care about sin (an actual quote from one of the pastors) and that the work of the cross eliminates any need for personal accountability. It also seems to me that a cornerstone of their doctrine is that any church that preaches the Sovereignty of God is a legalistic Old Testament kind of religious thing. Then there are those that preach that the transformation is immediate and final and you never sin again…..Thank God for balanced intelligent preaching/teaching. You be good!