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The Salary of Sin

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 6:23

Romans 6:23 is one of the key Bible verses in setting forth the basic gospel message. It informs us of our great problem—sin that leads to eternal death. But it also gives us the solution—the grace of God that freely gives us eternal life.


There’s a fascinating story told about King Frederick II, an eighteenth-century king of Prussia. It goes like this:

When Frederick went on an inspection tour of a prison, he came to a large cell occupied by a number of inmates. When they saw the king, they fell to their knees and begged to be released. They all claimed to be innocent of the crimes they were charged with committing. While listening to these pleas of innocence, the king caught sight of a man sitting alone in the corner, a prisoner seemingly unconcerned with all the commotion.

Frederick motioned to him and asked him, “Why are you here?”

The man answered, “Armed robbery, Your Majesty.”

“Are you guilty of that crime?” the king asked.

“Yes, I am, Your Majesty; I deserve my punishment.” At that King Frederick summoned the jailer and said, “Release this guilty man at once. I don’t want him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the innocent people around him.[1]

And the man was set free.

As we sail on our Wisdom Journey into this next verse in Romans 6, I cannot help but think of the parallel truth the apostle Paul is about to deliver. The person who admits his guilt and shame will be the prisoner set free from the prison cell of sin. The King has a pardon for him, by His grace.

So far in our journey, Paul has made a number of contrasts here in chapter 6 between law and grace and between sin and righteousness. Now we come to verse 23, where Paul delivers this final, all-encompassing contrast. And this, beloved, is an incredible declaration: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The idea is that while the unredeemed suffer the penalty for their sin now—in any number of consequences—one day, at the end of life, there is going to be a balloon payment due, so to speak.

The word Paul uses here for “wages” is the Greek word opsōnion, which typically referred to the daily wages paid to a soldier in the Roman army. Sometimes the soldiers were paid in salt, which served as a valuable currency they could trade in the marketplace for food or other items. Even today we speak of an employee needing to be “worth his salt,” an expression drawn from this ancient practice.

The Roman soldier got paid. Paul says the unbeliever will be paid too! The Word of God tells us sin brings about physical death and one day a second death—that is, eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).

But I want to point out that Paul is not referring only to that balloon payment of sin—the “second death”—but also to the daily experience of death. Just as a Roman soldier was paid regularly, so the sinner is paid regularly throughout life.

How? Well, think of what sin does to relationships, what lust does to sexual purity, what greed does to integrity, what materialism does to contentment. Today we see addictions of every kind that destroy people’s lives. Selfishness and laziness destroy opportunities and accomplishments.

Beloved, sin is a thief. Sin never gives; it only takes.

  • It has stolen God from true religion.
  • It has stolen the supernatural out of Christianity.
  • It has stolen authority from the Bible.
  • It has stolen God out of education.
  • It has stolen ethics out of business.
  • It has stolen truth out of politics.

And on and on and on it goes!

Sin is a thief. It will steal life away from one’s very existence. The wages of sin is a deathlike existence—right now!

And that is not all. After an unfulfilled life of chasing sin, the unredeemed will be faced with that balloon payment—the final payday, which is eternal death and separation from God.

This final payday is so terrible that people try their best to ignore it. Talk of final judgment and the existence of hell has almost disappeared today. And if hell is mentioned at all, it is either a curse word or a metaphor for going through some uncomfortable experience on earth. But beloved, hell is not a metaphor—it is real.

But Paul has not put a period after this reality. Are you ready for some good news? Paul writes here again, “The wages of sin is death,” but that is not all! “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Sin will take you to hell; the Savior will take you to heaven. Heaven is a free gift.

So how do you get this free gift? Well, because it is a gift, it is not earned. You cannot earn heaven. You earn hell by sinning; but you receive heaven as a gift. In other words, the only place you can work your way into is hell.[2]

Paul writes that heaven is a free gift, and the Greek word he uses for “gift” is charis. It is translated throughout the New Testament as “grace.” You could literally translate this phrase here, “But the free grace of God is everlasting life.” In the New Testament, grace refers to that which we receive but do not deserve.

The wages of sin is death, and—unless the Lord returns in our lifetime—we are all going to die at least once because we have all sinned. We deserve to die! And we will die physically.

But the believer will not experience the second death—the eternal death of hell—but will go straight to heaven. Why? Because he deserves it? No. It is because of grace—God’s grace toward those who have admitted they were guilty and trusted in Christ alone. That is why this verse ends with that critical phrase, “the free gift of God is eternal life in [or through] Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I remember reading of a woman named Jan Davis who was involved in a dangerous sport called BASE jumping—that is parachuting off fixed objects such as cliffs and towers. Along with others, she was jumping off a 3,000-foot-high granite cliff in Yosemite National Park in California.

The jumpers all knew BASE jumping was illegal in this park. In fact, the law was adopted because six people had already died doing this in the park. This group of jumpers were out there actually protesting the law. Ignoring the warning, they were jumping off this cliff to prove that the sport was safe.

They knew the risks; they also knew the law—and they ignored it. Jan’s husband was filming her jump and caught it all on tape. Jan jumped off the cliff, and her parachute failed to open properly. She fell for nearly twenty seconds before hitting the rocks below.[3]

Many people today are ignoring the warning from God. Are you among them? If so, you are still falling, so to speak; you just have not landed yet on the unwavering, holy justice of God.

But there is still time to experience God’s charis, His grace, and this wonderful, free gift of eternal life.

The Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” And they answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).

That answer has not changed to this day.

You can ignore the warning. You can plead before the King that you are innocent of sin. But if you disbelieve His Word, you will face eternal hell. But here is how you can avoid this final payday, this final salary for being a sinner: accept Jesus, believe the King, receive Him by faith alone, and He will give you—by His grace—the free gift of everlasting life.

[1] Lloyd H. Steffen, “Confession of Sin,” Sermon Illustrations,

[2] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992), 374.

[3] “Parachutist Dies in Fall at Yosemite’s El Capitan,” Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1999,

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