For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Hell is the deserved punishment for our sins. Such an idea has been deeply implicit with evangelicalism: there is a future judgment that we will all face that no one will stand at based upon their works that will send them to eternal punishment, therefore they will need to be judged by Christ’s imputed righteousness at the judgment to avoid the punishment. Undergirding this picture of God is a God of the law (not Torah/Instruction) who metes out punishment for infractions, with (spiritual) death being the one penalty for all sin. While many evangelicals may not pragmatically act out this idea, recognizing God’s grace and mercy towards people in their sins, there is still this fundamental theological presupposition of a punitive God that is then conjoined to idea that God is merciful, which leads mercy to be defined by the not meting out what is “deserved” rather than mercy as compassion towards people in their weaknesses and struggles.
One of the passages that has been marshaled in support of this punitive portrayal of God is Romans 6.23. A favorite for use in evangelizing people, the phrase “the wages of sin is death” has often been understand to refer to the just penalty that God gives. Douglas Moo that Paul in this phrase “implies that the penalty sin exacts is merited.”1 The contrast between ὀψώνιον (wages) and χάρισμα (gift) is taken to suggest that the idea of merit is central to Paul’s understanding about God’s response to sin.
However, the weakness of this interpretation is that Paul is not speaking in a forensic tone in Romans 6.15-23. The idea of a judicial judgment against sin is an outsider to Paul’s discourse. Rather, Paul’s language is much more pragmatic and consequentialist. Do the things you used to do and the outcome is death; be sanctified and enslaved to God, you get ongoing life (Rom. 6.21-22). Looking further back to Romans 5.12-21, Paul is contrasting two rival “imperial rules” between the sin ushered in by Adam and righteousness brought for by Christ that continues to be implied with the power language of enslavement in Romans 6. With that interpretive frame, ὀψώνιον is better understood to refer to the way that sin as a ruling power gives to those who live under its reign, much as a king would pay their soldiers. While in Paul’s theology, this outcome ultimately comes down to God’s judgment, the metaphor is not being used with a forensic frame in mind. It isn’t merit that Paul has in mind, but simply the outcome.
Those who give it to the urges of sin as a power are going to receive the outcome of their actions. Paul is not intending this, however, to be any and everyone who commits an individual act of sin. Instead, Paul has already mentioned the type of people who will face death as an outcome in Romans 1.28-32:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled (πεπληρωμένους) with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full (μεστοὺς) of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice (πράσσοντες) such things are fit (ἄξιοι) to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
Here, Paul gives a common vice list of behaviors that define some persons in the Gentile world. Paul’s language here does not describe people who once coveting something or one time went against their parents. Paul’s language is direct towards those whose lives are defined by these behaviors. They are filled with, full of, and practicing such sins. It is these people that Paul says are fitting for death. Many translations render ἄξιοι in Rom. 1.32 as either “deserving” or “worthy,” suggesting there is a notion of merit in the background. However, it is more likely that ἄξιοι is used to describe the outcomes of death their lives are being prepared for death based upon the excessive evil that defines their lives, that they are formed by their lifestyle to face death and judgment.2 Their own wickedness had lead them to suppress the truth about God and his creative power (Rom. 1.18,22) the one who gives the gift of life, and so by refusing the truth of the life-giver, their life has become formed in such a way that their outcome will become death.
The reason they will face such an outcome and judgment? Paul doesn’t say it was because they broke God’s laws and rules. Rather, Paul describes God’s universal judgment this way:
But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality
Those persons who are being prepared for God’s judgment are not described as disobeying God. It is much more severe than that. They are (1) people who are concerned about themselves and (2) having given themselves into service and obedience to a different principle that God’s truth. They aren’t the people who fall short of God’s standards, but the people who show no regard for what is good. Paul characterizes such figures as being wholly unconcerned about the truth of God.
So, by the time Paul reaches Romans 6.23, he has already described a vision of death and judgment in the letter. What Paul is not saying is that everyone is going to go to hell because of any and every sin they committed until Jesus comes along and gets people out of the jam. Rather, Paul is casting forward the image of two different rulers one can submit oneself to, sin and righteousness, and the one who you let rule you will form you. Suppress the truth and let sin rule, then it will form one to be worthy of death; let righteousness reign, then one is living out from the gift of life that will not be shaken but will remain at the judgment as those who patiently do good. While sin is a power at work in every person such that they are enslaved to prior to freedom in Christ, not every person willingly obeys its dictates (Romans 7.14-25).
With this in mind, the idea of merit is not in the background. Paul’s usage of the language of grace is not a way of describing people’s lack of merit. Grace is, rather, God’s help in people’s need amidst their weakness (Rom. 5.6-8) in order to resist and overcoming this imperializing force that if obeyed will lead one to death. The result of this grace is that Christ makes many people righteous (Rom. 5.19), which in Romans 6 is understood as people’s death to sin, enslavement to God, and sanctification.
With this vision in mind, compassion for the weak is at the heart of God’s revelation of His righteousness in Jesus Christ. God’s grace and mercy is not about giving to people different from what they ‘deserve,’ but it is about seeing people’s struggles in their weaknesses and providing the way out so that they can successfully overcome the ravaging powers of sin and death. God is not having to be restrained from punishing sinners, as if God is incredibly angry at them, but God so deeply loves them and wants them to come into something much better.
The more we move away from a “merit” reading of Romans, the more we will be freed to see the principle concern for PAul’s understanding of God’s revelation of righteousness is that it pertains to sanctification and formation, not punishment and forgiveness of punishment.