The Wages of Sin is Death
Salvation rests upon three facts: God, sin and death; and the greatest difficulty in preaching salvation in our day is that for the world in general those three words have lost nearly all the meaning they ever had. For millions of people God is no more than a name with which to personify their feeling for beauty and goodness; or for a kind of reservoir of goodwill. God is a dream, a shadowy ideal, doubtfully personal, and almost devoid of existence. God has become dependent on man: and the only inference to be drawn is that if there were no men there would be no God. And if there is no God, there can be no sin: and so even the word “sin” has almost vanished from popular use. All that remains of the idea is a social maladjustment, a psychological disorder, or the vestiges of an earlier stage of evolution. Where God and sin have been banished from mind, death is no longer an evil in itself, but an event to be accepted stoically as the natural end of life. Many people give no conscious thought to the problems of death or future life, yet it is probably in this field that the lingering influence of by-gone doctrine remains strongest; the dream that what seems death may only be transition has not wholly fled. Either way death is robbed of its reality.
“Sin,” says John, “is lawlessness” ( I John 3:4 , R.V.). The definition is profound. It is very much more than the “transgression of law” which our Authorized Version makes it, for that is the act of passing over a mark set by law. Lawlessness ( anomia ) is antithetic to law in principle; as John uses the term, it includes the tendency towards transgression and the motive which impels it, as well as the deed itself. The term “lawlessness” therefore identifies sin as the characteristic in men which repudiates restraint or control from a source outside themselves. It is that by which man sets up himself as the standard by which he measures his own life. It is the demand for self-rule. By it a man becomes his own standard of truth: “truth” is whatever he wants it to be—and therefore a lie. The repudiation of a standard of truth outside himself first invades his relation with God, and the invention of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is one result. But in the long run it invades his relation with other men, and brings such an abandonment of truth and faithfulness as we have seen in the modern world.
Through “lawlessness” man also becomes his own measure of good: the “good” is what he desires to satisfy his own ego, and therefore may be the cruellest evil for other people. Again modern history has provided an extreme and terrible example in the Nazis’ exaltation of the Germans as the Herrenvolk entitled to exterminate “non-Aryans” in the name of Nordic purity. If race purity is the supreme good, any means become justified to preserve it; in reality race purity is a myth which feeds men’s own self-esteem.
Paul says that “he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” The man must believe in the being of God, His reality, His absolute existence. He must believe also in the truth or faithfulness of God, His constancy and unvaryingness, His consistency with Himself in all that He says and does with men: for this is the very ground of hope in reward—that is, in the fulfilment of promise. This faith is the ground on which righteousness is reckoned to men by God. And sin is the exact converse of it: for sin is the denial—not formally, but in practice—that God is true, or that He exists. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Corrupt are they, and have done abominable iniquity: there is none that doeth good” ( Psa. 53:1 ). Corruption is the direct result of the inward denial that there is a God.
For men deliberately to go their own way against the will of God is either to make Him a liar, or to treat Him as non-existent. In either case it is to treat God as negligible. It is to deny in practice that God as the Creator is absolute and before all things; to deny that God “in whom we live and move and have our being”, is the Reality without whom men could not draw breath; to deny that only God, from whom alone all the qualities of mind and heart can be derived, can be the standard of righteousness and good. “He that formed the eye, shall he not see?” He that created man with a mind capable of grasping moral ideas, shall not He himself be the source and standard of morality? This sin denies.
“And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” The words were not only a calumny against God’s truth: they were a challenge to the woman to make herself the standard of her own conduct. Action was to be guided only by desire, not restrained by law; and that implies a claim to independence, a claim to exist in one’s own right, which is in effect a denial of God and of our dependence upon Him. And so she “thought it a thing to be grasped to be on an equality with God”: that equality being represented by the fruit which she seized in her hand. In direct contrast is the Seed of the Woman who when he was tempted “thought it not a thing to be grasped”: who refused to lay hold of “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them” on any terms but God’s; who “emptied himself . . , humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” ( Phil. 2:5–8 , with R.V.m). He fulfils law where the “first Adam” was lawless. His every word in answer to the temptation is not only the word of God, but a declaration of the reality and supremacy of God. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”: without God there is no life; and without moral union with God there can be no continuance of life. (That such is the meaning of the words the context in Deut. 8 makes doubly clear.) “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”—as the children of Israel tempted Him in Massah, saying (in effect), “Is the Lord among us, or not?” ( Exod. 17:7 ): for that again is to question either His faithfulness or His existence. God is not to be put to the test, as a chemist may test a gas to decide whether nitrogen is present or absent. God is the reality, and our reality is dependent upon His, and therefore it is we who may be put to the test, not He. “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve”: nothing is to be placed beside Him as a rival, nothing else to be allowed to claim to be an absolute. And therefore, had Christ received power over the nations for himself, it would have been to make himself a rival with God, to grasp for himself “equality with God”.
Sin is born out of desire ( James 1:12–18 ); but besides “the desire of the eyes” and “the desire of the flesh” its motives include “the pride of life”. Inherent in the act of sin is an implied claim to the right to be, the right to absolute selfhood, to autonomy: and it is God who is. He is “the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, who only hath immortality”. The ascription to Him of “honour and power everlasting” is not an exuberance of emotion but the reverent acknowledgment of a fact.
It is this absolute being of God which makes the sentence of death for disobedience not only just but inevitable. If God is God, then the wages of sin could not be other than death. The one thing even God cannot do is to deny Himself—to deny His own being and truth: and for God to allow one whom He has made to claim moral self-rule would be to tolerate a challenge to His supremacy. That would be nothing less than the abdication of the Divine Dynast from the rule of His own universe, leaving it to chaos—a hypothesis which is literally unthinkable; it can be stated only to be rejected, because it disrupts reason itself, and no sane mind could contemplate it. “That way madness lies.” There is no alternative between God and anarchy, and no possibility of compromise. For God to tolerate another will in rivalry to His own would be to allow moral anarchy to encroach into His realm; and that—if it were conceivable—would be evil irreparable and unmitigated. Compared with that, all suffering of mortal men in their time of probation is as nothing. The fact is that God has never yielded up control of any part of the universe even while He has allowed human free-will: “the Most High rules” even within “the kingdom of men”.
The conclusion to be reached is that the sentence of death for disobedience is not the arbitrary decree of a despot, but the maintaining of a principle without which order would become chaos; and not merely a principle, but the principle, the absoluteness of God Himself. If creation is formed and sustained by the Spirit of God, then it derives its unity from the qualities of God’s mind: it is one—that is, a universe—because it is in God. But disobedience makes a breach in that unity by setting up another centre claiming independence of God’s rule. For God to extinguish that centre and maintain the spiritual order of His creation is not merely just, it is righteous, it is the supreme good: for while justice is the impartial application of law, righteousness is the principle of good which animates law.
In all this God is not an arbitrary tyrant maintaining His own majesty; He is the God of love. Love is the unifying principle of His universe. To tolerate sin—if that were conceivable—would not be the act of love, since it would leave men as sinners. God’s love foresees for them a better end than that; He is “bringing many sons unto glory”. Only a God without love could leave men to sin; the God of love is raising them to be partakers of the Divine nature, and Christ, by his life of obedience crowned by the death on the cross, declares the absoluteness and supremacy of God, declares that God is the supreme good, and therefore declares that death is not only just but righteous as the end of sin. He vindicates the sentence of death as not only an act which God was entitled to do, but an act which He was bound to do in maintaining the unity of His Creation, the unity of the spiritual order which depends upon His being and His truth. He shows the condemnation of sin to be not only the act of God’s justice, but of His victorious love. The only alternative to the sentence in Eden would be moral anarchy. This is the inner meaning of obedience and disobedience, lawfulness and lawlessness, righteousness and unrighteousness: and where the righteousness of God was upheld, it is possible for God to grant forgiveness of sins, and to reckon mortal men to be righteous without the sacrifice of His own righteousness. Therefore, “as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous” ( Rom. 3:21–25 ; 5:19 , R.V.). For this end God in His love gave His Son to die, so that through his death the righteousness of God would be declared in a triumphant salvation.
Because Christ humbled himself God hath highly exalted him, and bestowed upon him the Divine name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow ( Phil. 2:5–11 ; Isa. 45:23 ). It is the purpose of God that Christ’s brethren shall also be sharers in that “equality with God”, being made partakers of or receiving a fellowship in the Divine nature ( 2 Peter 1:4 ).
Christ says they will be “equal unto the angels” (that is, the Elohim of Genesis 3:22 ), and “sons of God” ( Luke 20:36 ); but they will be so because “children of the resurrection”. They attain to the Divine nature not as “a thing to be grasped”, but to be received as a gift. “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” Men become as God only through God: and so the supremacy of God and the spiritual unity of His Creation are preserved, and all becomes one in Christ Jesus: and the end is God, all things in all men.