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I was listening to a preacher a few weeks ago, who said, "the wages for sin is death."
Of course that's not what the Scripture actually says... the actual quote is, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23, emphasis added). The idea here isn't that death is the reward for sinning – the idea is that sin is a master who pays his servants wages. The wage he pays is death.
At the simplest level, the two ideas seem very close, but when we give it some thought, we realize that there is actually quite a bit of difference between them.
We've already discussed the difference between sin and sins. Sin is the principle that lives in my [fallen] body (Romans 8:10), while sins are specific acts (Romans 4:7; 1 John 1:9). Scripture is careful to keep these two ideas distinct, although they do necessarily touch at times; for example, a single sinful act is "a sin". But there is a difference between the specific act and the principle that motivated it.
The difference is striking in Romans, where the first four-and-one-half chapters discuss sins, while the next three-and-a-half chapters discuss sin. The transition comes in Romans 5:9–12. Romans 5 starts out by describing the blessings of those who have been "justified by faith" (Romans 5:1), but continues on to discuss the deeper problem: that when Adam sinned, we all became sinners (Romans 5:19). We generally think the we are sinners because we sin, but really Scripture takes the opposite point of view: we sin because we [already] are sinners.
Let's take a moment to try and get our arms around that. There are those who believe that we're all guilty of Adam's sin, but I just can't find that in Scripture. Scripture doesn't claim we'll be judged for Adam's sin, but for our own (Romans 2:3–11). But Scripture does teach that it's on account of Adam's sin that we are sinners (Romans 5:19). So we're not guilty of Adam's sin, but we're fallen because of it.
But back to Romans 6:23... In Romans 6–8, we have the problem of sinfulness – not guilt exactly. The idea here isn't that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); the idea here is that all are sinners, and are thus slaves to sin. So in Romans 6–8, sin is a master we obey (Romans 6:6, 12, 16–17, 20). And so Romans 6:23 gives us a dire warning: if we obey sin, it'll pay us wages. Those wages are death.
Sin is present with us as long as we are in fallen bodies (Romans 7:17, 23; Romans 8:3, 10, 23). There will come a day when the Son of God will come from Heaven to change our bodies to be like His (Philippians 3:20–21), and we won't have sin anymore. But now we find it's a constant enemy, and it's an enemy we can't get away from: we carry it with us everywhere we go.
I can't find anything in Scripture that says God condemns us for what we are. He judges according to works. But at the same time, our works are really driven by what we are. This distinction is important in Romans, and it's important in the Christian life. God forgives the sins of those who believe (Romans 4:1–8). So there is no condemnation for them: the Judge has already declared "not guilty". But while that gives us hope in the next life (if I can say it that way), it doesn't do a lot to affect the quality of their life now. A forgiven sinner is still a sinner.
The good news for us in this life is that God has freed us through death from our master sin (Romans 6:1–11). As far as God is concerned, we have died with Christ. So we are now freed from sin (from sin's power, not its presence). Our responsibility is to accept what God says is true, even if it doesn't look true to us. And as we accept what God says by faith, we come into the good of it.
But that doesn't take us out of the bodies that are "dead because of sin" (Romans 8:10). Even though we are freed from the power of sin, we find its presence still with us. So we still look for the Son of God to come from Heaven and redeem our fallen bodies (Philippians 3:20–21).
And that brings us back to the misquoted verse about wages. Romans 6:23 isn't telling us about God's judgment for sinning. It's telling us about sin's role as a master. And it follows the warning that we, having been freed from sin by death, can still put ourselves under bondage to sin simply by obeying it (Romans 6:15–16). Notice the parallel to Romans 8:11–13. Both warn us that it's very easy for us to go from practical freedom from sin into practical bondage to sin in an astonishingly short time.
As much as I hate to say it, this is an area where J. N. Darby's ministry is somewhat weak. I respect Darby very highly, but I think this is an area where he was so careful to avoid the ditch on one side of the road, he almost ran into the ditch on the other. He does a good job describing this problem in "Deliverance from the Law of Sin" (Collected Writings, Volume 32, pp. 323–331), but he tends to gloss over this problem in his other writings. So let me pause and emphasize that it's entirely possible for someone to experience the liberty of Romans 6 or Romans 8, and still fall into a sort of a practical bondage to sin. It's possible to fall, regardless of how far down the path we've gone. As long as we're in unredeemed bodies, we need to watch.