The saying from Romans “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) is a puzzling one from a variety of angles. What does it mean to say that death came into the world through the sin of Adam, as Paul does say repeatedly? In a contemporary setting where we (mostly) accept that human beings are part of the evolutionary story of the development of life it seems to make little sense to claim that death (which is an essential part of that story) can have an origin in sin.
It gets more difficult again when we notice that earlier in Chapter 6 of Romans Paul has offered us the thought that ” all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death” (Rom 6:3-4). Death is not only that which comes as the wages of sin but also the way into new life in Christ – to be in Christ is to die, baptism is a death.
Further complexity is added by noticing that “sin” in Rom 6:23 isn’t (or isn’t primarily) something we do. It is a power to which we are enslaved. In verses 16-22 Paul presents the idea that the existential decision human beings have to make is to whom they will enslave themselves. On the one hand there is sin, impurity, wickedness; on the other obedience, righteousness, holiness, God.
It is this that sets up the idea of “wages”. We place ourselves in dependency and servitude to one of these two contending powers and in return receive what they have to give us. On the one hand death and on the other eternal life.
What is disorienting in the context of the movement of the argument of this chapter is that one has to have died (in Christ) to receive life. The eternal life God offers us in return for enslaving ourselves stands on the other side of baptism as death. This passing through baptism is not an isolated thought in Paul, the two sacraments are everywhere in his writing and the association with Christ’s death is especially marked here but far from unique.
Death then is not, simply, negative. The way to eternal life is also through death. This is entirely consistent with Paul’s general project of re-reading and reviving the Old Testament in the light of Christ. After all the relationship between God and God’s people through the whole OT story acknowledges the indivisibility of life and death, the necessity of recognising their mutual and complete entanglement. This is the meaning of the sacrificial practice of the Tabernacle and Temple which provides the background and key to Christ’s death on the cross.
The emphasis on punishment that has eclipsed the sacrificial in much Christian theology has been profoundly unhelpful in understanding this key passage from Romans and has in turn distorted our reading of the background story of the expulsion from the Garden in Genesis 3. We are wrong to see the expulsion (to deny access to the Tree of Life) as being punitive. There is nothing in the text that says that this is so.
An alternative reading would see that, once they have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, the people have to embrace the mortality that is their natural lot (the Tree of Life alone can deny death). To know good and evil requires death, for human beings, unless they subordinate themselves willingly to God, which their desire to know for themselves prevents.
Without mortality a finite being cannot feel the weight of things sufficiently really to know their value. Without death there is no mortal morality. Willing to know good and evil is willing to die.
That is not to say that death is an eternal condition but rather that to go beyond death is to go beyond good and evil, and that it the great terror and abyss that Christ opens up. His willing death, his embrace of a death constituted by obedient surrender to a judgement that hears no mitigation, it is this alone that puts human being beyond the realm constituted by ethical judgement. There the unlimited judgement of a God beyond law reigns alone, a judgement incomprehensible and inaccessible to the finite judgement of the creature.
The slavery to sin of which Paul writes can’t be understood until you recognise that sin is “everything that does not come from faith” (Rom 14:23). Even our best efforts to know and to do what is right are sin. Every independent judgement we make (even if we imagine it to be based on the word of God in scripture) is sin and will repay us in the coin of death.
Eternal life does not come through “repentance” if that repentance is understood as being a grasping of what mode of life is and what isn’t “sinful”. Eternal life comes only through passing through Christ’s death, his surrender to judgement, into slavery to God, into a giving up of independent judgement and acceptance of our creaturely incapability to know good and evil.
Seen in this light the death that sin repays isn’t so much the biological process of the cessation of life. It is the death that is a permanent part of life, the knowledge of our own impermanence and our own ultimate insignificance. This knowledge is both the precondition of imagining that we can judge and the ground of the realisation that we cannot.