Paul can say so much with so few words! This verse is conclusion, climax, and summary of the entire chapter, and as such it enfolds all the important themes: sin and God as powers or masters competing for each person’s heart, death as the penalty of sin versus eternal life as the gift of God, the effort that goes into sin versus the gift received by faith, and most important, the crucial role of Jesus Christ as the source of eternal life.Which master do you serve?
If sin is your master, you deserve the wages that you earn. Normally our wages are how we afford to live, but sin’s wages are death. The Greek word for wages was a legal term for the rights of laborers or soldiers to be paid. As Cranfield suggests, the term may refer to an allowance paid to slaves, as fits the preceding verses. Sin promises a richer, more enjoyable and fulfilling life, but everyone who signs a labor contract with this master eventually discovers they have been deceived—its payout is not life but death.
If God is your master, you earn nothing even by living the most holy life possible, nor do you deserve what you receive. The salvation that leads to eternal life is a gift. It is unmerited favor, available by the asking and received by the taking. “Faith is the hand that accepts the gift of God” (Bob Utley).
As Martin Luther discovered after trying to earn God’s acceptance by his efforts, justification does not derive from anything we do but comes from outside of us as God’s gift. God gives his righteousness to us who are not righteous, Luther learned to his surprise and delight (see chapter 3 of my book).Jesus Christ is the life
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me,” Jesus told his disciples. The only escape from sin and death is to be “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” As Paul has emphasized in this chapter, union with Christ is the source of our freedom to “walk in newness of life” (verse 4).
For many years Christians have used verse 23 as a key stop on the “Roman Road to Salvation” to explain the gospel to unbelievers. Although the verse has obvious evangelistic meaning, Paul’s focus remains on believers’ sanctification. Now freed from the power of sin through union with our new Master, Jesus Christ, we ought not to return to our old master, whose wages reek with the smell of death.