For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
During my first year of Daily Vacation Bible School, only the first half of this extraordinary verse was required for memorization. Since I was only seven or eight years of age, I am quite certain that I had no idea what any one of the three nouns meant.
I had never seen a dead person as a boy; I would not be in the presence of a corpse until I was 23 years old, conducting a funeral for an old man in the mountains of southern Mexico. Of course I had seen dead things. The Canyon was littered with plants and animals that had simply breathed out their last, had fallen from the sky, had dropped in their tracks, or had been sent into the ethers by a passing motorist. I sensed no natural sorrow in the death of animals, possibly because the Baptists asserted that animals were not alive in the same way that human beings were. I did feel a twinge, however, when my skunk-loving dog, Butch, was hit by a car near La Vida Springs because he could not see well enough to get out of the way. I never saw the body; my father disposed of it before telling the family. Death, therefore, was as foreign a concept to me as it was to Adam and Eve while they dwelt in the Garden of Eden.
All I really knew about sin was that it was “bad”, but I was not altogether certain how anyone went about offending God. The stories told about sinners all involved activities that either I did not understand or were those for the which I had no inclination. I was a free spirit as a boy and although I did things that displeased my parents, I never really considered those things to be sins. By the time I was sixteen, however, I learned for myself that there were things that a person could do that would put him or her at cross-purposes with the laws of men. It was then that I learned how and why one could and should be sorry for one’s conduct. Oddly enough, even in these circumstances I did not consider myself to be a sinner inasmuch as I had not done any of these things to irritate God. The pieces of that puzzle would be put in place once I came to understand who my friends, neighbors, and family really were, together with an awareness of their relationship to the God of Heaven.
At eight years of age, “wages” was a non-concept. I do not remember even having an “allowance” until I was pushing twelve. I suspect that somewhere along the line, one of the teachers tried to relate wages to the law of the “harvest”, that one reaps what one sows. This, of course, would have made little or no sense to me either, inasmuch as all of my agrarian pursuits involved the apricot tree next to the house and the vegetable garden in the front yard. I was a bit of a literalist as a child and as a result, “picking the tomatoes” was not the same thing as “reaping and winnowing the grain”. The phrase “natural consequences” did not come into my vocabulary while in childhood. It was a tag that was eventually given to help me understand the relationship between good and evil, virtue and vice, happiness and misery. It also helped me to understand that there was a difference between “consequences” and “punishment”, which thing I had never before supposed.
Notwithstanding all of this ignorance, the phrase “the wages of sin is death” became firmly etched into my mind and heart so that when I did come to a point where the words were no longer foreign to me, that I could really appreciate the abyss next to which I had been walking throughout my childhood. If I had not been particularly frightened before, I was terrified in retrospect. How many of my choices had been inadvertently correct? How many times, at the very last moment, had something nudged me away from moral and spiritual catastrophe? And these resultant tragedies would have been catastrophes that I would have had a great deal of trouble living down for the rest of my life.
I know now that sins come in degrees. Someone once made a neat distinction between “sin” and “transgression”, the former referring to knowingly doing something wrong and the latter referring to something done in ignorance. What may we say of “sins” which we were “taught” as a child because of bad examples set by adults? How about addictions of one sort or another? Is there a difference between the activities that began the addiction and the lapses that occur as we are attempting to overcome the habit? We are extraordinarily clever in slicing and dicing our semantics in order to ameliorate the intensity of our guilt. But in the final analysis, we have to say of our misconduct, “These are all mine; I am responsible for them all; I will not equivocate about any of them; I am a sinner!” This is both the beginning of wisdom and the beginning of forgiveness, whether we are dealing with God or our fellowmen. The great comfort, the consolation and hope in these distressing circumstances, is that there is a second half to this verse.