Romans 5 is one of those glorious chapters which can be read in a minute but could be contemplated for a lifetime. In only a few verses, Paul, in typical fashion, plunges simultaneously into the depths of mankind’s depravity and ascends to the heights of gospel grandeur.
As I read this chapter recently, one phrase in particular seemed to jump off the page: “the free gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17). This is one of those expressions which is easy to overlook in a cursory reading of the text, but when reading with care and intentionality, it stopped me in my tracks.
This phrase brought to mind an antithetical expression which is introduced just one chapter later: “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23).
What is the difference between a wage and a gift? A wage is something earned and merited. Wages are deserved; they are the rightful recompense for a completed task. For this reason, when I receive my biweekly paycheck, I don’t profusely thank by boss for her generosity. I’m simply receiving that for which I worked based upon a prior agreement. (I am, however, grateful to God for His generous provision through my job.)
A free gift, on the other hand, is usually given cheerfully and without obligation. It is offered at the giver’s prerogative and demonstrates his or her care for the recipient. Gifts aren’t meant to reflect the merit of the recipient; they show forth the generosity of the giver. That’s why, when my boss gave me $50 out of her own pocket for Christmas, I absolutely thanked her for her generosity.
My paycheck is a reflection of my work, a precise repayment for what my time has earned. An extra $50 for Christmas is a reflection of my boss, an unearned bonus based solely on her kindness. Paychecks tell a story about the recipient; gifts tell a story about the giver.
Our sin earns death. It’s what we deserve. Death is owed to us. If we resist grace and want to do it ourselves, all our hard work will earn for us death.
Conversely, righteousness is a legal standing granted to those who, by grace through faith, trust Christ for their salvation. We don’t earn or deserve righteousness. It’s not a debt we are owed. God, out of the goodness of His own heart, has provided a means by which we are eternally declared “not guilty.” Not only are we found “not guilty,” Christ’s perfection is also credited to us. We’re not just found to be without guilt; we are actually declared to be innocent. (See Colossians 1:22 which declares believers to be “holy and blameless and above reproach before him” and Jude 1:24 which reiterates the blamelessness of believers.)
If holiness, blamelessness, and being above reproach (in God’s sight!) doesn’t sound like your experience, don’t be alarmed. Remember, our righteousness isn’t something our performance has earned. Instead, if you are united to Christ by faith, thank God for the free gift of righteousness. It was earned and secured by Christ, but it is offered freely and eternally to you.
Hallelujah, what a Savior!