Paying Sin’s Wages

In youth group, I learned the “Roman Road”, a set of four verses that some would argue adequately summarize the Gospel, primarily in legal transaction terms. Among those four verses is 6:23, which I recently came across again in my reading:

The wages sin pays are death. (CEB)

Hey, wait a minute. The usual translation I’ve seen is “the wages of sin are death.”

So I looked up what the Greek said and inserted a fairly literal translation for each word after:

τὰ [the] γὰρ [for] ὀψώνια [wages] τῆς [the] ἁμαρτίας [sin] θάνατος [death]

Time for some relevant Greek lessons:

  1. First of all, word order doesn’t matter in Greek like it does in English, so you often have to move things around to have it make sense.
  2. Instead of word order, Greek uses cases – written and said with different endings – to clarify what nouns function in what way in the sentence. In this case, sin and death are both in the nominative, making them both subjects. Wages is in the genitive, which means it is the possessive, in this case “of sin.”
  3. Two subjects would be a problem in English unless there is a conjunction joining them. Like English, if there are two subjects to be grouped together they would appear together and with a conjunction between them (just not necessarily at the beginning of the sentence as in English). There’s no conjunction in this verse and the subjects aren’t beside each other.
  4. Greek has verbless clauses. That means that if a clause has two subjects, no conjunction between them, and no verb, it is making an equivalence statement, rendered in English with the verb “to be.” The two subjects are equal.
  5. We have to be a bit free with use of the definite article (“the”) since different things are given that article in Greek than in English.

So the most literal that still makes sense in English would probably be something along the lines of “sin’s wages are death” or “the wages of sin are death” (the usual rendering). In the simplest not-actually-English form, “sin’s wages = death.” When you collect your wages for sin, death is the payment. Sin’s wages and death are exactly the same thing. It’s that matter of fact in the Greek.

So why would CEB add the verb “pays” and make sin a more active subject than in the original? I don’t know the translators, of course, but I’ll take a guess.

The main challenge as I see it with the usual rendering is when we start to read other theologies into it. In “the wages of sin is death” there is no acting subject, but if you pair it up with a theology whereby God must punish sin with death, you are left a freedom to infer that in English. Of course normally we use wages to say the reward that an employer gives an employee for something they did. I understand the desire to insert a subject as the employer; The instinct makes sense. But it is helpful to remember that it isn’t actually there in the text and we can’t jump to a theology out of it.

While the majority of translations I’ve read which render as “the wages of sin are death” is more technically correct, I therefore think CEB has captured something of the meaning that is left out. Since our tendency is to insert something that isn’t there, the CEB has rearranged it a little to insert the subject as well as the verb for you. It captures, I think, the concept that it is saying the consequence of sin is death while diminishing the opportunity to read a theology into a text that doesn’t say it.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • Caren Swanson

    Susan Eastman argues for this translation in her work on Romans. She argues that in Paul’s theology Sin is a power opposed to God. Sin runs the wage economy and that tit for tat world is a death world, but God runs a gift economy and God’s free gift is eternal life.