Martin Luther’s consciousness of his sin is well-chronicled. While he was serving in a Roman Catholic monastery he at times would feel confident of his self-righteousness that claimed, “I have done nothing wrong today.” And then almost as quickly he would become plagued with questions like, “Have you fasted enough? Are you poor enough?” His doubts and self-criticism led him to ultimately assert, “I am dust and ashes and full of sin.”
Now his awareness of his sin was one problem. But the greater problem is that he understood his sin left him under the condemnation and wrath of God. He was terrorized by fear of God’s wrath, knowing that his sin rendered him unrighteousness and unable to please God.
“I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically of the formal or active justice, as they called it, by which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with a most disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. Secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.”
If anyone knew of the consequences of his sin, it was Martin Luther.
And Luther’s example is helpful to us. Most people understand there are consequences for sinful actions. Cheating on exams and plagiarism might lead to failure of a course or expulsion from school. Fraudulent use of money may lead to loss of a job and imprisonment. Sexual sin may lead to the loss of reputation and a marriage. And while those consequences are significant, they are not ultimate. And Luther’s fear of the consequences of his sins was rooted in the ultimate consequence: the wrath of God and death.
With that fear, Luther echoed the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 5:12 — “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin…” In that verse, Paul exposes the depth of sin — the burden of sin is not just in what we do, but what we are. We are born with indwelling sin; we enter this world guilty before God and not innocent. And as if that isn’t bad enough, our sin nature comes with a partner called “death.” And just as everyone has original sin, so everyone also experiences the consequence of sin, the condemnation of God through death. Death “spread to all men.”
How bad is it to die? When Paul says, “death,” what does he mean? Scripture points to the horror of death in the three distinct ways it is used.
First of all, it refers to physical death. In Romans 5:12 Paul speaks of Adam and the consequence that Adam experienced for his sin. When God warned Adam about eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he warned him, “in the day you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Now Adam didn’t die for at least 800 more years (Seth was born when he was 130 and he died at 930; Gen. 5:3, 5), but he did die, fulfilling the warning and discipline of God (2:17; 3:19). While Adam did not die immediately, his sin immediately set in motion the process of his death. Though his death was not an immediate consequence of his sin, the process of his dying began immediately even as he immediately began to experience the other judgments of God against his sin (like his work becoming laborious and with trouble, 3:18-19).
And notice that his sin did result in the first instance of death immediately after his sin — the death of the sacrificed animal (3:21). Until Adam’s sin and that sacrifice, there was no death in the Garden of Eden. After Adam’s sin, every living thing was under the sentence of death. However with that sacrificial death, we also see the provision of grace and redemption and salvation — for the sacrifice offered a substitute to atone for Adam’s sin until the full atonement could be paid in Christ. Death had arrived, but already God demonstrated His sovereignty and superiority over that death.
When Scripture uses the word death, it secondly also can refer to spiritual death. This is the alienation and loss of relationship with God that comes from sin. And for Adam, that death was instantaneous.
Notice in Gen. 3:7-8 Adam and Eve attempted to hide from God — which is always the nature of sin: it runs from the light and attempts to deceive (God and others) about its reality, though it can never hide completely or deceive fully. While they had known only intimacy and fellowship with God, their sin killed that fellowship (at least until atonement was made for it).
And the tragedy for Adam and Eve was that they had known the fullness of fellowship with God and exchanged and lost it in a vain attempt to usurp His authority; and instantaneously they knew the truth (3:9-10). And they were banished from His garden (3:23-24, which also was a form of grace to keep them from eating from the tree of life, which would have confirmed them in their sin). So while Adam and Eve did not immediately die physically, it is clear that they immediately died spiritually. No longer were they characterized by righteousness and spiritual life; immediately they were characterized by spiritual death. In fact, it’s interesting to note that when God casts Satan from Heaven for Satan’s willful rebellion against God, the Lord says of Satan, “You were internally filled with violence and you sinned” (Ezk. 28:16). It is inherent in the nature of sin to bring death. Sin and death have been partners from the very first sin.
Elsewhere, Paul also notes further that spiritual death makes one unable to respond to God (Rom. 8:7-8; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1). The spiritually dead cannot please God, they are blind to the truth, and they cannot produce any activities of righteousness to save themselves from God’s wrath.
So death is physical. And it is spiritual. And it is final.
The third way that “death” is used in Scripture is exemplified by John when he refers to a “second death” — that is, an eternal death. This is the death that never ends; it is the condemnation and wrath of God being poured out on unrepentant sinners for all eternity (Rev. 20:6, 11-15). The desire of all sinners is to be autonomous and free of the rule of God, and yet for all eternity they will always be dying and never dead, experiencing the full and unrelenting wrath of God. He will only be alive in that he will be conscious and aware of being under God’s wrath, but there is nothing good in him and no hope of ever changing or being freed to live.
This is what sin brought. There is nothing glamorous about sin; it entices and promises joy and beauty and hope and life. And it brings unremitting tears, and horror, and bitterness, and death.
And that death is the ultimate consequence of our sin and sin nature.