(Rom 2:6-11 ESV) 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.
The time of forbearance is over. Now, everyone will receive justice — or better. God’s partiality — his election of only the Jews — is over. Now God will hold everyone to the same standards and offer everyone the same blessings on the same terms.
Now, we’re presented with what appears to be a contradiction. Paul has just shown that the Gentiles are all guilty of sin. He will soon announce that all fall short of the glory of God. No one deserves salvation, because all sin.
But verse 7 seems to suggest that some will merit eternal life “according to [their] works.” How can this be? Well, those who are saved are the patient (v. 7). Paul tells us more about patience later in Romans —
(Rom 5:3-5 ESV) 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance [=patience], 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
The translation obscures the parallel evident in the Greek. The patient are those who suffer for their faith and those who’ve received the Spirit.
(Rom 8:25-26 ESV) 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
Again, patience is a characteristic of those who have the Spirit. And you’ll notice that patience is given to those with hope — or perhaps it’s better to say that hope gives us patience.
(Rom 15:4-6 ESV) 4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance [=patience] and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And so we see that Paul associates patience with those who have hope of salvation.
We next consider Paul’s teaching on “well doing” or doing good works. That concept next appears —
(Rom 7:18-19 ESV) 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.
In Rom 2:4, Paul says those who do good works are saved, but in Rom 7:18-19, he announces that we all fail in our efforts to do this due to the weakness of our flesh.
In the same verse, Paul declares that God rewards those who patiently seek glory, honor, and immortality. We read about glory in chapter 3 —
(Rom 3:23 ESV) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
(Rom 5:2 ESV) Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
(Rom 8:18 ESV) For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Paul teaches us that no one deserves the glory of God, but glory can be obtained through faith, and that at the end of time, believers will receive God’s glory. Plainly, Paul is thinking of Christians — who receive glory by the grace of God.
Therefore, when Paul is speaking of those who “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality” and who “does good,” he is thinking of Christians.
Remember that in Paul’s vocabulary, “glory” is really the “glory of God” — which is a reference to God’s immediate presence, as described in the Torah. To seek “glory” is to seek to be where God is — in heaven or in the New Heavens and New Earth. It’s to seek eternity with God. It’s not merely being a good person — even a very good person.
Second, Paul will ultimately conclude in chapter 8 that the Spirit will prompt Christians to live as God wishes — not perfectly, but with a definite change in behavior.
(Rom 8:5 ESV) 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
To “live according to the Spirit” is to live as the Spirit prompts — including doing good works.
(Rom 8:13-14 ESV) 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
“Put to death the deeds of the body” is to give up a life of sin and live as the Spirit leads.
N. T. Wright argues in Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (pp. 182 ff) that, contrary to the teaching of many, we’ll be judged in part based on our works, and the scriptures do in fact repeatedly teach this. But Paul also teaches that it’s impossible to measure up on our own. That’s the point of chapter 7, as well as such verses as —
(Rom 8:7-8 ESV) 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Therefore, Romans 2 is not speaking of a standard that good people who are strangers to God might meet. The passage is anticipating the rest of Romans, in which Paul makes clear that no one can earn his way into heaven, but that God’s grace for those with faith will give salvation to some, and those who receive salvation also receive the Spirit, and the Spirit changes us into the kind of people whom God — looking through the eyes of grace — will find pleasing.
(Rom 2:14-16 ESV) 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Some take this passage to mean that Gentiles who have never heard of God can be saved if they meet the standards of their own consciences (the “available light” doctrine). After all, even those who’ve never heard of God or Jesus live by some moral standard — often the standards of their culture and always by their own sense of what is wrong, at least when they suffer from the sins of others.
Thus, the Gentiles apart of God’s law sometimes do “by nature” what the law requires. No one always sins. But their thoughts are necessarily “conflicting” because sometimes they defend and excuse themselves and sometimes “accuse” themselves. That is, these Gentiles will be shown sinners by their own standards, even though they may sometimes get the standards right and sometimes honor those standards. It still remains true that all fall short of the glory of God and that the mind without the Spirit cannot please God.
This is a hard lesson for several reasons —
1. It’s not fair. In fact, some Christians are often less good than some non-Christians. But it is better than just. The Gentiles are punished only the extent that they are accountable, that is, for sins they know to be sins. Ignorance is an excuse. It’s just that no adult is ignorant enough to be sinless. We all violate whatever moral code we believe in.
2. We’ve been taught not to think about salvation in terms of “good works.” In fact, we learned that very lesson from Paul! And here he is announcing that judgment will be based on works! What’s going on?
Well, while we aren’t saved by our works, we are saved to do works. Countless passages could be cited, in addition to what we’ve just read from Romans 8. The plainest is —
(Eph 2:8-10 ESV) 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
It’s simple. God’s cosmic plan is to save us, forgive us, and give us his Spirit so that we will do the good works that he’s been preparing for us from ancient times. We are to work with God in his redemptive mission, walking alongside him and being the hands and feet of Jesus, preaching the gospel and doing works of compassion for all.
And while non-Christians can be good, they can’t participate in God’s mission. They can’t do the works of God, the works that he prepared for us to do. They can’t give water in the name of Jesus. They can’t preach the gospel. They can’t bring God’s redemption to the world.
You see, only God is good, and only those empowered by God’s Spirit can do good works.