Faith That Works/Available Light: An Interpretation of Romans II, Part 4

He will render to each one according to his works

(Rom 2:6-8 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.

“The truth” in Paul is always the gospel. To obey “the truth” is not to “be moral” but to act consistently with the truth about who God is and God’s redemptive mission. It’s hard to see how a non-Christian might meet this standard.

(Rom 1:18-19 ESV) 8 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

(Rom 1:24-25 ESV) 24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,  25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

(Rom 2:1-2 NIV) You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  2 Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.

(Rom 15:7-9 NIV)  7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.  8 For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed  9 and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.”

Jesus became a servant of the Jews in fulfillment of God’s redemptive mission to save both Jews and Gentiles. The “truth” is God’s character and will, as revealed in the gospel.

Who obeys the truth?

Does anyone actually meets this standard — and if so, who? There are these views:

* No one meets this standard, because it requires perfection.

* Some Gentiles meet this standard by being good people (or people with faith) without having heard the gospel.

* All Christians meet this standard (or are treated by God as meeting this standard) — and no one else does.

We can note these trends in Paul’s argument —

* He’s already declared that all Gentiles deserve damnation (chapter 1)

* He’s already declared that all Jews deserve damnation (the first part of chapter 2)

Therefore, we can forget the idea that there are righteous pagans who merit salvation. No one merits salvation.

All who have sinned

(Rom 2:12 ESV)  12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

Paul seems to pretty plainly say that both Jews and Gentiles fail to obey the truth. None will be saved on their merits, because all have sinned.

(Rom 2:13 ESV)  13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.

“Hearers of the law” surely means “the Jews.” Jews aren’t saved just because they’ve been given the law. As precious as the law is, merely having the law and hearing it read every Sabbath is not enough to save.

No, it’s those who do the law who will be “justified.” Does this suggest an exception? Well, yes. But note closely: Paul introduces the idea here of justification — which is about grace and not merit.

But it sure seems surprising for him to say that “doers of the law … will be justified.” That sounds like the opposite of grace — unless he means by “doers of the law” something other than “the sinless.”

(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.

If Gentiles obey the law, they show that the law has been “written on their hearts” and thus that they are saved. As shown in the two preceding posts, “do what the law requires” is not about perfect obedience to the Torah but having hearts re-shaped by the Spirit to be obedient, soft hearts that love God and their neighbors.

If God has put his Spirit within in so that I’ll do the law, then I’m a doer of the law, even if the Spirit is still working on me, even if I’m a very imperfect doer of the law.

Their conscience bears witness

Paul explains v. 15, “while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them,” much later in chapter 8 —

(Rom 8:16 ESV)  16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

When our hearts are transformed by the Spirit, our consciences are educated — imperfectly, due to our broken natures, but educated by God himself to judge how well we conform our lives to God’s will.

(Rom 12:2 ESV)  2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Hence, it’s not that those with a clean conscience go to heaven. No, Paul plainly declares in 2:15 that our consciences will not be clean because, well, we won’t be perfect.

But because the Spirit transforms our hearts so that we better understand the will of God, we’ll become doers of God’s will — imperfect, yes, but doers. We’ll obey the truth. And most importantly, our obedience will come from a heart that loves God and our neighbors for the sake of Jesus.

You see, it’s impossible to obey God other than from the heart. If you “obey” out of fear of hell, then you violate the greatest command:

(Deu 6:4-5 ESV)  4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

It’s just not enough to keep his commandments. That obedience has to come from love — not a feigned, pretend love done for show out of fear, but a real, deep-in-the-heart love.

And so we learn in Romans, especially chapters 8 and 13, but throughout the book, that what God is really after, the “obedience” that is treated as actually doing the law, is having this love in our hearts.

(Rom 5:5 ESV)  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.

Faith

Paul doesn’t get to faith until chapter 3, but just to peek ahead, it seems obvious that “faith” has to be read as somehow including love. Faith is credited as righteousness because faith includes love. As the prophets shout, it’s all about the heart.

And this is why in Rom 12-15, Paul can transition from “saved by faith” to the centrality of love without contradicting himself. It’s not that love is one of many commands that still bind us. Rather, love is the marker of a heart with genuine faith.

We’re saved by the faithfulness of Jesus, shown through his life, his teaching, and his crucifixion. We are saved because we have faith/faithfulness, too, which just like the faithfulness of Jesus, is marked by sacrificial love.

We aren’t saved by works, but because we’re saved, we’re filled with God’s own love, a love that shows itself in a Christ-like life. After all, how else could the presence of God’s own Spirit within us be shown?

Understanding Romans

In our Bible classes and private study, we read the Bible verse by verse in an entirely linear pattern. Thus is not wrong, of course, but we assume we’re supposed to be able to understand even Paul’s deepest thoughts as we get to them.

However, Paul tends to teach in a very non-linear fashion. It’s more like peeling an onion. He teaches an obvious truth: “doers of the law will be saved” — and then many chapters later explains that “love your neighbor” fulfills the law. Few of us get from chapter 2 all the way to chapter 13 in one quarter of Bible classes. Rarely do we make the connection.

Worse yet, we utterly ignore his frequent allusions to the Old Testament, even though he is using these as shorthand, reminding us of what we were supposed to have already learned in synagogue. They are key elements of his argument, essential the understanding, that he assumes we already know.

Hence, “circumcision of the heart” and “written on our hearts” and similar allusions to the Law and the Prophets are assumed to be obvious to his readers, when, in fact, we find them very confusing.

We look for a way to fit Paul into more familiar categories — the Reformation, the Restoration, our debates with the Baptists — anything other than Jeremiah, who is just not covered in our classes or preacher school notes.

And so, of course, this presentation is crazily unfamiliar. It’s just not how we normally read Paul. In fact, I’ve managed to get all the way through the discussion without once mentioning Calvin — and we are bad to read Romans as either all about agreeing or disagreeing with Calvin. But it’s really better to read with Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah in mind. It takes practice.

In fact, this is probably the third time I’ve attempted to interpret Romans 2 on this site, and this is the first time I’ve read it this way. You see, it only recently occurred to me that the reason Paul doesn’t lay out his views on the Spirit nice and neat is because he thinks that’s already been covered by the Old Testament! And with that insight, the text opened up.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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12 Responses to Faith That Works/Available Light: An Interpretation of Romans II, Part 4

  1. Jerry says:

    You see, it only recently occurred to me that the reason Paul doesn’t lay out his views on the Spirit nice and neat is because he thinks that’s already been covered by the Old Testament! And with that insight, the text opened up.

    When I studied the Holy Spirit under Richard Rogers at the Sunset School of Preaching (now The Sunset International Bible Institute) back in 1966, he began in the Old Testament – but, to be honest, I do not recall him talking about “circumcision of the heart” in this connection. His teaching was very much in line with what Jay has presented in this series, however.

  2. Price says:

    Jay, this is the type of teaching that just can’t happen in Sunday school… It takes time to connect the dots. Thanks for sharing and putting it together in such a way as to cover the entire letter and the thoughts and principals that intertwine..Good stuff.

  3. John says:

    “He will render to each one according to his works”, is another way of saying that we are redeemed by grace. The grace of God works in each life according to available light, available opportunity, milieu and generation.

    An individual living in an inner city row home in the Northeast, whether new Christian or mature, is not going to have the same experiences and responses as a person who has grown up in a small “Bible Belt” town and attended one the Christian colleges where one feels spiritual and safe 24/7. And the generation makes a difference, also. What comes at you in your particualar generaton and how you deal with it, even how failure is recognized and handled, is the molding clay for grace.

  4. Skip says:

    Sometimes inner city kids make the best and most passionate Christians whereas a child raised in the Bible belt can be smug and self-righteous. Rahab was a prostitute and grew up in the bottom of the barrel in a pagan culture. But as soon as she heard about the nation of Israel, she wanted to join up without even having met a single Jew. She now goes down in history as part of the lineage of Jesus. Our current environmental conditions (available light) may have little to do with how our heart responds to a spiritual opportunity.

    Matthew 21:31,32 ” I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.”

    Prostitutes had the least light but blew away the Jews who were awash in available light?

  5. Alan says:

    It’s just not enough to keep his commandments. That obedience has to come from love — not a feigned, pretend love done for show out of fear, but a real, deep-in-the-heart love.

    Of course obedience starts with loving God. It’s the greatest commandment. That’s a problem for us, in part, because we use the word “love” to refer to a lot of different things. The greatest commandment isn’t about an emotion. It’s not a warm feeling towards God. It’s not just good will towards God. It’s pretty easy to give ourself a check-mark for “loving God” without ever coming close to the kind of love God is talking about.

  6. Alan says:

    One more point: The same thing could be said about “fear.” Yes, perfect love casts out fear. But there’s also a healthy fear that is commanded for believers – the fear that keeps us from stirring up God’s wrath. We need to know where the boundaries are, and we need to know that it will not go well for us if we refuse to stay inside the boundaries.

  7. laymond says:

    Alan said “The greatest commandment isn’t about an emotion.” and “The same thing could be said about “fear.”.

    Alan is right in both cases, “The love for God ” is a way of life, always putting God first in all your decisions. does anyone here really think Jesus was talking about “emotions” when he said you must hate your parents in order to follow him.? no God must be first in your heart, God does not settle for second place.

  8. laymond says:

    Ooops, And the same applies to “love your neighbor as your self” if you place your neighbor on the same level as yourself, you won’t be so apt to mistreat him. A way of life.

  9. John says:

    Skip, I agree, that our current environmental conditions (available light) may have little to do with how our heart responds to a spiritual opportunity. But spiritual hearts comes in different packaging.

    I work in a healthcare center, and a number of the nursing aids live in a city in which few of us would want to drive through even during the day. Some of these aids are Christians whose talk is crude, they are smokers, they watch certain TV programs that some of us would not term “classy”, and some of their weekend activities would not be welcomed by most Bible belt Christians; not openly, anyway. But when you watch and listen to one of them when brushing a female’s patient’s hair and helping with her make up as the patient cries from loneliness, or shaving an older gentleman who is bitter because his family is gone, or the family he has does not come to see him, the comfort, peace and the assurance of God that come from the aid’s lips is simply Christ.

    The spiritual are not always polished, and their activities are sometimes a bit different than pot lucks and fish fries. But when the healing of Christ is in their words and touch I see them on the right hand of Go.d

  10. Skip says:

    John, Hence why I believe Jesus chose “Unschooled and ordinary men” to be the Apostles. I believe a lot of formal, intellectual, Christian training is a hindrance to effective Christian work. The American Church with all of it’s intellectual bickering over nuances in scripture is a far cry from the first century church who worked in the trenches to love people during extreme persecution.
    All that being said, any Christian where Jesus is Lord and has a foul mouth will quickly repent and change there language when this problem is gently pointed out by another Christian. This does not mean they will never slip again but they will begin to crucify the bad habits.

  11. Jerry says:

    Jay,

    Your survey of Romans has been most helpful, including these latest discussions of “Faith that Works.”

    Recently, I have been reading some of Ted Grimsrud’s work on Pacifism. (He comes from a Mennonite background.) Today he posted an essay, Romans as a Peace Book: A Yoderian Reading. In it he strikes some of the same themes you have discussed, particularly what he refers to as “Revolutionary subordination: Neither fight nor flight.” This, he says, describes the servant heart of Jesus and how we are to respond to those around us as well.

    He calls Christians to active engagement in the fallen culture as an alternate approach to politics. He has quite a bit to say about the Constantinianism he sees both in the religious right and the religious left – where Christian duty attempts to take the reigns of “the powers that be” to be able to inculcate Christian principles by government fiat. He also believes that Augustine and Luther both misread Paul when he speaks of justification by faith apart from works.

    The essay is brief, not much longer than many of your posts. I would love to hear your reflections on it.

    I would be interested in seeing your reaction to this essay in particular, since you are just completing a survey of Romans.

  12. Alan says:

    Jerry wrote:

    He calls Christians to active engagement in the fallen culture as an alternate approach to politics. He has quite a bit to say about the Constantinianism he sees both in the religious right and the religious left – where Christian duty attempts to take the reigns of “the powers that be” to be able to inculcate Christian principles by government fiat.

    Amen!!! Government is not a tool of the church. Neither is it a trustworthy ally. If we get too entangled in government affairs, we do so to our peril. That’s a clear lesson of history.

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