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 truth. 19 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.
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?
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.