Romans 2 and Final Judgment According to Works

Does Romans 2:6–11 teach that human beings will be rewarded according to their deeds at the final judgment?

God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. (NIV)

How can Paul’s declaration that on the day of coming judgment God “will recompense each one according to his works” be reconciled with his statements elsewhere this very letter that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Rom 3:28; cf 4:5)? Seifrid notes that “one can find no indication in the text that Paul was embarrassed by the seeming incongruity of these affirmations,”¹ but they present a challenge to any interpreter trying to construct a coherent reading of Romans.

‘The Last Judgement’ — Stefan Lochner

One common interpretation is that Paul is positing a hypothetical justification by works no sinful human could actually attain. But this fails to properly read this passage in the context of Paul’s argument in the early chapters of Romans. I will argue instead that Paul is speaking of a final vindication in which good works will be the evidence of union with Christ by faith and the indwelling of the Spirit.

Paul’s Larger Argument

Our first task, then, is to situate these verses within Paul’s argument in the opening chapters of the epistle. In Romans 1:18–3:20, the apostle demonstrates both human accountability for sin and divine impartiality in judgement. All of humanity is lost without exception. “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin”, he concludes in 3:9, and they share but one hope for salvation: the revelation of God’s saving righteousness in Christ (3:21–26). Gorman notes the chiastic arrangement of Paul’s argument leading up to this conclusion. In between his description of the Gentile predicament (1:18–32) and the Jewish predicament (2:17–3:8) is his exposition of divine judgement according to deeds (2:1–16).² This structure is a clue to the purpose of the central verses: the deciding factor on the day of judgment will not be one’s Jewish or Gentile identity, but the righteousness of one’s life. God will not be swayed by membership in any ethnic or religious group, not even his chosen people. Any interpretation of 2:6–11 must offer a plausible explanation of how these verses advance this larger argument. Nonetheless, Paul must not be forced to stick too rigidly to his argument or denied permission to allude to the good news he introduced in 1:3–4, 16–17 and will develop more fully later in the letter.³

Romans 2 opens with a stinging indictment on those (presumably Jews) who pass judgment on others while committing the very same sins themselves. They should not imagine they will escape divine justice: “The correct moral judgments that they uttered against the Gentiles ironically enough turned out to be indictments of themselves.”⁴ Since he failed to respond with repentance to God’s kindness, Paul tells his imaginary interlocutor, “you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (2:4,5). Paul’s immediate rhetorical task in 2:6–11, then, is to clearly define the terms of final judgment.

What is the Basis for Divine Judgment?

In verse 6 Paul lays out the guiding principle of God’s justice: “He will render to each one according to his works”. Paul is quoting Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12. Seifrid observes that both texts “anticipate divine judgment within the context of human violence and oppression … in these texts Paul sees the pattern of divine judgment, which has taken place in many instances in the past, as anticipatory of the final judgment that is coming upon the world of human injustice and cruelty” — a fallen world that includes the Jew no less than the Gentile.⁵ Here the works according to which each one will be judged are contrasted, strikingly, not with faith but with ethnic-religious privilege. The basis for judgment is the ethical character of one’s entire life. As has often been remarked, “it is performance, not possession, of the Law that matters”.⁶

Paul then lays out the contrasting judgments on those who do good and those who do evil. First of all, “to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life” (2:7). God will grant final reward not by counting up a collection of good works, but by recognizing a consistent lifetime of well-doing, for “goodness is not a single act, but a steady persistent habit.”⁷ The motivation of the one who does good is threefold — the quest for divine glory, the honour accorded by an approving God, and immortality (ἀφθαρσία), which should be understand not as the eternal existence of the disembodied soul but the incorruptibility of the resurrection body (cf. 1 Cor 15:42,50,53–54). John Murray observes that “the three terms have indisputably in the usage of Paul redemptive associations, and this consideration of itself makes it impossible to think that the eschatological aspiration referred to is anything less than that provided by redemptive revelation.”⁸ This is no natural theology for the noble pagan: the good person being described has thoroughly biblical aspirations.

The reward for those who patiently seek glory, honour and immortality is eternal life. A comparison with verse 10 makes clear that the objective and the reward are coterminous: the glory, honour and immortality eagerly sought by the good person are included in the eschatological life which will be granted as their reward. (Cranfield wisely points out that Paul speaks only of the righteous as ‘seeking’ glory, but not necessarily as ‘deserving’ it.⁹)

In sharp contrast, meanwhile, those who do evil will suffer divine wrath. This second group is characterized as “those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil”. Unlike the good, the quest of the evil rises no higher than their own selves. They reject truth and follow evil: essentially the same description of those who “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). Such people can only expect “wrath and anger” at the final tribunal (2:8).

God Does Not Show Favouritism

Paul stresses that reward and punishment are measured out fairly to all humanity: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” The doubled “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” hearkens back to Paul’s statement in 1:16 that the gospel is the power of God bringing salvation “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile”. Kruse points out that “the priority of Israel in the matter of blessing when they do good is balanced by their priority in judgment when they do evil.”¹⁰ Paul’s indictment of Gentile and then Jew in 1:18–3:20 follows a familiar Old Testament pattern wherein the prophets first denounce the nations before turning on Israel. In Amos, for example, God pronounces judgment on Israel’s enemies before turning on his covenant people, declaring, “You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins” (Amos 3:2). There will be no special considerations for the people of Israel on the day of judgment; if anything, those who have the law will be judged with greater severity.

Paul articulates the underlying theological principle in 2:11: “For God does not show favoritism.” Although the word προσωπολημψία (partiality, bias) is used only by Christian writers, it expresses a common Old Testament principle: God judges with equity.¹¹ A celebrated aspect of Yahweh’s glory is that he “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes” (Deut 10:17). Luke Timothy Johnson comments,

Notice that “impartiality” is the fundamental expression of “righteousness” in the context of judging. In the human courts of Israel, it meant, in effect, not to be swayed by appearances, either of the poor or of the rich, but to judge entirely on the merits of the case. The ‘impartial’ judge was righteous because he could not be bribed or corrupted. This human ideal is projected as an intrinsic quality of God as judge: ‘there is no partiality with God,’ since he deals with humans entirely on the basis of the deeds that they have done.¹²

Does this Good Person Actually Exist?

Romans 2:6–11 throws up a question that may be incidental to Paul’s immediate argument but crucial to how one reads his theology, particularly his soteriology. Who is the person Paul describes in verse 7 and 10 as doing good that will be rewarded with eternal life? And how can this be reconciled with the justification by faith in Christ, apart from works, that Paul expounds later in the letter?

Some interpreters make no attempt at reconciliation. E.P. Sanders argues that Romans 1:18–2:29 is a “synagogue sermon” of Paul’s that expresses an essentially Jewish outlook incompatible with the rest of Romans.¹³ Douglas Campbell similarly sees Romans 1–4 being composed mostly of Jewish “justification theory” that Paul is quoting in contrast to his salvation of apocalyptic deliverance in Romans 5–8.¹⁴ But despite the brilliance of their champions, these idiosyncratic interpretations have not won wide acceptance.

Perhaps the oldest interpretation, going back to the patristic era, is that Paul is speaking about salvation for noble Gentiles before Christ. But Barth is incredulous: such “natural theology” is completely incompatible with Paul’s argument:

Paul says unmistakably that both Jews and Gentiles collectively and individually live under sin, that none is righteous, no, not one (3.10), that the whole world is guilty before God (3.19), that all have sinned and have no glory with God (3.23). How, then, can he assume in Rom. 2, even hypothetically, let alone in practice, that there are gentiles who are not merely noble but who keep and fulfill God’s Law without knowing it in its revealed form, and who are thus justified before God as its doers? Something is wrong here.¹⁵

A Purely Hypothetical Scenario?

Historically, the dominant Protestant reading has been that 2:6–11 present a purely hypothetical scenario. God would indeed reward anyone who led a life of perfect goodness according to the law — were such a thing possible. But since fallen humanity is in actual fact unable to keep the law, no one is able to grasp the reward. Those who earn salvation by good works turns out to be an empty set.

Douglas Moo is an able advocate for the hypothetical interpretation. He argues that in Romans 2 there is a sense in which “Paul opens the door to the salvation of Gentiles apart from the gospel … but only to slam it decisively in the next chapter”.¹⁶ In 2:6 Paul is setting forth the condition under which one might earn vindication at the final judgment. “Paul never denies the validity of this principle, but he goes on to show that no one meets the conditions necessary for this principle to become a reality”. In his view, 2:7 and 10 set forth what Lutherans have traditionally classified as “law”. After some consideration, he rejects the possibility Paul might be speaking of the believer; “the stress in v. 6 on man’s works as the criterion in the determination of a person’s salvation or condemnation makes it difficult to fit grace into the situation at all.”¹⁷

Westerholm (correctly) equates those in 2:7,10 who “do what is good” with the “doers of the law who will be justified” in 2:13. But he sees 3:20 (“by works of the law no flesh will be justified before him”) as the culmination of Paul’s argument that decisively closes off any possibility of final justification according to works. “No flesh must include justified believers. If they find approval at the final judgment, it cannot be because they produce the ‘works of the law’.”¹⁸

‘Heart-Obedient’ Gentiles

Wright, Barclay and Gathercole are among the interpreters who find the hypothetical view unconvincing. Gathercole believes Gentile Christians are in view, and a proper reading of Romans 2 will “point to a stronger theology of final vindication on the basis of an obedient life than is evident in most analyses of Pauline theology”.¹⁹ Barclay’s reading aims to remove a major barrier in interpreting the early chapters of Romans by demonstrating that “this eternal life is, for Paul, both an incongruous gift (6:3) and the fitting completion of a life of good work (2:6–7)”. Gentiles who fulfill this condition are no hypothetical group. “Paul is able to parade these heart-obedient Gentiles on the basis of years of experience in founding Gentile churches.”²⁰ They serve as evidence that God’s promise in Jeremiah 31 to write the law on the hearts of his covenant people is, amazingly, being fulfilled in the lives of Christian Gentiles by the power of the Spirit.

Wright too notes the polemical function actual Christian Gentiles might play in Paul’s diatribe. “Does ‘the Jew’ break the law? Very well, he shall be contrasted with the Gentile Christian, who ‘keeps the law’”.²¹ Although most of his attention is given to the later verses of Romans 2, Wright is particularly helpful in situating the chapter within Romans as a whole. He describes Romans 2 as “the joker in the pack”, unjustly neglected in standard treatments of Paul and the law.²² In actual fact, it raises questions which are not answered until chapter 8.

In both Romans 2 and Romans 8 Paul is talking about the final day of judgment. The “condemnation” which is done away for those “in the Messiah” in 8:1 and 8:33–34 is the ultimate condemnation spoken of in 2:1–11, the death-sentence which follows the negative verdict.²⁴

Wright adds, most helpfully, that “it is in Romans 8 that [Paul] states most fully both the role of the Spirit and the relation of the moral life to final justification”. It is the indwelling Spirit who produces in believers a way of life that conforms to the basic intent of the Torah.²⁵ Final justification will thus happen “on the basis of the totality of the life lived.”²⁶

Reconciling Justification by Faith and Judgement According to Works

The relationship between Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and his doctrine of final judgment according to works is a difficult one. Dane Ortlund offers no less than fourteen ways in which scholars have attempted to resolve this paradox. Some privilege justification by faith while others emphasize final judgment. But the most promising way forward seems to belong to those who prioritize neither, but ground them both in some more fundamental reality.²⁷ A classic Protestant view is to anchor both in faith itself — authentic faith which trusts and works. McGrath, for example, argues that “believers are judged on the basis of their works, seen as the natural outcome, result and expression of justifying faith. Believers are justified by faith, and judged by its fruit.”²⁸ But this view is unsatisfying: is human faith itself a strong enough ground for assurance at the final judgment?

A stronger solution, truer to Paul and richer theologically, can be traced back to Calvin: union with Christ. This theme is fundamental in Paul’s theology: the expression ‘in Christ’ and its variations occur over 150 times in Paul’s letters.²⁹ Justification and sanctification are thus not abstractions but inseparable realities in Christ. Calvin observes:

Although we may distinguish between them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces.³⁰

The new covenant gift of the Spirit is emphasized by other interpreters, but this should be seen as complementary to that of union with Christ. It is the Holy Spirit, after all, who is the bond of union between Christ and the believer.

Much like Wright, Schreiner argues that in 2:7,10 “Paul is speaking of Christians who keep the law by the power of the Holy Spirit.”³¹ He points to Rom 2:26–29 as evidence that “the Spirit’s work in a person produces obedience to the law,” adding, “The gift of righteousness which is given freely to believers is necessarily accompanied by the transforming work of the Spirit, for ultimately the gift of the Spirit cannot be separated from the justifying work of God.”³² Bell is thus making a false distinction when he states, “I can see nothing in the text to suggest Paul is speaking of the outworking of Christian faith. He must, I believe, be referring to fulfilling the law,” for through the Spirit Christians truly do fulfill the law.³³ Further evidence for this view comes from 8:4, where Paul states that Christ was sent “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”. As Fee observes,

The Spirit, promised as part of the new covenant, would produce the righteousness the former covenant called for but failed to produce. The Spirit has now been experienced by Jew and Gentile alike, and that quite apart from Torah. Thus the Spirit, as the eschatological fulfillment of the promised new covenant, plays a central role in Paul’s argumentation whenever Gentile inclusion, Torah-free, is the issue.³⁴

Far from positing an empty hypothetical, then, Paul is putting forward Gentile Christians as evidence of the power of the gospel: those who by faith are united to Christ by virtue of that very union live in the power of the Spirit and bear a lifetime of good deeds — a work of God’s own grace he will crown with everlasting life.

Citations

[1] Mark A. Seifrid, “Justified by Faith and Judged by Works: A Biblical Paradox and Its Significance,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 5.4 (2001), 84.

[2] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 411.

[3] John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 467 and N.T. Wright, “The Law in Romans 2,” in Paul and the Mosaic Law (Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1996), 136.

[4] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 108.

[5] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 611–12.

[6] Gorman, 415.

[7] Anthony C. Thiselton, Discovering Romans: Content, Interpretation, Reception (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 94.

[8] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. I (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 64.

[9] C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1975), 1:147.

[10] Colin G. Kruse, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 128.

[11] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 143.

[12] Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans. A Literary and Theological Commentary (Greenville: Smith & Helwys, 2001), 39.

[13] E.P Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 125–26. Quoted in Caneday, A B. “Judgment, Behavior, and Justification According to Paul’s Gospel in Romans 2,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 1.2 (2011), 156.

[14] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 528, 529. Cited in Canaday, 156.

[15] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.4, The Doctrine of Reconciliation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969), 8. Quoted in S.J. Gathercole, S. J., “A Law Unto Themselves: the Gentiles in Romans 2.14–15 Revisited,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 85 (2002), 28.

[16] Douglas J. Moo, “Romans 2: Saved Apart From the Gospel?” in Sigountos, James G., and William V. Crockett., eds, Through No Fault of Their Own? The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 142.

[17] Moo, Romans, 142.

[18] Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 83.

[19] Gathercole, 48.

[20] Barclay, 466.

[21] Wright, “The Law in Romans 2”, 134, 138.

[22] Ibid, 131.

[23] Wright, “Justification by (Covenantal) Faith to the (Covenantal) Doers,” in Rebekah A. Eklund and John E Phelan., eds, Doing Theology for the Church: Essays in Honor of Klyne Snodgrass (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014), 98.

[24] Ibid, 100–102.

[25] Ibid, 104–105.

[26] Wright, “Law in Romans 2”, 144.

[27] Dane C. Ortlund, “Justified by Faith, Judged According to Works,” JETS 52/2 (June 2009), 328–329.

[28] Alistair E. McGrath,“Justification,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 522.

[29] Mark A. Seifrid, “In Christ,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 436.

[30] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, Vols. 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.16.1.

[31] Schreiner, Romans, 115.

[32] Schreiner, “Did Paul Believe in Justification by Works? Another Look at Romans 2,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 3 (1993), 154–55.

[33] R.H. Bell, No One Seeks for God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 1.18–3:20 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1998), 142.

[34] Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 101.

--

--

Th.M. student at Regent College. Pastor of Tbilisi International Christian Fellowship. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Bart Byl

Th.M. student at Regent College. Pastor of Tbilisi International Christian Fellowship. Canadian in Georgia. 🇨🇦🇬🇪