Romans (Part 10) – Judgment of Works (2:1–11)
Paul began chapter 2 saying that anyone who charges others with and condemns them for wrongdoing should realize that they too do wrong and are guilty of condemnation. Paul is presenting (on the basis of chapter 1) the fact of universal guilt (which he will sum up at the end of this entire section—1:18 through 3:20—by saying “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [3:23]). But here in chapter 2, he has just begun to emphasize this point.
Paul goes on to draw the logical conclusion for this universal guilt—God will be the one to judge, and he will judge based on the good and bad works of his created image bearers.
At the end of verse 5, Paul refers to God’s activity as the time when “God’s righteous judgment is revealed.” Back in chapter 1, verse 16, Paul introduced the topic for this letter—the gospel. In verse 17, Paul informed us that the gospel revealed God’s righteousness. Here in chapter 2, verse 5, Paul claims further that God’s final judgment will also reveal his righteousness. Recall that righteousness means faithfulness to a covenant. Paul is emphasizing God’s faithfulness to his Covenant of Operational Essence—the covenant among the Trinity that the Persons of the Godhead will always act in accordance with their one essence of truth, goodness, and beauty. Being faithful to that covenant means that God must judge between good and evil. And as God does judge between good and evil—embracing the good and separating from the evil—his faithfulness in doing so is his righteousness. So his judgment does actually reveal his righteousness.
Paul goes on, then, in verse 6 to state that, in God’s judgment of humans, he “will repay each one according to his works.” Now, we can see the Roman Christians to whom this letter is written, nodding in agreement that those non-Christians of Paul’s imaginary audience (see Part 9 for discussion of the imaginary audience) will surely be judged for their works. And they may also be thinking themselves out of the spotlight, because, well, they are Christians. God will not judge them by their works. They belong to Christ by faith.
But Paul is not making a distinction here. Verse 6 is simply an Old Testament quote that Paul is applying, not to a subset of people, but rather to all. It is a seeming universal fact: “God will repay each [that is, everyone] according to his works.”
This statement is found a couple of times in the OT. One occurrence is in Proverbs 24:11–12. There Solomon urges the people to help “deliver them that are led away to death, and redeem them that are appointed to be slain; spare not your help.” Solomon here says that it is a good thing—a good work—to help someone in need when you can offer that help. But, Solomon goes on to say that if you turn aside from giving that help throwing out the excuse “I do not know this man,” then you should realize that “the Lord knows the hearts of all [including your heart]; and he that formed breath for all, he knows all things, who renders to every man according to his works.” Solomon’s implied statement is that God will judge you based on your works—if you give help, it is a good work; if you refuse help, it is an evil work.
We find another instance of this expression in Psalm 62. David spends the Psalm speaking of God being our rock and salvation—the one in whom we may trust. David urges the people not to trust in men or wealth. And he is urging this trust because of the evil people that attack them. David ends the Psalm saying that “God will repay [those evil people] each according to his works.” Again, the emphasis is a declaration of God’s universal judgment on all, rendering to “each one according to his works.”
Paul goes on in Romans 2 to explain this further in verses 7 through 10, but notice even in these verses he gives no relief yet to his actual (Roman Christian) audience who cling to faith in Christ to keep them from a judgment of works. In verse 7, Paul says those who seek glory, honor, and immortality will receive eternal life. (The glory and honor spoken of here are not selfish glory or honor for self. Glory is the manifestation of someone’s worth. God’s glory, then, is the manifestation of his worth—his truth, goodness, and beauty. Also, the word translated immortality, may be legitimately translated that way. However, the Greek root for mortal and immortal is associated with that which decays and doesn’t decay—that which corrupts or is not corrupted. Therefore, the idea with this word may be better conveyed if we translate it as incorruption rather than immortality. So then, implied is the idea that those who seek the glory of God, honor his TGB, and wish not to be corrupted by the world’s sin are those who receive eternal life. Those, however, who do seek selfish interests of faithlessness (unrighteousness) receive wrath and indignation (verse 8). Paul continues in verse 9 saying that those who do evil are destined for affliction and distress. But (verse 10) those who do good receive glory, honor, and peace. These ideas are presented as a chiasmus. Point 1 (verse 7) involves seekers of good. That idea matches with the last point—point 4 (verse 10)—concerning the doers of good. The central points identify Paul’s emphasis here—the judgment of wrongdoers. Those that seek evil are shown in point 2 (verse 8) and those who do evil are mentioned in point 3 (verse 9). Paul therefore ties the seeking of evil with the doing of evil and the seeking of good with the doing of good. That correlation is exactly Jesus’s point in Matthew 7 as he tells his listeners a good tree (the good seeker) produces good fruit (good works), and the bad tree (the evil seeker) produces bad fruit (evil works). It is also the same connection we see with our first parents, Adam and Eve. Their sin was in seeking evil—the removing of trust from God and placing it in themselves, but that seeking of evil was actuated in the doing of evil as they took the forbidden fruit and ate.
Paul emphasizes that the punishment and reward resulting from judgment are for the Jew first and also to the Greek (or Gentile). Here his point is not to focus on the Jew getting something first. His point meshes with his overall emphasis on universality not distinguished by class of people. In other words, everyone who does wrong—Jew or Gentile—will receive wrath; everyone who does good—Jew or Gentile—will receive life. This understanding is his conclusion in verse 11: “There is no favoritism with God.”
Now, let’s go back to a point I was emphasizing earlier concerning the judgment of all people according to their works. Paul’s Roman Christian audience may have gotten a little nervous as Paul spoke these words because surely, they may have thought, he’s not talking about us! We are with God by faith not by works. And we Christians of today may think the same thing as we read Paul’s words. But Paul is trying to present an idea that will play out logically and completely through the rest of his letter. However, we are going to steal his thunder right now to understand this point so that we can follow his trajectory as he continues to write. So then, how can Paul, knowing that we come to God through Jesus by faith, assert so dogmatically that in the final judgment, all people will be judged by their works?
Let’s begin by rehearsing the Trinitarian covenants. The Covenant of Operational Essence tells us that God, in his Persons, will always operate according to his essence—truth, goodness, and beauty. The Covenant of Creative Purpose tells us that God created to bring about everlasting love relationship with his image bearers. So God created to be faithful to his Covenant of Creative Purpose, and as he created, he pronounced all things good to be faithful to his Covenant of Operational Essence. He then entered into a covenant with his image bearers called the Covenant of Life. Here he obligated himself to provide his TGB to his image bearers in loving care. For their part, the image bearers were obligated to trust in God for that TGB.
Well, the problem came about when sin entered the picture. The image bearers did not fulfill their obligations—they failed in faithfulness—they were unrighteous. Their failure created a seeming predicament for God. He was obligated by his Trinitarian Covenant of Operational Essence to operate in TGB, which meant he should judge his image bearers, resulting in their permanent estrangement from God. But if he did so, he would be unfaithful (unrighteous) in regard to his Trinitarian Covenant of Creative Purpose for everlasting love relationship with his image bearers. The Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption was initiated by God to solve this dilemma.
Now, here is an important point. The Redemption Plan was not put in place to replace the Covenant of Operational Essence. The Redemption Plan was necessary so that God could be faithful to both his other Trinitarian covenants. Here’s how it worked. All humans were unrighteous, having committed evil works. At the final judgment when all humans are judged based on their works (Ro 2:6), humans would all be sentenced to death (everlasting separation) based on their evil works and the righteous judgment of God. In the Covenant of Redemption, God decided that he himself would take on human form to rescue his image bearers. Thus, Jesus came in the flesh. Jesus did not sin—in other words, Jesus did only that which is good—the reflecting of God’s TGB in all his life. Based on those good works that Jesus, the human, did, Jesus, the human, was given life (everlasting relationship) with God. But, instead of simply resting in that relationship, Jesus gave up his life—took on death. Was his death justified? No! He committed no evil works to condemn him. Therefore, his death had no justification. Because there was no justification for it, he could offer it to us. We, accepting his death as satisfaction for our own death requirement for our evil works, can then be free from our evil works. That is where faith comes in. By faith, we believe in Jesus. By faith we trust in his work that brings us back to dependence on the TGB of God. By faith, then, the Holy Spirit comes to indwell us. By faith we are born into his lineage (after being removed from Adam’s by the death we received from Jesus).
One more important point must be made to close the entire loop. We still face the Great White Throne judgment at the end of the age. That judgment is still one based on works. But thankfully, our evil works have been paid for by the death Jesus gave us. What is left then for us we find exhorted throughout the New Testament but made poignantly clear in Ephesians 2:10: “For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” With our evil works resolved through Jesus’s death, we may now walk in the good works resulting from seeking God’s glory, his honor, and incorruption (Ro 2:7). Thus, as we stand before the Great White Throne, all our evil works are gone, having been resolved by Jesus’s death. All we have are those good works of believing in Jesus. And thus, we too may be judged by works, resulting in everlasting love relationship with God.
Notice carefully, this plan is not an exchange as some people have characterized it. We do not give Jesus our sins so that he becomes guilty of them, and in exchange he gives us his righteous works. We are indeed saved because Jesus is righteous, but it is not an exchange one for the other. It is the perfect activity of our perfect Savior to gift us with the resolving payment for our penalty of sin so that we may be declared righteous by Spirit-indwelled leading toward God’s truth, goodness, and beauty, resulting in good works.
In this magnificently wonderful plan, God has made a way to reconcile us to him while he remains righteous—faithful to both his Trinitarian covenants of Operational Essence and Creative Purpose. He does not put one covenant aside in favor of another. Rather he is righteously faithful in fulfilling all. This good news is what excited Paul and prompted him to write this letter. And this is his trajectory as he discusses the working of God in this gospel through Romans.