I received this question from a friend in my small group the other day:
I am struggling with Romans 2: 1-16. It seems to go a bit against what I have more recently been understanding about God's Grace and Mercy and that works alone will not save us. That I understand, but what about 2:6-8?
Romans 2:6 "God will give to each person according to what he has done. 7 To those by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
I understand that if we are truly following God, then there shouldn't be a disparity in our lives between what we say and believe and what we do. I understand that we are not saved by works, but the integrity of our faith can be revealed through works? Help me put the wrath and judgment piece together with Grace and Mercy.
This is an important discussion, thanks for bringing it forward. I’d like to offer a few thoughts regarding the passage you have quoted—first considering the specific statement you are asking about in verses 6f regarding wrath and judgment and secondly considering the larger context of Romans.
Notice there are two groups of people being contrasted:
1. Those “who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality”
2. Those “who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness”
Those who do “good” and seek “glory, honor, and immortality” are those who are not destined for judgment and wrath. Therefore we know these to be believers. The “good” that we “do” which results in glory and immortality is to believe the gospel. In fact, Scripture is clear that belief in the gospel is the only way to glory and immortality. Consider the following:
John 6:28,29 Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."
2 Timothy 1:9,10 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,
So we know that those who are “doing good” in Romans 2 are believers in Christ. And no believer in Christ will ever, EVER experience judgment or wrath from God. To suggest otherwise really amounts to despising the work of Christ on the cross. There are many things we could talk about regarding what these believers were experiencing in the first century which required the “patience” of which Paul speaks. They were enduring intense persecution from not only the Romans, but also from the self-righteous Pharisees and Jews who were enemies of the gospel, and who were about to have God’s wrath poured out on them--which brings us to the identity of the second group: those “who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” Again, what is the “truth?” The truth is the gospel. To obey the truth is to believe the gospel. To disobey the truth is to reject the gospel. And it’s helpful to back up a couple of verses for the clearest confirmation of who these “disobedient” ones are:
Romans 2:5 But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,
Now back up even farther to chapter 1, which sets the context for this whole discussion. The wrath of God (the same wrath which is the subject of your question in chapter 2) was being or about to be revealed at the time of this writing against those “suppressed the truth.” Again, the truth is the gospel. And yes, we can prove this:
Rom 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.
Rom 1:17 For in it [the gospel of Christ] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH."
Now watch this:
Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is [present tense--it was happening or about to happen then] revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth [the truth is a synonym in this very context for the gospel in verse 16] in unrighteousness.
So, to sum up the difference between these two groups Paul is contrasting: those who “do good” believe the gospel, and those who are “self-seeking” (ie, they instead trust in themselves, or in their own righteousness) do not believe the gospel.
And some additional thoughts, considering again the larger context. If we keep reading in chapter 2 we will find continued confirmation that it is the self-righteous, unrepentant, Christ-rejecting Jews who were about to receive God’s judgment and wrath. Watch this:
Rom 2:17 Indeed you are called a Jew, and rest on the law [ie, you trust in self-righteousness], and make your boast in God [you claim to be serving God],
Rom 2:18 and know His will, and approve the things that are excellent, being instructed out of the law,
Rom 2:19 and are confident that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,
Rom 2:20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, having the form of knowledge and truth in the law.
Rom 2:21 You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal?
Rom 2:22 You who say, "Do not commit adultery," do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
Rom 2:23 You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? [he is exposing their hypocrisy]
Rom 2:24 For "THE NAME OF GOD IS BLASPHEMED AMONG THE GENTILES BECAUSE OF YOU," as it is written. [quoting Isaiah 52, ie, God’s name is being blasphemed because of your self-righteousness]
Rom 2:25 For circumcision [the “Jewishness” and legalism you are trusting in] is indeed profitable if you keep the law [but NO ONE CAN]; but if you are a breaker of the law [which all of you are], your circumcision has become uncircumcision [ie, your law-keeping is worthless, and gets you nothing].
Now this is the clincher, right here:
Rom 2:26 Therefore, if an uncircumcised man [a Gentile, one you despise as unclean and a law-breaker] keeps the righteous requirements of the law [WHAT?!], will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision?
Wait a minute. As we studied in Galatians, no one is justified by keeping the law, because no one CAN keep the law. As we read in James, to break one tiny part of it is to break the whole thing. So how can an “uncircumcised man” (a Gentile, and the fact that he is uncircumcised means he’s already broken the law, since the law requires circumcision! This is some riddle!) keep the “righteous requirements of the law” so that it turns him into a Jew? (That is essentially what is meant by “his uncircumcision will be counted as circumcision.") Paul explains it later in Romans (we HAVE to read Romans as a whole, because of course that is the way it was delivered). Remember the phrase from 2:26 above, “the righteous requirements of the law…” and watch this (remember, it is part of the same discussion by Paul):
Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh [ie, do not seek justification in the law], but according to the Spirit.
Rom 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.
Rom 8:3 For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh,
Rom 8:4 that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh [seeking justification/righteousness by keeping the law] but according to the Spirit [trusting in and receiving Christ’s righteousness].
Remember that Paul says in chapter 2 that anyone who keeps “the righteous requirements of the law” is counted as a Jew. In contrast to the ones who prided themselves in being Jews (keepers of the law, righteous in their own eyes, and superior in their own eyes because of their national/racial "Jewish" heritage). And here Paul continues by saying that those “righteous requirements of the law” ARE FULFILLED by Christ, IN us.
Finally, look at the last verses of chapter 2, which again clarify the contrast Paul was making at the beginning of the chapter:
Rom 2:28 For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly [ie, you self-righteous ones who think you are better than others because you are “Jews” are not “Jews” in any way that matters to God] or is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh;
Rom 2:29 but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. [ie, true “Jews,” true keepers of God’s law, are believers in Jesus Christ, who have been forgiven and cleansed by the cross, and who are now perfectly righteous in the sight of God.]
So to bring this full circle back to your question, how do we reconcile the statement in Romans 2 that God gives to each person “according to what he has done,” with His mercy and grace to believers? His mercy and grace is indeed lavished upon ANYONE who does “good”—or “the work of God,” which is to BELIEVE in Jesus. And when we abandon self-effort/self-righteousness, and trust in Christ’s righteousness, “the righteous requirement of the law is fulfilled in us. Christ fulfilled it, because we could not. And for us who have believed, for you and me, ”it has been fulfilled. Once and for all. “Therefore there is no condemnation.”
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, SO THAT we would be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“The Lord has brought forth our righteousness, come let us declare in Zion (Zion = the church, the assembly or congregation of believers) the work of our God.” (Jeremiah 51:10)
For further study, we also discuss this section of Romans 2 in this podcast, if you are interested in spanning out even farther to include a larger Scriptural context for Paul's comments.
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.