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.
Awhile back I participated in a podcast series entitled, "Exploring the Garden Scene." During that time, a gentleman wrote and asked me, "Can you get a covenant creation out of Genesis 1-3 without using anything from the rest of the Bible?" I was incredulous! Yes, the question came from a professing preterist, who prides himself on "logic," and he was completely serious. I asked him in response, "Pick any passage from the Old Testament prophets that you believe is about the kingdom of Christ. Now, can you get the gospel out of that passage without using anything from the rest of the Bible?" He never answered me.
The more I study Genesis creation, the more I realize just how much we are missing when we isolate it from the rest of the Bible. Concerning the nature of Adam's transgression in "eating" from "the tree of the the knowledge of good and evil," and what that tree represents in the garden scene, here are some parallels between Genesis and the New Testament to consider:
Jesus said to the pharisees:
John 5: 37 And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape. 38 And ye have not his word abiding in you: for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not. 39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. 40 And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life...
The pharisees believed that through obeying the law, they had eternal life. In other words, they trusted in self-righteousness.
they are they [the Scriptures and the law] which testify of me.
What was Jesus saying? Paul explains:
Romans 3: 19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty ["sin revived, and I died"] before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
Galatians 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
The pharisees thought that "in them" (in the works of the law, in self-righteousness) they had life, but all the law did was show them their guilt. The purpose of the law was never to bring them life, it was to lead them to Christ (the tree of life):
Galatians 3: 24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
This is what Jesus was referring to when he said to the pharisees, "search the Scriptures....for they testify of me." But they were worshiping "the creature" (the law, and their own effort to keep it) rather than "the creator" (the Savior to whom the law pointed).
Now for the parallels to the garden scene:
Genesis 3: 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food ["in them you think you have eternal life"], and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. 7 And the eyes of them both were opened ["sin revived, and I died"], and they knew that they were naked ["that every mouth should be stopped and the world would be guilty before God"...for by the law is the knowledge of sin"]; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. 8 And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. 9 And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? 10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
Notice also in the above passage, that they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves, and yet, even after they had covered themselves, they were still aware of their nakedness before God, and were ashamed. Why? Because "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin."
Here is an undeniable parallel to the garden scene that brings to a fine point what the fig leaves with which Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves represent:
Isaiah 59:1 Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: 2 But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. 3 For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness. 4 None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity. 5 They hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper. 6 Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands.
We must understand that it was their works of law which God calls "works of iniquity." Again, why? Because by the law is the knowledge of sin. Attempting to be justified (declared innocent) by keeping the law only further reveals our true guilt. This is the self-perpetuating lie of "the serpent": first, in the garden, it told them that the law could bring them life; then, when their eyes were opened and they realized they were guilty and ashamed before God, they attempted to cover themselves with garments of their own making (ie, more self-righteous works). I think this is why Jesus told the pharisees that their father the devil was "a murderer and a liar from the beginning." The lie of the serpent has always been the same: what you believe will bring life (righteousness, and presence with God) instead brings death (guilt, shame, and separation from God).
Now, look at how beautiful this is (and notice again the parallel to the garden scene):
Revelation 3: 15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. 16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. 17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing [she saw that the tree (the works of the law) was good for food, and desirable to make one wise..."in them you think you have eternal life"] ; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: 18 I counsel thee to buy of me ["Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price".... ie, "not by works of righteousness we have done, but by His mercy he has saved us!"] gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness does not appear.
When Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves (their own works) they were still naked and ashamed, they were kept from the tree of life, and expelled from the presence of God to toil vainly in a "dry and thirsty land where there was no water." Now, when Christ covers us with white raiment (His righteousness, the garments of our salvation), the shame of our nakedness does not appear, we are given right to the tree of life in the presence of God , and invited "to drink of the water of life freely." That is what the entire Bible is about from beginning to end. Fig leaves in Genesis, to white raiment in Revelation.
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.