Whatever else our text teaches — and it teaches many things — one thing is abundantly clear and immeasurably important for us and for our mission in this modern, secular world: namely, when your life is over on this earth, and this present age is over on this planet, God will give you either eternal life or wrath and indignation. You will receive either glory and honor and peace or you will receive tribulation and distress. Heaven or hell awaits you when you die. And both will last forever.
“Heaven or hell awaits you when you die. And both will last forever.”
Let’s make sure we see this fundamental reality in this text. Verse 6: “God will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [he will render] eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [he will render] wrath and indignation. [Now he reverses the order and gives the same alternatives again, lest we miss the point.] There will be tribulation and distress [corresponding to verse 8: “wrath and indignation”] for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace [corresponding to verse 7: “eternal life”] to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
So, whatever else you see here, please don’t miss this. What could be more important or more relevant or more urgent or more immense or more captivating than your happiness or misery for all eternity?
For all Stages of Life
Children, this is very important for you. Someday you are going to die. I hope it will be when you are very old and full of years. But you might be six or sixteen when you die. And when you die, you will either enter eternal life with God or go away under his eternal anger and misery forever. You don’t have to be afraid about this. God has given his Son, Jesus, to die for sinners so that everyone who trusts in him will not go to hell, but have eternal life (John 3:16). But you do need to care about this. So listen carefully today and ask your daddy or mommy to help you be sure that you will go to heaven and not to hell.
And teenagers, be wise and set your minds to think about what really matters in this world. Don’t be foolish and give your best energies to things that last a moment and then are gone. Don’t think that you will live a long time and deal with heaven and hell when you are old. Every day the news carries stories about teenagers dying suddenly. And if you put it off, what you may find is that your heart is so infused with the mindset of this world that you are no longer able to feel a serious spiritual affection.
Oh how many times I heard my father say the ominous words of Ecclesiastes 12:1, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” Few things are more to be feared than a godless, miserable old age unable to delight in heaven or fear hell. Do not presume that you will get serious about eternity when you are old. Do it now.
And all you married couples and single people in the prime of your life, beware of being swept into the all-consuming demands of your careers only to find yourselves gasping for some fun and entertainment on the weekend, finding your relief from worldly work in worldly fun. And waking — perhaps — someday to realize you have no taste for things of God. You have become a connoisseur of restaurants, and videos, and movies, and sports, and stocks, and computers, and a hundred transient things. And all the while, your sense of heaven and of hell has died. Wake up before it is too late. And tremble at these things today. And set your minds to think about the biggest issues in the universe: eternal life or wrath.
And all you older saints (or maybe some who are not saved), don’t hide from this fast-approaching, all-important question of where, in just a few short years or months, your soul will be. Oh, may God give you grace to think of it and know that you are ready, with the righteousness of Christ, to enter into life and not to fall into the hands of omnipotent wrath.
Give over to Play
I feel such a burden for us as a church to swim against the tide of almost every current in our culture. More and more and more, America is a nation given over to play. The industries of play are huge! Houses are built today with entertainment centers. Computers and videos and television and stereo all coordinate to give us ever more stimulating and captivating distractions from the realities of the world. When we need to be dreaming for the glory of Christ about how to spend our lives alleviating ignorance and sickness and misery and lostness, we are becoming more and more addicted to amusement.
Make a little test of evangelical vocabulary, and calculate, for example, the increasing frequency with which we use the world “fun” to describe almost everything we like. But when do we describe our good experiences as “meaningful” or “significant” or “enriching” or “ennobling” or “worthwhile” or “edifying” or “helpful” or “strengthening” or “encouraging” or “deepening” or “transforming” or “valuable” or “eye-opening” or “God-exalting”?
Examine yourself with this text: whatever else it teaches, this is clear, it teaches that after death there is eternal life and glory and honor and peace, and there is eternal wrath and indignation and tribulation and distress. And in the twinkling of an eye, even before this service is over, you could be irreversibly in the one or the other. I am a watchman on the wall. And I have warned you as clearly as I know how. Get ready and stay ready.
“Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Live in the light of eternity. And I do mean light, not shadow. When you have come to know your God, and love his Son so much that you can say, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain,” then living in the light of eternity will replace your “fun” with deeper, higher, wider, longer, more unshakable, more varied, more satisfying, more durable, more solid pleasures than all the fun that entertainment could ever give. Oh come, and let us be a different breed of people for the few short years we have to live upon this earth! Dream some dream of making your life count for Christ and his Kingdom. “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Land Mines and Oil Gushers
Now, what I’ve been saying from the depths of this text relates to its surface points the way landmines and oil gushers beneath the ground relate to walking around on the ground. They can either blow you up or make you rich. But knowing they are there gives a certain seriousness to life as you walk around on the ground where they are buried. So let’s walk around for a few final minutes on the ground of this text to see the surface points and get ourselves ready for what we will do with this text next week.
In Romans 1:18–32, Paul has shown that Gentiles are under the power of sin and are without excuse before the judgment of God. Therefore, they need the gospel that he announced in Romans 1:16–17. Now in Romans 2, Paul is making the same point about the Jewish people who have the moral law in Scripture. They too are under the power of sin and without excuse before the judgment of God. To show that is the main aim of this chapter.
So Paul starts in verse 1: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.” He repeats the same indictment in verse 3: “You pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself.” And again in verse 5: “Because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” So the main point of verses 1–5 is that Jewish people who have the moral law but don’t keep it, will perish on the day of wrath. And God will be just.
Then in verse 6, Paul gives a general statement in defense of this indictment. He says, “[God] will render to each person according to his deeds.” In other words, judgment will not accord with your Jewishness or Gentile status, or your intellect, or family or race or nationality or any such thing. Because, as verse 11 says, “There is no partiality with God.” In the end, the public evidence at the Judge’s bench will be good deeds or bad — and the same for Jew and Gentile.
Path to Life or Judgment
And so in verses 7–10, Paul now spells out, in two pairs of verses, this judgment according to works. Verses 7 and 10 are about how to have life. And verses 8 and 9 are about how to have wrath. Take the positive pair first, and notice the path to life. Verse 7: “To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God will render] eternal life.” Then verse 10: “[God will give] glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” So the path to life is “persevering in doing good” in verse 7 and “doing good” in verse 10.
Then consider the negative pair, and notice the path that leads to wrath. First, verse 8: “But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [God will render] wrath and indignation.” And then verse 9: “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek.” So the path that leads to wrath is selfish ambition and disobedience to the truth and obedience to unrighteousness and doing evil.
“Dream something big for making your life count for Christ and his Kingdom.”
In other words, Jews and Gentiles are equally liable to judgment. They are both under the power of sin. In fact, when Paul says in verses 9 and 10 — in relation to both eternal life and eternal wrath — “to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” I think he wants to say, yes, the Jews go first. It may be first to heaven or to hell. But the criterion, whether to the one or to the other, is the same as for everybody else.
So the point of all these verses is that Jews as well as Gentiles are liable to judgment, because that judgment will be according to the life we have lived, not according to whether we are Jews or Gentiles.
“According to Works”
Now that raises a question that we will deal with fully next week. Are these verses only giving a hypothetical way to heaven — “according to works”? Or is this the real way to heaven? In other words, does verse 7 really mean, “To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, God would give eternal life if they could do it, which they can’t and therefore have to have the gospel of grace”? And does verse 10 mean, “[God will give] glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek if indeed they can do good, which they can’t, and so need the gospel of grace”?
In other words, is the point of these verses to describe a hypothetical way to heaven along the path of obedience, just to show that no one can walk it, and that therefore everyone needs the gospel? Or should these verses be taken at face value, so that they mean that the path to heaven is really the path of obedience, and judgment really will accord with works?
Would it be a contradiction with the gospel of free and sovereign grace if that gospel were powerful enough that all who truly believed it were radically changed by it and came to heaven on the path of persevering obedience? If that were true — and I think it is true — then the works that count would be the works of faith, and at the judgment they would be the evidence of saving faith in Christ. And our salvation would accord with them, but not be based on them.
That’s what I will try to show next Sunday. And I urge you to ponder this immensely important issue for your own life. Because beneath the surface of the ground where we are walking, there are landmines and oil gushers. And everything is at stake in how we walk.