In Romans 1:18–3:19, Paul is laboring to show that Jews and Gentiles are all under the power of sin and that they will be without excuse at the judgment day if they do not receive the gift of God’s righteousness by faith in Christ. Romans 3:9 is the key summary verse, “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” The aim, according to Romans 3:19, is that “Every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God.”
So Paul deals with the Gentiles in Romans 1:18–32, and shows that the whole world is without excuse before God because the truth is available and known, but suppressed and disobeyed. Then in Romans 2:1–5, Paul shows that those who have access to special revelation and can pass judgment on the immoral pagans are in the same trouble because they judge others but do the same kinds of things themselves.
Now he comes to verses 6–10 and he describes the future judgment that every one of us — Jews and Gentiles — will face. And what he stresses is that the judgment will not be according to ethnic or religious background or knowledge because then God would have to be partial. But verse 11 says, “There is no partiality with God.” Instead, he says that judgment for eternal life and eternal wrath is “according to deeds.” Let’s read the exposition of verse 6 in the two pairs in verses 7–10:
“Faith is the bond that unites a person to Christ.”
[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. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
So the main point is: Jews and Greeks (that is, “Gentiles”) will get “eternal life” (verse 7), or “wrath and indignation” (verse 8) not in accord with Jewishness or any inherited distinctive, but “according to their works.” Jews may go first into heaven and first into hell, but whether they go to the one or the other will be decided the same way for them as for everyone else. That’s the main point of the text.
“According to Works” — What Is Not in Question
But here’s an urgent question. How does receiving eternal life or eternal wrath “according to works” fit with receiving eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ on the basis of God’s righteousness, not ours? In general, there are two possible answers to this question. But before I give them to you, let me make sure you see what is in question and what is not.
Here is what is not in question. We are not questioning whether we are justified, set right with God, and eternally secured not on the basis of our deeds, but on the basis of God’s own righteousness imputed to us through our faith in Christ alone. So, for example, Romans 3:28 says, “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Faith is the bond that unites a person to Christ, who is himself the foundation of justification.
The key of faith is even clearer in Romans 4:5: “But to the one who does not work, but believes in [that is, ‘trusts,’ ‘has faith in’] him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” So faith functions to unite us to Christ before we have the good deeds of godliness, and this faith is treated as if it were our righteousness because it unites us to God’s righteousness.
Again Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” So justification — getting right with God — is through faith, not deeds.
And finally, Romans 8:33–34 shows that what is at stake here is indeed the final judgment and eternal life, as in Romans 2:7. “Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? [future tense, namely, at the judgment day] God is the one who justifies.” In other words, no one is going to be able to override the judgment of God in declaring his elect ones acquitted on the basis of Christ’s death for them.
Then he states that basis in verse 34: “Who is the one who condemns? [implied: nobody! Why? Because . . .] Christ Jesus is he who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.” So the death of Christ in my place, and the justification (the righteousness God imputes) is the basis of the gift of eternal life, not our deeds. That’s what is not in question.
“According to Works” — What Is in Question
What is in question is how the judgment “according to works” here in Romans 2:6–10 fits together with that. I said that, in general, there are two possible answers to this question. One says that eternal life would be based on perfect obedience if anybody had it. But nobody does, and so the only way to eternal life is by faith in Christ. The other way says that God never promised eternal life on the basis of good deeds, but always makes good deeds the evidence of faith that unites us to God in Christ, who is the basis of eternal life.
Let me try to say it another way, using verse 7 in particular. Verse 7 says, “To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, [God will give] eternal life.” What does that mean? The first answer would say, it means that God would give eternal life on the basis of perfect obedience if anybody had it. But nobody does, and so the point of the verse is simply to stress the hopelessness of man without the gospel of grace.
The other answer would say, it means that God does indeed give eternal life to those who persevere in obedience not because this obedience is perfect or because it is the basis or the merit of eternal life, but because saving faith always changes our lives in the power of the Holy Spirit so that true believers persevere in doing good. In other words, a changed life of obedience to God’s truth (verse 8) is not the basis of eternal life, but the evidence of authentic faith, which unites us to Christ who is the basis of eternal life.
“Eternal life is always based on Jesus Christ and through our faith.”
Now, I think this second way of viewing these verses is correct. This is why verse 6 says, “[God] will render to every person according to his deeds,” not “on the basis of” his deeds, or “because of the merit of his deeds.” Eternal life is always based on Jesus Christ and through our faith. But since faith, by the Holy Spirit, always sanctifies or changes us into the image of Christ (one degree at a time, 2 Corinthians 3:18), there will be deeds that “accord with” this saving faith. So while eternal life will be awarded only to believers, it will be awarded “according to” — there will be an accord with — their deeds. There will be a way of life that God can put on display to demonstrate to the world that this person’s faith was real.
That’s the way I understand these verses. Let me give you some reasons for this understanding.
Not Earned by Deeds
1. The first reason is simply that the verses don’t look like they are hypothetical. They don’t sound that way. They sound straightforward, to the effect that God gives eternal life — not that he would, but that he does — to those who have “perseverance in good works.” This seems the most natural way to take the verses.
2. There is a clue in verses 4b–5 that Paul, in these verses, does not have perfect obedience in mind as the path to eternal life: “not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath . . .” Notice the importance of repentance.
It’s because they have unrepentant hearts that they are storing up wrath in the judgment. So if they had repentant hearts, they would not store up wrath at the judgment day. This is a pointer to the fact that Paul is not thinking in an all-or-nothing way about righteousness here. He is thinking that God is kind and merciful and willing to forgive people for their sins if they will repent and turn to him for mercy. He doesn’t stress yet what the basis of that mercy is in Christ’s death, but he does show that “perseverance in doing good” probably includes a repentant heart that depends on mercy for forgiveness for failures. That’s the path to eternal life.
3. Consider Romans 6:22. Here Paul describes the Christian life and how it relates to holiness and eternal life. He says, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit [literally: you have your fruit], resulting in sanctification [or holiness], and the outcome [the goal, telos], eternal life.” Now notice how eternal life is related to the life of a believer. It is the goal or the “outcome.” Of what? Of being enslaved to God (by faith, I would argue), which yields the fruit of holiness.
This is very close to what Romans 2:7 says. There it says that God will give eternal life to those who persevere in good work. Here it says that eternal life is the outcome of the holiness that comes from being freed from sin and enslaved to God.
4. Consider Romans 8:12–13. “So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh, for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” What is at stake here? What is at stake is death and life, and the meaning is clearly spiritual and eternal, not temporal — because people die and live temporally on a very different basis from what these verses say. So they are describing the path that leads to eternal life.
And what is it? Verse 13: “If you are living [this is actual lived-out behavior in view] according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body [notice that the issue is a practical battle with sin in our bodily life], you will live.” So the point again is the same as Romans 2:7. There it says that God will give eternal life to those who persevere in doing good; here it says that God will give eternal life to those who put to death the deeds of the body. That is how we persevere in doing good. We live by the Spirit through faith. The good deeds don’t earn eternal life. They are the fruit of depending on the power of the Spirit in faith.
5. Finally, consider Galatians 6:8–9. Galatians is the book closest to Romans in the argument it develops about justification by faith. So we are in the same orbit of thought. As I read these two verses, watch for how eternal life comes to Christians. Paul is speaking to the church: “The one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption [the opposite of immortality], but the one who sows to the Spirit [see Romans 8:13] will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap [eternal life] if we do not grow weary.”
“God himself is the Content and Goal of saving faith.”
This is virtually identical in thought to Romans 2:7. There God gives eternal life to those who persevere in doing good. Here in verse 9, if we don’t “lose heart in doing good” (which is the same as “persevering in doing good”) we will reap. Reap what? Verse 8: “The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”
Now, in none of these texts does it say that eternal life is earned by or merited by or based on good deeds. They simply say, in effect, that the final verdict of eternal life will accord with good deeds. They go together. And the reason they go together is not that works has replaced faith or that merit has replaced grace, but because the gospel of justification by faith is the power of God unto salvation. It is not a weak thing. The gospel does not come into a life and leave it under the dominion of sin. It comes in the power of the Holy Spirit. And where it is believed, trusted and cherished, it produces what Paul calls “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). And eternal life always accords with that.
Trust Christ to Bring You to the Father
The implication of this is plain: Tremble at the magnitude of what is at stake in your life! And trust Christ to bring you to the Father. And do you see what that implies?
One of the reasons there is false faith is that some people think they are trusting Christ to bring them to the Father, when they don’t even want the Father. They want their sins forgiven and they want to escape hell, but they don’t want God. They don’t love him. The very notion of knowing him and loving and wanting him above all things is foreign to them. So they may say that they are trusting Christ to bring them to the Father, but, in fact, they are trying to use Christ to get the gifts of God — not God. Don’t do that. Love God. Want God. Cherish God. Delight in God. God himself is the content and goal of saving faith.
Finally, when you trust Christ to bring you to the Father, you trust him to enable you to do whatever it takes to get to the Father. If there are good deeds that need to be done, you don’t turn from faith to works. You lean all the more on Christ who will work in you what is pleasing in God’s sight. When he died for you, he bought not only justification, but sanctification. If holiness is needed, holiness will be given to those who trust him.