Examining Romans 2:6-8

 

“(God) will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8 ESV).

two questions

Like all of Scripture, Paul’s writings can lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, and this text is no exception. Two questions present themselves to the inquisitive reader of Romans 2:6-8.

  • First, there is the works question: is Paul teaching salvation by works here? If so, he would seem to be contradicting what he has written elsewhere, especially in Romans.
  • The second question might not be so obvious as the first, but it bears asking: What kind of judgment is Paul talking about? In other words, what is the nature of the divine wrath that Paul is alluding to? That is the wrath question.

the works question

Paul’s argument throughout the book of Romans is that works do not justify anyone – that is, no one is going to be declared righteous before God on the basis of works that he or she has done or will do.

  • “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (3:20).
  • “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28).
  • “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6).

Paul makes similar points in Galatians:

  • “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16).
  • “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (3:2).
  • “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them”” (3:10).

So, why does Paul begin his argument in Romans by putting works in a good light, insisting that God is going to award works of well-doing and obedience to the truth? Why does Paul say that works will lead to blessing when he later says that those who rely on works are under a curse?

the context of Romans 2

Part of the answer to questions like that is that Paul is addressing a certain audience in Romans 2, an audience who will understand the meaning of his words in a particular way. He had set up his argument in chapter one by referring to godless and ignorant pagans who suppress what little truth they know, and exchange that truth for a lie, leading to both idolatry and immorality. He concludes that God is storing up his wrath against them.

In chapter 2, Paul turns to the wiser, smug, Jewish part of his audience. He asks them this question: “Do you suppose … that you will escape the judgment of God?”.[1] They probably did. They probably felt that since their sin lives were less conspicuous than those of their Gentile neighbors, God would overlook them. After all, they were not guilty of such blatant idolatry and immorality as is common among the Gentiles.

But Paul’s message to those who were less sinful (or less openly sinful) was that they are going to be judged as well. No one will escape judgment because no one is sinless. But this God of judgment is also a God of grace. He has chosen to save some in spite of their sinfulness.

God will save the repentant

Looking down upon others who are caught in destructive lifestyles and behaviors is not an attribute of someone who is going to be saved. Paul tells the self-righteous Jews of Rome that in passing judgment upon others they are condemning themselves. He tells them that the fact that they are not experiencing some of the unpleasant consequences of blatant sin is due to God’s kindness and forbearance and patience.[2] But these outwardly good people are actually storing up wrath for themselves for judgment day.[3] Their good works will not save them on that day.

There are two reasons for this. First, all sin is repugnant to God, and he sees all sin. He is not blind to the sins of respectable people. He shows no partiality.[4] Second, those who are not blatantly godless or decadent will sin, and those sins will be found out among the rest of the planet. Paul tells these judgmental Jews that their sins are causing his name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles.[5]

Paul urges these who are self-satisfied with their almost righteousness to repent of their sins. He tells them that God’s patience is meant to lead them to repentance. He pleads for them not to rely on their good works to save them.

Repentance is the beginning of the process that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those who will be ultimately saved. The author of Hebrews listed two things that are foundational to every Christian life: “repentance from dead works and … faith toward God.”[6] The act of repenting from one’s sins takes salvation out of the “me” camp and puts it into the “God” camp. It is acknowledgment that one’s attempt to live the perfect life did not work. Thus, it is a plea for mercy and grace. The “patience in well-doing” by which the believer seeks “glory honor and immortality” does not even begin until after repentance. To suggest that someone can become saved and do actual good works without repenting is like suggesting that someone can live without being born.

the wrath question

For those who do not repent and begin a life of seeking “glory, honor and immortality”, God’s “wrath and fury” await. Like grace and repentance, this final punishment will be meted out to everyone regardless of ethnic or national pedigree. It will come to “every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.”[7]

What is the nature of this wrath? We know that God’s wrath is currently being revealed against the ungodly.[8] The destructive and abusive lifestyles of those who do not know God are killing them regularly. The consequences of their choice to suppress the truth and obey unrighteousness destroys them, either gradually or suddenly. But for some, God’s wrath does not seem to lead to such consequences. For them, God’s wrath is being stored up until judgment day, when it will be revealed all at once.[9]

The book of Revelation describes that event this way:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12-15).

This vision of divine judgment was revealed to John on Patmos. It is written in a different genre than Paul’s description of wrath and fury in Romans 2, but there can be no doubt that it describes the same future event. Comparing both texts reveals the following similarities.

1. Both descriptions are of judgment meted out by God.

2. Both depictions include all humanity.

3. Both descriptions include a division of humanity into two groups: one will suffer wrath while the other will receive life.

4. Both descriptions have the same basis for judgment: the evil works done in this life.

5. Both descriptions portray a specific event in the future. Paul calls it “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”[10] John sees that it will take place at the end of the age, just before the creation of a “new heaven and a new earth.”[11]

There is no indication in either of these passages of this judgment taking place in the intermediate state (the time between death and the resurrection). Although Paul says that wrath and fury awaits the wicked, he does not say that this judgment will take place when the wicked man dies. Instead, he speaks of an event in the future when God’s wrath will be poured out on all the wicked together, at the same time. He sees the same thing that John sees.

Likewise, John describes an event that takes place at the end of the age, not a process that goes on from a person’s death onward. He sees all the dead together in the same place, and then judgment begins. All the wicked are judged “according to what they had done.”[12] This allows for judgment that properly addresses each person’s sin. The notion that people will be tormented during the intermediate state as punishment for their sins is not supported by either of these texts.

the end of judgment

John sees this judgment coming to a completion, an end. He says of the wicked “they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”[13] The very next verse says … “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.”[14] The symbol is the lake of fire, a large body of fire that does what fire does: it destroys. The reality that the symbol portrays is not a process but an event: the second death. Once that event is over, God is free to recreate, which he does by making a new heaven and earth. The first heaven and earth (together with the lake of fire) had passed away.[15]

Paul’s description of judgment in Romans 2 shows the same result. After an appropriate time of receiving God’s wrath and fury for their sins, all of the wicked are said to “perish.”[16] Thus Paul divides the world into two groups: those “who are being saved” and “those who are perishing.”[17] Paul teaches that all of Christ’s enemies will be destroyed, then the “last enemy to be destroyed is death” itself.[18] Paul gives no place or time for a final punishment that does not end.

the purpose of God’s wrath

Paul’s argument in Romans is that all humanity stands under the judgment of God because of sin, thus all need a Savor. He calls for the ignorant Gentile to repent and turn to God. He calls for the self-righteous Jew to repent and turn to God. He warns that a hell of just punishment awaits both.

The wrath and fury of God can be called just for two reasons: it appropriately deals with the rebellion and sins of each individual who will be punished, and will appropriately deal with the blot of sin in the universe as a whole. Once the lake of fire has burned up the last trace of rebellion in the universe, God will be free to accomplish the purpose for which his wrath was devised: granting life to his redeemed for all eternity.

That is why Paul, eager to share the good news of eternal life with the Romans, had to preface his gospel with the bad news about hell. God has a plan for eternal peace and righteousness. In order for that plan to come about, there must first be wrath and fury poured out upon those who do not repent.

both sides of the story

We seek to win our neighbors to Christ. We want them to know the joy of living with him and for him. We want them to be saved for all eternity. But we are often reluctant to talk to them about the consequences if they reject God’s offer. We do not want to be branded as a “fire and brimstone” kind of Christian. Paul in Romans 2 shows how to appropriately tell both sides of the story of God’s salvation. Our neighbors might not be interested in being saved until we can explain to them what they need to be saved from.


[1] Romans 2:3.

[2] Romans 2:4.

[3] Romans 2:5.

[4] Romans 2:11.

[5] Romans 2:24.

[6] Hebrews 6:1. Both terms figure into Paul’s introduction to salvation in Romans (1:5, 8, 12, 17; 2:4).

[7] Romans 2:9.

[8] Romans 1:18.

[9] Romans 2:5.

[10] Romans 2:5.

[11] Revelation 21:1.

[12] Revelation 20:13.

[13] Revelation 20:13.

[14] Revelation 20:14.

[15] Revelation 21:1.

[16] Romans 2:12.

[17] 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:10.

[18] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

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