For those who love the truth of Romans 3:27 and 4:5—that we are justified by faith alone apart from works of the law—Romans 2:6-16 can be a tough, even unsettling passage. But it is vital that we understand this passage so that our minds and hearts remain clear and our walk with Christ unhindered. Every passage of Scripture is given to us as a gift from a wise and good God, and spiritual blessing comes by wrestling with difficult texts, not setting them aside in favor of familiar, less intimidating passages.
In Romans 2:6-11, Paul describes how God will conduct the final judgment. Drawing from Old Testament precedent, the apostle explains that God will render to each man “according to his works” (Rom 2:6; see Ps 62:12; Prov 24:12; Jer 17:10; 32:19). Every member of the human race—Jew and Gentile—will be judged impartially and according to the same standard.
He 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. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Rom 2:6-11)
It is important for Paul to underscore the impartiality of God’s judgment at this point in his argument. Throughout all of Romans 2:1-29, Paul is speaking specifically to Jews who trusted in their religious heritage and their possession of the law for their right standing with God, but who were not walking in obedience to the very law they possessed. These Jews had rightly diagnosed the condemned status of the idolatrous Gentiles (Rom 2:2), but they were oblivious to their own sin and hypocrisy, despite the fact they had been given every spiritual privilege and advantage (see Rom 2:17-18; 3:1-2; 9:4-5). It was not enough to possess the Word of God, hear it, and teach it to others (2:13-24). Obedience to that Word is a necessary component in determining one’s eternal destiny.
But if justification is by faith alone and wholly apart from works, how can Paul argue that God grants eternal life “according to works.” Following Richard Gaffin, I believe it is most helpful to draw a distinction between our initial justification, which is on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, and our reward of eternal life and final justification, which is according to works. But more on that in a moment.
Romans 2:13: The Role of Works in Our Final Justification
Within Romans 2:6-16, verse 13 stands as perhaps the most troubling for those who hold fast to the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works. What can Paul mean when he says, “It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God but the doers of the law will be justified?” There are currently three major interpretive positions on this passage. I will briefly outline them here.
Hypothetical Justification – According to this view, Paul recognizes that the Jews were relying on their mere possession of God’s law and their supposed religious works (e.g., circumcision) for right standing with God. In order to confront and undermine their false confidence, Paul contends that, “It is not the hearer of the law that is righteous before God, but the doer of the law will be justified” (2:13). Paul is not suggesting that these Jews could justify themselves by doing the law: he will state emphatically just a few verses later that no one can be justified by keeping the law (3:19-20). Rather, he is reminding his fellow countrymen that justification by the law requires total obedience to it, which is impossible. If justification could be awarded on the basis of keeping the law, a person would have to fulfill the law in its totality. Because of our sin and the comprehensive demands of the law, however, such a task cannot be accomplished.
Final Justification On the Basis of Works – A recent view, popularized by N. T. Wright, attempts to resolve the problem by arguing that Paul is referring to final justification in 2:13. That is, it is the doer of the law who will be justified—declared righteous—in the final judgment. There is initial justification when we believe in Jesus, and there is final justification; and this final justification is “on the basis of the entire life.”
Final Justification According to Works – This view also sees Romans 2:13 as referring to final justification, but proponents of this view make a sharp distinction between justification that is according to works and justification on the basis of works. Our justification is only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and therefore apart from works. This justification, however, is the same as our final justification. That is, the justification we received at first faith in Christ is our future justification brought into the present. Those whom God declares righteous in the future will be those whom he has already justified in the present. Nevertheless, those who are justified (and, therefore, will be justified) are those who will produce good works and will be found to be doers of the law. Their final justification, then, will be according to works, but only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness.
The problem with the first view is that it doesn’t, in my judgment, make comprehensive sense of the context of Romans 2:6-16. And the second view drifts into works-righteousness by its “on the basis of” language whether its proponents intend it to or not. At best, the language is unhelpful and leaves the position somewhat ambiguous. It is the last position that I believe accords best with the context of Romans 2:6-16 while guarding both the necessity of works and the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ’s righteousness alone.
Final Judgment in Accordance with the Evidence, Not in Opposition to It
We must keep in mind that Paul is laboring to undermine the Jew’s false hope in the mere possession of the law. In order to level this false security, Paul reminds the Jews that a person’s reception of eternal life or final justification will not be according to one’s religious heritage, one’s possession of the law, or one’s ability to teach it (see 2:17-24).
Rather, God will impartially judge all mankind, and by the same standard. Those who are patient in well-doing and seek for glory, honor, and immortality, will be rewarded with eternal life (2:7, 10). These are the same ones who are the doers of the law and will receive eschatological justification (2:13). Those who are self-seeking and obey unrighteousness will receive eternal wrath (2:8-9). Paul is not referring here to generic good works as though philanthropy without faith in Christ is all that one needs to gain attain eternal life. No, those who produce true good works are those whose heart has been changed by the Spirit (see Rom 2:29).
These good works, however, do not atone for one’s sin, nor do they add to one’s justification that is possessed by faith alone. A Christian’s eschatological justification is the same justification they received at initial faith in Christ and is only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. Brian Vickers explains,
There are not multiple justifications, nor several temporary verdicts handed down from God. If Paul were asked, “Are you justified?,” his answer would not be, “For now, at least.” It may sound a little confusing, but God’s declaration of righteousness over the believer in Christ is his future, end-time verdict given in the present. To put it another way, when we come to faith in Christ, our justification in the present is the same justification that will be declared publicly in the future at the resurrection and judgment (Justification by Grace through Faith, 158; emphasis original).
But one who is freely justified by faith alone will continue to exercise that same faith throughout his or her life. This faith will produce the kinds of works described in 2:7 and 10. Paul also believes that Christians are able to fulfill the law by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:4; cf. 2:13). When God makes the final pronouncement of “justified” at the final judgment, therefore, it will be in accordance with the evidence, not in opposition to it. The evidence is not what justifies someone, but it does demonstrate that God’s final judgment cooresponds with reality.
When God declares a person righteous at the final judgment, he is declaring something that was already true prior to the final judgment, and the evidence that it was already true is genuine, from-the-heart doing of the law. So God renders to the believer eternal life according to his or her works, for this believer had by patience in well doing, through faith, sought for glory, honor, and immortality. Again: the reward of eternal life and final justification will be in accordance to the evidence, not contrary to it.
Determining a Fruit’s Origin
A helpful illustration for how God judges according to works was suggested last week at our Stanford Bible study by one of our regular attendees, William Bailey. He proposed that at the final judgment God will examine our works like one examines fruit to determine the origin of the fruit. That is, the fruit will, in and of itself, demonstrate whether it came from true faith in Christ or not.
An orange, for example, is, on its own, able to prove its origin. A person only needs to see the fruit in order to determine from what kind of tree it came. If it is an orange, it came from an orange tree. Similarly, when God evaluates our works at the final judgment, he will be able to discern whether that fruit came from true faith in Christ or whether it came from unbelief. True faith alone in Christ is what justifies us, and true faith alone is what produces the kinds of works described in Rom 2:7, 10 and 13. A person with true faith will be patient in well-doing while seeking for glory, honor, and immortality (2:7, 10), he will fulfill the law through the Spirit (2:13), and will, therefore, receive eternal life and justification at the final judgment.
Nevertheless, when God examines the fruit at the final judgment, he does not say, “This fruit is what purchased your justification” or “this fruit atoned for your sin.” God does not count the fruit as righteousness for our justification or atonement for our sin; only Christ’s death and resurrection are reckoned by God to count for our justification. But the fruit—the evidence—of our justification will be manifest at the final judgment. The fruit will demonstrate that it came from a good tree (see Matt 7:17-19). The final judgment and the reward of eternal life, therefore, will according to works, but not on the basis of works.
We might also think of it this way. The oranges produced by the orange tree do not itself make an orange tree an orange tree. The oranges are simply the product—the proof—of what the tree really is. When I examine the orange and conclude, “This came from an orange tree,” I am making a judgment about the orange tree that is according to its fruit. The kind of fruit corresponds with the kind of tree, but the fruit did not make the tree.
A Fitting Declaration
When N. T. Wright and others who argue that our final justification is on the basis of works they are saying, implicitly, that our works somehow add to our justification. If this is what they mean, then this is works-righteousness, plain and simple. But these theologians are correct to draw our attention to the truth that works are a necessary aspect of true faith. The final judgment will be according to works as Paul says plainly in Romans 2:6. These works do not justify us, but they do provide evidence that we are justified.
Nor do our works done in the power of the Spirit provide the basis on which we will be justified in the final judgment. God is not waiting for his justified saints to complete some works in order to justify them in the future. Justification, as we’ve already noted, both present and future, is wholly based on Christ’s righteousness alone. The justified saint, however, will produce good works like an orange tree will produce oranges. A believer’s final justification and reward of eternal life, therefore, will be a fitting declaration and reward in light of how they lived. Likewise, it would be unfitting for God to declare person righteous in the final judgment if they merely possessed the law and taught it to others yet neglected to obey it.
So what does this mean for professing believers? First, those of us who love the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Christ alone must take this study as an exhortation to revere all of Scripture, not just the portions we like. We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. That is, the faith that receives free justification apart from works regenerates the heart and liberates a believer from the shackles of performance in order to fulfill the good law of God (Rom 8:1-4).
Second, this passage, although highlighting the necessity of works, actually, by this very focus, takes the reader down to the root of these works; namely, faith. The answer to a life characterized by hypocrisy and a neglect to obey the law is not to merely to engage in more works. Rather, it is to seek a heart that has been cut by the Spirit, drawn completely off of works for one’s justification, and relies on Christ alone (see Rom 2:29). This kind of heart will then pursue good works by faith in Christ—not for the praise that comes from men, but for the praise that comes from God.