Romans 2:9–10, “9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.”
Christians have pored over Scripture for two thousand years, studying what it says about salvation. In so doing, they have noted that God’s Word often refers to salvation as a temporal sequence. For example, Romans 8:30 gives us this order of redemption: first God predestines (chooses someone for salvation in eternity past); then He calls (regenerates an elect person by the Spirit); next He justifies (imputes to a regenerate person the righteousness of Christ); and finally He glorifies (grants a justified person a resurrection body).
Importantly, the tenses of the verbs in Romans 8:30 indicate that if God does any of the things mentioned, He does them all. In other words, no one who is predestined will fail to be justified, and the Lord will certainly glorify everyone who is justified. God never starts the work of salvation without finishing it (Phil. 1:6). The predestined person is always called, justified, and glorified. That is how God always saves people.
Remembering this point will help us as we consider Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:6–11. As we saw yesterday, verses 6–8 seem to indicate at first glance that God grants us eternal life based on our good works, and verses 9–10 seem to teach the same thing. Yet as we have also seen, Paul is clear—even in the book of Romans—that it is impossible for sinners to merit heaven by their deeds (3:21–26; 11:5–6). Only the grace of God in imputing to us the merit of Christ by faith alone can justify a sinner. How, then, can we fit all this together?
The key is noting that Romans 8:30 does not tell us all that God does in salvation. It does not explicitly mention sanctification, wherein the Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ in thought, word, and deed. Still, Paul does put sanctification in the order of salvation (Rom. 6:20–23). There is no such thing as an elect and justified person who is not being sanctified.
What does this mean for Romans 2:6–11? John Calvin puts it well in book 3 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “The passages in which it is said that God will reward every man according to his works … [indicate] not the cause but the order of sequence.” Our obedience is part of the temporal order by which the Lord finally brings us into glory, but it is not in any sense whatsoever the reason God gives us His kingdom. We enter His kingdom solely on account of the perfect righteousness of Christ, which the Father graciously imputes to us through our faith in Christ alone. Our justification makes us kingdom citizens. Our sanctification proves that we have been justified.
Calvin also writes in the Institutes that as soon as believers are “admitted to fellowship with Christ, by the knowledge of the gospel, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, their eternal life is begun, and then He which has begun a good work in them ‘will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.’” God will never fail to sanctify a person whom He justifies, and so the justified person will always die in faith and enter heaven. Let us rejoice that He will not let us fall out of His hand.