Romans 2:6–8, “6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.”
Using his reference to the final “day of wrath” in Romans 2:5 as a springboard, Paul in today’s passage considers judgment day more fully, explaining that when the last day comes, it will not be a day of gloom and doom for everyone. In fact, there will be an evaluation of works, and “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (vv. 6–8).
This passage has sparked disagreement because it seems to indicate—at least on a cursory reading—that human beings can merit eternal life by their own righteous works. Since Paul is adamant that sinners cannot earn a right standing before God by what we do—hence our need for a righteousness from Him (Rom. 1:16–17; 4:1–5; Gal. 2:15–16)—many commentators read Romans 2:6–11 hypothetically. That is, the verses describe what is possible in theory but is impossible in reality. God’s justice is such that He will grant eternal life to those who do good in the patient search for immortality from Him; however, no sinner actually does that. In fact, no sinner can or even wants to do that, and so we need grace.
The hypothetical interpretation is attractive because it harmonizes well with Paul’s insistence that the only righteousness that can shelter us before the Lord’s judgment is an alien righteousness—the perfect righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith alone (2 Cor. 5:21). This interpretation of Romans 2:6–11 also fits well with 2:13, which must be read hypothetically. Yet we wonder if this reading of today’s passage does full justice to the biblical teaching on the final judgment. Scripture plainly teaches that on the last day, God will reward His people for their good works. Our Savior’s parable of the talents, for example, affirms that the Father will reward those who use their gifts in service to Him (Matt. 25:14–30). Revelation 20:12 says that people will be judged by what they have done.
Tomorrow we will consider these things in more detail. We conclude today by noting that the biblical teaching on the evaluation of our works on the last day is quite clear. The question is whether these works can serve as the meritorious basis of our justification. Given that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6), the answer must be no. Whatever else we say about our good works, there is no doubt that they cannot form the basis of our right standing before God. If we expect that our obedience will in any way be the grounds for our heavenly citizenship, we have missed the gospel.
Dr. R.C. Sproul’s hymn Clothed in Righteousness features these lines: “No work of ours is good enough for evil to atone. Your merit Lord is all we have; it saves and it alone.” Scripture is clear that obedience to God is important but that it is imperfect and cannot make us righteous in His sight. The Lord will weigh our works and reward those done in Christ’s name, but they will not be the basis for whether He gives us everlasting life. For that we rely on the righteousness of Jesus alone.