BY MARK HORNE
In Romans 2.6-16, Paul writes,
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. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not by nature have the law, do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (ESV; though I moved “by nature” to a more appropriate place in the sentence).
While there are plenty of Reformed exegetes who have written otherwise, it is still popular among Evangelicals to think that Paul is speaking hypothetically here. He is allegedly saying that if one could live a sinless life one would be justified as a “doer of the law.” But since no one can live without disobeying the commandments, a different way of salvation must be provided if anyone is going to be saved.
In this short essay I am not going to point out all the problems with this view or how the correct view fits in the flow of Paul’s argument in Romans. Rather, I simply want to give readers something to think about regarding what Paul says in Romans 2.6, that God “will render to each one according to his works.”
Paul is not coining a new phrase, but using one from the Old Testament Scriptures. Here is Psalm 62 from the ESV which climaxes in the same phrase:
To the choirmaster: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.
How long will all of you attack a man
to batter him,
like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
They only plan to thrust him down from his high position.
They take pleasure in falsehood.
They bless with their mouths,
but inwardly they curse. Selah
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah
Those of low estate are but a breath;
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no trust in extortion;
set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, set not your heart on them.
Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For you will render to a man
according to his work.
This hardly sounds like a claim that God demands perfect obedience to the Law as a condition for blessing or salvation. David appeals to God’s steadfast love, his covenant loyalty, as the basis for confidence that He will reward man “according to his works.” This confidence is not antithetical to faith. Faith is seen as the context for this confidence: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.” Far from being “bad news,” David presents judgment according to works as the hope of those who trust in God for salvation.
First Corinthians 3.8
This interpretation is certainly backed up by Paul’s discussion of himself and Apollos in his first epistle to the Corinthians. We read in verse 5-9a:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers (ESV; emphasis added).
Obviously, there is nothing hypothetical about this statement. It is not a threat that God will demand perfect obedience to the Law.
In fact, the context disallows for any implicitly “legalistic” construction for the promise that God will reward each one according to his labor. God gives the growth. This would indicate that the rewarding of each is considered a reality within God’s covenant of Grace. There is simply no reason to think that the words imply a demand of sinless obedience. After all, God made his covenant with sinners. The Law was given through Moses to people who knew they were sinners and the Law both expected them to sin and made provision for that sin. God not only accepts sinners, but he is also gracious enough to accept their works and reward them in Jesus Christ.
This does not mean that the promise to reward according to works is always good news. Jesus himself uses the phrase in a letter to the Church of Thyatira:
I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come.
Obviously, when Jesus tells the rest to “hold fast to what you have until I come,” he is not saying that they, unlike the followers of “Jezebel,” are to be sinless. Nor is there any hint that Jezebel was teaching people to earn their salvation by being good enough so that they will end up judged–while the rest believe in justification by grace through faith so that they will escape a judgment according to works. On the contrary, all believe in grace but the followers of “Jezebel” think it is a license for fornication and idolatry. Such people who reject the commands of Jesus will be judged, found guilty, and destroyed, rather than vindicated.
The fact that Jesus himself (!) judges according to works is not some criterion for a “covenant of works” which one escapes through faith. In the Church everyone is judged according to their works. Those whose works reveal a true trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead will be vindicated by virtue of their relation to him in whom all their sins are forgiven. Those whose works reveal hardness of heart and only lip service to the Gospel will be cast out. Being judged according to works has nothing to do with a hypothetical requirement to be morally perfect in order to gain eternal life.
Notice that Jesus’ initial word of encouragement to the faithful is not, “I have forgiven your sins,” or “My righteousness is imputed to you so you don’t have to worry about your works,” but rather “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first” (emphasis added).
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
Here Jesus has just revealed his mission to die in Jerusalem and Peter wants to turn him back from that quest. Jesus is emphatically stating that all who want to follow him must adopt the way of the cross. They must give up the world and trust the Father to give them the new creation forever. In this context, the judgment according to works is not only what happens to those who reject Christ’s message, but to everyone. Each person who follows Christ will be vindicated “according to what he has done” and each one who rejects him will be condemned “according to what he has done.”
Hopefully, this will give readers some incentive to search the Scriptures and ask questions about what Paul is actually saying. I think I’ve said enough to raise doubts about the hypothetical works-righteousness position. It seems plausible to ask if Paul isn’t in fact describing the life of faith (“the obedience of faith,” Romans 1.6) that receives justification and life. His point might be that this faith has always vindicated both Jew and Gentile and that the Christ himself is the judge. God’s judgment of “the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” may entail that Jews who reject Christ are no better than idolaters while Gentiles who obey the Gospel are acceptable to him. But whatever the structure and content of Paul’s argument, the idea that this is a hypothetical means of gaining salvation through perfect obedience deserves to be questioned.