“God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But to those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism. All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous” (Romans 2: 6-13 NIV).
Obedience is the Ultimate Goal
We talked about the sin of Jonah (moral judgmentalism) and the fact that God hates that judgmental attitude because it tries to reduce the whole problem to a bunch of dos and don’ts as if that is all that God cares about. Not so. God is love and He cares about the relationship.
So, if you want to ask the question as to what makes up the “righteous judgment” of God (vs. 5b) on that final day, the first thing Paul says is that Reality is the Ultimate Judge. God isn’t going to invent anything, rather He is going to reveal everything. In the light of God’s existence, what is the truth of your life. It would be wise to ask that question now and not wait for the final judgment. God is absolutely fair. Your judge will be reality itself. The truth is always reality. And the reality is that it isn’t just about wickedness (morality) but also about godlessness (relationship). And we are all guilty of that regardless of our individual morality.
Still, some could argue, morality matters. God is still going to judge us on what we do right or wrong, doesn’t he? Yes, and no. On the one hand, Paul lays down a general principle but quoting Ps. 62:12. He says in vs. 6 “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” Seems straightforward enough. By quoting the Old Testament, Paul is saying that the basis for God’s judgment has not changed. What we do matters. Obedience matters. Disobedience matters. The law matters. So, yes, God will judge our morality (degree of wickedness and evil) as well as our godlessness (lack of a proper relationship of obedience to God).
But, why would you think that was good news? Do you think that somehow that will make things easier for you? That somehow hell will be milder for your level of morality in this life? Forget it! The Jews especially thought that they had an advantage over the Gentiles. They had the law, after all, and that made them more moral, didn’t it? Or, did it, in fact, condemn you more for your disobedience when you knew better? You had the law but you reduced it to a bunch of rules rather than allow it to teach you the deeper truth that your relationship with God is broken and the only way to fix it is to go to the sacrificial system with a repentant and humble heart, thankful that the Lord has provided a way to forgive you, to atone for your sins through the blood of sheep and goats (as a pointer to the perfect sacrifice for sins on the cross). That humility and repentant heart was always the point of the law. Paul says, in Galatians 3:24, that the law was a tutor that brought us to Christ. If that is true, then it was through the sacrificial system that we are brought to Christ. The law makes our sin clear. The blood of sheep and goats brings us forgiveness but, we know, that they are not enough. They must point to a better sacrifice for sins (Hebrews 9:23). And so it is.
In other words, those who demand that they be judged according to their deeds, as if by so doing, they think they will be absolved, are sadly mistaken. It is not the degree of our morality (obedience) that is at stake but the nature of our godlessness (relationship) which is what matters. Yes, obedience is the ultimate goal but it is an obedience of love not of rules, an obedience in the context of forgiveness (even in the OT) not an obedience that claims righteousness for itself. After all, morality does not produce a relationship, a relationship with God produces morality. In the same way that godlessness produces wickedness, so does a new relationship with God produce righteous living. But the path is always through the cross.
There are two judgments that await us in the life to come. The first is relational. The Bible calls it “the separation of the sheep and the goats” (Matthew 25:31-46) which is relational. You either are a sheep or you are a goat. If you are a sheep (a true believer or Christian) then you have the Holy Spirit within you as your guarantee of eternal living with God. The Holy Spirit isn’t going to hell. If you do not, then you are a goat (a non-believer) and you won’t be able to stand in God’s presence and you will go to hell. But there is a second judgment as described in Revelations 20:11-15, which talks about the Great White Throne where “the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books.” This passage also talks about the Book of Life and tells us that “anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Notice that the Book of Life is singular but the other “books” that record the moral deeds of people is plural. Not the same book. The Book of Life is a metaphor for the presence of the Holy Spirit (who brings new life) in the heart of the believer.
Obviously, Paul is talking about the second judgment here in this passage. He says “But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” (vs. 8). The problem is that Paul is mixing and matching things between the two judgments, perhaps because he sees them as one and the same judgment. We are the ones who separate them as if they could be separated. You can see the problem when Paul says, almost in the same breath that “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (vs. 7) and then, later, “but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good” (vs. 10a NIV).
It almost sounds like Paul is saying that we can earn our way into eternal life by “persistence in doing good.” That’s what it says, doesn’t it? Yes, it does. But when you isolate a verse from its context, it will always get you into trouble and you won’t understand what Paul is trying to teach you. The entire context is almost screaming at us that we cannot achieve righteousness by keeping rules and regulations, through our morality, through keeping the law. It must come from the heart, it must be relational. That is the first issue. Once you have a new relationship with God, you must still “persist in doing good.” But now you do so from a place of gratitude not a place of fear. In fact, your persistence in doing good in order to please God and seek “glory, honor and immortality” in his presence is a sure sign of the Holy Spirit in your life.
So, Paul is talking in extremes here. On the one hand, he is talking about believers who seek to obey God out of love and, on the other hand, he is talking about non-believers who “reject the truth and follow evil.” After all, there is no middle ground. Who else is there? No one. What is NOT true and goes against everything else that Paul (and the rest of the Bible teaches) is that a non-believer will persist in doing good because they want to spend eternity with their Father. It simply isn’t so. There is no one like that. Paul, himself, says in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” And further, in Romans 3:10 that “there is no one righteous, not even one.”
The problem is that Paul has not gotten to that part of his argument yet. Right now, he is interested in establishing the parameters of God’s righteous judgment. The first is that reality is our ultimate judge. No games. Just truth. Here Paul is saying that obedience is the ultimate goal. Not just obedience but obedience from the heart. Loving obedience. But the way he presents it can lead someone who isn’t paying attention to the conclusion that it is possible for a non-believer by being persistent in doing good, to accomplish eternal life. But if you came to that conclusion, you haven’t been paying attention. Paul’s whole point is that that is not possible. Here he is talking about believers persisting in doing good and non-believers persisting in doing evil. The final part of that verse in Romans 3:10 says, “there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.” That leaves no room for doubt.
And just in case we forget the immediate context of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he reminds us that both in the case of believers doing good and non-believers doing evil, it is true “first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (vs. 9b,10b) because “God does not show favoritism” (vs.11). In other words, the Jews thought God favored them because He had chosen them. He had given them the law. He had made them into a great nation. He had made promises to them. They were the children of Abraham, for pete’s sake. Doesn’t that mean anything? Certainly, it means something. Paul goes into quite a bit of detail later on to talk about the sacred history of Israel and how, ultimately, all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26). That isn’t the problem.
The problem is when we think that we have been saved and that means that we are off the hook. We don’t have to obey (out of love or not). There is nothing more common in the church than people who call themselves believers and followers of Christ and their lives are no different than a non-believer living in the same cul-de-sac. Perhaps the only difference is that they go to church. Not good enough. We are saved for a purpose. And that purpose is to obey God out of love. In other words, to obey God because we want to please Him. Nothing less will do. And that obedience to His will for our lives is not simply about our self-actualization and development as human beings but rather it is about joining Him in the deadly serious work of rescuing people from the clutches of the devil and bringing them into the Kingdom of God. Salvation in this world has purpose otherwise why doesn’t God just take us to heaven to enjoy eternity with him immediately after we become saved? Of course, that might be a bit problematic for evangelism – everyone dying in the act of baptism. But you get the point. God has a purpose for all of us that has to do with His Kingdom (not ours) and only loving obedience will get the job done.
Reality is the ultimate judge but obedience is the ultimate goal. We must obey God. We must let God be God. He is the Creator and we, the created. We are not capable of determing what is good or evil for us (or others) only God is able. We need Him to be God. Obedience is the only way forward. Loving obedience is the only way to be saved and that comes from the soil of a new, reconciled relationship with God through Jesus Christ. That is the good news of the gospel of which Paul is not ashamed. Nor am I.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, thank you for teaching me your ways. I know it is futile to believe that I can be saved by doing a few good deeds. It wouldn’t work with my wife and it certainly won’t work with you. You want something more (as does every person in a relationship). You want a relationship of love, a willing heart. Take my heart, Lord and make it yours. Teach me to persist in doing good and seeking glory, honor and an immortal life with you. In your name I pray. Amen.