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 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: 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.
I am sure you have been in situations in which a person, perhaps yourself, has been caught doing something wrong and has immediately begun to make excuses. “I didn’t mean to do it,” the accused one might say. Or, “But so-and-so did it first.” Or, “You just don’t understand my circumstances.”
It may be the case in any given instance that the person involved really was “innocent,” because of his or her motive or because of circumstances. This is one reason why our judicial system takes so much trouble to determine motives and circumstances in criminal cases. Generally, however, the excuses people make are exactly that, excuses, and they need to be seen for what they really are. This is particularly true in our relationships to God. God accuses us of repressing the truth about himself and of violating his moral law even while we pass judgment on others for doing the same things, but as soon as we hear these truths we begin to make excuses. We claim that we did not know what was required of us, that we did not do what we are accused of doing, or that our motives were actually good. Whenever we find ourselves doing this, we need to rediscover the principles of God’s just judgment, which Romans 2 explains.
One important principle is that God’s judgment is according to truth (v. 2). On the basis of this principle alone we find ourselves to be guilty. For God, who is the God of truth, declares that we ourselves do what we find deserving of blame in others.
Another principle is that God’s judgment is according to our deeds (v. 6). We cannot plead extenuating circumstances with God, because it is what we do that counts. This principle is unfolded in verses 6 through 11 and is developed further in verses 12 through 15.
Two Different Paths
These verses speak of two very different paths. One is the path of good deeds, the end of which is glory, honor, peace, and eternal life. The other is the path of evil, the end of which is trouble, distress, wrath, and anger. The verses teach that a person is on either one path or the other.
Up to this point, particularly as a result of our earlier study of verse 5, a person might conclude that the judgment of God will be a finely graded thing—extending all the way from perfect happiness and bliss on the one hand to utter misery and torment on the other, and that most of us will fall somewhere in between. This is because of the principle of proportionality in judgment, which we developed from the idea of “storing up wrath” in verse 5. As we look at people, we see that some are better than others, and some are worse. Therefore, we reason, in the life to come some should be treated well, some should be treated badly, and the differences should be relative. A person reasoning along these lines might conclude that our future existence in heaven or hell (or whatever) should be somewhat the same as our present existence, which means a mixture of good and bad for most people.
Our text refutes this error. According to these verses, the two paths are mutually exclusive.
The Path of the Just
The first path is that of the person who does good. In our text Paul speaks of such people in two places. Putting together these verses, we have the following: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he [God] will give eternal life.… There will be … glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (vv. 7, 9–10).
There are two things that such a person is described here as doing: (1) he or she does good and (2) persists in doing good. There are three things that are highlighted as his or her essential motivation: (1) glory, (2) honor, and (3) immortality. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, these terms are used of the Christian’s ultimate expectations. “Glory” refers to the transformation of the believer into the image of God’s Son, by which the glory of God will be reflected in that person (cf. Rom. 5:2; 8:18, 30; 9:23; 1 Cor. 2:7; 15:43; 2 Cor. 3:12–18; 4:17). “Honor” refers to God’s approval of believers, as contrasted with the dishonor and even scorn accorded to them by the world (cf. Heb. 2:7; 1 Peter 1:7). “Immortality” refers to the resurrection hope of God’s people (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 52–54). One commentator writes, “The three terms have indisputably in the usage of Paul redemptive associations, and this consideration of itself makes it impossible to think that the eschatological aspiration referred to is anything less than that provided by redemptive revelation. The three words define aspiration in terms of the highest reaches of Christian hope.”
Likewise, there are four things that God is said to dispense to such people as rewards for their aspirations: (1) eternal life, (2) glory, (3) honor, and (4) peace. “Eternal life” refers to salvation—life in heaven with God rather than damnation. “Glory” and “honor” are two of the goals the people described are striving for. The last term, “peace,” seems to parallel “immortality” and therefore points, not to peace with God, which we can enjoy now as the result of Christ’s death for us and our resulting justification, or even to that supernatural peace of God, which “transcends all understanding” (Phil. 4:7), but to the peace of heaven. It is deliverance from sin and its conflicts.
But here comes the big question. Has anyone ever chosen this path by his or her own will and then walked along it by his or her own strength? Does anyone of himself or herself actually do good and persist in it apart from the gospel?
I have spoken of the aspirations of the one who walks this path being “Christian” aspirations. Therefore, it is a path walked by Christians. But the question I am asking is whether any of us actually choose this path and then persist in it of ourselves, that is, unaided by the work of the Holy Spirit in turning us from sin to faith in Christ and by joining us to him. I hope that by this time we know the answer to that question. It is no! No one chooses to do good (as God defines it) or seeks glory, honor, or immortality by the path of rigorous morality. In fact, as we will see when we get to Paul’s summation of the human condition in Romans 3:10–12:
As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
This first path would be a wonderful option if anyone could actually walk along it. But none can! And none do! Therefore, when God judges men and women by an accurate and comprehensive examination of their deeds, as he says he will do, all will be condemned. “For God does not show favoritism” (Rom. 2:11).
The Way of Sinners
The second path is the one all persons naturally take, apart from the intervention of God. It is the way of destruction. Again, Paul speaks of it in two verses of our text. Putting these together we have: “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: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (vv. 8–9).
In these verses there are four things that the wicked are said to be or do, which reveal their sinfulness. First, they are “self-seeking.” This is the opposite of the first and second “greatest” commandments, which say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.… [and] your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37, 39). It is the sin of Satan who said, “I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:14b). Second, they “reject the truth.” In the context of these early chapters of Romans, this refers to the rejection of the truth of God revealed in nature and, of course, all other rejections of truth that flow from it. Third, such a person “does evil.” Romans 1:29–31 was an exposition of what this means, and there are other like passages later on (cf. Rom. 3:13–18). Fourth, they “follow evil.” This could mean simply that they do evil, but this would be redundant in light of verse 9. Here it probably refers to the continuing downward path of evil described in 1:18–32.
What is the result of these choices? Again, there are four items: “wrath and anger” and “trouble and distress.” The first two and the last two closely parallel each other, and there is a relationship between the first pair and the second. “Wrath and anger” both concern God’s fierce and absolute opposition to all evil. “Trouble and distress” refer to the effect of God’s resulting judgment upon evildoers. The words are frequently used of the sufferings of the wicked in the life to come (cf. Isa. 8:22; Zeph. 1:15, 17).
This is what awaits the ungodly and why even those who think that they are better than other people also need the gospel.
The Two Paths in Scripture
Many people find this section of Romans to be extremely difficult, for it seems to be saying that salvation is by good works. If you do good and persist in it, you will be saved. If you do evil, you will be lost. This is not what Romans 2:6–11 is saying, of course. No one is saved other than by the work of Jesus Christ and by faith in him. Nevertheless, it is significant that the inspired apostle does speak of two paths, and he does not encourage us to suppose that a person can reach the goal of eternal life without actually being on the path of righteousness.
Should we be surprised at this? Hardly!
This is the message of Psalm 1, which speaks of the righteous man “who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers,” but rather delights “in the law of the Lord,” and speaks also of the wicked man who is “like chaff that the wind blows away” (vv. 1, 2, 4). This has present implications. But, like Paul’s parallel thoughts in Romans, it has eternal implications as well. “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous” (v. 5), and “the wicked will perish” (v. 6).
Matthew 19:16–21 records that the Lord Jesus Christ replied in similar terms to the rich young man who asked him, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
We might have expected Jesus to reply that the man should have faith in him. But instead Jesus said to obey the commandments: “ ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
The young man thought he had already done this. “All these I have kept,” he said.
Again, instead of telling him to have faith in himself or even pointing out that he had not actually kept these commandments as God intended he should, Jesus merely brought to mind the young man’s debilitating love of possessions: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (v. 21).
The introduction to the parable of the good Samaritan is along the same lines. An expert on the law tried to test Jesus by asking the same question posed by the rich young ruler: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).
Jesus pointed him to the law: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (v. 27). The parable that followed was given to show who one’s neighbor is and what it means to love him.
The most striking of Jesus’ words setting out the two paths are those that come at the end of his last great sermon before the crucifixion, the sermon preached on the Mount of Olives:
[Jesus said,] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They will also answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I do not want anyone to think that I am substituting good works for faith as a means of salvation. I am not. If good works are even added to faith—not to mention being substituted for faith—as a grounds of salvation, this becomes a false gospel and deserves the anathema Paul pronounces on such error (Gal. 1:8–9). Salvation is achieved by Christ for all who are to be saved, and it becomes theirs by simple faith in him and his work. But we must not mock God either! It is an equal error, as Paul also shows, to think that one can be saved by faith and then continue down the same path he or she has been treading, doing no good works at all. A person doing that is not saved, regardless or his or her profession.
Here is the wonder of the Christian gospel. On the one hand, it is utterly by grace received through faith—and even that faith is of grace (cf. Eph. 2:8). No one who is saved can possibly boast of anything. We are saved on the sole grounds of Jesus’ death in our place. But, at the same time and on the other hand, those who are saved by grace through faith are placed on a path of righteousness where they do indeed perform such good works as the world about them cannot even begin to dream.
That is why Jesus could say, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). “Righteousness” in this verse means “good deeds.” So the teaching is that the people of God will—if they truly are the people of God—do good works surpassing even the best of the righteous (but unsaved) people of Christ’s day.
Getting on the Right Path
What can you do if you are on the wrong path? How do you get out of the company of the wicked—who are rejecting the truth, pursuing evil, and thereby treasuring up wrath against the day of God’s judgment—and into the company of those who are doing good deeds and who seek glory, honor, and immortality? Let me ask that twofold question again more clearly: What do you do if you are on a wrong path in order to get off the wrong path and onto a right one? Here are some specific answers:
1. Recognize that you are on the wrong path. Nobody is ever going to get off a wrong path and onto a right one as long as he or she entertains some hope that the present road will eventually lead to where he or she wants to go. So long as you think the way of your own self-seeking and of the rejection of the biblical truth about God is going to get you to happiness or fulfillment or salvation in the life to come (or whatever), you are never going to take even the first small step toward being saved. You must begin by recognizing that you are on the wrong path and that the end of that path is destruction.
2. Admit that the path itself will not change. Strangely, some travelers will admit that they are on a wrong road, but rather than go back to the right one they keep hoping that the road itself will change or that they will find a fork they can take that will get them to their proper destination. That will not happen in the physical world—nor in the spiritual! The path of self-seeking will always take you further from God and happiness. It is the downward path of Romans 1. It ends in the wrath of Romans 2.
3. Turn around and face the opposite direction. This is a way of speaking about what the Bible calls repentance or conversion. “Repentance” means to have a change of mind, to think differently and act differently as a result. “Conversion” literally means to turn around. You need to reject the way you are going and choose a different path entirely.
4. Commit yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in his death on your behalf. This is the fullest meaning of faith, which does not stop merely with an intellectual assent to certain truths about God or Jesus but involves a commitment to Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior. You must be able to say, as Thomas did when Jesus appeared to him a week after his resurrection, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
5. Get on with following Jesus and obeying his commands. When you are wandering down the path of your own self-seeking and finally begin to realize what you are doing, you sense that you are hopelessly far from the true path—and in a sense you are. As long as you continue as you are going you will always be far from it. God seems infinitely removed. The return to God seems hopeless. But when you stop and turn around, beginning to seek God rather than your own will and pleasure, you will find (much to your surprise) that Jesus is not far away at all. In fact, you find him right there beside you. It was because he was with you and was calling you that you even turned around. That is why in the Bible repentance and faith always go together, so closely together that it is often impossible to say which comes first and which second. To believe on Jesus is to turn from sin—and vice versa.
And there is something else, too.
In the same instant you turn from sin and believe on Jesus, you find that you are already on the right road. You do not have to seek it, because the first step on that road is believing on Jesus. It is being where he is. He starts with you at that precise point. Therefore, as you step forward you find the darkness dispel, the light break through, and a glimpse of glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life rise up before you as your goal.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: Justification by Faith (Vol. 1, pp. 225–232). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.