Judged According to Works: Justification in Romans 2

Robert M. Zins, Theo~Logical, (A Christian Witness to Roman Catholicism), 4th Q, 2000, p.1ff   http://www.cwrc-rz.org

In our last issue of Theo-logical, we argued against the Roman Catholic claim that part of the ground of the justification of the ungodly is good works done in faith produced within us by God. We labored to show that the Romish claim could not stand in light of Romans 4. We noted that most Roman Catholic writers agree with the Christian Gospel to the extent that Paul eliminates works of Jewish law from the ground of justification. But, these same writers do not eliminate all works of righteousness. They maintain that good works are a vital part of the righteousness that God contemplates in the justification of the ungodly. When faced with the irrefutable proof from Romans 4 that Abraham was justified apart from works prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law, Rome slips out of the noose. Rome does so by saying only certain kinds of works are eliminated by Paul in the illustration of Abraham’s justification. Rome says that Paul wishes only to eliminate what Rome calls “contractual works” which obligate God. They then set forth a category of good works which they allege God approves for justification. These works, says Rome, are produced by God within us and then accepted by God as part of His grounds for acquittal.

We objected vigorously pointing out that Paul neither knows of nor limits his dismissal of works for justification to something called “contractual works.” Rather, Paul eliminates each and every kind of work as the ground of justification! We argued that the burden of the apostle was to eliminate “boasting” and not to introduce acceptable and unacceptable works for justification. In so doing, we argued that grace is not truly grace unless a gift is given freely without the condition of works. We argued that no matter what kind of “spin” one wished to put upon the word “work”, it still is work! And, as such, it ruins grace and ravages the free gift of salvation. We stand by our contention that the Gospel of Jesus Christ consists in the good news that God justifies sinners once and for all time on the sole basis of the righteousness of Christ given as a free gift to the ungodly.

For if Abraham was justified by works [we believe any kind of work is meant here], he has something to boast about; but not before God.” Romans 4:2

We left for this discussion the tension which presents itself in Paul’s pronouncements from Romans 2. These assertions have been seized upon by Romish writers to prove that Paul never intended to eliminate each and every kind of good work as the ground of justification. Their contention is that Romans 2 proves that Paul only wished to eliminate Jewish Law and any “contractual law” which would obligate God to justify. Rome then claims that good works are part of the ground of justification. So now we come to the question, ‘What are we to make of Romans 2?”

First let us set forth the verses under consideration:

But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” Romans 2:5-10. [italics ours]

for not the hearers of the Law are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. Romans 2:13 [italics ours]

It seems to us that all of Christian theology comes to bear at this juncture. There is much at stake. We need to go slowly and carefully. We have no more right to import things into the text any more than Romanist interpreters. We must let stand all normal measures of good biblical interpretation and application. We must not play a shell game here. We must let fall God’s revelation. First, let us lay some foundation work with which to start our investigation.

There is little doubt that the burden of the apostle, in Romans 2, is to lay bare the hypocrisy of his fellow countrymen, the Jews, who were not living up to the standard of the Law by which they measured others. In jolting language Paul goes after the hypocrites who supposed that they could escape the wrath of God while failing to practice what they preached! These are they who “judge and yet practice the same things they have judged.”[Romans 2:1] Paul wished his fellow Jews to know that they were ‘in fact on the receiving end of their own condemnation because they condemned what they were practicing.

“And do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?” Romans 2:3 [italics ours]

These same hypocritical Jews furthermore misunderstood the patience, kindness and forbearance of God. They should have viewed it as a season of grace to repent. Instead, they used it as a license to sin more. The kindness of God, in delaying judgment, should have been reckoned as an occasion for repentance. But just the opposite was occurring among these folks. The time of God’s forbearance in judgment had now become a time of stoning up the wrath of God upon themselves.

It is at this juncture that Paul promises a day of God’s wrath and judgment where God will render to every man according to his deeds. It is at this critical intersection that Rome finds her formula for a justification based in part upon works. We need to give a comprehensive answer to Rome’s interpretation.

To begin with, Rome does not maintain a strict and literal interpretation of Paul’s words as found in Romans 2. It is not the teaching of Roman Catholicism that God will render salvation to every man according to every man’s personal ability to please God with his own good works. Rome would see this as a denial of the grace of God. Rome would not pursue this path of Pelagian interpretation. Rome would rather say that man can only do the good through the grace of God. Hence, the citation we quoted in our last Theo-Logical from Bob Sungenis that, “God saves or condemns based on works performed by the individual”, is saying too much. What Sungenis would stipulate is that God takes into account good works done in faith, as produced by grace, for the verdict of justification. It is this contention that we must address. We begin here so as to avoid the accusation of misrepresenting Rome. Rome does not believe that “raw law keeping” or “self induced” works will justify anyone. Rome believes that God enables man, through the grace conferred in the sacraments, to produce good works which increase justification. These works are part of Rome’s ground. They find this to fit with the teaching of Paul in Romans 2.

Toward a solution

The most common answer to the apparent contradictions between Romans 2 and Romans 3 is that Paul steps into the presupposition of the Jews with whom he is arguing against in Romans 2. Since these Jews, were under the Law, Paul, in effect, leaves the gospel out of the argument and seeks to point out that this criteria will only condemn the Jewish hypocrites. They are not even practicing what they preach and will be condemned by their own criteria. It is argued that Paul, for the sake crushing his hypocritical countrymen, carries their presuppositions to a logical end. Paul is saying in Romans 2, “You know what the Law demands and you are breaking the Law, therefore, you are condemned!” It is argued by some Christians that the gospel does not come into consideration in Romans 2. Paul is simply showing these Jews their hypocrisy.

If it is true, that Paul is merely accommodating the presuppositions of the Jews in Romans 2, this relieves the tension between Romans 2 and Romans 3. Paul would then be saying, “You foolish Jews. You know that according to your own criteria that only the doers of the Law will be justified. You are not doers of the Law. You are merely hearers. So, by your own Law standard you will be crushed!” Later, in Romans 3, Paul introduces hard cold facts that no one can meet the standard. He then articulates the Gospel. But in Romans 2 he wishes to ruin the Jews with their own criteria.

This is sometimes called the hypothetical view of Romans 2. It is as if the apostle were saying, “Suppose we assume that obedience to the Law of God will justify. Very well then, here is the way in which God will judge. Only the doers of the Law will be justified. Only those who do good will be in God’s kingdom. Only those who by perseverance in doing good will make it.

Pressing Deeper

 As much as this solution has to commend itself, it is difficult to grasp how Paul could be speaking “hypothetically” without any sign posts that this is his intention. Paul rather seems to be making direct statements of reality. He does not appear to be arguing only within Jewish presuppositions. Paul seems rather anxious to prove that “doers of the law” will in fact be justified. He does not say this to merely confront hypocrites so as to move them toward keeping the Law more faithfully. His goal is something greater. Perhaps a better understanding of Romans 2 emerges as we consider Paul’s overall theology and his use of terminology here.

We contend that what Paul has to say in Romans 2 is in harmony with what is said elsewhere in the New Testament with regard to works.

Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. Galatians 6:7,8

For what will a man be profited, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every man according to his deeds. Matthew 16:26,27

That God has an interest in good works is undeniable. That God produces good works in His people in virtue of regeneration is undeniable. That God will grant eternal life to those having good works and eternal punishment to those who have none is undeniable. But what is the nature of God’s interest in our good works? The question revolves around whether God gives eternal life “because” of good works or “in accordance with good works.” The secondary question is whether God sees a difference between “works of Law” and “doers of Law.” It is absolutely certain that the Lord’s Word forbids any attempts to envision a justification of the ungodly based upon “works of the law.”

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Romans 3:28

For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Galatians 3: 10 [italics ours]

For Paul, the concept “works of Law” enlists at least the notion of gaining approval with God by trying to comply with the demands of the Law. Such efforts are doomed for failure because the Law was not given to establish personal righteousness but rather to tutor one to the righteousness which comes from faith.

nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified. Galatians 2:16

Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith. Galatians 3:24

Seeing this as perfectly clear, we become perplexed when the apostle Paul gives a hearty approval to formulas of justification/salvation which include law/ works language. The most glaring example of this is found in Romans 2:13.Here Paul states unashamedly that the “doers of law” will be justified. Hence, the enigmatic contrast within the apostle Paul that “by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified” [Galatians 2:16], but the “doers of Law” [Romans 2:13] will be justified.

We have seen that Roman Catholic theologians have taken this concept of “doers of Law” [Romans 2:13] and added to it “every man according to his deeds” [ Romans 2:6], “those who by perseverance in doing good” [Romans2:7] “every man who does good” [Romans 2: 10] to present a compelling argument that God has replaced “works of Law” with “good works done in faith”, gained through sacraments, as the ground of justification.

But this shift from “apart from works of Law” [Romans 3:281 to being justified by “good works done in faith” is nothing but a paradigm deviation from one law keeping effort to another. The constraining evidence from the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that He saved us not on the evidence of our personal good works done in faith.

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, Titus 3:5

who has saved us, and called us with a holy calling; not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, 2 Timothy 1:9

So, how do we reconcile Paul with Paul? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of what Paul means by “doers of Law.” The Law of God was a grace gift given to Israel to illustrate the holiness of God and to expose the deep seated sinfulness of man. This is why Paul can say that the Law closes every mouth and makes the world accountable to God. [Romans 3:19] Paul sees the Law as holy, righteous and good. [Romans 7:12] Because the demands of the Law are too severe for man, the Law is a tyrant and a cruel despot for those who try to find self righteousness in obeying it. “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of Law!” Galatians 3: 10

But despite all of this, there is a way in which the Law is satisfied. There is a way in which the Law is established without being “of the works of the Law” [Galatians] or “under Law” [Romans 6:15] or “justified by Law.” [Galatians 5:4]

The Law of God is ‘established’ by faith that the righteousness of Christ satisfies the curse of the Law. The entire Gospel centers around faith in the revelation of God that His Law has been ‘established’ by the awful price paid His justice by Jesus Christ. But it does not end here. For the apostle Paul, faith apprehends the righteousness of Christ as the free gift of God but also grasps this as the end of the Law for righteousness. [Romans 10:4] By ‘end’, is meant that having Christ puts an end to the goal of the Law {righteousness} and seeking to establish righteousness by Law. Having Christ, through faith, ends the curse of the Law as well as ending the goal of the Law. But it also begins the doing of the Law in the life of a believer. What is the nature of this doing? It is the good works, good deeds and ethical righteousness which faith births in the life of those circumcised in the heart. Paul calls those circumcised by the Spirit “Law keepers” [Romans 2:27] and “doers of Law”. [Romans 2:13] Hence, the symmetry of the Gospel is that Christ satisfied all the demands of the Law and took the curse of the Law, while those in Christ “do the things of the Law” [Romans 2:14] as an expression of the faith they have in what Christ has done for them. Those in Christ have become the “doers of the Word” [James 1:22] and “effectual doers” [James 1:25] who know that any other kind of faith has not saved them. [James 2:14]

The key to the Gospel is to understand that everyone will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. There, Christ will recompense all according to their practice. There will be tribulation and distress to those who practice the evil and glory, honor and peace to those who practice the good. But a proper understanding of the New Testament falls or stands on these questions. Who are they, who by perseverance in doing good, seek for glory and honor and immortality? Who are they that do the good? Who are the doers of the Law? Who are doers of the Word? We submit that they are those who have been circumcised in the heart by the Spirit, not the letter; and their praise is not from men but from God. Who are they that practice evil? They are those whose minds are set on the flesh. Their minds are hostile to God. For their minds are not subject to the Law of God. [Romans 8:5-8] They cannot please God.

 There are two domains of mankind according to the Bible. The first domain is darkness. The second is the domain of light. Those outside of Christ, who do not have His righteousness as their own, are in bondage to sin and without God. They may be religious but they are without Christ. They may have a zeal for God but they are without Christ. They are lost. They are under the wrath of God. They may be relatively good in their own and in the eyes of their contemporaries who are also outside of Christ. But they are lost. They will be recompensed in accordance with their practice. Their practice is against Christ and His gospel. Their practice is self motivated and their sins are not covered by the blood of Christ. Then there are those in Christ. They are in the domain of light. They have been born from above. They walk not in the futility of their minds but have en the city of God. Their citizenship is in heaven and Christ is in them. They are in Christ as well. They are a new creation. They will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and be recompensed for their practice as well. The end of those in the domain of darkness, is everlasting punishment in Hell. The end of those in Christ is everlasting life in Heaven.

In the 2nd chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul gives dour warnings against hypocrisy. No one should ever think that they have an inheritance with God while practicing evil. The essence of practicing evil is expressed by Paul in a number of ways; but in none more clear than the following: 

but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, Romans 2:8,9 [italics ours]

At the end of the day, the burden of the New Testament is to preserve an absolutely gratuitous justification by grace through faith apart from the works of Law. This means all Law. But in safeguarding the grace of God, the New Testament presents the heart’s belief of God’s elect. It is a heart that cannot simply hear the Word. It must obey it as well. True faith perseveres because true faith is a gift of God that will not fail. True faith sees Christ as the end of Law righteousness.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3,4 [emphasis ours]

The “doers of the Law” will be justified; but by “works of the law” will no man be justified in His sight!