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. – Romans 2:6-11 ESV
In chapter two of Romans, Paul is addressing the Jewish community. In the first chapter he talked about the non-Jew or pagan, who stands before God as without excuse and guilty. They have had God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20 ESV) clearly revealed to them and yet, they had refused to acknowledge Him as God. Instead, they had ended up worshiping the creation rather than the Creator, leading to God turning them over to their own foolish hearts, dishonorable passions, and debased minds. But as far as Paul was concerned, the Jews were no less culpable or free from guilt. In fact, they were so busy pointing their condemning fingers at he pagans, that they failed to see that they were guilty of the same sins they claimed not to commit. As descendants of Abraham and children of God, they considered themselves exempt from judgment. They somehow thought themselves to be immune from God’s wrath. But Paul warned them that, they too, were without excuse. They stood just as much condemned and guilty as the Gentiles who were outside the family of God. The self-righteous efforts of the Jews aimed at a holy God, were going to be no more helpful in the long run than the self-righteous actions of the Gentiles directed at their false gods. Paul accused the Jews of having hard and unrepentant hearts. They refused to admit their guilt and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. So Paul warned them that “you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5 ESV). Not only that, the day was coming when God was going to render to each of them according to his works.
Paul is using the Old Testament Scriptures to indict them. He quotes from two different passages. The first is from Psalm 62:11-12: “and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.” The second is from Proverbs 24:12: “Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?” The Hebrew Scriptures provided a strong understanding of the coming judgment of God. It would be based according to each man’s works. The expectation was righteousness – God’s brand of righteousness, not man’s. The requirement was perfection and nothing less. God had told the Israelites repeatedly, “For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. ” (Leviticus 11:44 ESV). Jesus had told the Jews of His day, “unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” (Matthew 5:20 NLT). James put it in even more practical, if not demanding terms: “For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws” (James 2:10 NLT).
And Paul seems to give only two options for life, and both end in judgment. One is to live satisfying the self and disobeying the truth regarding God and His gospel offer. Those individuals will end up obeying unrighteousness and earning God’s full wrath and fury on the day of judgment. The other option is to life self-righteously, attempting to obey God’s law and earn a right standing with Him through your own efforts. And if you happen to pull it off, your reward on judgment day will be glory, honor, peace and immortality, while everyone else gets tribulation and distress. But is Paul saying we can earn our salvation by doing good deeds? Certainly not. He is showing that those who are sinners will be judged and condemned, but so will those who consider themselves to be righteous because of their own efforts. In the very next chapter Paul will make it clear that “all people, whether Jews or Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9 NLT), and that “No one is righteous – not even one” (Romans 3:10 NLT). A little further on in that same chapter, Paul will introduce the sobering news, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NLT).
So self-righteousness is no better than sinfulness. Attempting to do good things for God puts you in no better position than those who do bad things against God. God shows no partiality. Nobody gets to earn their way into His good graces. There is one way and one way only for men to be made right with God, and that is through the death of Jesus Christ. Paul goes on in chapter three to say, “all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24 NLT). That includes the Jew and the Gentile, the pagan and the pious, the selfish and the self-righteous. “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT).
We can’t earn our salvation. None of us deserve God’s grace and mercy. The Jews were no better off than the Gentiles. They were sinners, condemned and unclean. Paul reminds us that at the foot of the cross, we’ll all equals when it comes to our guiltiness and our need for forgiveness. Which is why he wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). The greatest danger men face is to fall under the delusion of man-made righteousness. We will never be able to achieve our way into God’s presence or earn out way into His good graces. Which is why He sent His Son to live among us, model holiness right in front us, and die on behalf of us. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NLT).