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. (Romans 2:6-10)
Paul tells us that the people who have eternal life are those “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” How do they seek these things? They seek glory, honor, and immortality “by patience in well-doing” or, also, “perseverance in a good work.” In verse 10, Paul says that glory and honor and peace will be given to “everyone who does good.” Later on in Romans, Paul will make clear that man is not justified on the basis of good works (3:20, 24, 28; 4:5; 5:1). So what does he mean here? Is Paul speaking of real obedience or hypothetical obedience? The ESVSB writes that Paul is speaking of real obedience that is made possible by the Holy Spirit (i.e. heart circumcision; see 2:26-29).
If Paul is not speaking of actual obedience, then verse 6 should not be taken literally and therefore, there may not be a day of judgment according to works. But that is not what the rest of the Bible teaches, and that is certainly not what Jesus taught (see Matt. 25 among other passages). It is true that in the context of this section (1:18-3:20), Paul is clear that all people are unrighteous and sinful and no one is right before God. However, as the ESVSB points out, the only way people can be righteous and blameless before God is one whose heart has been circumcised by the Spirit, not by obeying the law. It is a complete reversal of logic: those who cannot obey the law are empowered to obey the law, not by trying harder, but by being transformed by the Holy Spirit. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains that the good soil represents those people who have been saved by God and circumcised in the heart. Jesus points out that these people have heard the word, hold it fast in an honest and god heart and “bear fruit with patience” (Lk. 8:15).
Douglas Moo, on the other hand, points out that another possible interpretation of this passage is that Paul is setting forth the biblical conditions of salvation apart from Christ. Moo writes that “the stress in v. 6 on man’s work as the criterion in the determination of a person’s salvation or condemnation makes it difficult to fit grace into the situation at all (p. 142). This is not convincing for me because 1) Scripture never tells us that God promised eternal life based on good works; 2) Paul does not say works are “the” criterion, he merely says that he will render a judgment “according to…works.” This is not “on the basis of” or “because of the merits of.” It is “in accordance with”; 3) In this chapter, Paul is not talking about hypothetical situations; he seems to be speaking in a very straightforward way about what will really happen to real people for all eternity; and 4) Paul, later in Romans and also in Galatians, says that eternal life that is given is in accordance with good works (see 6:22; 8:12-13; Gal. 6:8-9).
What Paul does not mean is that Christians are saved another way apart from faith (as we saw in the points above). What Paul does mean is that truly justified, regenerate, Spirit-filled Christians obey God and do good works and will be rewarded accordingly. Their good works are in accordance with their salvation, but not the foundation of salvation. The “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak.
True Christians are those who continue to good with patience, for they must work with patience in this life because true, godly, Christ-centered good works in the economy of this world are seldom rewarded. In their good works, a true Christian does not seek for recognition or self-gain or worldly success (though there may be remnants of those sins they battle against). Instead, as Paul writes, they “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” Not self-glory, for they want glory to go to their Father in heaven; not their honor, for they want Christ and his church to be honored; not immortality for the sake of escaping hell, for they want to be with Christ, in his presence and comfort, for all eternity.