Who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON 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.
(a) Will render. There are consequences to rejecting God’s kindness. Paul is talking about stubborn and unrepentant people who reject the grace of God (see Rom. 2:2-5). He’s saying, “If you won’t accept what God freely offers (grace), then you will reap what you sow.”
Paul is offering a counterpoint to what Jesus says in John 5:28-29. Jesus tells us what we should do (hear and believe) and Paul tells us what we shouldn’t (be stubborn and unrepentant). The rewards for getting it right are the same in both cases, and it’s eternal life. Jesus: “Those who have done good will rise to live.” Paul: “To those who by perseverance in doing good, he will give eternal life.”
(b) Perseverance in doing good. Some twist Paul’s words into a mixed message of faith plus works. “You have to believe but you also have to persist in doing good every day until you die.” Such a message is 180 degrees opposed to Paul’s message. We are saved by grace alone (Rom 11:6). Paul does not say “work hard and you’ll be rewarded with eternal life,” because that would contradict what he’s just said about the righteous life being “by faith from first to last” (Rom 1:17). If eternal life is a reward for good works, then it can’t be the gift of God (Rom 6:23).
So why does Paul tell the stubborn and unrepentant to “persist in good works and you’ll get eternal life”? He’s setting them up to fail. No one does good, not even one (Rom 3:12). And the sooner these hypocrites fail, the sooner they will realize their need for grace.
Romans 2 is bad news for the self-righteous and those working to earn God’s favor, but it’s bad news that leads to the good news: Righteousness is a gift (Rom 5:17). Eternal life is a gift (Rom 6:23, 8:11). God’s favor is a gift (Rom 5:16).
Further reading: “Rewarded for doing good?”
For it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.
Paul is not saying, “Try and keep the law and you will justify yourself before God,” for that would contradict what he says elsewhere about being justified by faith (Gal. 2:16, 21). He is saying, “hearing the law is not enough, you have to keep it – and none of you can!” It is impossible for imperfect man to deliver a lifetime of perfect performance. Paul is not calling us to attempt the impossible; he’s trying to get us to admit defeat (Rom. 3:20).
The Jews had the law, but they failed to keep it and this should have been their undoing. Keeping the law is an impossible challenge. Only One person ever did it, and that Person became our righteousness from God.
Further reading: “Justified by law?”
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves,
We all have an innate knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. This knowledges comes from our conscience.
In that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,
(a) The Law written in their hearts is the conscience. Paul is talking about unregenerate Gentiles (see previous verse). He is not referring to the law that the Lord writes onto the hearts of those who love him (Heb. 10:16). Further reading: “What is the law written on our hearts?”
(b) Conscience literally means “with knowledge.” The Jews had the Law of Moses, but we all have an innate knowledge of good and evil. When we do wrong, we know we’ve done wrong because our consciences bear witness and accuse us. This is why it’s important to have our consciences cleansed by the blood of Jesus (Heb. 9:14) and why Paul exhorts us to hold on to a good or clean conscience lest we shipwreck our faith (1 Tim. 1:19).
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