How Should We Understand Man/Part 3

By: Dr. Steve Sullivan; ©2001
Dr. Sullivan walks through the minefield of the “faith vs. works” argument to present a clear picture of what Paul is teaching in Romans chapter 2. Are men justified by their works? If so, what about faith? If not, why does Paul tell us that God’s judgment is “according to his deeds”?

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Paul’s Anthropology from Romans 1-3—Part 3a
Romans 2:1-5


One of the most difficult persons to share the wonderful news of the gospel is the moral­ist. The person who does not go out and do the gross sins. They are the ones our society dubs as good, decent folk. They may even go to church regularly and be active in a choir or Sunday school class, but they are not saved. They may even know about Jesus Christ and His death on the cross, but they are banking on their performance and their position as a church member or their understanding about Christianity to get them to heaven. You talk to them about the commandments of Scripture and they are quick to point out the town drunks, the swindlers, the big time executive who gets around the law and the hypocrite. Yet, they never see themselves as God see them–guilty and condemned to judgment. A man who does not admit that he is sick will never go to the doctor for help. The moralist or the reli­gious man can see the sickness in other’s, but cannot or will not admit that he is sick.

The sad part about this subject is that every church has these kinds of people. So as we go through Romans 2:1-11 don’t look around saying, “Yeah, you’re right, the moralist is a do-gooder but not saved.” Instead, examine your own life and heart to see if Paul is talking about you and not someone else.

The Judgment of God Is According to the TruthRomans 2:1-5

“Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. 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? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? 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.”

We must remember that the theme of this letter is found in Romans 1:16-17: the righ­teousness of God which is imputed to us by faith. Yet, before man will seek this righteous­ness he must be convinced that he is unrighteous and condemned under the wrath of God. Therefore, in Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul begins a detail discussion about the total depravity of man. Like a skilled lawyer Paul builds his case. In chapter one verses 18-32 he masterfully lays down the proof that the Gentile or the heathen is without excuse: because the nature around him declares the attributes of God and he suppresses this truth in ungodly and unrighteous acts. No one, no matter where he is or how little he knows, will be able to stand before God and say, “I did not know.” Paul says that nature which God has created will stand up and condemn that man. He is guilty and without excuse.

Now in Romans 2, Paul turns to the moralist. In Romans 2:17 he will turn specifically to his Jewish brethren. The Jewish man who assented to the moral laws of the Old Testament naturally applauds Paul as he expounds upon the guilt and condemnation of the Gentiles. But now Paul turns the tables and begins to build his case against the Jew and the moral­ist. Paul uses the old Stoic diatribe style of writing where he puts objections into the mouth of an imaginary critic and then answers him. Paul probably learned this method from the arguments in the market place. He knew the objections and thinking of the people as they would listen to his doctrine, so he anticipates them and writes the answer.

The particle “therefore” in verse one draws an inference from Romans 1:32, “and al­though they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.” This verse not only applies to the Gentiles, it would apply with a greater degree to the moralist because he had the written revelation besides the revelation in nature. Paul is saying to the moralist, “You have pointed your finger and judged these Gentiles guilty and you are right.” Paul does not chide them for this. He condemns them because they too have broken the law and are under condemnation. In other words, the standard by which the moralist judged the Gentile is the same standard that they break, so they are without excuse and stand under the judgment of God. This parallels Romans 1:18 and 20. The Gentiles “suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” but the moralist, like the Jew who knows the standard of the truth, breaks it. In Romans 1:20 the Gentiles are without excuse because they reject the truth of God in nature, while the moralist breaks the truth of God in Scripture by not living up to its standards. Therefore, Paul declares the moralist without excuse.

Notice in Romans 1:21-23 how Paul shows that they broke God’s standard: “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.” I can hear the imaginary critic say, “Yes, Paul, but we don’t break God’s Law with the same degree as the Gentiles.” This is true, but the moralist still breaks the standard. It is the breaking of the standard that is the issue more than the degree of breaking the standard. Today’s moralist still tries to use the same argument to justify his position.

Paul gives three principles which God uses to judge men in Romans 2:1-16. The first principle is found in verses 2-5. The judgment of God is always according to truth. What does Paul mean “by truth”? James Stifler, in his commentary says it this way, “When gold is assayed, the test considers only the metal that is under it; it does not ask whence it came, whose it is, but what it is. God’s judgment proceeds on just what the man or the deed before him is in itself, apart from birth or race or religious connection.” The Epistle to the Romans, p. 29.) God judges according to facts justly discerned and not in partiality for He does not take into consideration man’s position. Paul says, “for there is no partiality with God” (verse 11).

This is not always true in our courts today. Sometimes the facts are not presented or they are masterfully twisted to acquit a person from an act of which he is guilty. Even if he is guilty of the crime, he might escape. He may escape because the offense was never found out. Or, he may escape from the bounds of the legal jurisdiction under which the crime was committed. Further, the case may be thrown out because of a breakdown in the legal system. Finally, even if he is declared guilty, he may escape the detention center and live out his life as a fugitive. Yet, there are no such possibilities in God’s law court. God knows all the facts and his judgment will be just. No one will escape His justice (Romans 2:2). The preceding statements needed to be said because the moralist in Romans 2 may think that his chosen position may bring some privileges before God’s judgment bench. So Paul states two rhetorical questions in verses 3-4.

In verse 3 Paul denounces the thinking of the moralist or the Jew who may rest on his position before God. The Jewish people of Paul’s day prided themselves with the privilege of being God’s chosen people. They often believed that if you are a Jew you automatically make it to heaven. Paul blasts this misconception in verse 3: “And we know that the judg­ment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. 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?” This is a rhetorical question, but Paul wants us to answer it with a resounding, NO. They will not escape God’s judgment just because they are moral or Jewish.

The problem is no different in the church in the 21st century. Many today think they will escape the judgment of God because they are church members or because they carry the title Christian. I believe the most dangerous deception is of those who know about Jesus but don’t know Him as their personal Savior. This privileged position of knowledge will not save you from the judgment of God.

In verse 4 Paul hits the contemptuous action of man. Paul says, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” Not only has the moralist presumed upon his position, he has willfully rejected the goodness, forbearance and patience of God. Notice what Luke 6:35 says, “But love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” Every good thing anyone receives comes ultimately from the Lord. The air you breath, the shelter you have, the job, the family and the friends. Yet, even when men are not grateful, but do evil instead, God’s goodness is extended. God is for­bearing toward sinners and He is patient for He delays punishment even after long periods of provocation by rebellious man.

God should have zapped us with a thunderbolt of His wrath the first time we sinned. That is what we deserve. But He will not. Why didn’t He execute His judgment on us? Because He uses His goodness, forbearance and patience to lead men toward repentance for salvation. Repentance is a change of mind about Christ and our sins and making a u-turn in life. You turn from your sins and you embrace Christ and His salvation.

My friend, do not think that because God does not immediately reveal His wrath on you that you will escape His wrath. If you think your moral life and your good works are the means by which you have escaped God’s wrath, you will be horribly mistaken. Romans 2:5 says that your stubborn and unrepentant heart in spurning the goodness of God’s promises in His Word concerning salvation causes the storing up of God’s wrath until the future day of His coming when He judges.

Oh, my friend, this is a very solemn passage. You who are moralists or a church mem­ber who relies upon your moral goodness or your status as “Christian” and only know about Jesus, awake up! You think you will escape the judgment of God, but you are storing up wrath for the day when God will judge you. God judges according to truth (justly) and His judgment is certain. Flee the wrath to come by fleeing to Christ by faith–trusting Him alone to give you the righteousness of God and who is your substitute for the wrath to come!


Paul’s Anthropology from Romans 1-3 — Part 3b
Romans 2:6-11

The judgment of God is not only according to truth (see previous article), it is also ac­cording to works. Notice Paul’s words in Romans 2:6-11:

“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 to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.”

The principle of God’s judgment is plainly stated in verse 6, “who will render to every man according to his deeds.” We might structure this section this way:[1]

A. God will judge everyone equitably v. 6

B. Those who do good will attain eternal life v. 7
C. Those who do evil will suffer wrath v. 8
C. Wrath for those who do evil v. 9
B. Glory for those who do good v. 10

A. God judges impartially v. 11

In Romans 2:7-10 Paul categorizes everyone into two classes: bad or good. In verses 7 and 10 those who are good and verses 8 and 9 those who are bad.


Romans 2:7 and 10

“To those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life;”

Romans 2:8 and 9

“But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”

“But glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” “There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

This is a typical chiastic literary arrangement (X):

Romans 2:6 (equity) Romans 2:7 ( good)Romans 2:8 (bad)

Romans 2:8 (bad)Romans 2:10 ( good) Romans 2:11 (equity)

Unlike most chaistic structure the main point of verses 6-11 is the ends (verses 6 and11).[2] God is the impartial judge who will judge every one according to their works. We alsosee the Jewish priority in verses 9 and 10 by the phrase “Jew first and also to the Greek.”

Notice also the four groups of threes in verses 7-10. Each verse has the same three ingredients: character, pursuit and award.[3]

Romans 2:7 1. Character—perseverance in doing good

  1. Pursuit—glory, honor and immortality
  2. Award—eternal life

Romans 2:8 1. Character—selfishly ambitious

  1. Pursuit—not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness
  2. Award—wrath and indignation

Romans 2:9 1. Award—tribulation and distress

  1. Pursuit—does evil
  2. Character—Jews first and also the Greek Romans 2:10 1. Award—glory, honor and peace
  1. Pursuit—does good
  2. Character—Jews first and also the Greek

The Judgment of God Is According to Works

Why did I point out all of the above and what is Paul telling us? He is telling us that the man who does evil is judged with wrath and the man who does good is awarded eternal life. This point raises a doctrinal question: How can anyone declare that a man may be judged good by his works and receive eternal life when Paul states emphatically in this letter that a man is only justified by God through faith alone (cp. Romans 3:21-4:25)? Fur­thermore, the theme of the epistle is a righteous man lives by faith! Romans 2:6-11 often becomes the fertile ground of those who wrongly justify their works as a part of their salva­tion. How do we answer this apparent contradiction?[4]

First of all let’s make it clear that Paul does not teach that a man is saved or justified by his works. Romans 3:20-22 says, “Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justi­fied in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction.” Or again in Galatians 3:10-11, “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.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’”

Secondly, it is always crucial in a question like this to know the context of the passage. The context of Romans 2:6-11 is not the gospel, but judgment by the Law of God. When the subject of discussion is salvation or justification Paul refers to faith as the means of obtaining this wonderful gift. But when it deals with judgment he centers in on a man’s works. In other words, he is not looking at the source (belief or unbelief) which produced the works, but the only the fruit (works) of the man’s life. Therefore, many would look upon verses 6-11 as a hypothetical argument from Paul. If someone could obey all the moral law in thought, word and deed without breaking one of them throughout his entire life, he could earn eternal life.[5] However, no one can do this. Therefore, their disobedience to the law brings judgment and receiving eternal life by doing good is only hypothetical because no one can do it. I would agree with this and this may be the way we should understand Paul’s argument. This is the standard he holds up to the Jews in verse 13 knowing that no one is able to be justified by works.

However, it may also be understood this way. The quality of a man’s works gives evi­dence of belief or unbelief (the source). Saving faith will be accompanied by an obedient life through the power of the Holy Spirit, while unbelief is accompanied by a disobedient life. There may be different degrees of faith and unbelief but God is able to judge correctly. Notice how obedience is closely connected to faith. In Romans 1:5 it says, “Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake.” In Acts 6:7, “And the word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith. Again in John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” The fruit of saving faith is obedience in good works (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10) and the fruit of unbelief is disobedience in unrighteousness. Good works do not save but they are evidence of a changed life of a saved person. This is how Paul argues in Romans 2:28-29. Paul would not deny that Christians sin and are disobedient (cp. 1 Corinthians 3:1-3), but this is not Paul’s subject at present. The theology behind what Paul says in Romans 2:7 and 10 is that a man whose saving faith is demon­strated in a life of good works (i.e. Romans 2:7—doing good seeking for glory, honor, immortality) has sought the only way and the only source to receive eternal life. It is through the righteousness of Jesus Christ which is received through faith.

Therefore, there is no contradiction here. Justification or the righteousness of God comes by faith alone and not by doing the Law or good works of the Law. Yet, a man who is justified by faith seeks to do good works, glorify God, and honor the Son. These works which are produced by the Holy Spirit are the fruits of saving faith.

I am fearful of one thing after writing this article and that is the possibility of someone misunderstanding what I have written. It is possible that you are relying upon your good works, your false concept of Christianity, or your knowledge about Christ, hoping that this will cause you to escape the judgment of God. My friend, you will not escape the judgment! Everyone who is reading this article should examine their own heart. What are you trusting in to escape the judgment of God and make you stand before God justified? Paul’s mes­sage is clear. It is faith alone in Christ alone! But it is a faith that does not stand alone for it gives evidence of justification. It is a faith that “by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality.”


  1. Douglas Moo, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Romans 1-8, p.134
  2. Ibid., p.135.
  3. James Stifler, The Epistle to the Romans, Moody Press edition, 1983, p. 31.
  4. For a survey of different positions see Moo, pp.139-141, Thomas Schreinder, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Romans, pp.113-115 and C.E.B. Cranfield, ICC The Epistle to the Romans, 1:151-53.
  5. My argument here does not take into account the immediate imputation of Adam’s sin in Romans 5.

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