The Moralist Condemned, Part 1 - Romans 2:1-5

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. 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 everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Romans 2:6-11).

 

This is the second part to our study of Romans 2:1-11, in which we are examining ‘the moralist condemned.’ In these verses, Paul is addressing the condemnation of the person who is externally moral, but who is internally as corrupt as the person who is involved in gross immoral sins. Paul continues his address to the moralist, warning him that if he is not born again, he must not think that he will escape the wrath of God.

 

The Indictment Against the Moralist

In our last study, we noted that Paul made five declarative statements regarding the moralist who believes that the gospel is for others, but never for him. First, the apostle stated that the moralist practices the same sin as does the one who leads a degenerative lifestyle. He notes, “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things" (verse 1). Here, Paul is referring to those mentioned at the end of Romans chapter one. He charges the moralist with practicing the same sins. These iniquities will be different manifestations of the same sins. But the moralist has been weighed in the balances, and has been found guilty of committing the same sin.

 

Second, Paul maintains that the moralist will suffer the same judgment. Paul says, "But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?" (verse 3). This is a rhetorical question raised by Paul that implies a negative answer. The moralist will not escape the same judgment as everyone else. He, too, will have his day in court before Jesus Christ.

 

Third, Paul adds that the moralist resists the same kindness. He continues his prosecuting case, “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness?" (verse 4). The moralist disregards the many expressions of the mercy of God that should have led him to repentance. God has been so good to him that he has failed to see his need for grace.

 

Fourth, the apostle argues that the moralist is storing up the same wrath as the immoral sinner. He asserts, “You are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath" (verse 5). The moralist is in the very same boat as the outwardly immoral people mentioned at the end of Romans 1.

 

Fifth, Paul states that the moralist will be judged by the same principle of judgment as everyone else. Beginning in verse 6, "Who will render to each person according to his deeds" (verse 6). In this study, I want to unpack verses 6-11, which elaborate on this same truth. What follows is Paul’s explanation of the divine judgment upon the moralist by the exact same standard as the reprobate.

 

I. The Doctrinal Instruction (2:6)

 

The principle by which God will judge every person in the world, both believers and unbelievers, is it will be according to their deeds. Paul writes concerning God, "Who will render to each person according to his deeds" (verse 6). This is a direct quote from Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12. The reason Paul quotes from the Old Testament is to show that this standard in judgment has always been this way. This is the way God has always operated. This proposition is not something new in New Testament times. Paul quotes from the Old Testament to show that this principle of judgment is timeless, the same in every age.

 

Verse 6 begins with the word, “Who” (os), which is a reference to God. The last word of verse 5, which is the antecedent, is “God.” The Executor of this judgment is God Himself. God is the One who will render this judgment. The next word, “will” speaks to the certainty of this judgment. God will render to each person according to his deeds. It is absolutely certain this is going to come to pass. The word “render” (apodidomai) means ‘to pay what is due as wages,’ ‘to give a recompense for work done.’ If I was contracted by you to perform some work, you would render to me a specific amount of money as payment. That remuneration is not a gift, but wages earned. What you would give to me is my recompense. That is the word that Paul uses.

 

This is to say, there is going to be a future payday when God will render “to each person.” That teaches both the individuality and the universality of the judgment. Every single person will be rendered according to his deeds. This recompense is not only for unbelievers, but believers, as well. Every individual will receive their pay off from God according to their deeds.

 

Paul says this rendering will be “according to” (kata), which means ‘in direct proportion to,’ “his deeds.” This speaks of the direct accountability that each person in the world has with God. That it will be measured by “his deeds” means it will be in proportion to his labor. In other words, he will receive for what he has worked. The payoff will be according to what he has earned by his actions. He will be paid off according to the things he has done, or according to his industry. Without exception, every man will be judged by God according to the things he has done. This is the universal principle that Paul is establishing.

 

The Great White Throne Judgment

God is keeping impeccable records on every person's life. Every single deed of every person in the history of the entire human race is recorded in God’s book. For every unbeliever, Revelation 20:11-15 reveals what will happen at the end of time. The apostle John writes, “Then I saw a great white throne” (verse 11). “Great” speaks of its power, the Supreme Court of heaven and earth. There is no higher court of appeal. Its verdict is final and irreversible. “White” speaks of its purity, as perfect justice will be dispensed in that day. No inequity will be administered. No distorted evidence will be admitted. “Throne” speaks of its purpose. This will be a place of strictest justice. There will not be one drop of mercy in this day, only inflexible judgment.

 

This scene unfolds, "And Him who sat upon it." “Him” refers to Jesus Christ. All judgment has been entrusted by the Father to the Son (John 5:22). Every knee will bow to the Lord Jesus (Philippians 2:9-11). The apostle John explains, "from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them” (verse 11). So terrifying is this scene that every unbeliever will shrink back in horror. “And I saw the dead, the great and the small" (verse 12). “The great” refers to people who have lived with great influence and power in human history, whose names are well known. “The small” refers to the little, insignificant people, who lived little, insignificant lives. We do not even know who they are. They are all “standing before the throne, and books were opened” (verse 12). These books contain the detailed record of every action, every deed, every thought, and every motive of every unbeliever in human history. This is the indisputable evidence that will be presented in court on that day. Jesus said that men will render an account of every idle word in the judgment (Matthew 12:36).

 

John continues, “and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books according to their deeds” (verse 12). According to the nature and amount of the sin, there will be the corresponding judgment. The severity of the punishment rendered will not be the same for everyone, because the deeds will not be the same for everyone. There will be degrees of punishment in hell according to the degrees of evil deeds that were done by unbelievers. This is an alarming passage.

 

"And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death in Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds” (verse 13). Here again, we read the emphasis upon this final judgment being according to one’s deeds. “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (verses 14-15). This is the ultimate fulfillment for unbelievers of what we are reading in the book of Romans.

 

Judgment for Believers

Not only will there be a judgment according to deeds for unbelievers, there will also be a judgment for believers. In Romans 14:10-12, we read of the judgment for the believers’ deeds, when we stand before the Lord at the judgment seat of Christ. Paul writes, "But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" (verse 10). According to the context, “you” refers to believers, who live and die for the Lord (verse 8). We, too, will stand before the Lord and have our lives and ministries examined by the Lord.

 

As Christians, there will be a judgment for our works, and rather than there being degrees of punishment as with every unbeliever, there will be degrees of reward for every believer. There will be different allotments of reward according to how strategically and purely we have invested our lives in the things of God. As believers, we will never stand in the judgment for our sins. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). But we will stand in judgment, and there will be a scrutiny of how we invested our time, our treasure, and our talent for the things of God.

 

This principle is applicable, not only to the unbeliever, but also to the believer. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad." Romans 2:6 declares the principle that each man will be judged according to his deeds.

 

II. The Practical Application (2:7-10)

 

In verses 7-10, Paul gives the practical application of doctrinal instruction stated in verse 6. The apostle is saying that the believer will have this principle of judgment applied to them in verses 7 and 10, while the unbeliever will also have the same applied to them in verses 8 and 9. This is an A, B, B, A literary arrangement called a chiastic structure. So Paul first addresses the believer in verse 7, then unbeliever in verses 8 and 9, and finally the believer in verse 10. It is called a chiastic argument.

 

1. The Believer’s Deeds (2:7) 

In verse 7, Paul addresses believers, “To those who, by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.” Only a true believer perseveres to the end of his life in doing good. This statement presupposes what is not mentioned, that this one has experienced the new birth with a new heart, new direction, and new affections.

 

This is a signature passage that teaches the perseverance of the saints. The word “perseverance” (hupomone) is one distinguishing mark of the true believer. The perseverance of the saints is the fifth truth of the doctrines of grace. This doctrinal teaching means that the elect will endure with constancy and steadfastness throughout the entirety of their Christian life. In other words, perseverance in doing good works identifies the true believers. The writer of Hebrews says, "For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end” (Hebrews 3:14). Another way to say this is, we have become genuine believers in Jesus Christ if we continue in faith firm to the end.

 

On the other hand, the one who does persevere in the faith, but falls away from his profession gives evidence of having never been converted. It has been said, “The faith that fizzles before the finish had a flaw from the first.” This pithy maxim restates the truth that the one who falls away before the end was not a true believer. If a person does not persevere faithful to the end, he had a counterfeit conversion. When God grants saving faith, it is a trust in Christ that causes one to persevere in obedience throughout the entirety of one's life. There is a consistency with which the rest of Scripture teaches. There are many other verses we could site, but we will look at one more.

 

Paul writes, "You were formally alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach – if indeed you continue in the faith, firmly established, and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard" (Colossians 1:21-23). The one who is a true believer begins in the faith, continues in the faith, and perseveres in the faith. They press on unto the end of their life in doing good and pursuing godliness. There may be seasons of cooling off, times of falling into sin, but those are not overall characteristics of their Christian life. A true believer perseveres until the end.

 

When Paul writes in Romans 2:7, "to those who by perseverance in doing good," this word “doing” (ergon) is a Greek word that means ‘labor, toil, work.’ It is a strong word that is the antithesis of being laid back. There is no passivity in this word. It speaks of labor to the point of exhaustion. The word “good” (agathos) means ‘that which is upright and honorable, morally excellent.’ True believers persevere throughout their Christian life in pursuing what is honorable and virtuous.

 

The Pursuit of Glory

This lifelong pursuit reveals the genuineness of one's conversion. Paul says those who persevere in doing good, "seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life." The verb “seek for” (zeteo) is in the present tense, meaning the believer is continuously seeking for glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life. Of course, we are not supposed to seek our own glory. But this “glory” to which Paul refers is the glory that we must seek. It points to our final state of glorification, when we are, at last, in glory with Christ. Paul will have much to say about the glory that awaits us future sections of Romans. In reality, this seeking for glory is seeking for the glory that God will give to us in heaven. In that day, we will become like His Son, Jesus Christ.

 

The certain outworking of conversion is that “we exult in hope of the glory of God" (Romans 5:2). This does not refer to our giving praise to God, but to our being glorified in heaven. In that last day, we will be fully conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. Presently, we are seeking to become more like Christ. In this life, we are pursuing living in a godly way. But beyond this life, we are looking to the future hope of glory when we will be fully conformed into Christ's likeness.

 

The next word that we must seek is “honor” (time). This is not an honor for ourselves, but the honor that Jesus Christ will give to us on the last day when He says, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). We long to hear that from the Lord on the last day. This is the honor that comes from Him on the last day when He recognizes our faithfulness in doing good. This will be the long awaited approbation of the Lord on the last day.

 

Then Paul adds, "immortality" (aphtharsia), which means ‘incorruptibility.’ This is the future state that awaits us after the resurrection. Our body will be raised in a resurrection body in which we live forever with God. Then Paul says, "eternal life," which is really the final realization of our future salvation. Eternal life begins the moment we are born again, when the life of God is put within our spiritually dead soul. Here, Paul is pointing to the final outcome of our salvation, when we will be glorified and receive honor from God. Then we will receive immortality from Him in a resurrection body. We will receive the final phase of eternal life, which is life in the very presence of God in heaven forever.

 

As believers, we are to be “doing good,” and we will be judged for it. This should be quite a motivation for us to be serving the Lord, obeying Him, and doing His work. R.C. Sproul wrote an article in every Tabletalk magazine entitled "Right Now Counts Forever." This is the eternal perspective with which we must be living our Christian life, because right now does count forever. We cannot allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep by grace. We must never presume that it does not matter how we live our Christian life. On the last day, we will face the record and give an account to the Lord for what good we have done. Some will have built their lives with gold, silver, and precious stones. Others will have built with wood, hay, and stubble. The last day will test the quality of each man's work according to what he has done. Some will receive a greater reward than others, because they were far more engaged in doing good. I want to stress that obedience from the heart will receive from Jesus Christ an eternal reward on the last day. Our obedience is an important matter to God and should be to us.

 

2. The Unbeliever’s Deeds (2:8a) 

Paul begins verse 8 with the conjunction “but,” which reveals that we are making a shift in focus. We are turning from addressing believers to unbelievers. “But” marks a stark contrast from the preceding verse. Paul will now address what he presented in verse 6 and apply it to unbelievers. He writes, "But to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness" (verse 8). “Selfishly ambitious” (eritheia) can be translated in different ways, but the main idea is a person who is still living for himself. He has never denied himself. He has never died to self. He lives however he wants to live. He does whatever he wants to do, with whom he wants to do it. This person is not living for Christ or what He wants him to do. He is strictly living for himself. There can be no misunderstanding whom Paul is addressing. These people, he says, “do not obey the truth." This is in the present tense, indicating they continually do not obey the truth. This is the big picture of their life.

 

Paul continues, they “do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness” (verse 8). Please note that everyone lives a life of obedience. A person is either living in obedience to the or living in obedience to unrighteousness. In this sense, everyone is a slave in bondage. Everyone is either a slave of God and obeying righteousness, or a slave of sin and obeying unrighteousness. In the purest sense, no one is free to do their own thing. Every one of us has a master, either Jesus Christ or sin. If you do not obey the truth, you are obeying unrighteousness. There is no middle category.

 

Later in Romans, Paul writes, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (Romans 6:16-17). Here, the apostle affirms that everyone is a slave who obeys his master. He either has Jesus as his Master and follows Him in obedience to the truth, or he has sin as his master and lives in obedience to unrighteousness. That is precisely what Romans 2:8 is teaching.

 

3. The Unbeliever’s Reward (8b-9) 

Then Paul describes the recompense that unbelievers will receive for not obeying the truth. This is the divine payment they will receive for being selfishly ambitious and obeying unrighteousness. This is the payback from God when He judges them for their sinful lifestyle. It will be “wrath and indignation” (verse 8). Further, there will be “tribulation and distress” (verse 9). This is the wages that they have earned, and this is the paycheck they will receive.

 

The word “wrath” (orge) is a Greek word that sounds like the English word ‘orgy.’ In an orge, there is heated passion among the revilers. This word describes the heated wrath of divine passion against unbelievers. It describes the violent anger of God against the ungodly. The word “indignation” (thumos) means much the same. It conveys the idea that something is so hot that it is boiling up. Here, it is the angry, heated passion of God against the wicked. God is a holy God, and all that is antithetical to His holy character provokes His strong reaction. This pictures God at the boiling point, pouring out vengeance against all that does not conform to His morally perfect character.

 

Concerning unbelievers, Paul writes, “there will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek” (verse 9). “Every soul” refers to the unbeliever who “does evil.” This is the polar opposite of what we observed earlier of the one who seeks to do good (verse 7). By contrast, the mark of the unbeliever is one who habitually “does evil.” The word “does” (katergazomai) is an intensely strong word that means ‘to perform, accomplish work.’ It is a verb in the present tense, indicating this one continually performs evil deeds. The word “evil” (kakos) is that which is ‘worthless, wicked, bad, corrupt, and depraved.’

 

This is the unbreakable principle stated in verse 6, being applied to two different groups. First, Paul related it to believers who seek to do good deeds (verse 7). Then he connected it to unbelievers who are continually performing evil deeds (verses 8-9). Both believers and unbelievers will receive a justly due recompense. Believers will receive the individual reward that is coming to them from Jesus Christ. Unbelievers will receive the specific punishment that has been earned by them. Each is according to the quality and quantity of works that they have performed. For the believer, it will be for their good works. For the unbeliever, it will be for their evil works.

 

Paul concludes by writing, "of the Jew first and also of the Greek" (verse 9). In Romans 1:16, the apostle stated that the gospel will go first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. Verse 9 is saying that it will be in the same order for judgment. Divine judgment will come first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. The Jew receives it first because they have had the greater light of the gospel. Tragically, they have defiantly rejected this greater exposure to the truth. Consequently, there is a far greater accountability and responsibility to God. In the end, there will be a stricter judgment, depending upon the greater light of the truth that they have had.

 

4. The Believer’s Reward (2:10)

At last, Paul comes back to the believer in verse 10, “but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God” (verse 10). He starts with the word “but,” in strong contrast to what has proceeded. He now describes what comes to the believer who performs good deeds throughout his lifetime. “Glory and honor” is a repetition of what Paul stated in verse 7. This repeating is a literary device known as inclusion or inclusion. This is where a writer or speaker finishes his argument the way he began it. In other words, he starts by saying something, then after he has said other things, he will come back where he started. This is an effective teaching method Paul employs.

 

In verse 10, Paul returns to the beginning of his argument. He says the believer will receive “glory and honor” (doxa), which is the praise he will receive from God on the last day. Then after that he adds, “peace.” Peace speaks to the wellness of the believer’s soul. It describes the tranquility of the soul that rests in Jesus Christ. The same will be true in heaven, but only greater. In that day, there will be no sorrow, no pain, and no illness. It will be a state of pure and perfect peace. This is the divine approbation in the end.

 

The one who receives glory, honor, and peace from God, Paul says, is every believer “who does good.” The apostle continues his focus on the deeds of the believer that is running throughout this entire section in Romans. In many circles today, there is such an emphasis on grace that there is a total neglect of the importance of the deeds we perform. In this passage, we see how important deeds are for the believer in order to receive a measure of glory, honor, and peace on the last day from God.

 

III. The Final Explanation (2:11)

 

Paul concludes this section with this explanation for what has preceded, “for there is no partiality with God” (verse 11). In this context, this statement means that God will judge everyone without exception justly. As the high Judge of heaven and earth, He will judge both the believer and the unbeliever, as well as both the Jew and the Greek. There is no partiality with God. With perfect equity, God will judge everyone on the last day. No one will escape His judgment.

 

The point that Paul is making in these verses is that even the moralist needs to be awakened to the fact that he, too, will face the judgment of God. He must know that being good is not enough. Like everyone else, he must be born again. No matter how outwardly moral he may be, he, like everyone else, has a heart problem that only God can cure. Such is the power of the gospel that even the morally good person desperately needs.

 

As I have studied this passage, it has grabbed me by the lapels and drawn me up straight in my chair. I trust that it has had the same effect upon your life. We need to be reminded that obedience is important to God. It must be important our lives as well.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.