I have been wrestling with Romans 2:1–16 this week for a sermon, but in a way have been wrestling with it for many years. So I thought I would bring some of my wrestling out into the open – for improvement, and perhaps mutual edification.
The theological problem of Romans 2:1–16 (as opposed to simply exegetical problems, on which see below), it seems to me, is this: do the things Paul says about God judging by works apply to Christians in anything more than an indirect sense. Or to put it differently: is the picture Paul paints here of a judgment, in which only those who “do good” (v10) will stand, something Christians have been rescued from, or something their rescue enables them to meet with confidence.
These, it seems to me, are the two real theological options for the interpreter. On the one hand, we can say that the judgment Paul describes here is something Christians no longer need to fear, because they no longer face it. This is the way one stream of protestant theology has read this passage: what Paul describes here, especially in verses 6–11, is “the covenant of works”, the outcome of which must be damnation for all. But Christians are spared this because they are under the covenant of grace. Thus, this passage does not directly apply to Christians anymore. (I’m sure there are richer Reformed accounts of the relationship between the two covenants; but I can’t see how they would change this basic picture. If someone can enlighten me please do!)
This view has the advantage of being straightforwardly in line with Paul’s clear purpose in this section of Romans, which is to show the universality of sin and the universal prospect of condemnation. It also seems unlikely that Paul would describe the final judgment as Christians face it in terms of “doing the works of the law”! (v13). As Moo puts it, “the stress in v6 on man’s works as the criterion in the determination of a person’s salvation or condemnation makes it difficult to fit grace into the situation at all” (Romans NICNT, 142). This interpretation confronts an obstacle, however, in the fact that there are several other points n the Bible at which judgment by works seems to be a real and important prospect for Christians, e.g. Matt 16:27; 1 Cor 3:10–14; 2 Cor 5:10; 11:15; 2 Tim 4:14; James 2:14–26. These passages, it would seem to me, mean that the possibility that Paul sees the judgment he describes as still applying directly to Christians cannot be easily dismissed. Moreover, many attempts to interpret these passages coming from this tradition of separating the covenant of works from that of grace seem to me to be strained.
The alternative interpretation is to say that yes, what Paul describes still directly concerns Christians. Judgment by works is something they still face. If it is not to deny the gospel of grace, this view will have to go on to say something like that although Paul does not discuss it here (because of the place in his argument) this is in fact no longer something Christians need to fear, because the work of Jesus to ensure forgiveness and justification, and the work of the Spirit to apply Christ’s work to us, means we can have confidence. Moo himself sums up this interpretation well. He says, “It is true… that a person in Christ does meet these conditions as the fruit of faith comes to expression in his life; and, while the principle in its context has the function of condemning all apart from Christ, Paul will show subsequently in Romans that it is, in fact, Christians who fulfill these conditions” (p142).
As Moo points out, both of these interpretations allow Paul to be consistent (p142). The decision between them has, however, a profound effect on the way in which Romans 2 can be used and preached from. Under the first option, the purpose of this passage is solely to show human sinfulness apart from Christ and so drive people to him for mercy (which, we can all agree, is a good thing). The second option for interpreting, though, leaves open the use of this passage to challenge complacent (perhaps nominal) Christians, and to say to them exactly the same things Paul says here to complacent Jews: God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance! It would, that is to say, make it a profound polemic against what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”.
How then do we decide between these possibilities?
The problems in deciding between these two interpretations are apparent in Douglas Moo’s brilliant and careful discussion of the issue. Having decided that the best interpretation of this passage is that verses 7 and 10 essentially set forth what Lutheran theology has called “the law” (and what is also called the covenant of works), that is, the conditions for attaining eternal life apart from Christ (p142), on the very next page he brings this conclusion into question (at least, I think he does) in a discussion of the relation between justification and judgment. Considering the NT passages about judgment mentioned above, he concludes that the best way to harmonise justification by faith with the Bible’s teaching about final judgment is to say, “that the justification by faith granted the believer in this life is the sufficient cause of those works that God takes into account at the time of the judgment” (p143). It seems to me, though, that this is to concede precisely the key point: that a judgment by works that determines one’s ultimate salvation or perdition is something Christians still face. Moo is clear that he doesn’t think this is what Romans 2 is about; and yet the whole point of the theological system he does think Romans 2 supports is that this is not really the case.
Moo’s slight confusion at this point comes, it seems to me, because of a confusion of two questions: the first, is Paul talking about Christians in verses 7 and 10? (which is the way Moo frames his discussion); the second, do these descriptions somehow still directly concern Christians? Moo is surely right that the answer to the first question is no. Paul is not simply describing Christians in verses 7 and 10. He is speaking in the categories that make sense when considering the final judgment in the abstract. The answer to the second question, however, may still be yes. It could be that Paul intended these abstract categories to finally apply to Christians, albeit paradoxically, and only in the light of the rest of Romans. Yet Moo seems to assume that his answer to the first question rules out this possibility, stating that these verses describe a possibility that can never be realised.
I am not fully persuaded in either direction. However, five considerations are tilting me towards the second interpretation, namely, that what Paul describes here is not a prospect that Christians are saved from, but something Christians are uniquely able to meet.
1. First, some of the arguments against this view noted above – that the way Paul describes the final judgment is odd if he’s talking about something that applies to Christians – are weakened when we take account of Paul’s overall purpose in this section, which as we have already noted, is clearly to show that all are equally guilty under sin. It could be that Paul’s way of describing the final judgment is deeply shaped by this rhetorical purpose, and that the peculiarly Jewish language he uses is to be accounted for by this.
2. Second, and connected to this, other aspects of Paul’s language make me wonder whether Paul was working very hard to make sure he described the final judgment in a way that could, at a pinch, finally apply to Christians. I find it striking that in verse 7 he says “persist in a good work” (kath hupomoné ergou agathou). The word for “persist” or “patience” will become one of his key descriptions for the Christian life (5:3; 8:25; 15:4–5). Moreover “good work” is singular, which is odd and interesting (cf. 2:15; 14:20). The singular “good” occurs again in verse 10 in a way that suggests that the emphasis is very much on not the “works” required by the law, but on the one single work of a life lived well, for God. This is perhaps also suggested by the prominence of the verb “seek” in this description. It just seems to me an odd way to describe “the covenant of works”. Though I acknowledge that this is highly subjective and not very conclusive.
3. Thirdly, I find it difficult to fit verse 4 into the first schema. If what Paul is describing in verses 7–10 are “the conditions for attaining eternal life apart from Christ” (so Moo), it seems strange to introduce this by an encouragement to repentance. For what is the value of repentance apart from Christ? And if the only point of these verses is to show that all are sinful, why introduce this idea? However, if Paul is also, underneath the surface, laying the foundations for a subtle apologetic for Christian faith, perhaps this would make more sense.
4. Fourthly, there is verse 16, in which Paul explicitly declares that these things are true precisely according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why would he do this if this was simply a description of the covenant of works? Doesn’t this make a sharp distinction between these highly problematic? (Again, I may need more knowledgable brothers and sisters to correct me here.)
5. Finally, I am struck by the fact that taking the position that these statements simply do not apply to Christians, who are under the covenant of grace, raises precisely the spectre Paul is combating here: of religious hypocrites, who experience God’s grace without repentance. If these words do not and cannot apply directly to Christians, because they are “under grace, not works”, then is it not striking that that opens up exactly the danger Paul describes in verses 1–5, of a form of religiousness which, because of its complacent certainty of God’s grace, remains unchanged by that grace? This is of course far from true of all, or even many of those who have been nurtured on this interpretation. Yet the spectre of cheap grace has haunted protestant Christianity. It makes me wary of interpretations of the Bible that make it easier.
These considerations are inclining me to read this passage in Romans chapter 2 as a description of the final judgment that all of us must face. The form of this description is deeply shaped by the considerations of Paul’s argument to the conclusion that “all are under sin”; and so it is crucial that there is much more to say about justification than this. And yet the thing itself, that is, the judgment by works, remains something that directly concerns Christians, such that we are meant, reading this passage today, to be unnerved and driven to repentance by the thought of a “faith” that does not transform one’s life.
What do you reckon?