In these verses, the apostle Paul continues to target those who think they will escape the judgment of God. In the previous verses (1-5) he targeted the psychological maneuverings people use in order to avoid facing up to the possibility that they themselves will one day face God’s righteous judgment. In these verses, he delivers a knock-out punch by stating categorically that every single individual will be judged by the same standard. No one is exempt. God’s judgement is universal. And it is based on works – for you, that means your works. You don’t get a pass. One day, you will stand before God and give an account of the life that you lived. You too will be judged according to your works.
Though I don’t think the apostle is just targeting his fellow Jews here, I do think he certainly has them in mind; perhaps even primarily in mind. For they could easily point the finger at the crumbling and morally corrupt Gentile society all around them while claiming special privilege for themselves. They thought that since they were members of God’s covenant family through the promise given by God to Abraham, that they would on that basis escape the judgment of God. Paul is claiming in these and the following verses that this is just not so.
Today, it is not Jews per se that need to hear this, but a lot of people in the church who think that just because they identify as a Christian they will never stand before God in judgment, that they need not give a thought to the possibility that they will have to give an account of their life to the Lord. It’s the very same attitude. Just as the Jews could point to God’s covenant of grace with Abraham, many professing Christians do the same, pointing to the new covenant established in Christ, and to which they see themselves as belonging. As a result, they don’t see how their works have anything to do with a future judgment.
However, this poses a problem. Elsewhere in this epistle, the apostle makes it very clear that we are not saved by our works. In particular, we are not justified by the works of the law (3:21, 28). And it will not do to confine these works of the law to those ceremonial aspects that passed away with the advent of the Messiah. These are any works that people do in order to win the favor of God. We cannot be saved that way, argues the apostle, because we are all sinners. We have to be saved by grace, otherwise no one would be saved (4:13-16). Paul puts it starkly in 11:5-6, “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is of grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” So the question is: how can Paul say on the one hand that we will be judged according to our works and yet on the other claim that we are saved not on the basis of works but by grace?
I am going to argue that there is no contradiction between these two things: namely, that we are judged according to our works and we are saved according to God’s grace. I want to address that matter first. But if I am right, then it does matter how we live. Your life matters. The choices you make matter. So that will lead to another question: what is the sort of life that will be blessed in the judgment to come? Who will hear the words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34)? And who will hear the words, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41)? Surely there can be no more important consideration that that. And the apostle in these verses tells us what that life looks like that will receive God’s blessing, and what that life looks like that will receive God’s wrath.
Judgment by works (6)
So the main point of these verses is here in verse 6: “He [God] will render to each one according to his works.” There are two points here that we need to take to heart. First, that the judgment to come will be determined in some measure by the lives we have led on this earth. That is what is meant by “according to his works.” Second, that the judgment to come is universal. That is the meaning of the words “to each one.”
Now again, some people will claim that Christians are exempt. But this is not so. “Each one” means “everyone.” That means you and it means me. Paul is in fact explicit elsewhere, including in this epistle, that believers as well as non-believers will have to give an account to God for their lives. For example, consider Rom. 14:10-12, when addressing the Roman believers, the apostle argues that we should not judge other believers because they and we will ourselves stand before God. It’s no use for you to stand in judgment over another brother because they will give an account to God. So will you: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then every one of us will give an account of himself to God.” Note in particular how the apostle includes himself in that description.
Or consider what the apostle says in 2 Cor. 5:9-10. “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” Here the apostle connects the future judgment with the life we live here on the earth.
Now some may argue that these verses are just about temporal judgments. But that is extremely unlikely. Notice that in the verses mentioned above, the judgment is always described as something future, not something that is ongoing. Furthermore, talking about temporal judgments just doesn’t mesh with a passage where the emphasis is on leaving this body behind and going to be with the Lord. The judgment seat of Christ is a reference to the final, climatic judgment that our Lord will render over all the nations (cf. Acts 17:31).
What Paul is talking about here is exactly what our Lord himself described in one of his confrontations with the Pharisees, as it is recorded in John 5: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all you are in the tombs will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (28-29). Here our Lord connects the resurrection of life with doing good and the resurrection of judgment with doing evil. That’s exactly what Paul means when he says that God will render to each according to his works. We could go on, but these verses make the point quite well. Everyone one, and that includes you, will stand before God and give account of your life. And whether or not you will enter heaven will be determined in some measure by the life you lived in this life.
Salvation by grace
But aren't we saved by grace? Yes! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-10). And as Paul is at pains to establish in this epistle, we are not justified by works but by the sheer mercy and grace of God through Christ. We don’t merit God’s favor by good works. In fact, Paul even goes so far as to say that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). In other words, we do not and cannot enter into a relationship with God on the basis of works. That can only happen on the basis of grace. And it is not partly on the basis of works, it is all of grace, thank God!
However, salvation is more than just justification. It is more than the forgiveness of sins. It also involves the transformation of the entire person. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). I love the way the apostle describes the salvation of the Corinthian Christians. They had been engrossed in all sorts of wicked behavior – but that all changed when they met Christ: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). “Such were some of you.” What changed? What changed is that they were saved, washed, sanctified, and justified. (See also Tit. 3:3-7)
This is true of every single person who is saved. God doesn’t save some people and leave them in their sin. All who are saved are sanctified and washed by the Holy Spirit. “You know that he [Jesus] appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the words of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn. 3:5-10).
So though it is true that works cannot and do not save us in the sense of meriting God’s favor and fellowship, it is also true that works are the evidence that God’s grace has saved us. Works are not the foundation of our salvation, but are the superstructure which is built upon the firm foundation of the grace of God toward us in Christ. This is the point of Eph. 2:10. Good works are the inevitable by-product of salvation. You are not saved by works, but if you are saved, you will surely produce good works in your life. I think it was C. H. Spurgeon who said, “You are not saved by good works, but neither are you saved without them.”
Judgment proceeds upon works, even for those who are saved, because good works are the evidence that grace has wrought its work. However, we must not think that the Final Judgment is there because God needs to make a final determination. He certainly knows the exact state of every man and woman’s soul. Rather, the judgment to come is for the sake of all rational created beings, both human and angelic. It will demonstrate to all men once and for all that God has acted in accordance with his glory in his role as Creator and Judge and Savior. He will bless the righteous and punish the wicked, even though now the roles are often reversed. But there will be a day when the wicked will know just how tragic was their choice to reject the claims of God upon their lives.
So there is no contradiction between being saved by grace and being judged by works. Works are the inevitable fruit of the grace of God in the heart and life. Moreover, we are not judged by works because works somehow complete the work of salvation, but because works are the evidence of salvation. Just as fruit on a tree doesn’t make it a fruit tree, so good works don’t make a Christian a Christian. But a fruit tree will produce fruit and a Christian will produce good works. You can’t have one without the other.
But that does mean that it matters how you live. Your works will determine (again, not in the sense of merit but in the sense of evidence) which resurrection you will experience – either that of life or that of judgment. You simply can’t assume that you are saved while you live in the neglect of your soul. So what kind of life is it that God blesses? Paul addresses this in verses 7-10.
The life that God blesses (7, 10)
The apostle says that “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (7). And, “but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek” (10). There are three things that stand out to me about the life that God blesses. (It is the ultimate blessing which is described here: that of eternal life.) The apostle here describes what the blessed person does, how they do it, and why they do it. Let us consider these three things in order.
First, what they do. What is translated by “well-doing” here in this version is literally “good works.” Of course, we must not interpret “good works” in terms of what the world thinks is a good work. Rather, it is God’s standard, given to us in his word, that must determine what is a good work and what is not. Looking ahead a bit, in verses 11-16 the apostle will argue that God’s law is what is determinative here. In other words, here is a person who is seeking to shape their life into the mold of God’s word, not trying – as so many do – to fit God’s word into the mold of the world. Everything, their desires, their affections, their plans, their goals are tested by the standard of God’s word.
But if you live like that, it’s going to be hard. We talked about that last Sunday. The resurrection of our Lord is, at least in part, a call to suffer well. Christ calls us to be holy in a world that is not holy and that is not always going to be easy. So secondly, the apostle goes on to describe how they do good works: they do it “by patience in well-doing.” That word “patience” can also be translated “endurance” or “perseverance.” This implies that there is resistance to a life of good works. It’s why Paul said to the Galatian Christians, “And let us not be weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do give up” (Gal. 6:9).
This description also differentiates between those who take up the mantle of Christ and then throw it away at some point. Though I don’t believe that a true believer can ever lose their salvation, I do believe that a lot of people who claim to be a Christian were never truly saved. Such people will eventually give up on Christ, especially when they encounter difficulties in the way, much like the character Pliable in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. They do not persevere in the faith; as such they are never saved. In another place, the apostle tells us that it’s not getting into the race that’s so
important; it’s finishing the race. “Do you know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Cor. 9:24).
How then do you do it? That’s the third point: they do it by “seeking glory and honor and immortality.” This is not glory and honor and immortality upon the earth. This is glory and honor and immortality in the age to come. You endure and persevere by laying up treasure in heaven, by seeking first the kingdom of God. The motivation to be patient in well-doing does not come from this world but from the world to come. You do it by having the same perspective as the apostle himself, who said, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain. . . . I am hard pressed between the two [staying or dying]. My desire is to depart and to be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21, 23).
And the motivation doesn’t come by transferring earthly greed into heaven. That’s not what Paul is referring to by “glory and honor and immortality.” This is glory and honor and immortality in the presence of God. It is the result of unhindered and untarnished fellowship with God. You simply cannot separate “glory” in the Scripture from the glory of God. Any glory we receive will only be in the context of fellowship with God. What motivates the true believer is the thought of one day being with Christ and seeing his glory. Truly grasped, this will put iron in his blood and give him the motivation to endure anything the world throws at him.
The life that God curses (8, 9)
Sandwiched between the description of the life God blesses is the life God curses: “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.”
The fundamental description here of those who will be condemned is that of “self-willed” (or “contentious,” KJV). Here are people who want to be the lords of their own life. They want to call the shots. They don’t want to bend their will to the Lord’s. They do not want to obey his word, the truth, but instead want to obey unrighteousness. This is the underlying reason why people reject Christ and his claim on their life. I don’t think it’s because of the lack of evidence. There is plenty of evidence if people would just consider it. It’s because they don’t want to live the kind of life that God is calling them to live. They are self-willed and so they reject Christ’s rightful lordship over them.
What will happen to such people? Paul’s description of their fate is one of the clearest descriptions of what hell will be like. Those who want to deny eternal punishment simply have to ignore or reject passages like this one. Hell is described in terms of its function as a judgment from God (wrath, fury) and then in terms of the human experience of that judgment (tribulation, distress). This is no more a metaphorical description than the description of the blessedness of those who do good is metaphorical. Nor is this an account of some temporal judgment. It is contrasted with “eternal life” in verse 7. This is a real and terrifying picture of what awaits those who live in sin and disobedience.
What then should be our response to passages like this? Certainly it should awaken us to the reality that life is serious. It should show us that our choices are significant. God is not to be trifled with and life is not to be frittered away. The apostle’s aim in this is ultimately to convince us that we need Christ. We need him to wash away our sins and to renew us by his grace, for only he can do this. We need Jesus Christ who is our Lord to be our Savior. The breathtaking reality is that in the gospel he offers himself to us in precisely that capacity. May we all embrace him as such.