Did Paul just say you have to work for your salvation?

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By Steve DuPlessie  |  May 16, 2017

So as we worked through Romans 2 and 3 last Sunday (Listen again here), we read through some verses that are confusing at best, disturbing at worst. I quickly moved on, but I invited listeners to check out this blog post for some additional thoughts on that text.

In short, it appears — if you take the verses at face value (and in context like we’re supposed to) — that the apostle Paul is saying that everyone, Jews and Gentiles, will ultimately be judged by God based on what they do, or don’t do. And that would mean that to be justified, reconciled with God, you need to work really, really hard at keeping the Jewish/OT Law. Which in turn means that you earn your salvation by working hard — or you forfeit your salvation by not working hard enough.

Confusing. Maybe disturbing!!

So to move that conversation forward, here again are the verses that bring some questions…

ROMANS 2:5-10 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

Verse 5:  Paul starts out with the point that we all rightly, justly earn the wrath of God for our sin/rebellion/defiance/disdain. But God is patient, not zapping people with lightening bolts the instant they sin, but rather tolerating sin for a season to provide opportunity for repentance (See Romans 9:22). Later the author of Hebrews writes, “It is appointed unto mankind to die once, and after that to face judgement.” But because of God’s grace, love and mercy, that wrath is “stored up” (restrained) for a coming day when God’s “righteous judgment will be revealed.”

The wrath of God, rightly deserved for our offence to his holiness, is a fearsome thing to contemplate. Jesus spoke frequently of judgment to come with horrible terms like “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” a “hell-fire that will not be quenched,” and “everlasting” (not temporary) punishment. The final day of God’s Wrath (The phrase “In that day…” speaking of God’s judgment, is used 53 times in Isaiah!) will be terrible in every imaginable way…

REVELATION 6:15-7  Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”

Verse 6 – Here Paul quotes a verse that every devout Jew already knew from Psalm 62:12, although in that context in Psalm 62 the point is very positive, as in “rewards,” not punishments. (Jesus also quoted that same verse from the Psalms.) None the less, Paul is making a point that God notes what people do, and they will be judged accordingly.

This divine justice based on the record of what people have done is vividly illustrated in Revelation chapter 20...

REVELATION 20:11-15  Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

The “books were opened” (v. 12) tells us that records are kept by God of what I think, say and do. And I will be held accountable for that on the day of judgement.

But then the confusion comes in verses 7-10…

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

I like the comment on this text by Leon Morris:

“It is the invariable teaching of the Bible and not the peculiar viewpoint of any one writer or group of writers that judgment will be on the basis of works, though salvation is all of grace. Works are important. They are the outward expression of what the person is deep down (see Note 1 below). In the believer they are the expression of faith (see Note 2 below), in the unbeliever the expression of unbelief and that whether by way of legalism (‘I can do this by working harder at being good’) or antinomianism (‘The heck with God’s rules!’).”

The first group, the legalists who choose to “Do it myself!” are judged based on the success or failure of that valiant attempt. Paul had already pointed out that all had failed in keeping God’s Law — so much is blatantly obvious to anyone who does the least in introspection — so attempts to obey the Law of God are already moot since just one digression, one failure, one breaking of the law renders the person a guilty-as-charged law-breaker, a failure by their own standard. After all, selling girl Scout cookies and helping old ladies cross the street, won’t somehow make up for, won’t atone for that lie, won’t just erase that betrayal, that stealing, that idolatry, that lust, that whatever…

The second group, the antinomians (anti= against; nomian = law), those that thumb their nose at God, who defy his authority or right to stand as their judge — or who deny that God even exists at all — are also effectively judged by the very standard of the independent defiance/rebellion that they chose. And its not going to be good.

The third group — Paul describes them: “those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality” — are either those “whose good deeds are the result of (the out-working of) their faith in God, and that faith will be taken into account at the Last Judgment, or Paul is reminding readers of the absolute standard that God’s own holiness establishes, since only by perfection can sinners hope to find acceptance before God” (Douglas J., Moo; The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT series. Grand Rapids/Eerdmans, 1996. p. 136).

Author, pastor, and Dallas Theological Seminary Chancellor Chuck Swindoll writes “Paul has not contradicted himself. He earlier wrote that the gospel ‘is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes [1:16], and he quoted the Old testament prophet’s declaration that ‘the just shall live by faith’ [Hab 2:4]. He merely meant to clarify that each person will be judged by his or her deeds. not saved by them. At the end of days, each will lay his or her deeds before God and they will be found wanting. No number of good deeds will balance the righteousness of God on the other side — not even close” (In Swindoll’s Living Insights NT Commentary: Romans. Carol Stream, IL/Tyndale House Publishers, 2015. p. 50).

Either way, ultimately the deeds of people are judged by the measure, the standard which they themselves have chosen.

But here’s the thing. Did you notice in Revelation 20, verse 15, that two books were opened: the first book that records everyone’s every deed.  I know when the damning record my deeds is examined, I will fall short of God’s perfect standard of righteous holiness. After all, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

But, praise God!, there’s a second book — the Book of Life! And those whose name is recorded in the Book of Life will be saved — regardless of what they have done!!

How do you get your name recorded in the Book of Life? By trusting by simple faith that you cannot earn righteousness, but that the death of Jesus in your place was totally sufficient to atone for all your sins, washing you clean, and presenting you faultless before God.

1 PETER 3:18  “ For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”


Note 1 - Jesus said, "A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of." (Luke 6:45)

Note 2 - That is what the entire letter by James, the half-brother of Jesus, is all about. Read it here

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