God has promised to judge everyone according to their deeds. At first this sounds like a good thing, but when we consider the reality of our own sinfulness, we realize that a final judgment is a frightening thing. Those found to be righteous will be rewarded with eternal life, while those who have sinned but a single time will face God’s wrath (James 2:10). This is taught in Romans 2:1–11, where the apostle Paul declares that God will give to everyone according to what they have done — good or bad (2:6).
Nothing has caused more fear or set to flight the human imagination more than the thought of “judgment day.” Martin Luther once recounted how woodcuts and plays depicting the final judgment terrified him as a youth and were always in the back of his mind when he thought about the glories of the gospel. It was Luther’s fear of final judgment that set in motion his quest to find a gracious God. Those who cannot count upon Christ’s righteousness covering their own unrighteousness ought to fear such a day. It is tragic that so many Americans no longer fear the final judgment because they ignore it or because they mistakenly think that they have done enough good works to gain entrance into heaven.
No matter how much we fear or ignore a final judgment according to our works, it is clearly taught in Romans 2:1–11. While Paul turns the searchlight of God’s law upon the Gentiles in Romans 1:18–23, in Romans 2, Paul aims that same light upon the Jews, who are self-righteously judging Gentiles: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (v. 1). The irony is that it falls to God alone to judge people according to their deeds. When a Jew judges a Gentile according to his own personal observation, that person’s self-righteousness is exposed. Paul speaks to this matter directly: “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man — you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself — that you will escape the judgment of God?” (vv. 2–3).
The self-righteous take God’s kindness toward themselves as an implied right to judge others. Yet, as Paul points out, “or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (vv. 4–5). Paul warns of a day (judgment day) yet to come when God will judge us according to our deeds. While God’s kindness should lead us to repentance, sadly our sinfulness causes us to judge others. This, in turn, leads to God’s wrath being poured out upon all those who know not Christ.
Paul makes this point in verses 6–10 (citing Ps. 62:12): “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 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, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.” None of us can withstand such scrutiny. It is far better to fear God’s judgment (like Luther) and seek a way out (through Christ’s cross and righteousness) than to foolishly think we are good enough to withstand God’s justice so that we somehow can stand in God’s presence without being consumed.
For Paul, this is not a matter of race: “God shows no partiality” (v. 11). It is a matter of human sinfulness. All of us, whether we are Jew or Gentile (“Greek”), will stand before God on the day of judgment and give an account of everything we have done. Paul is clear to his Jewish readers that Gentiles will be judged for their conduct, just as the psalmist proclaimed. Jews have no right to look down upon Gentiles when the very act of judging the Gentiles renders the self-righteous guilty before God. God will deal with
Who among us persists in doing good and should be rewarded with eternal life? Not one (Rom. 3:9–12)! If Paul is clear about anything, it is that Jesus Christ is the only person who ever lived without sin and who can stand before God in the judgment completely innocent. Through faith in Jesus, His perfect righteousness is reckoned to us, so that God now regards us as though we had no sin (3:21–4:8). Those who trust in Jesus know that on the cross He endured the wrath of God for us and in our place. Because God’s judgment has fallen upon Jesus, we need never fear the wrath to come.