Jesus and Paul both said we would be rewarded for doing good, which sounds like a punch in the face to the gospel of grace. In the previous post we looked at the words of Jesus (in John 5:28-29) and saw that “doing good” means trusting him.
But what about Paul who said this:
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. (Rom 2:6-8)
Read the preceding verses and you will see that Paul is addressing judgmental people. He’s not speaking to saints but religious hypocrites: “When you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?” (Rom 2:3). He is talking to people who “show contempt for the riches of God’s kindness,” and have stubborn and unrepentant hearts (verses 2-5).
So when Paul talks about divine payback in verse 6, he is referring to the payback that comes for rejecting God’s kindness. He’s talking about the fruit of unbelief. He’s saying, “If you won’t accept grace (undeserved favor) then you will reap what you sow (deserved unfavor).”
Put Jesus and Paul together and you will find, as you often do, a lovely symmetry. Jesus tells us what we should do (hear and believe) and Paul tells us what we shouldn’t (be stubborn and unrepentant). The rewards for getting it right are the same in both cases, and it’s eternal life:
Jesus: “Those who have done good will rise to live.”
Paul: “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.”
Isn’t Paul preaching works?
Some have twisted Paul’s words into a mixed message of faith and works. “You gotta believe but you also have to persist in doing good every day until you die.” Fall for this and you will fall from grace! Paul plainly says we are saved by grace, “and if by grace, it cannot be works for if it were, grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6).
Paul does not say “work hard and you’ll be rewarded with eternal life,” because that would contradict what he’s just said about the righteous life being “by faith from first to last” (Rom 1:17). And if eternal life is a reward for good works, then it can’t be the gift of God (Rom 6:23).
So why does Paul say, “persist in good works and you’ll get eternal life?”
Remember, he’s not addressing saints but religious hypocrites who think they are doing good even though they are not (because they are showing contempt for God’s kindness and grace). When Paul says, “You have to be persistently good” he’s setting them up for a law-smackdown because they are not persistently good. Indeed, in God’s eyes “there is no one who does good, not even one” (Rom 3:12)!
So these hypocrites are getting blasted from both barrels. First, they’re showing contempt for God’s kindness (by refusing to believe in Jesus). Second, they’re falling short of the lofty stands of God’s law. They may think they are good people, but Paul says they are kidding themselves. “No one is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10).
The Christmas Epistle
This is bad news for the do-gooder who is working hard to please God. But it’s bad news that should lead you to the good news which is this:
- Righteousness is a gift (Rom 5:17)
- Eternal life is a gift (Rom 6:23, 8:11)
- God’s favor is a gift (Rom 5:16)
Romans might be called the Christmas Epistle because it’s full of gifts. You need righteousness? It’s a gift! You need life? It’s a gift! Indeed, everything you will ever need your Father generously provides:
In this world we talk about work and wages but in the kingdom it’s all grace and gifts.
In this world you have to work for everything, but in the kingdom Jesus has done the work and your part is to receive the reward!