Romans 2, Is Paul teaching eternal salvation by works?

  1. Is Paul teaching eternal salvation by works in Romans 2? No. Since Paul writes in this same epistle that all have sinned and that no one will be justified by works (Romans 3:10-23 and Romans 4), I think a better understanding is that Romans 2, and especially Romans 2:6-16, refers to the general principle that obedience to God is rewarded and sin is judged, while justification for eternal life is only by faith apart from works. With man eternal salvation is impossible.
  2. Recall that Isaiah 64:6 indicts all people; people sin and their good works are not good enough.
  3. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 7:20 that no one is sinless.
  4. Furthermore, one sin makes a person guilty of all (James 2:10).
  5. Paul wrote in Romans 3:19, 20, 27, 28, 4:2, 13-15; Galatians 2:16, 3:10-12; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21; and Philippians 3:9 that eternal salvation can only be gained by faith in Jesus Christ, the one who took our place in payment of our sins. Paul says in Acts 13:26-41 that the Law of Moses cannot free man from sin; only faith in Jesus brings forgiveness. Either Paul was contradicting himself in Romans 2:6-16 or he is saying something else—stating a principle that God punishes sin and rewards righteousness to show that God is the absolute and final judge of mankind. God’s judgment for sin then fell on Jesus Christ, who was judged in our place.
  6. Peter at the house of Cornelius, recorded in Acts 10:34-36, makes these same points. “God does not show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. The word which he sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ…” Then in Acts 10:43, “through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”. Also, see 1 Peter 2:22-25.
  7. John is also clear that eternal salvation is only by faith in Jesus Christ (John 3:16-18, 36; 1 John 5:11-12).
  8. The writer to the Hebrews also stress the theme that obeying the law cannot provide eternal salvation. Examples include Hebrews 2:14-18; 9:25-28; 10:19-21.
  9. Compare the account of the rich young ruler found in Matthew 19:16-26, Mark 10:17-27, and Luke 18:1-30. Each account makes the point that no one keeps God’s law perfectly. Everyone misses God’s standard in some way. Each account ends with the same statement: eternal salvation is impossible with people, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19.25-26, Mark 10.26-27, and Luke 18.26-27). See the handout God judges, works, rich young ruler (Sept 29, 2013) for summary of this section and comments from the rich young ruler account.
  10. So, Paul is not saying that one gains eternal life by good works. What he is saying is that if you are sinless, God will reward you. But no one is sinless, so try as one may, one cannot gain life by works. He may gain reward or judgment.