What does Romans 2:6 mean?
ESV: He will render to each one according to his works:
NIV: God 'will repay each person according to what they have done.'
NASB: who WILL REPAY EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS:
CSB: He will repay each one according to his works:
NLT: He will judge everyone according to what they have done.
KJV: Who will render to every man according to his deeds:
In the previous verses, Paul has harshly condemned any moral or religious persons guilty of judging others for their sinfulness (Romans 2:1–3). Paul has hinted at the truth he will spell out in the following chapter: We are all sinners (Romans 3:23). None of us should presume that God will not express His wrath on us because of our sinfulness.
Now Paul begins to describe the absolute law of who will receive eternal life with God, and who will receive "wrath and fury" (Romans 2:8) from Him, instead. Paul quotes from Psalm 62:12 and Proverbs 24:12 to articulate the universal truth that God will give to each person according to his works. He describes the difference between those who will receive wrath or reward from God in the following verses.
Taken out of context, this is a troubling statement. Paul seems to indicate that God judges all people on the basis of their behavior. However, this is the same idea expressed by Jesus Himself (Matthew 16:27). In terms of reward, this is absolutely true; each person is judged on the basis of their deeds (Romans 14:10–12; 2 Corinthians 5:10). However, as Paul will make clear in this letter, nobody can be saved by their good deeds (Romans 3:23). Our only hope for salvation—for rescue from the penalty of our sin—is grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.
Romans 2:1–11 springs a trap, of sorts, for every reader who thought that Paul's devastating list of sins at the end of Romans 1 was about other people. In truth, everyone is guilty of sin. Those who judge others are guilty, also, of hypocrisy. Nobody will escape God's judgment for personal sin, including religious Jews and Gentiles. God will absolutely judge each person according to what he or she has done. If someone has lived sinlessly, doing only good, he will receive rewards and eternal life. If not, he deserves wrath and fury. This point sets up Paul's explanation of how we can, in fact, obtain salvation: by grace through faith.
Romans 2 springs a trap on any religious person who read Paul's lists of sins at the end of Romans 1 and thought it wasn't about them. Paul calls them out for making themselves judges when they are also guilty. He shows that God will judge everyone, including those under the law, based on their works. This prefaces this letter's theme of salvation by grace, through faith, rather than by works. Many benefits come with having the law, but only if those under the law keep it. Jewishness—circumcision—must be an inner state, not just an outer one. Paul will show in the following chapter that none of us really meets those conditions.
Having just concluded a list of terrible sins humanity indulges in as a result of rejecting God, Paul turns to religious people and says, ''This applies to you, too.'' Nobody can judge arrogantly, because we are all guilty. Even God's people the Jews will stand before Him in judgment based on their works. Having the law only matters if someone can keep the law. Paul asks his Jewish readers why they don't and shows that they must be Jewish and circumcised in their hearts for it to matter. In the following chapter, he will show that nobody can keep the law.
The book of Romans is the New Testament's longest, most structured, and most detailed description of Christian theology. Paul lays out the core of the gospel message: salvation by grace alone through faith alone. His intent is to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in accurate and clear terms. As part of this effort, Paul addresses the conflicts between law and grace, between Jews and Gentiles, and between sin and righteousness. As is common in his writing, Paul closes out his letter with a series of practical applications.
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