Rebuilding the Foundations
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During my first ten years as a Christian I attended the Assembly of God, the Church of God in Christ, an Open Bible Church, two different Baptist churches and some independent churches, usually charismatic. All but the Church of God in Christ tried to drive home to me that works have nothing to do with eternal life.
Their efforts failed because one passage was eating away at me:
[God] will pay back to everyone according to their works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, [he will repay] eternal life. (Rom. 2:6-7, brackets mine)
When I asked about this passage in Romans, I was told that it was hypothetical. "If" we had the power to do good works, then we would be able to obtain eternal life by patience in well-doing (NIV: "persistence in doing good"). While no one would dare use these actual words, what they conveyed to me was "since no one can do good works, Romans 2:6 can safely be ignored."
Ignoring Scripture is, of course, never a good idea.
Everyone seems to know Galatians 6:7-8:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
Some will also find Galatians 6:9 familiar.
Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
What no one seems to do is combine the verses. If they did, then they would have to answer this question: What harvest will we reap if we do not grow weary in doing good and if we do not give up?
Since verse 9 is in the context of verses 7 and 8, we must answer that we will reap eternal life, but only if we do not grow weary in doing good. And yes, we rely on the Holy Spirit in order to keep doing good without growing weary. Again, the effort is ours, but the succeeding belongs to the power of God. Nonetheless, if we want to reap eternal life we must not become weary in doing good.
There is no practical difference between "Let us not become weary in doing good" and "persistence in doing good." Galatians 6:8-9 and Romans 2:6-7 say the same thing except that Galatians ties persistence in doing good to sowing to the Holy Spirit. In Romans, the promise of eternal life for those who persist in doing good has to wait six chapters for the explanation that it is the Spirit of God enables us to overcome the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2-4).
Romans 2:6-7 gives us a formula for receiving eternal life.
We all agree that this plan results in no one having eternal life. Paul spend most of chapters 3 and 7 of Romans assuring us that humans do not have the power to patiently continue to do good works. Evangelicals teach that Jesus solved this problem by suffering God's wrath for sin in our place so that all our sins are forgiven. There are two problems with this scenario.
If Jesus removed the penalty for our sins, then how can the bad things we did come up at the judgment? Why will a Christian who lives in the flesh reap corruption (Gal. 6:7), die (Rom. 8:12), and be unable to inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21)
The answer to these questions is that Jesus did not die to change the judgment. He died to change us.
We have looked at all the different ways that Jesus' death has equipped Christians to do good works. We are born again (re-created) so that we can do the good works that God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10). We have been given grace so that we are no longer under the power of sin (Rom. 6:14), and that grace teaches to live sensible, godly, and righteous lives (Tit. 2:11-12). Jesus died so that we could be redeemed from lawlessness and zealous for good works (Tit. 2:13-14). He gave us the Scriptures so that we can be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).
Did he do all this so that we would no longer need to do good works? Is it not much more likely that he did all this so that we could do good works and thus inherit eternal life?
There is another passage in Romans that says this is exactly what God did. In Romans 7:18, The Apostle Paul told us that it is part of the human slavery to sin (described in Ephesians 2:1-3) that we want to do good but cannot find the power to do it. By the time Paul was done describing the seriousness of this infection of sin in our flesh, he cried out in desperation, "What a wretched man I am!" He then asks a critical question. "Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" (Rom. 7:24).
In the next chapter he answered his question. He has just spent an entire chapter explaining that the Law of Moses was powerless to rescue us from the body of sin, so in Romans 8:3 he says, "What the Law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did." He then explains how God did it:
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:3-4)
God sent his own Son in our body as a sin offering to fix the problem we faced in Romans 2:6-7. We could not continue in well-doing. After Jesus came, however, we can ... as long as we live by the Spirit.
God did not need to change the judgment. He has always been a just Judge. Jesus died for to change us, not to change his Father. The judgment is the same as it has always been. In Ezekiel 18:20-30, we saw that the wicked would die. In the New Testament, we are told that if we live according to the flesh we will die (Rom. 8:12) and reap corruption (Gal. 6:7). In Ezekiel 18:20-30 we saw that the righteous are rewarded with life. In the New Testament, we are told that if we put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, we will live and reap eternal life (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8-9). The judgment has not changed.
Everything we have looked at is very simple to understand. Paul said that if a person tries to obtain glory, honor, and immortality by patiently doing good works and succeeds in doing those good works, God will reward that person with eternal life. We all agree that people are slaves to sin (Rom. 7:7-24; Eph. 2:1-3). Thus, the obvious solution to this dilemma would be to free people from their slavery to sin. Paul tells us throughout Romans chapter 6 that this is exactly what God did. A little later he gives us a concise explanation of how he did it (Rom. 8:2-4). We have also seen that the New Testament provides power to patiently continue to do good works through many means, all revolving around the Holy Spirit, grace, the fellowship of the saints, and the Scriptures.
As a reminder, perhaps the one and only problem that Christians have with this is the rampant falsehood that God requires sinless perfection from humans. This doctrine is based on one verse, James 2:10. There James tells us that if we break the Law in one point, then we are guilty of the whole law. The context of this verse, however, is our judging one another, not God judging us. From this verse, we conclude that no one can be righteous in God's eyes, but there are hundreds of verses in which both God and man describe humans as righteous. In Ezekiel 14:14, Noah, Daniel, and Job are described as righteous enough to "save only themselves."
God wants a pattern of righteousness from us, not sinless perfection, which is impossible. If sinless perfection were required, then maybe Jesus would have died to make God more merciful and change the judgment. As we have seen, it is righteousness that God wants, and so Jesus died to give us the power to live righteously.
God would not have sent the grace of God that brings salvation to teach us to live soberly and righteously if righteousness were impossible or unnecessary (Tit. 2:11-12).
With that, there is no problem to resolved. The pattern in Romans 2:6-7 works for Christians who are born again, filled with the Spirit, empowered by grace, in CHristian fellowship, and equipped with the Scriptures. It is restated in Galatians 6:7-9 and Romans 8:12-13. If we live according to the flesh we will die; if we live by the Spirit we will reap eternal life.