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. Every one of those churches 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."
I am here to challenge that dismissal.
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.
A lot of people also at least recognize Galatians 6:9: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 the question I am about to ask you. 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 have to 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 but, nonetheless, if we want to reap eternal life we must not become weary in doing good.
Does that not sound a whole like Romans 2:7 and its "patience in well doing"? It should be obvious that choosing to ignore or dismiss a Scripture passage, especially in Romans, is not a good idea, but in this case it is an especially bad idea. Romans 2:6-7 is practically repeated in a passage we do not dismiss: Galatians 6:7-9.
It is true that in Romans 2:6-7, the problem is that "not even one" (Rom. 3:10) is righteous and can patiently continue to do good, but we have seen that Jesus died so that we could be born again, obtain grace, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and use the Scriptures to thoroughly equip one another to do good works.
As a result, after we have been born again, obtained grace, and received the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul told us again, in Galatians 6:8-9, to do good without growing weary so that we can reap eternal life.
This relationship between Romans 2:6-7 and Galatians 6:7-9 provides a perfect opportunity to explain why evangelicals get so confused about faith, works, and the atonement.
Romans 2:6-7 gives us a formula in which all of us agree there is a problem. The formula is:
- Pursue glory, honor, and immortality by patiently doing good works throughout our life.
- God will repay. us for our works.
- We receive eternal life.
The problem, we all agree, is that humans do not have the power to patiently continue to do good works. It is the solution to this problem that I want to challenge.
Standard evangelical doctrine says that Jesus died to pay the price for our sins so that we will not be condemned at the judgment. There are two very big problems with this doctrine.
- Even Christians are going to be judged by our works, both good and bad (2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17).
- We are still threatened with punishment for our sins (Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7; Eph. 5:5-7; 2 Pet. 2:20-21; Rev. 2-3).
- If Jesus paid the price for our sins, then why will 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. It is still true that if we live according to the flesh we will die (Rom. 8:12) and reap corruption (Gal. 6:7), but that does not matter because by the Spirit we can put to death the deeds of the body and inherit eternal life (Rom. 8:13; Gal. 6:8-9).
Everything we have looked at is very simple to understand. Paul said that if a person tried to obtain glory, honor, and immortality by patiently doing good works, God would reward that person with eternal life. We all agree that people in general 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 spent a whole chapter explaining that this is exactly what God did (Rom. 6). We have seen that the New Testament provides power to patiently continue to do good works through many means, all revolving around the Holy Spirit, grace, and the Scriptures.
There is no other problem to be resolved. Romans 2:6-7 works for Christians who are born again, filled with the Spirit, empowered by grace, and equipped with the Scriptures. We even have each other's help, provoking one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24; cf. 3:13) and growing together as we each do our part (Eph. 4:11-16).