We are 6 weeks into a series on the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
As we have seen, the Roman church was a mix of people from Jewish and non-Jewish Gentile backgrounds. Paul had never met these people before; in fact the church was not started by any apostle. The purpose of this letter was to make sure the church was grounded in the gospel, to make sure the Jewish and Gentile background believers related to each other in a way that reflected the gospel, and to prepare them to help him in his missionary efforts.
And as we read the letter, we should remember then that Paul is presenting his gospel narrative from zero. So even though these are believers, he is presenting his arguments just as he would to a mixed group of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles.
Today’s passage is primarily aimed towards the Gentiles. I have three points; that God
- repays our deeds,
- without favouritism,
- based on what we know.
And finally, how we should respond.
Point 1: Rewards or Suffering for our deeds
So let’s start.
v6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”
This verse is a quote from Psalm 62:12, and Proverbs 24:12.
Even though this is from the OT, this idea is almost universal. Everyone in the world has the same intuition. We get what we deserve; we reap what we sow.
Especially when we do wrong. Whether it is God, or karma, or society, we believe that evil will bring punishment, or at least should bring punishment. Paul is reminding us that this moral law is true and that it is God who enforces it.
v7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
On the other hand, God rewards good deeds.
So we have two words here I want to explain. First, the word here for immortality is aptharsia (G861), which means incorruptible, or sincere. The other times it is used in the NT, it is about our resurrection bodies and is translated ‘incorruptible’ or ‘imperishable’.
So this verse is talking about people who are trying to live a good life, for the purpose of excellence (glory), a good reputation (honor), and leaving a lasting legacy of something genuine and worthwhile (immortality).
The other word, ‘eternal’, is aionios (G166), which means permanent and without end. It’s the word used in the phrase “eternal life” which God gives to those who he accepts.
So Paul is telling us here that those who live a good life that is worthwhile and genuine will not be punished, but will be rewarded by God with eternal life.
Now it doesn’t say anything here about religion or how we relate to God. So this argument speaks to Gentiles, who don’t know what God requires, but by common grace serve God by expressing their human nature, created in his image, seeking to do good.
So we see here that there is nothing wrong with desiring to live a good life, gain a good reputation, and make a lasting contribution to society. It is pleasing to God, and he will reward it.
On this idea of reward for doing good; in fact, there are verses which encourage Christians also to persist in doing good, and which tell us that we will get a reward for our effort.
<Matt 16:27, 1 Co 3:8, Eph 6:8, and several of Jesus’ parables>
Please don’t misunderstand: this is not about salvation; it is about what we do with our life and God’s reward for our effort.
v8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
On the other hand, there are those who are looking not to do something good, but just to serve themselves. The word “self-seeking” here (eritheia, G2052) originally meant someone scheming to get elected, and stirring up the crowds and causing divisions as a way to do so. In other words, this is about pushing yourself forward, trying to get what you don’t really deserve, and using wrong and harmful methods to do that.
There are a number of warnings about this specific behaviour in the NT: 2 Cor 12:20, Gal 5:20, Phl 1:17, 2:3, Jas 3:14, 3:16.
So if we are like this, instead of doing good and leaving a good legacy and obtaining God’s reward at the right time, we take matters into our own hands, not caring about the legacy we will leave behind and not caring about God’s reward or punishment.
Now you wouldn’t act this way if you believe God is in control, or that God will repay you according to your deeds. Instead you must have decided to treat something else as more important than God and to serve that. So by acting this way, you are showing that you reject the truth that God is ultimate, worthy of thanks and worship, and you reject that God will reward good deeds done for the sake of the good.
So regardless of what we say, we are actually in disbelief on these facts about God, and making something more important than God. Now if we look at this self-seeking behavior as basically a form of idolatry then, we can apply Paul’s statement more broadly. I’d like to suggest three types of self-seeking: selfish ambition, withdrawal, or addiction.
So firstly, selfish ambition. When we are trying to control situations and people to get a certain outcome, we are self-seeking. For example, we can put ourselves forward for a job or a role or even for attention from people, at the expense of hurting others or robbing them of opportunities that they deserve. This is the way of the world isn’t it. But the bible teaches us to look to the interests of others:
Phil 2:3-4 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Secondly, we can do the exact opposite. Instead of controlling, we may withdraw from situations. We avoid things we should be doing because we have been hurt and we refuse to allow ourselves to be hurt again, or because we think there is nothing in it for ourselves. This is a refusal to do good.
But we saw from the introduction to Romans that God has a mission for each one of us. Our lives are meant to bless the world and glorify God through the gifts he has given us. Instead we can spend our lives focusing on ourselves, and avoiding pain. Or as a type of revenge.
To take an extreme version of this, there are said to be 1 million hikkikomori in Japan, and they are getting into their 30s or 40s already. This is a terrible waste!
Thirdly, instead of doing good things for the right reasons, we can abuse those good things by overdoing them. Sometimes we may not feel so good about ourselves, or our life. So we find something that makes us feel good to overcome stress or feelings of failure. When we abuse things in that way, it doesn’t solve the problem. In some cases, the problem gets worse and we now feel bad about our failure to address the problem. That can cause us to compensate even more for our failure, and we feel bad about that as well. This is a cycle of addiction.
For example, we need to buy things to live, but shopping can become an addiction. Playing games may be harmless distraction, but they can also be a way to avoid responsibilities. Our desire for love and to be attractive to the opposite sex is not a bad thing, but it can lead us into foolish or wrong behavior. For the married, men in particular can neglect their families for the sake of their jobs and their company culture, and women can neglect their husbands for their relationship with their children. We can even overdo our church involvement.
Or if get our energy from being social, we may find ourselves going too far and making jokes that hurt other people. We can try to feel good about ourselves by putting down others, either with our mouths or just in our thoughts.
These are all just different ways of being self-seeking, rejecting the truth, and doing evil.
And God will show his anger at such things.
Point 2: God doesn’t play favourites
9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
And the evil that comes from self-seeking brings suffering. Notice that religious people are not exempt!
Now this is a bit mysterious, so let’s see what is meant by ‘first for the Jew’? Well, earlier in Romans 1:16 Paul says salvation comes first to the Jews. Well we know what that means: Jesus came first to the Jews both in timing, and also in priority. Because salvation is promised to the Jews, salvation comes through the Jewish messiah Jesus; he preached to the Jews first and almost exclusively to them. Even the disciples were commissioned to start in Jerusalem, then to the half-Jews of Samaria, and then to the rest of the world.
But regardless of the timing or priority, trouble and distress comes from doing wrong. And glory and honor, and well-being from doing right.
11 For God does not show favoritism.
God does not treat certain groups especially when he judges. The same standards apply to all.
And this applies to Christians as well. In 1 Peter 4:17, Peter says that the the suffering of persecution that they are experiencing is the judgement of God, a trial meant to purify them. And this judgement has come first to the house of God, meaning the church.
So just as for the Jews, our suffering becomes meaningful in the context of our covenant relationship with God. We see God’s rewards and punishments as God’s desire to shape us into the image of his Son. Unbelievers see suffering as simply meaningless pain, and rewards as personal achievements or luck. But since we all die and memory of us fades, that means that all our achievements also will fade away to nothingness.
In all of this, God doesn’t play favourites. His intention to both believers and unbelievers is good. Remember last week in 2:4 God is trying to lead all of us to repentance. It is how we respond to God that makes the difference. Will we allow God’s discipline to move us to repentance, and closer to the image of Jesus?
Point 3: From what we know
This is our final point.
12 All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
We have a tendency to think that if we know something, we have mastered it, and we are in control. But this is simply wrong.
Whether we are unbelievers or believers, the wages of our sin is death. Because it isn’t what we know, it is what we do.
14 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)
God will judge the Jews according to the revealed Law of the OT.
People often ask, what about those who have never seen a bible or heard the gospel. Is it fair that God will condemn them?
But God is fair; he will judge us according to what we know. And we what we know is revealed by our conscience and how we judge others.
A famous theologian of last century, Francis Schaeffer, gave this illustration: God hangs an invisible tape recorder around our neck, which only turns on when we say to someone ‘You ought to do this’ or ‘You shouldn’t do that’. When we die and come before God to be judged, he will just turn on the tape recorder. And then we will realize we are doing the same things we judged other people for. We read this last week in verse 1 didn’t we.
We know what is wrong, but we don’t seem to be able to change. The roots of our bad attitudes and behaviour are deep.
16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Paul doesn’t come out and say it directly, but it is clear that he expects us to draw the conclusion that each one of us is a sinner deserving punishment.
When God judges us, he will look at what our consciences say. He will see if we have persisted in doing good for it’s own sake. He will reward that. He will see if we have been self-seeking, and doing evil as a result. He will punish that.
Then who will pass this test? No one.
So what are we to do? How can we avoid punishment? Do we have any hope of gaining a reward?
Actually there is one person who passes the test: Jesus.
Jesus was not self-seeking. He put our need for peace with God above his own desire to be with his Father in heaven. He persisted in doing good to others throughout his life.
Jesus was born in a feed trough and raised in a hick town. He was rejected in his hometown, by the leaders of his community, and eventually by his whole nation. His closest friends, the only thing he had left as his legacy, deserted him as he was led away to public shame, torture and death. To his friends and disciples, and maybe even his own mother, he looked like a complete failure. Jesus was a ‘man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.’ But he did not shrink back from the mission God gave him.
At one time in his life, the crowds loved him. They followed him around everywhere. They even wanted to make him king. But for their sake, he told them something they didn’t want to hear, and they all left him. Jesus stepped away from what felt good in order to do good.
This is the man who relied on God, passed the test of deeds and motivation, and received the reward of glory, honor, a lasting legacy, and eternal life.
So now, what about us? We know we are not what we should be, what God expects of us. We don’t even meet our own expectations.
How can we receive forgiveness? How can we deal with the sins that cling to us so tightly? Is there any hope to live a life that is worthy of reward?
Simply, we need to receive the whole of Jesus’ legacy for ourselves. He paid for our self-seeking with his sacrifice. He received eternal life so that we can receive it too. He gave us the Holy Spirit so we can know in our hearts the depth of his love for us. And that love will set us free to live a life of doing good which is worthy of reward.
That’s the way Paul lived, grounded in the truths of the gospel and a focus on his mission. Paul wrote these words to a church that was fractious and immoral in many ways, to challenge them to live likewise:
1 Cor 10:31-11:1 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32 Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— 33 even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. 1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.
Let us pray.
The Jews had a covenant relationship with God. They should know better what is right. They should know that sin brings consequences.