In Romans 2:16, Paul states that a day is coming when God will judge the secrets of our hearts through Jesus Christ. The thought of standing before the judgment seat of Christ and having to offer an account of my life has always produced in me a sense of unease, anxiety, and fear of being destroyed because of my sinfulness. Throughout the Old Testament, even those within the covenant feared death if they happened to glance upon a manifestation of God’s glory (Isaiah 6, for example). Who is able to stand before the awesome holiness of God?
Given that all, Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, will face God’s judgment, it is a perilous thing to stand in judgment of others: Paul says that we are without excuse, since we do the same things (2:1). How can this be? Just because we have not committed adultery or murdered someone does not mean we are more righteous than those who have. Neither we nor the Jews can claim to have attained God’s perfect law. James says that those who break God’s law at one point are guilty of breaking the whole law (James 2:10). The reason for this is that the same rebellious spirit is behind all manifestations of sin, no matter what form it takes, and therefore, any sin is equally offensive to God. Some sins may have more severe consequences for one’s self and others, but in intent all sins are rebellion against God’s absolute claim upon our lives. We think that some sins are worse than our own in order to justify our own behavior: what we did isn’t may that bad compared to what someone else did. This is really just an attempt to suppress the truth by our wickedness (1:18) and shows how our minds have been perverted by sin (1:21-22, 28). So whenever we pass judgment on another, and play this comparison game with an attitude of superiority, we are in fact condemning ourselves before God. This attitude of superiority is itself evidence of our sinfulness.
But even if we admit that we are just as sinful as everyone else, wouldn’t the Jew, or for that matter, the person born into a Christian family, have an advantage over others at the final judgment? The typical Jewish view of the time was that God would be more lenient toward Israel than towards the rest of the world, since He had chosen them to be His own people. After all, wouldn’t being exposed to God’s Word in the Bible and being a member of God’s people, the church, somehow give you an advantage? But Paul says that God does not show favoritism (2:11), since He is an impartial judge, who judges according to truth (2:2). That is, He judges according to the way things really are, and is not deceived by lies or illusions, but is faithful in adhering to a standard of strict and absolute justice. God cannot show special favor to a person or group of people at the final judgment, as if to hold some people accountable for their sins, but not hold others responsible. God has declared that death is the wages of sin (6:23), and therefore, He must always give this consequence to those who sin unless there is some kind of intervention on God’s part to prevent this inevitable consequence.
Now we might assume that because we are Christian believers that we will not go through judgment, since Jesus has already passed through judgment for us by dying on the cross for our sins. But Scripture does not actually say this. In Romans 14:10, Paul says that we must all appear before the judgment seat of God, and that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (14:12). In 2 Cor 5:10, Paul says that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, where we will be paid back for what we have done while in the body, whether good or evil. The context of Rom 14:10-12 and 2 Cor 5:10 clearly indicates it is believers who are being addressed. Finally, in 1 Cor 3:13-15, Paul says that fire will test whatever we build upon the foundation of Christ, and if what we have done survives, we will receive a reward, and if it it is burned up, we will be saved, but only as through fire. So it is true that believers do not have to fear condemnation at final judgment, and that their salvation is assured. At the same time, however, the quality of our lives and the fruits we produced will be tested by God (Rom 2:16).
So Paul says “God will give to each according to what they have done” (2:6). At the final judgment, the lives of everyone will be examined by God, and those who have produced the fruit of the Spirit will enter into eternal life. Whether a person is a Jew or Gentile, believer or unbeliever, everyone must have the quality of life that pleases God. Everyone is judged by the same standard: whether or not we obeyed God’s will to the level that we understood it: “to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, God will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (2:7-8). Obedience to God is an indispensable prerequisite to salvation at the final judgment. In other words, without obedience no one will be saved.
But Paul says later in Romans that there is none righteous, not even one, no one who seeks or obeys God, and no one who does good (Rom 3:10-12). Obedience is always a requirement, but we are utterly unable to obey. So there is no question of us earning or meriting our salvation independently of Christ, since we have already sinned enough to make that option impossible, as if we were ever in a position to earn something from God or to put God in our debt. If salvation were a matter of what we deserved or earned, we would all end up in hell. No, we can never put God under some kind of obligation to save us, but God can and does lay down conditions or requirements to receive His gift of eternal life. Like the old covenant, the new covenant has a condition of obedience that must be fulfilled – the question is how it is fulfilled and who fulfills that condition. Under the old covenant, the people themselves were required to obey God and fulfill the terms of the covenant which God gave them, regardless of whether they were in fact able to do so (which they were not). In the new covenant, it is Christ who fulfills the condition and obeys God. Only Jesus Christ lived a sinless life (2 Cor 5:21), only Jesus persisted in doing good and sought the glory and honor of God, which means that only Jesus inherits eternal life. The only way for us to obey God and inherit eternal life is to be in union with Him, and for Him to live His life through us.
So fulfilling the condition of obedience or persistence in doing good (2:7) does not mean that you earned or deserve salvation, only that God has promised in grace to give eternal life to those who fulfill the conditions. The key is to understand that it is not we ourselves who independently obey God and fulfill the covenant conditions: it is Christ Himself who fulfills the condition of obedience through us by living His life in us, through us, and as us. So paradoxically it is not we ourselves who fulfill the requirements of God’s law, since we cannot (see Rom 7:14-25). Instead the God who makes an unrelenting demand for obedience at the same time perfectly supplies the means to keep it: He gives us His Spirit so that now Christ lives His life in us and as us (Rom 8:2; Gal. 2:20; Phil 2:13; Eph 3:17). Christ fulfills the condition of obedience not only for us by dying on the cross but by daily living His life through us.
The church has tended to water down God’s demands so that they do not have to trust God for the supply. By watering down God’s demands, they never become desperate enough to seek for God’s provision. Jeremiah promises that we will find God if we seek Him with our whole heart (Jer 29:13). But how will we find the motivation to seek God for the answer unless the impossible demands of the law force us to do so? Removing the demand destroys the one thing that drives us to find the answer. This would be the reverse of the good news. The demand remains, but God graciously provides the Spirit to produce His fruit in us. The prophet Ezekiel promises that God will put His Spirit in us to cause us to walk in His ways (Ezek 36:27). What God demands, He provides. It is not some effort of our own, independently of God, that produces the fruit, but the result of Christ’s replacement of Satan in our spirit-center that causes the change. We have one single choice that we are continually making: whether or not to trust God to do exactly as He promised: to live His perfect life through us. So our lack is met by His infinite supply, our need by His provision.