I recently ran a question by a NT scholar. I'm reproducing my question, along with his response:
There is often thought to be a tension between justification by faith/salvation by grace, on the one hand, and judgment by works on the other. If we take Rom 2:6-11 as a representative statement on judgment by works, I wonder if one or more of the following considerations would suffice to harmonize the alleged tension:
1. Hypocrisy/dead formalism
On the heels of 2:6-11, Paul accuses many Jews of hypocrisy (2:17ff.). But judging hypocrites by works would be consistent with sola fide/sola gratia, for that would distinguish true believers from spiritual imposters who say one thing, but do another–or say and do the right things, but in a halfhearted way (e.g. Isa 1:13; 29:13/Mt 15:8).
2. Universal guilt
Paul makes a case for man’s universal guilt (Rom 1-3) as a backdrop for his presentation of the gospel. Jews and Gentiles are equally guilty before God. Equally in need of the gospel. Judgment by works would corroborate his claim by revealing the culpability of man.
3. Divine veracity
On a related note, Paul has God indict humanity for rampant sin. Judgment by works would expose and corroborate the veracity of the divine indictment (Rom 2:16; cf. 1 Cor 4:5).
Universal judgment is a complement to universal sin. All are guilty, so all are judged.
Even if some are justified (by faith), they are justified in the person of another (Christ), and their own guilt (revealed at the final judgment) accentuates their hopeless condition apart from Christian redemption.
Judgment by works makes the point that divine justice is equitable. God doesn’t judge anyone unfairly. God is not capricious. No one gets worse than he deserves.
In (1)-(5), the sinner isn’t saved by works, in part or in whole. Rather, works serve non-salvific functions. So judgment by works would still be consistent with sola gratia/sola fide–given their purpose.
Do you agree?
I agree. In my opinion, the principal point throughout the first part of Romans 2 is a conventional OT point: God is the righteous judge. Everyone will get what he deserves. What many commentators do not recognize is that Romans 2 is part of a developing argument. It is too early in the argument for Paul to bring in how judgment according to desert is consistent with anyone being saved. So 2:12-16 should be read as pretty much a flat general principle, not as a statement about Christians.
The consistency of God's judgment can be explained only after the doctrine of justification is introduced. And it is a complex and surprising doctrine, not a simple doctrine that falls directly out of 2:12-16. Justification by substitutionary righteousness (i.e. imputation), on the basis of a genuine union with Christ, is the only way that a full-fledged judgment by desert at the last judgment can be consistent with anyone being saved. At the last judgment (and now, because justification now is a pronouncement beforehand of the verdict of the last judgment) the works in view for Christians are pre-eminently the works of Christ. Christian good works are rewarded, but only in the light of Christ's perfection. My only issues with your formulation are (1) that the introduction of point (1) below can confuse the main point, namely that there are universal standards of judgment that cover all, not only hypocrites; and (2) over formulation of one of the last lines, where "works serve non-salvific functions." It should be, as I can see you intend it to be, "the works of Christians serve non-salvific functions; the works of Christ serve salvific functions." And, if you wish to add it, "the works of the nonelect serve at the judgment as grounds for their condemnation."