A Commentary by John Stott
To presume on God’s patient kindness, as if its purpose were to encourage licence, not penitence is a sure sign of *stubbornness* and of an *unrepentant heart* (5a). Such obstinacy can only have one end. It means that we are *storing up* for ourselves not some precious treasure (which is what the verb *thesaurizo* would normally mean) but the awful experience of divine *wrath on the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed* (5). Far from escaping God’s judgment (3), we will bring it all the more surely upon ourselves.
Paul now enlarges on his expression *God’s…righteous judgment* (5b), and begins by stating the inflexible principle on which it is based. The NIV rightly puts this in inverted commas, since it is a quotation from Old Testament Scripture. namely that *God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done’* (6). The verse quoted is probably Psalm 62:12, although Proverbs 24:12 says the same thing in the form of a question. It also occurs in the prophecies of Hosea and Jeremiah (Ho. 12:2; Je 17:10; 32:19), and is sometimes elaborated in the vivid expression, ‘I will bring down on their own heads what they have done (E.g. Ezk. 9:10; 11:21; cf.2 Ch. 6:23). Jesus himself repeated it (Mt. 16:27). So did Paul (E.g. 2 Cor. 5:10). and it is a recurring theme in the Book of Revelation (E.g. Rev. 2:23; 20:12f.; 22:12). It is the principle of exact retribution, which is the foundation of justice.
Some Christians, however, are immediately up in arms. Has the apostle taken leave of his senses? Does he begin by declaring that salvation is by faith alone (e.g. 1:16f.) and then destroy his own gospel by saying that it is by good works after all? No, Paul is not contradicting himself. What he is affirming is that, although justification is indeed by faith, judgment will be according to works. The reason for this is not hard to find. It is that the day of judgment will be a public occasion. Its purpose will be less to determine God’s judgment than to announce it and to vindicate it. The divine judgment, which is a process if sifting and separating, is going on secretly all the time, as people range themselves for or against Christ, but on the last day its results will be made public. *The day of the God’s wrath* will also be the time *when his righteous judgement will be revealed* (5b).
Such a public occasion, on which a public verdict will be given and a public sentence passed, will require public and verifiable evidence to support them. And the only public evidence available will be our works, what we have done and have been seen to do. The presence or absence of saving faith in our hearts will be disclosed by the presence or absence of good works of love in our lives. The apostles Paul and James both teach this same truth, that authentic saving faith invariably issues in good works, and that if it does not, it is bogus, even dead. ‘I by my works will show you my faith’, wrote James (Jas. 2:18, RSV). Faith (works) through love.’ echoed Paul (Gal. 5:6, RSV).
Verses 7-10 elaborate verse 6, namely the principle that the basis of God’s righteous judgment will be what we have done. The alternatives are now presented to us in two carefully constructed parallel sentences, which concern our goal (what we seek), our works (what we do), and our end (where we are going). The two final destinies of mankind are called *eternal life* (7), which Jesus defined in terms of knowing him and knowing the Father (Jn. 17:3), and *wrath and anger* (8), the awful outpouring of God’s judgment. And the basis on which this separation is to be made will be a combination of what we seek (our ultimate goal in life) and what we do (our actions in the service either of ourselves or of others). It is very similar to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, in which he delineated the alternative human ambitions (seeking our material welfare or seeking God’s kingdom, (Mt. 6:31ff.), and the alternative human activities (practising or not practising his teaching, (Mt. :24ff.).
Returning to Paul, on the one hand there are those who *seek glory* (the manifestation of God himself), *honour* (God’s approval) *and immortality* (the unfading joy of his presence), and moreover who seek these God-centred blessings *by persistence in doing good* (7). That is, they persevere in the way, for perseverance is the hallmark of genuine believers (cf. Heb. 3:14). On the other hand there are those who are characterized by the single derogatory epithet *self-seeking* (8a). *Eritheia* was used by Aristotle of ‘a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means’, and so here probably means ‘selfishness, selfish ambition’(BAGD). Further, those who are infatuated with themselves, and engrossed in self-centred goals, inevitably *reject the truth and follow evil* (8b). Indeed, they ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (1:18). Both these expressions blame the repudiation of truth on *adikia*, ‘evil’ or ‘wickedness’. To sum up, those who seek God and persevere in goodness will receive eternal life, while those who are self-seeking and follow evil will experience God’s wrath.
In verses 9-10 Paul restates the same solemn alternatives, with three differences. First, he simplifies the two categories of people into *every human being who does evil* (9) and *everyone who does good* (10). Jesus made exactly the same division between ‘those who have done evil’ and ‘those who have done good’ (Jn. 5:29). Secondly, Paul elaborates the two destinies. He describes the one as *trouble and distress* (9), emphasizing its anguish, and the other as *glory, honour and peace* (10a), taking up the ‘glory’ and ‘honour’ of verse 7 which form part of the goal believers seek and adding ‘peace’, that comprehensive word for reconciled relationships with God and with each other. Thirdly, Paul adds to both sentences. *first for the Jew, then for the Gentile* (9-10), affirming the priority of the Jew alike in judgment and in salvation, and thus declaring the absolute impartiality of God: *For God does not show favouritism* (11).