He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2:6-10 ESV)
There is coming a day when God will judge each one of us according to our works. On that day of judgment, there will be only two outcomes: For those who do what is good, eternal life. For those who do not obey the truth but do what is wrong and unjust, there will be wrath and fury. There is no middle ground, no compromise solution.
When Paul speaks of “law” in his letter to the Jesus believers at Rome (also in his letter to the believers in Galatia), he is not referring to some general principle of right and wrong, or of conscience or consciousness about such a general principle, but to the Torah God gave His people through Moses.
Paul asserts that the “doers of the law will be declared righteous.” His Jewish readers at Rome may have had the written Torah, engraved in stone, but that did not give them a leg up on the Gentiles in regard to God’s judgment at the last day. That is because it is not those who hear the law but those who do the law who will be justified, that is, “declared righteous.”
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:13-16 ESV)Who are these Gentiles who “by nature do what the law requires” and have the law “written on their hearts”? Merely a hypothetical group conjured up for the sake of argument, a null set with no actual members? I do not think so. Rather, I believe they are Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus the Messiah. The law of God written on the heart was the very thing God promised He would do for His people in the age of Messiah:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)Jeremiah refers to this same reality in terms of the new covenant, and also speaks of the law of God written on the heart:
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)So when Paul speaks of Gentiles who have the law of God “written on their hearts,” he is referring to the new covenant reality that Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied by the Spirit of God. God has given every believer in Jesus the Holy Spirit, by whom is written the law of God on our hearts. The fruit of the Spirit produces in us all the things God requires but which the law never could produce (see The Spirit of God Fulfills Righteousness in Us). The surprising things for many Jews in the days of the early Church was that God would do this not just for believing Jews but also for believing Gentiles.
Now let’s move forward a few verses to the end of Romans 2, which is still very much in the flow of the same context:
For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Romans 2:25-29 ESV)Who is Paul describing here? Merely some people who have a primal remnant consciousness of right and wrong? No. He is speaking of those who are of the true circumcision, a circumcision “of the heart.” It is done not by the letter of the law but by the Spirit of God. See how Paul speaks of this “circumcision of the heart” elsewhere, in Philippians 3:3 and Colossians 2:11.
The Gentiles Paul describes in Romans 2, then, are believers in the Lord Jesus who, though they are Gentiles outwardly, are Jews inwardly. They are people upon whose hearts God has written his Law, just as He promised to do for His people. And they have been given the true, inward circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit, just as God promised.
So on that day when every person is judged according to their works, the work God has done in us through His Son and by His Spirit will confirm that the verdict He has already announced to us in this present time, through faith in Jesus the Messiah, is a completely just and appropriate one. That verdict will not be based on anything of our own initiative, our own abilities, or our own works but completely on God’s gracious initiative in Christ, His almighty power and the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. That is why Paul can say of those, both Jew and Gentile, who believe on Jesus the Messiah:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)