Some believe that in the epistle to the Romans Paul promises salvation through good works. The answer is not as clear as some interpreters claim.
What about the unredeemed human who has a conscience to do good and follows moral law, but never heard the gospel? Maybe he has an extra dose of common grace or is more responsive to it. Whatever the case, does Paul extend this person salvation in Romans?
See my post:
What Happens at Judgment to People Who Never Heard Gospel?
Specifically, in three passages in a long section Paul seems to promise salvation and being right with God outside of Christ by doing good works and by obeying the law.
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. (Rom. 2:7)
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. (Rom. 2:13)
If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. (Rom. 2:26-27)
In Rom. 2:7, specifically, Paul promises eternal life to those who persistently do good and seek glory, honor and immortality. It would have been acceptable to his theology beginning with Rom. 3:22 and the rest of Romans if he had promised humans outside of Christ glory, honor and peace (Rom. 2:10), but not eternal life. We could have interpreted glory, honor and peace on a social level. In other words, when humans do good and seek glory, honor and immortality (Rom. 2:7), society experiences glory, honor and peace (Rom. 2:10). Instead, Paul promises eternal life to humans apparently outside of Christ, who do good works.
Thus, is Paul really saying a person who persistently does good and seeks hard for glory, honor, and immortality receives eternal life? The person who obeys the law is declared righteous? And are the uncircumcised, who stand outside even the Old Covenant, able to obey the laws’ requirements?
For our purposes, three main solutions have been advanced, with a possible fourth one, combining the first three:
1. Paul leaves the door slightly ajar for those who have never heard the gospel, before Christ ushered in the new era of accountability and salvation by his death on the cross. Acts 14:16-17 says God let nations go their own way, but showed kindness to them by giving them life-producing rain to water crops, providing food, and filling their hearts with joy. Acts 17:30 says God overlooked Gentile ignorance in the past. And Rom. 3:25 says before Christ died as a propitiation, God let certain sins go unpunished. Cornelius, the Gentile centurion, saw an angel. Peter was so impressed that he said, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). Peter spoke this general truth before Cornelius experienced salvation in Christ.
We could also add these passages that show that people outside of Israel had a certain level of knowledge of God: Melchizedek was priest of the Most High God (Gen. 14:17-24); God revealed himself to Balaam (Num. 24); Rahab the prostitute had faith (Josh. 2:10-11; Heb. 11:31); Jonah preached to Nineveh, and they repented in sackcloth and ashes. After he left, did some of them experience lasting salvation, even though they were not part of the covenantal chosen people? King Hiram acknowledged God (2 Chron. 2:11-12); Naaman acknowledged God (2 Kings 5:12); Ruth the Moabite accepted her new life in Israel, even though a Moabite could not enter the assembly of the Lord to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:3); God spoke through Neco, king of Egypt (2 Chron. 35:20-24); Nebuchadnezzar spoke words of faith (Dan. 2:46-47, Dan. 3:28, Dan. 4:34-37, Dan. 6:25-27); the Lord moved on the heart of Cyrus, the Persian king (Ezra 1:1); a Canaanite woman sought Jesus and had great faith (Matt. 15:21-28).
These passages indicate God spoke through and to these pagans; they had a knowledge of God, and he approved of them, though it is not known if they persistently did good works and sought after glory, honor, and immortality throughout their lives. But it seems God overlooked some things and his judgment was not as severe, as they walked in the light they had. It was certainly not as severe as we at first expect.
Though this first option is emotionally satisfying, because one hates to think of people who never even had the chance to hear the full gospel spending an eternity in hell, Paul also writes, “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” (Rom. 2:12). However, Paul goes on to say that on the last day, meaning the Final Judgment, the Gentile’s heart might defend his conduct (Rom. 2:14-15).
2. Paul is speaking hypothetically, even though the hypothetical “if” does not appear, because he is about to write, “there is no one righteous, not even one … there is no one who seeks God” (Rom. 3:10). And “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law” (Rom. 3:20). Paul is saying in effect, “If only people really did good and sought after glory, honor and immortality and obeyed the law! Then in theory they could have eternal life! But they can’t reach that high goal because their sin nature holds them down!”
Thus in Romans Paul is writing an extended argument that is building to a conclusion, but with many other verses coming in between and hiding the premises. I don’t use them formally or formal logic, but to think clearly nonetheless.
Here are the premises:
a. Eternal life is possible by persistently doing good works, by seeking for glory, honor, and immortality (Rom. 2:7) and by obeying the law (Rom. 2:13, Rom. 2:26-27).
b. But people are held down by their sin nature (3:10 and 20).
c. Therefore, the possibility is never actualized; humans cannot actually achieve eternal life by doing good works and obeying the law (Rom. 3:23).
3. Paul, without clearly signaling us, has in mind a Christian believer who is actually seeking God first. Glory and immortality are associated with and can even stand in for God. This notion of a believing seeker is confirmed in Rom. 2:28-29, where Paul talks about inward circumcision of the heart, and most importantly life in the Spirit, as contrasted with obedience to a written code, the Law of Moses (Rom. 2:29).
Therefore, in Rom. 2:7, for example, it is implied that doing good works and seeking glory, honor, and immortality come from a close walk with God, not from the seeker himself and his own efforts. This close walk is a sign of faith in his heart, and from it flow good works and a search for those three things. So faith and relationship are implied in Rom. 2:7; doing and seeking are stated in Rom. 2:7.
4. Let’s limit the discussion to a Gentile. All three options can be combined if we rewrite premise (b):
(bb) God’s standards for the Gentile before the gospel of Christ has come are generous and merciful. Further, the Gentile first has faith in God. Then he persistently does good works and seeks glory, honor, and immortality and obeys the law that has been written on his heart, with the light he has.
Then this conclusion could follow:
(cc) This Gentile might experience eternal life.
We leave him in the hands of our merciful Father.
But now Christ has come, so a shift has occurred.
So, now, when a person hears the pure gospel without static and adulterated words, but still rejects it, he risks ultimate condemnation because a new epoch has dawned. It is by faith in Christ alone and grace alone that all of us receive eternal life – faith from first to last (Rom. 1:17).
That’s the flow of the entire epistle called Romans.
So the second option is probably the best one, because Rom. 2:7, Rom. 2:13, and Rom. 2:26-27 are part of a larger argument that concludes with Rom. 3:20: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.”
But you decide which one is best.
What Is the Work of Salvation?
How Do We Respond to God’s Salvation?
Justification: How It Was Done, How We Get It, and Its Results
Justification: What It is and What It Is Not
Being Justified in Paul’s Epistles
Regeneration: What Is It and How Does It Work?