Editor’s note: Today’s article includes some of my own thoughts, and while you may interpret the main text from the Bible differently from what I have done here, I hope that we can agree with the conclusions (when evaluating the Bible as a whole). And, perhaps there will be some things to think about or discuss for both you and me.
Let’s set up some modern context. In theological (and pseudo-theological) circles, there is sometimes a tension across a range of viewpoints about how a sinful human being can be right with a holy God.
At one extreme of this spectrum is the idea that if you don’t live a perfect life (even after accepting salvation through Jesus), God won’t “take you in”. This idea of legalism is pretty well dismantled in the New Testament, so I think that it is fairly easy to defend against the extreme case, here. However, other variations of this viewpoint still persist, like those who suggest that someone who has accepted Jesus as their Savior – but still sins – isn’t a Christian, or those who think that certain vices are so great that they brand someone as not being a follower of Jesus.
At the other extreme of this spectrum is the idea that we can just “get saved” once in our lives (maybe by praying a certain prayer), and we’re good to go to Heaven, with no responsibilities as to what the rest of our lives look like after a “conversion experience”. With this mindset, Jesus did all of the work that is expected of us (which is certainly true for salvation), but there’s nothing more that we should do after we are saved. Somehow, people can be “converted”, but not actually change.
Of course, neither of these theoretical extremes is correct. On the one hand, even Paul fought with sins (see Romans 7:14-25) after his very dramatic conversion (see Acts 9:1-19, where Saul is the same guy as Paul, the Holy Spirit-led author of the book of Romans). On the other hand, Jesus didn’t save us to remain unchanged. Why would Jesus have even taught about righteousness if that wasn’t expected from His followers?
Having considered this continuum of viewpoints on salvation and sanctification, I feel like two verses from Romans can help bridge the gap between knowing we can’t be saved by what we do, and knowing that we aren’t saved to just keep sinning like before. (By the way, whenever studying a passage like this one, it is always good to read it in context, and I encourage you to do so.)
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he 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.
Romans 2:7-8 NIV
There are different ways to interpret this passage. Cottrell [referenced below] maintains that this is further describing “theoretical” salvation through the law, which none of us can achieve. That viewpoint holds together pretty well. However, since several other sources [also referenced below] suggested some thoughts more similar to my own, let me also share another point of view.
In verse 7, eternal life is for those who are persistent in doing good, and who – by doing so – “seek glory, honor and immortality”. Eternal life should be expected by those who strive for it, as long as they are doing so according to the path that God set out. (However, to consider Cottrell’s point, if this verse is interpreted as being good enough under the law, it is building up to the fact that it is pointless to be saved by keeping a law that we can’t keep perfectly. Only with the addition of good news about another way back to God – found elsewhere in Romans – can we obtain eternal life.) Being righteous before God includes giving him glory and thanks (see Romans 1:21 for a counter-example), which implies that we accept what He said as truth. And, when His truth includes our need for the gift of salvation through accepting Jesus Christ, then our efforts to obtain eternal life naturally include that step, as well.
In verse 8, wrath and anger are for those who “reject the truth” (which often goes along with selfishness). For someone who has denied God’s truth, why would they accept Jesus (who is the Truth), or why would they even admit that they need salvation in the first place? Someone in this situation still has a religion (even if they claim otherwise): it’s just that they “follow evil”.
So, whether or not these verses were specifically intended to make this distinction, I hope that we can agree that you can follow good (as epitomized by Jesus Christ) or you can follow evil. This doesn’t mean that the follower of Jesus never sins, nor that the one who lives for evil doesn’t occasionally do a good deed. But, who we follow determines both our direction (how we live and the general choices that we make), and our destination. Consider who or what you are following, today.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for January 9, 2022
- The Lookout, January 9, 2022, © 2022 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Romans, Volume 1, by Jack Cottrell. College Press Publishing Company, © 1996.
- ESV Reformation Study Bible, R.C. Sproul, editor, © 2015 Ligonier Ministries, via BibleGateway.com
- Asbury Bible Commentary. Copyright © 1992 by The Zondervan Corporation, via BibleGateway.com.
- Bible Panorama: Enjoying the Whole Bible with a Chapter-by-Chapter Guide, Third Edition, Gerard Chrispin, © 2015, via BibleGateway.com.