Chapter 16 – Romans 2 Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

This Chapter will review the verses in Romans 2 and 3 which relate to atonement, reconciliation, righteousness and the claims of Penal Substitution.

Romans 2

The accusation which PSA teachers will often try to bring to refute non-PSA atonement teaching is that every other atonement doctrine seems to result in teaching salvation by works. If any works are involved in salvation, then how much works are needed? They will claim that any works are a denial of faith. But there is no such thing as separating faith and works in real life. You can separate them on paper, like two sides of a coin, heads and tails, but you cannot have a coin with only one of those sides. Even the thief on the cross who believed in the last hours of his life demonstrated his faith by rebuking the other thief who was insulting. Jesus recognized his genuine belief and promised him paradise.

We need to recognize that in Paul’s day of the first Century the doctrinal battle was focused on the works side of the coin because the Jewish believers were used to thinking that salvation was by works regardless of living by faith in a personal righteous God. They had made a legal god out of the Mosaic law and their traditions. Today the doctrinal struggle is reversed, where Protestants want to have salvation by faith, but in the complete absence of works, and the only way to do that is to define faith as an intellectual assent, a dead faith, or faith-on-paper with no required works which correspond to that faith. We need to read the faith/works struggle in the Bible with this historical context in mind. In the first Century it was about works-versus-faith, and today it is faith-versus-works. Paul is trying to show that both apply, but he is arguing against the exaggeration of works that he faced in his day, so it is easy for us to read his arguments and over-emphasize the other side of the coin which results in distorting what faith means in the Bible.

Romans 2 has one of the clearest anti-Penal Substitution Atonement statements anywhere in the Bible. There are various explanations given in attempts to neuter its plain meaning, but as one of the primary rules of hermeneutics (textual interpretation) states, “When the plain sense (of a text) makes sense, seek no other sense.” 

Here now is one of the passages that PSA proponents love to hate the most:

Romans 2:5-16 “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 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 [Gentiles] who have sinned without the [Mosaic] law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the [Mosaic] law will be judged by the [Mosaic] law. For it is not the hearers of the [Mosaic] law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the [Mosaic] law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the [Mosaic] law, by nature do what the [Mosaic] law requires, they are a [non-Mosaic] law to themselves, even though they do not have the [Mosaic] law. They show that the work of the [non-Mosaic] 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.” ESV, bracketed words added

For the sake of brevity, this book will not dissect the entire Romans 2 passage, but only mention points that directly impact PSA.

Notice that the passage makes multiple claims that apply “to each one”, “every human”, “for everyone”, and “for all”. There isn’t the slightest hint of additional missing conditions or limitations. God’s judgment day will come for all, both good and evil. The good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. This is no different than what Jesus himself stated in John 5:28-29, “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Paul is not making any new doctrine here, the only problem is that this doctrine conflicts with Protestant theology that became popular during and since the Reformation.

The fact that in verse 6 we read that God “will render to each one according to his works” does not mean God’s grace has no role to play. Paul does not state here that anyone literally earns salvation, thereby making God a debtor to them. No, God will render to each according to their works by being gracious and forgiving toward those who have exercised patience in well-doing (verse 7), and who are known as doers of good (verse 10). God’s gift of grace is still at work, and this grace will be based in large part on their good works which result from their living faith (Ephesians 2:8). But God is under no obligation to favor them, other than the fact that He has promised to reward the good and punish the evil.

Nor does this passage negate faith. The good works and patience in well-doing is presumed to be being done because the doer believes that God will reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Faith in this case is an active faith, not a mere intellectual, dead faith. The good judgment for good works in Romans 2 is “not a result of works [of the Mosaic Law], so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” Ephesians 2:9-10 ESV.

PSA claims righteousness is transferred, but in verse 8 we read that people “obey unrighteousness” – the word translated “obey” is the Greek word “peithimenois”, which actually means “being persuaded about”, which of course leads to disobedience in this case. The point to consider here regarding unrighteousness [adikia] is that unrighteousness is not transferred, but rather is something that the doer becomes persuaded about and then obeys. Unrighteousness, just like righteousness, is something that one chooses to obey or disobey; it is never transferred! The verse also states that those who obey unrighteousness “do not obey the truth.” Truth is not something that is transferred either, but must also be sought, accepted, and obeyed. 

The Romans 2 passage is plain on its face. God will judge based on works, even though this does not concurrently deny grace and faith. Some objectors will try to throw the entire passage out by quoting Romans 11:6, “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” However, this quote is taken out of context. The context of Romans 11:6 includes at least verses 1-10, which are about God favoring one people group over another people group for a given function, and it has nothing to do with final judgment or salvation.