Somewhere in the beginning of Romans, the classic text in the Pauline oeuvre that has contributed to the Protestant doctrine justification by faith alone, this novelty passage asserts itself:
For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone 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.
It can’t refer to those under the law before Jesus because no one is justified under the law (Rom 3:20). What is important, however, is that if this is read with the whole of Romans then it is clear that faith without works does not mean much. The early church heresy of antinomianism (literally “against law”) claimed that those who had faith could live however they wanted. Now I don’t want to undermine the rich tradition of sola fide and the great works which have been born of it, but sola fide is only ever the beginning, not the end. Through the power of the Spirit, believers “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13) and “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14). Romans 12 lists ethical actions as a picture of what the believing community should look like. The link is clear in Galatians: Through the Spirit, a new ethical life is possible: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). Thus God “will repay according to each one’s deeds” because this is a sign that the Spirit is at work in the community of believers.
Interestingly, those who do evil are “self-seeking” compared with those who “seek for glory and honor and immortality.” Why is the latter not also self-seeking? Is it a legitimate response to what God has offered? Whereas evil is an attempt to cut oneself off from and assert oneself against the rest of creation and God, good is to die to one’s own desires, with Christ, and seek the good of all, including the self within this picture. It is not merely self-seeking because it is not concerned only with its own glory, honour, and immortality but putting aside selfish desires to see God’s plans come to completion for the good of creation. So Paul can say, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3).