According to Romans 2:13, the “doers of the law will be justified.” The point being made, to repeat once again, is no different from that of Romans 2:7, 10: those who do what is good will be given eternal life. Many interpreters take these verses as Paul’s final word on the last judgment. As a result, it is said that even believers who have already been “declared righteous (‘justified’) by faith” will be judged, in the end, by the works they have done and condemned if these fall short of the divine standard; (initial) justification may be by faith, but in the end, judgment (final justification) is according to works. What these interpreters fail to note is that Romans 3:20 explicitly denies that anyone will in fact be justified by the terms spelled out in 2:13: “by works of the law no flesh will be justified before him.” No flesh must include justified believers. If they find approval at the final judgment, it cannot be because they produce the “works of the law.”
Paul has not denied the rightness of the moral order that underlies 2:13; he has simply concluded that, judged by its terms, human beings are not righteous; they face divine condemnation (3:19-20). Only by an extraordinary divine intervention – the sacrificial death of Christ Jesus – is an alternative path to righteousness “apart from the law” made available to sinful human beings (3:21-26). Those who believe the gospel are “justified by faith” – and the “righteousness of faith” they enjoy is both different from that of the law (Phil 3:9; Gal 3:11-12; Rom 3:21-22; 10:5-10) and immune to its condemnation (2 Cor 3:9; Rom 8:1; cf. Gal 3:13). They are “dead” to the law; it cannot condemn them (Gal 2:19; Rom 7:1-6); but nor are they, in the end, “justified” by its “works.”
That said, it remains true that the righteousness of faith is still righteousness, and that neither the “obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5) nor its “righteousness” is compatible with a life lived “according to the flesh” (8:5-8, 13). Repeatedly, Paul warns the members of his congregations of the dangers of thinking that they can enjoy the blessings of the new creation while retaining the lifestyle of the old; the unrighteous have no part in God’s kingdom (cf. Rom 6; 1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:19-21; 6:8). The works of believers, too, will be subject to judgment (2 Cor 5:10; cf. Rom 14:10-12; 1 Cor 3:10-15). Paul himself found the thought sobering (1 Cor 9:25-27; 2 Cor 5:10-11).
Still, it is inconceivable that he meant to distinguish an anticipatory justification based on faith – one that allows for “no condemnation” (Rom 8:1) – from a final justification based on a different criterion (performance of “works of the law”) that can call into question the original divine declaration. In the end, the decisive criterion for sinful humankind remains that of faith. Apart from faith, people live “in sin” (6:1-2) and “under sin” (3:9); everything they do…is marred by the fundamental sin of failing to give God his due. But where the call of God in the gospel leads to faith, a new work of God has begin (2 Cor 5:17; Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 5:24). Declared righteous by God’s grace, believers enjoy life “in grace” (Rom 5:2; Gal 1:6) and “under grace” (Rom 6:14-15); even as they share in the sufferings of their Savior, God’s favor rests upon them. Whatever good they do is done by the grace of God that sustains them (1 Cor 15:10; 2 Cor 12:9), and even their moral stumblings – no mark, in their case, of the fundamental sin of unbelievers – permit restoration (Gal 6:1). To be sure, not all within the community of faith are themselves truly “in the faith,” and self-examination is imperative (2 Cor 13:5); condemnation for those whose faith is not true and abiding remains an express possibility (1 Cor 10:1-12; 15:2; Col 1:22-23). But those who indeed belong to Christ have God’s Spirit living within them (Rom 5:9), and the Spirit’s presence cannot but make a difference: the “fruit of righteousness” follows (Gal 5:22-23; Phil 1:11). The divine work that begins with faith continues as faith continues (Phil 1:6; 1 Thess 5:24), so that believers’ justification, first and last, rests on faith.