As I progress in my response to Nick's question, I believe that it will be helpful to visit a portion of The Race Set Before Us where Tom and I discuss Romans 2, not exhaustively but nonetheless pertinently. Find the following segment on pages 165-167. I trust that it will edge us toward an integrated and systematic theology of justification that is in accord with Scripture.
Paul solemnly avows that when God judges, he will reward everyone according to their deeds.
To those who by persevering in a good work seek glory and honor and incorruptibility, he will give eternal life. But upon those who act out of selfish ambition and who disobey the truth and instead submit to unrighteousness, he will inflict wrath and anger. There will be tribulation and distress for every person who does what is evil, both the Jew first and also the Greek, but there will be glory and honor and peace to everyone who accomplishes what is good, both to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God (Rom 2:7-11).
Using two sets of designations–“eternal life” and “glory and honor and peace”–Paul affirms twice in this passage that God will reward perseverance in good deeds with “salvation.” This causes no small dilemma for interpreters who want to avoid the notion that the apostle contradicts his own clear statement that “no flesh will be justified by the works of the law” (Rom 3:20). However, the dilemma is in the eye of the reader, for Paul plainly affirms that the principle of God’s impartial judgment is integral to his gospel, for he speaks of “the day when, according to my gospel, God shall judge the secrets of humans, through Christ Jesus” (Rom 2:16). So, “judgment according to one’s deeds” is not alien to his gospel but an essential element of it. Paul echoes the principle of Ezekiel 18, for both the apostle and the prophet insist that God is an impartial judge who will render his judgment in keeping with one’s deeds. Paul confronts the same problem Ezekiel faced: Israelites who possess the Law but fail to obey the Law. This is what Paul denounces in Romans 2. But in the midst of his prosecution of disobedient possessors of the Law, he reaffirms God’s thoroughly impartial principle of justice that holds out hope for all who do the things the Law requires, because “not the hearers of the Law are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law shall be declared righteous” (Rom 2:13). This is not a fictional offer that no one attains, nor is this salvation based upon one’s own works. Though it is true that he speaks of judgment and justification, here Paul is not speaking of the legal basis or ground of justification, for the basis is the obedience of Christ alone (Rom 5:12-19). Rather, he speaks of the kind of person whom God will justify in the Day of Judgment. It is the obedient, not the disobedient person. It is the doers of the Law, not the possessors of the Law. Who are these “doers of the Law”? At the close of chapter two Paul explains their identity. They are people who, though they may not even have the Law, do the things the Law requires. They are ones who, though perhaps not circumcised in the flesh, have hearts circumcised by the Spirit of God. Therefore, Paul succinctly summarizes his argument of Romans 2 by reiterating the principle of his gospel that the true Jew is not one who possesses the Law and who is circumcised in the flesh; but the true Jew is one who keeps the requirements of the Law from a heart circumcised by the Spirit. This person “will receive praise from God,” which is another way of saying “will be justified” (Rom 2:13) or “will be reckoned as circumcision” (Rom 2:26).
Therefore, since he indicts unfaithful Israelites for failing to keep the Law which they possess by privilege from God, and since Paul orients his discussion to the eschatological Day of Judgment, his primary concern is to answer one question: “Who will be justified?” Like the prophet in Ezekiel 18:21-23, the apostle Paul answers that one who will be justified in the heavenly courtroom of God is the person who does what God requires. The promise of eternal life is conditional, but the condition must not be confused with the basis of one’s right standing before God. This is because Paul does not confuse the two. He makes it clear that God’s righteous judgment laid his wrath upon Christ Jesus in order that God might be just when he justifies all who belong to Jesus Christ (Rom 3:21-26). So, Paul does not answer the question “On what basis will one be justified?” until Romans 3:21ff. In Romans 2 Paul makes one thing clear: God’s promise of salvation is conditional. On the Day of Judgment God will award eternal life to those who persevere in good works (Rom 2:7, 10), because God does not justify hearers of the Law but doers of the Law (Rom 2:13). Praise from God belongs to all who keep the requirements of the Law, to all who obey from hearts circumcised by the Spirit (Rom 2:26, 29).