It can seem as though St Paul is being inconsistent when, in Romans 2:7 and 10, he writes that God will grant
eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; 8 but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, 9 tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek; 10 but glory, honor, and peace to everyone who works what is good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness
something he repeats even more plainly in the following chapter:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have[ peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ
It is clear enough that ‘works’ matter, but it might help us to understand what is going on here with Paul if we examine what he means by ‘salvation’, not least since its use in modern society – ‘I am saved’ – can lead to some lack of clarity and the obscuring of Paul’s message.
The Good News Paul brings ‘is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.’ If we repent of our sins and have faith in Jesus, then the blessings of salvation will be ours. But what does Paul mean by ‘salvation’? Latterly, many in our society use it to refer to what is, in fact, just one of its benefits. It might be helpful if we distinguish the various benefits Paul says flow from our salvation: justification; sanctification; and glorification.
Justification is the Divine act which declares sinners to be righteous with God through the sacrifice made once and for all by Jesus Christ; he paid for our sins on the Cross, and through that faith we are made right with God. That, however, is the beginning of a process, and those (such as Bosco) who claim it is the whole of salvation need to read their Bibles with more attention.
Both St Paul and St James warn Christians about the importance that their works will have at the last judgment, basing themselves on what Jesus himself says in Matthew’s Gospel. James himself commends those who bring an erring brother back, and it seems clear enough from these warnings, all aimed at Christians that through our behaviour, we can lose what we gain through the sacrifice of Christ. However, if they Spirit dwells in us, He makes us alive and justification leads us to sanctification, which is the process by which God develops the new life in us, and imparts spiritual life to our dead soul. This leads, in turn, to glorification – the ultimate and final salvation of the whole person when we come face to face with God, who will mould us in the image of Christ.
We are not saved from the wrath of God by our works, but if we are truly justified by faith in Christ, then that will manifest itself in good fruit, and so God will grant ‘eternal life to those who by patient continuance in good seeks for glory, honour and immortality’:
but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, 9 tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek