It is a tad ironic that Luther built essentially the entire edifice of his idea of sola fide on a short bit of Romans 4, but inexplicably seems to have ignored the impact of Romans 2 on any conversation about justification. Let us take a quick look. Here is 2:5-16:
Your stubborn refusal to repent is only storing up retribution for yourself on that Day of retribution when God’s just verdicts will be made known. He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve. For those who aimed for glory and honour and immortality by persevering in doing good, there will be eternal life; but for those who out of jealousy have taken for their guide not truth but injustice, there will be the fury of retribution. Trouble and distress will come to every human being who does evil—Jews first, but Greeks as well; glory and honour and peace will come to everyone who does good—Jews first, but Greeks as well. There is no favouritism with God.
All those who have sinned without the Law will perish without the Law; and those under the Law who have sinned will be judged by the Law. For the ones that God will justify are not those who have heard the Law but those who have kept the Law. So, when gentiles, not having the Law, still through their own innate sense behave as the Law commands, then, even though they have no Law, they are a law for themselves. They can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness; since they are aware of various considerations, some of which accuse them, while others provide them with a defence … on the day when, according to the gospel that I preach, God, through Jesus Christ, judges all human secrets. (NJB; emphasis added)
God is going to administer justice. “He will repay everyone as their deeds deserve.” He does not say a single thing here about being justified by faith alone. He says God will judge us according to our deeds. All of us. There is just no way to make this “fit” with the Protestant idea of sola fide, according to which God will specifically not repay Christians as their deeds deserve. What’s more, St. Paul strongly implies that there are Gentiles who do such good before God as to receive glory and honor and peace from God. We must be careful here: it is not the case that their own works as such can justify them before God, but rather God pours His grace into their hearts in such a way that they may be saved even apart from visible attachment to the Church. See my recent post about merit for more.
Not convinced? How then does an angel appear to Cornelius (Acts 10) who, according to any definition of “Christian” I have ever heard from Protestant lips, does not make the cut before St. Peter visits him? And what does the angel say to him? “Your prayers and charitable gifts have been accepted by God” (verse 4). The angel does not even mention faith to the man as a reason why God had accepted him; rather, he said that the man’s prayers and almsgiving had been accepted by God.
As I always say, the absence of any mention of faith in Romans 2 and the first part of Acts 10 does not mean that faith is not required. But there is flatly no way to read these passages in such a way as to say that one’s deeds have no effect on his standing before God. There is a certain form of sola fide taught by the Council of Trent that coheres with these portions of the New Testament, but the Protestant version just will not make the cut.
Oh, one last thing before I go: Did you ever notice how these two passages wreak holy havoc on the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity”? I’m just sayin’…