Romans 2:1-16 (ESV) Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.  We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things.  Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.  He will render to each one according to his works:  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being 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.  For God shows no partiality.  For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.  For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.  For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them  on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Romans 2:6-16 teaches the Law, as a Covenant of Works, not the Gospel, as a Covenant of Grace. It teaches that God is just, rewarding the righteous and punishing the sinner. The perfect man will receive eternal life according to his perfect works, the perfect doer of the law will be justified; only those will escape the judgment of God according to their own works or doing of the law.
Romans 2:6-16, despite the emphatic teachings of some, the more tentative suggestions of others, or the relative uncertainty of still others, is not teaching “the gospel;” it is not teaching the so-called “good news” that “believers receive eternal life according to our works,” and that Judgment Day includes “a future justification for believers, the doers of the law.” Several simple exegetical arguments prove the point:
1. The overall structure of the book: The gospel is summarized in 1:16-17 (“the power of God for salvation…is revealed”), with 1:18 then beginning a new section (“the wrath of God is revealed”). 3:21 (“But now”) is the transition back to the gospel, and connected to 1:16-17. Clearly, then, the section in between (1:18-3:20) is about the wrath of God being revealed, not about the mercy and salvation of God being revealed.
2. No mention of Christ the Savior in the surrounding context: The only mention of Christ anywhere in this section (1:18-3:20) refers to Him in His role as Judge, not as Savior (2:16). Again, the immediate context is not dealing with the gospel of mercy and salvation, but with the revelation of God’s wrath.
3. Clearest reading: The simple formulas, “He will render to each one according to his works” (vs. 6), and “the doers of the law who will be justified” (vs. 13), are straightforward summaries of the principle of justice, the Covenant of Works. Notice first of all that they do not mention Christ, and so it is hard to see how they can stand as “summaries of the gospel” (unlike, say, Rom. 1:1-5, or 1 Cor. 2:2). Further, those who wish to interpret the first formula as if it is saying something like, “God will render to each one according to his works, and for the believer, this means that by His grace and Spirit He enables His people to do good works that will then be rendered with eternal life,” and who wish to interpret the second formula as if it is saying something like, “God by His grace and Spirit makes His people true doers of the law who will then be justified accordingly,” are by the nature of the case diverging from the clearest and most straightforward reading of the texts, and requiring a much more nuanced reading.
4. Flow of thought (I): Paul has just taught that we are all lawbreakers, not doers of the law (1:18-32). He then extends the net to include all those who aren’t yet convinced of that (2:1-5). For 2:6-16 to then be about the way of salvation for such sinners, without a clear transition or mention of Christ and His cross, is nonsensical.
5. Flow of thought (II): In the immediately preceding verses Paul piles up implication upon implication [“you have no excuse” (2:1), “the judgment of God rightly falls” (2:2), you will not escape judgment on the basis of the things you have done (2:3), stop presuming upon the kindness of God (2:4), you are storing up wrath for yourself (2:5)], all begging the question, “WHY?” Why don’t I have any excuse? Why will God’s judgment fall rightly on me? Etc. And so Paul gives the answer: Because “He will render to each one according to his works” (2:6f).
6. Terms of Contract (I): The requirement that a person seek for God’s glory “by patience in well-doing” (ESV) / “by patient continuance” (NKJV) / “by persistence” (NIV) is an essential part of the contract; and not fine print, but explicit (cf. Gal. 6:10; Jer. 18:7-10; Ezk. 33:12-20). Lifelong, continual, and perfect obedience is required. As Jonathan Edwards wrote, a ship crossing the Atlantic that only sinks once is still a sunken ship.
7. Terms of Contract (II): The alternative “but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth” describes all of us. This is not a “tipping point” contract either, but an “either/or.” A person is either a continual well-doer or someone who is self-seeking. Before the tribunal of God no one is both.
8. Scripture interpreting Scripture (I): 2:6-16 cannot (and would not) contradict 3:10ff. Certainly “there will be…glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good” (2:9-10), but Paul soon reminds us that “no one does good” (3:12).
9. Scripture interpreting Scripture (II): Similarly, 2:6-16 cannot and would not contradict 8:7-8. Certainly “the doers of the law…will be justified” (2:13), but Paul soon teaches that the sinner’s mind “does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
10. Logical implications (I): If 2:6-16 was teaching that there is “a future justification for the doers of the law,” then there would be an obvious advantage to being a Jew, and the question of 3:1 (“Then what advantage has the Jew?”) never would have come up.
11. Logical implications (II): Similarly, if Paul had been teaching in 2:6-16 that some were going to be judged righteous according to their (Christian, Spirit-given, by grace alone) works, the objection of 3:5 (“But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?”) never would have come up. No reasonable person would question God’s righteous character if some men were able to keep His law. It is precisely because NO NATURAL MAN can keep the covenant of works that the question arises, “Wait a minute, is God giving us fair rules here?”
12. Logical implications (III): The slanderous charge, “Paul’s gospel means that we should just do evil that good may come” (3:8) would never have crossed anyone’s mind if 2:6-11 was teaching that we must do good in order to receive good from God.
13. Paul’s recapitulation: In 3:9 Paul writes, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” Where else would he have made this charge, that all are under the power of sin, except 2:6-16, the most natural and nearest referent? Therefore, 2:6-16 is not and cannot be teaching that some (the “doers of the law”) are not under the power of sin! For all are under the power of sin, and Paul had already made that charge, in 2:6-16.
14. The show stopper: Romans 3:20 is the summary statement of this section of Paul’s argument. Notwithstanding all the erroneous and too-clever-by-half attempts to redefine “works of the law,” Romans 2:6-16 cannot be teaching the opposite. Romans 2:6-16 is not, does not, and cannot be teaching that some (mere) human beings will be justified in God’s sight by being doers of the law. It is not, does not, and cannot be teaching that believers receive eternal life according to their works. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.”
Believers do not “receive eternal life according to our works,” we receive eternal life according to Christ’s righteous works on our behalf, which righteousness is given “by His grace as a gift,” and “received by faith” (3:24-25).
Judgment Day does not include “a future justification for believers, the doers of the law.” Judgment Day includes a future acknowledgment and acquittal, openly before all mankind, of the already justified, the already acknowledged and acquitted, those who were not “doers of the law,” but who, by faith, received the righteous doing of the Law by Christ on their behalf.