6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; …
10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.
(Rom 2:6-7,10 ESV)
At first glance, what Paul says in Romans 2:7 (and 2:10) seems to be that you can earn your salvation by good works. The big problem with that, is that he categorically contradicts that idea elsewhere (for example, Rom 3:20 which states that no one can be righteous before God by the works of the law). So what exactly does he mean?
Naturally, some are willing to suggest that Paul has indeed contradicted himself, but this seems like a colossal blunder to attribute to someone who is such a coherent thinker.
An alternative approach, is to assume that Paul is speaking hypothetically here. That is, “Eternal life would be given if one did good works and kept the law perfectly, but no one does the requisite good works, and thus all deserve judgment”. In many ways, this is a good solution, since it harmonizes well with what Paul says later in chapter 3, while still fitting in with the overall argument of 2:6-11.
However, Schreiner has come up with an alternative and intriguing suggestion:
Paul elsewhere teaches that works are necessary to enter the kingdom of God (cf,. 1 Cor 6:9-11; 2 Cor 5:10; Gal 5:21). Since Paul asserts that works are necessary for salvation and also that one cannot be justified by works of the law, it is probably that he did not see these two themes as contradictory.
He thus concludes:
in verses 7 and 10 Paul is speaking of Christians who keep the law by the power of the Holy Spirit
Apparently he defends this view further in his commentary on 2:25-29, which I haven’t got to yet. In many ways, this idea is connected with his take on “the righteousness of God”, being both “forensic” (it is a declaration) and “transformative” (it actually changes us). Here again we see a synthesis between the two potentially competing concerns of salvation entirely based on grace not works, and a strong expectation that those who receive that salvation will indeed experience a transformation of behaviour.