There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
The NIV heading for Romans 2:1-16, “God’s Righteous Judgment” is a good summary of what this section is getting at in terms of the judgment to come. It’s future, after this life. God will, so to speak look back on our lives and judge us, judge all human beings according to our works. See the rest of Scripture to verify this.
This is called a justification of works, and you can see that clearly in the overall passage (click the link above). In the final judgment we’re judged by what we do and fail to do, by our works, essentially it seems, our lives. In this life we’re not justified by works, but by faith. Romans 3:21-5:11 unmistakably and clearly lays that out.
So we’re in the clear not at all by our works, by by faith in Christ, and God’s finished work in him. At the same time, just as James points out we are saved by a faith that works. You can see that in Paul’s writings too. So works do matter in this life, an indication of whether or not we have justifying faith. But we must beware of getting the cart before the horse. The only way we can do the good works is through faith.
But now to the passage quoted above. After knowing the context, it’s good to dwell on parts. It’s actually a shame not to consider the whole. Again, you can click the link above, and better yet start right from the beginning of the book. But the trouble and distress mentioned here is in terms of final judgment. As well as the glory, honor and peace. What we do now along with our experience will be carried over into the next life. If we choose to live apart from God now, we’ll be apart from God and all the goodness that comes from God then. If we choose to live under God’s judgment in the curse now, we’ll experience that later. But if accept God’s offer of salvation through faith in Christ and his death and resurrection, we will receive forgiveness of sins and new life. And we’ll begin to live new lives filled with good works, thoughtful, repentant lives, making our wrongs right along the way.
Where we’re headed now is where we’ll end up being when it’s all said and done. If we’re headed in a direction contrary to God, then we need to stop in our tracks, and head the opposite way in and through Jesus.