Recent re-thinking about the doctrine of justification throws up a related question about the final judgment:-
Are we warranted to say that we are justified by faith, but are judged by works? The very idea seems to undermine the grace of God and to take away with one hand what has so freely been given with the other.
N.T. Wright on ‘Justification by Works’
‘Here [in Rom 2:1-16] is the first statement about justification in Romans, and lo and behold it affirms justification according to works! The doers of the law, he says, will be justified (Rom 2.13). Shock, horror; Paul cannot (so many have thought) have really meant it. So the passage has been treated as a hypothetical position which Paul then undermines by showing that nobody can actually achieve it; or, by Sanders for instance, as a piece of unassimilated Jewish preaching which Paul allows to stand even though it conflicts with other things he says. But all such theories are undermined by exegesis itself, not least by observing the many small but significant threads that stitch Romans 2 into the fabric of the letter as a whole. Paul means what he says. Granted, he redefines what doing the law really means; he does this in chapter 8, and again in chapter 10, with a codicil in chapter 13. But he makes the point most compactly in Php 1:6: he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus. The works in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in ones life as a result of the Spirits indwelling and operation. In this way, Rom 8:1-17 provides the real answer to Rom 2:1-16. Why is there now no condemnation? Because, on the one hand, God has condemned sin in the flesh of Christ (let no-one say, as some have done, that this theme is absent in my work; it was and remains central in my thinking and my spirituality); and, on the other hand, because the Spirit is at work to do, within believers, what the Law could not do ultimately, to give life, but a life that begins in the present with the putting to death of the deeds of the body and the obedient submission to the leading of the Spirit.’
(N.T. Wright, New Perspectives on Paul)
One of the aspects of Tom Wright’s perspective on Paul that has caused some raising of the eyebrows is his insistence that followers of Jesus will be judged according to their works (or as he would put it: on the basis of ‘the whole life lived’).
But if we are justified by grace through faith, and not by works (Eph 2:9), what place can there be for works at the final judgment?
I was interested to see this question discussed by Herman Ridderbos, in his Paul: an outline of his theology, pp178-181. By the way, the date of this work is 1975, so it is pre-Sanders, pre-New Perspective.
Ridderbos is clear that Paul ‘rejects every appeal to human works and elucidates the whole of justification as an act of God’s grace’, and asks how this can be compatible with ‘other pronouncements of his in which great emphasis is placed precisely on the fact that man is judged according to his works.’
Ridderbos quotes (as Wright often does) Rom 2:13 ‘For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous’. He notes (as Wright often does) that this is often taken as representing a hypothetical situation: no-one, in fact, can reach such a standard of law-obedience, and so all must find acquittal through the justifying grace of God in Christ, apart from law-keeping. But even if Rom 2:13 were referring to a hypothetical situation (as I am inclined to think), the idea of a great assize, at which we must all appear and at which our works will be taken into account, remains stubbornly pervasive in Paul’s teaching generally (2 Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10; Eph 6:8; Col 3:22-4:1).
Yes: for Paul, justification by faith and judgment according to works are twin truths that are ‘in no respect whatever in contradiction with one another’.
To be sure, Paul maintains a sharp distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ as grounds for justification. He rejects all notions of merit-based salvation. But in all other respects, faith and works belong together. Paul speaks of faith at work through love, Gal 5:6, and of ‘the work of faith’, 1 Thess 1:3; cf 2 Thess 1:3.
For just as absolutely as faith is involved in justification by the grace of God and by nothing else, even so work emanates from this same faith; as faith it cannot remain empty and work-less, but becomes known as faith precisely in works…Works are indispensible as the demonstration of the true nature of faith and as the evidence of having died and been raised together with Christ.
And these very works are acceptable before God because they are empowered and impelled by the indwelling Christ, (Eph 2:8-10, ‘Created in Christ Jesus for good works’).
Works as evidence, not meritorious ground
One strand of teaching that many find in Scripture is the idea that although our works cannot form the meritorious ground of our acceptance with God, they will be provide the evidence that our faith has been genuine:-
Stephen Travis, for example, writes that ‘Judgment will be ‘according to works’ (Mt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 22:12). This does not conflict with justification by grace through faith. Although justification is a gift of God’s free grace, it involves the obligation to work out our new status in practice. Thus, at the final judgment, a person’s works will be the evidence of whether a living faith is present in him or not. It is not a question of earning salvation by good works: works are the evidence of the reality of the faith through which we are saved.’ (New Dictionary of Theology)
Union with Christ
Bruce Milne writes: ‘[Our] relationship to the perfect character and works of Christ is not merely judicial. We are not simply declared to be righteous. Our union with Christ implies a real incorporation into his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1ff.; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:5f.; Col. 2:20; 3:1f.). Hence the character of Christ will inevitably be reproduced in a measure in the lives of his people. This is the insistence of James (cf. 2:18ff.). Faith without works is spurious because there is no such thing as a faith in Christ which does not incorporate us into union with him in his whole redeeming mission, including his death and resurrection, with all the radical implications of that for subsequent moral character. Putting this point more technically, justification which does not lead to sanctification is shown to have been no justification at all. In the words of a Puritan writer we must ‘prove our pedigree by daring to be holy’ (W. Gurnall). Cf. Rom. 6:1f.; Heb. 2:10f.; 1 Jn. 3:5f. Of course the Christian will remain a sinner to the end as far as his moral practice is concerned. Indeed it is only ‘in Christ’ that he begins to see sin in its true proportion and discover the depth of his moral depravity (1 Jn. 1:8-2:1f.). Yet alongside this he is ‘being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another’ (2 Cor. 3:18). Thus if a person is truly reborn by the Spirit (Jn. 3:1ff.) the scrutiny of God will certainly uncover evidences of this in their ‘works’. But these works are the direct fruit of the Christian’s having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. They are in no sense a human ground of self-justification, but are simply elements of God’s gift and grace towards us in Jesus Christ.’ (New Bible Dictionary, art. ‘Judgment’)
No contradiction between faith and works
John Stott is, as usual, lucid and forthright on this point:-
‘The whole New Testament teaches this; although we sinners can be ‘justified’ only by faith in Christ, yet we shall be ‘judged’ by our works. This is not a contradiction. It is because good works of love are the only available public evidence of our faith. Our faith in Jesus Christ is secret, hidden in our hearts. But if it is genuine, it will manifest itself visibly in good works. As James put it, ‘I will show you my faith by what I do…faith without deeds is useless.’ (James 2:18,20). Since the judgment day will be a public occasion, it will be necessary for public evidence to be produced, namely the outworking of our faith in compassionate action. Jesus himself taught this many times. For example: ‘The Son of man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done’ (Mt 16:27). It is not our salvation, but our judgment, which will be according to our works.’ (Life in Christ, p327, quoted in Authentic Christianity, p186f)
Thomas Manton (1620-1677) dealt with this subject in a series of sermons on 2 Corinthians 5:10 – ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.’
The proposition he draws from this verse is that ‘there will certainly come a day when every person that ever lived shall be judged by Christ according to his works.’
Manton develops his theme in the following way:-
1. The necessity of the final judgment
Manton bases the necessity of the final judgment on God’s righteous character, his providence, the light of conscience, and the mediatorial work of Christ.
There will be a final judgment so that God’s grace, known in part now, may be fully displayed and glorified in his people (1 Pet 1:13), as he welcomes them into his presence and his palace, Jn 12:26; Mt 25:34; and so that the wicked and impentient may be finally convinced of their guilt, and be tried according to God’s standard of righteousness, Rom 3:20.
In the final judgment, God will not only render to everyone according to their works, but also rectify the inequities in the present age between the sufferings of the righteous and the comfort and ease of the wicked.
God’s righteous nature demands a final judgment. His providence also demands it: temporal judgments, such as the flood and the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, warn of future judgment.
Conscience demands a final judgment: even unbelievers are aware that their sins merit death, Rom 1:32; Acts 24:25.
Believers know that the final judgment is certain because God’s word teaches it, Mt 12:36f; 13:49f; Jn 5:28f; Heb 9:27; Rom 14:12; Rev 20:12.
Christ himself has a fourfold interest in the final judgment: so that he who once came in humiliation and was condemned may come again and be vindicated as Judge; that he may possess what he has purchased; that he may receive his Sheep into his presence, and finally and publicly triumph over his enemies; and that he may enquire what his servant have done with their talents, Mt 25 and what his church has done with the ordinances that have been given to her.
2. The universality of the judgment
The ‘all’ in 2 Cor 5:10 includes, for Manton, everyone, without exception. It includes young and old, those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return and those who had died, good and the bad, believers and unbelievers, rich and poor, church officers and lay people. The judgment will include every person who has ever lived.
3. The Judge of the living and the dead
It is Christ, the God-man, who will be Judge. As God he is the offended party; it is his law that has been broken, his glory that has been denied. As Saviour, he has the right judge both those who accept his offer of grace and those who reject it. As mediator, he has been ordained to judge on behalf of the Godhead.
It is Christ who possesses the necessary wisdom (to weigh the evidence and know what is right and wrong), justice (to pronounce a fair and unbiased sentence), power (to compel persons to stand at his bar and to impose punishment on the wicked and grant rewards to the righteous) and authority (sanction from God the Father to fulfil this role).
As a judge, Christ will be a terror to those who have despised God’s kingdom, Lk 19:27; refused God’s grace, Ps 81:11; despised God’s benefits, Heb 2:3; abused God’s grace and turned to wickedness, Jude 1:4; broken God’s commandments, Jn 15:10; dismissed God’s promises, 2 Pet 3-4; and perverted God’s ordinances, Mt 24:48-51.
Christ as judge will be a comfort to those who have believed his teaching, Jn 11:25; loved him, Eph 6:24; 1 Cor 16:22; fought against Christ’s enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil, Rev 3:21; and obeyed his commands, 1 Jn 2:28. For believers, there is comfort in knowing that their Judge not only their friend, brother, and high priest, but also the one who died for their sins. When he comes, he will take them to mansions he has prepared for them in heaven.
4. The manner of judging
The Gk phanerothenai means ‘to appear’, ‘to be made manifest’. The words ‘we must all appear’ imply the wisdom and justice of the judge, the power and impartiality of Christ’s angels, the summons to appear, and the ends of the judgment.
Nothing can be hidden from Christ, Heb 4:14. God has a perfect knowledge of each person’s works, Psa 69:5; Jer 17:10.
Much of the work of judgment will be delegated to God’s angels, Mt 24:31. They will bring the righteous and unrighteous out of their graves and escort them to their respective eternal dwellings, Mt 13:39-41, 49-50.
There will be a visible appearance of Christ and those who are to be judged. No-one shall be judged in absentia. Everyone must give an account before God, Rom 14:12, but the wicked will have no defence, Psa 130:3.
We shall not only ‘appear’, but our works, 1 Cor 3:13, and the deepest secrets of our hearts will be ‘made manifest’, Lk 12:2; 1 Cor 4:5. The innocence of the righteous, and the sin of the wicked, may lie confused at the present time, but they shall be ‘made manifest’: hypocrisy disclosed and sincerity rewarded. On the last day shall be opened the book of Scripture, as the rule, the book of conscience, as a witness, and the book of God’s remembrance, as the notice (Cf. Rev 20:12).
Sinners will be convicted by their own consciences, cf. Lk 19:22. ‘God can make all occur to memory as fresh as if newly committed, and in an instant the story of an ill-spent life.’ Moroever, the wicked will accuse one another, the words of Adam and Eve against one another (Gen 3:12f) serving as a ‘notable presignification’ of this aspect of the general judgment. The godly, too, will play and active role in judgment, Heb 11:7; 1 Cor 6:2. Finally, the circumstances of unbeliever’s wickedess with testify against them, Hab 2, showing their greed, selfishness, and so on.
5. Judgment according to works
Christ’s judgment will be according to the works we have done ‘in the body’, be they good or bad, Mt 16:27; Rev 20:12.
The purposes of this judgement are, firstly, to manifest the glory of God in his holiness (God showing that he delights in holiness, and detests wickedness); in his justice (which demands that each person must reap what he has sown, Acts 17:31; 2 Thess 1:6f, was first declared in the covenant of works, and which is no applied to believers through the covenant of faith); in his faithfulness to his covenant (for it is at the final judgment that he will make good his promise of life to those who believe); and in his love and mercy (for, by the canons of strict justice, we all would perish, and it is only by grace that even our best works, tainted as they are, could rewarded, rather than punished).
The second purpose of this judgment is to convince everyone that their sentence is just. Believers, as opposed to unbelievers, are under a double law – the law of nature and the law of grace. Christ will examine the sincerity of their repentance, and this will be seen in their works. There is, accordingly, a double justification: one declarative, the other demonstrative, or evidential.
In considering the works of believers and unbelievers, the key issue is the heart. Good works spring from grace, and therefore have the nature, not of outward conformity, but inward sincerity. The works of the unregenerate do not please the Lord, because they spring from an unbelieving, rebellious heart.
Christ will not consider just individual thoughts, words and actions, but the whole course of a person’s life. There will be no ‘ledger’, show whether the good works outnumber or outwiegh the evil works. Rather, a good man will spend all his days seekings to be filled with the fruits of righteousness. And in this, the aim is as important as the action.
Sin deserves punishment. Good works, on the other hand, do not merit reward, because, as God’s creatures, we are obliged to love and obey him. But, in the covenant of grace, good works do have a relation to reward. Good works enable us to be more capable objects of God’s delight and approbation, more capable of the rewards themselves, they are the evidence of saving faith, and are therefore the measure of the rewards each believers will receive, 2 Cor 9:6.
6. What awaits each person
On the day of judgment, a distinction and a separation will be made between the sheep and the goats, the righteous and the unrighteous. This distinction will last for ever. Some will eternal torment in hell, the others, eternal joy and comfort in heaven. The impenitent are banished from God’s presence, deprived of his favour, and of all the joys and benefits that the righteous enjoy. The unrighteous do not care to know God in this life, and they allow the things of this world to divert their attention. In hell they will have nothing to divert their attention from their great loss. But their punishment consists not only is a sense of loss, but also in a sense of pain, as they experience the fire of God’s wrath.
Both the joy of the blessed and the punishment of the wicked are eternal. Hell will be a place of utter and unending misery. If it be asked how temporal sins could deserve everlasting punishment, then it is answered: that God has every right to determine the nature and extent of both rewards and punishments, that it is a good and wise incentive that the rewards and punishments to come should be greater than present joys and pains, and that in in human affairs, a punishment may last far longer than the offence. Sin is committed against an infinite God, and the punishment must suit not only the sin but the one sinned against. Sin is potentially everlasting: sinners would sin everlastingly if they could.
God’s sentence is irrevocable. In the present age, God may revoke his judgment and show mercy, Jer 8:7. But, at the final judgment, there will be no escape.
The sentencing will begin with the godly; for they will judge the world with Christ and his angels, 1 Cor 6:2. Execution, however, with begin with the unrighteous: the godly will look on their punishment and ‘have a deeper sense of their own happiness, by seeing from what wrath they are delivered.’
We rightly treasure the doctrine of justification by faith alone. There is a justification in this life, which declares us right before God and accepted by him. But there is also an evidential justification, which is based on an examination of the sincerity of our faith, as evidenced by our good works. Both, in reformed thinking, are attributable to the grace of God, by which righteousness is first imputed, and then imparted.
Based on A Puritan Theology, Beeke & Jones, 789-802