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)