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In debates about the doctrine of justification, one of the oft-disputed issues pertains to the relationship between justification and a final judgment according to works. If justification is a definitive verdict in which God declares that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1, emphasis added), what must we make of Scripture’s teaching that believers are subject to a final judgment at the last day? The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches that the righteous will be “openly acknowledged and acquitted” in the day of judgment (Q&A 90). Does this final acquittal of believers require a distinction between two stages in justification: an initial justification that is based on the righteousness of Christ alone and a future justification that is based at least in part on good works? And if such a distinction between two stages in the justification of believers is required, how can we avoid the conclusion that the present justification of believers is suspended on a future event in which God’s justifying verdict depends on works?
Since the sixteenth-century Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church has taught that the “process of justification” includes several stages. Justification commences at baptism (“first” justification), and it is subsequently increased through the believer’s cooperation with God’s grace imparted through the sacraments (“second” justification). However, justification is only completed at the final judgment after a period of purification in purgatory (“final” justification). In the Roman Catholic view, believers are always liable to the loss of justification through the commission of mortal sin. For those whose justification is “shipwrecked” through mortal sin, the only remedy for restoration to a state of grace lies in the sacrament of penance. Only by way of exception do “saints,” who are perfected in holiness in this life, “merit” upon death the blessedness of being in God’s presence without further purification in purgatory. To support this teaching, frequent appeal is made to the Bible’s teaching regarding a future judgment according to works.
Remarkably, in recent discussions of justification and a final judgment according to works, a number of Protestant theologians have proposed similar distinctions between different stages of justification—past, present, and future. Among proponents of a “new perspective on Paul,” believers “get into” the covenant community by grace but “stay in” and are ultimately vindicated by their works. N.T. Wright, for example, appeals to the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:14–16 to say that our “future justification” will be on the basis of a lifetime of faithfulness. Others compromise the biblical teaching of justification by faith alone when they insist that the works that faith produces are in some sense instrumental to a Christian’s justification. Rather than viewing faith as a strictly receptive act, which rests in Christ’s righteousness alone for justification, they insist that the “obedience of faith” (“faithfulness”) is the way our justification is received. Accordingly, the justification pronounced in the final judgment will be granted only to those who have maintained their justification by persevering in obedience.
justification: a definitive and eschatological verdict
Before considering some New Testament passages that speak of a final judgment according to works, we need to pause and ask, What is at stake in the claim that the final judgment involves a future justification that is based on the works—whether meritorious or nonmeritorious—of the person justified?
The short answer to the question is—everything. If the justification of believers is ultimately based on a future justification by works, then believers can never be assured that they are definitively and irrevocably right with God. If the righteousness of Christ is not the exclusive ground for our acceptance with God, now and always, then believers cannot be confident regarding their inheritance of eternal life in Christ. The prospect of a future justification (or condemnation) on the basis of works radically undermines any sure persuasion of God’s continued favor toward us. Viewing the final judgment as a final stage in the believer’s justification amounts to saying that believers will ultimately be justified by grace plus works. The obvious problem with these views of the final judgment and justification is that they compromise the definitive, eschatological (pertaining to the last things) character of justification.
Rather than viewing the final judgment as a final chapter in our justification, the Westminster Larger Catechism describes it properly as an open acquittal and acknowledgment. This language does not speak of a justifying verdict that ultimately determines who is right with God. It does not suggest that the believer’s present assurance of God’s favor in Christ is merely provisional, not yet secure or certain. No, the final judgment openly manifests what is already known to believers by faith: the Judge, Jesus Christ, who acquits them in the final judgment has already been judged in their place and is their righteousness before God. Just as the resurrection of Christ confirmed the sufficiency and perfection of His atoning sacrifice for sin, so the open acquittal of believers in the final judgment will publicly confirm their free justification by faith in Christ alone (Rom. 4:25).
But that is not all that the final judgment will disclose. The final judgment also includes an open acknowledgment of those whose faith in Christ was not a dead or work-less faith, unaccompanied by those good works that true faith produces (see James 2:14–26). On the day of judgment, the open acknowledgment of believers includes granting them rewards according to or in proportion to their good works (see Matt. 25:21, 23; 1 Cor. 3:10–15; 2 Tim. 4:8). Though this reward will be granted by grace and not according to merit, it will be a reward that displays God’s acknowledgment of what believers have done in grateful service to Him (Heb. 6:10). In acknowledging believers’ works, God will add grace to grace—accepting, acknowledging, and rewarding believers for those good works that He Himself prepared beforehand for them to walk in (Eph. 2:10).
two illustrative passages on a final judgment “according to works”
There are many passages in the New Testament that speak of a final judgment of believers that will be according to works (e.g., Matt. 12:36; 16:27; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 20:11–15). While these passages affirm that God will reward believers for their works, they never suggest that the works of believers are the ground for their justification before God (see Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:16). Though God will reward the imperfect works of believers, this reward depends on the more fundamental truth that believers are already acceptable to Him on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. To put the matter differently, the reward granted is not the “free gift of eternal life” (Rom. 6:13) but a gracious acknowledgment of the way that the lives of believers were in step with the working of the Spirit of Christ in them. These works confirm Scripture’s teaching that, even as faith alone justifies, faith is never alone in those whom God justifies and whom He also sanctifies.
Among the passages that speak of a final judgment according to works, two are particularly instructive: (1) the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31–46, and (2) the Apostle Paul’s teaching regarding God’s righteous judgment in Romans 2:1–16.
Matthew 25:31–46: The Sheep and the Goats. In the first of these passages, Matthew 25:31–46, Jesus provides a striking picture of the final judgment that will take place when the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the nations and peoples are gathered before Him.
In the language of parable, Jesus compares the final judgment to a shepherd or king who gathers his flock and separates the sheep from the goats, placing the sheep on his right and the goats on the left. Then the king says to the sheep on his right:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matt. 25:34–36)
In His description of the sheep’s response to the king’s words, Jesus represents the sheep as surprised, even bewildered, at the king’s pronouncement of blessing on them. And so they query the king about when they did these things to him—when did they give him food and drink, clothe and visit him, welcome him as a stranger, and so on? In his answer to their query, the king declares that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40).
After portraying the king’s treatment of the sheep on his right, Jesus turns to his treatment of the goats on the left. Rather than blessing the goats, the king pronounces a curse on them and bids them to depart from him “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41; see v. 46). He then describes the conduct of the goats as the polar opposite of the sheep. Unlike the sheep, the king declares that the goats did not come to his aid when they failed to show kindness and mercy to those who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger, or naked. To this depiction of their failure, the goats also respond with surprise. They protest that they had no recollection of their failure to treat the king with love and kindness when they failed to provide for the needs of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, and the prisoner.
In this remarkable depiction of the final judgment, several themes are clearly present. When the Son of Man comes, He will judge all nations and peoples, the righteous and the wicked. No one will be exempt from judgment, and this judgment will reveal the difference between those who have given evidence of their faith in Christ by living in accordance with His teaching and those who have not done so. In the case of the righteous, Christ will openly acknowledge and commend them for all the ways that they demonstrated their commitment to Him by showing compassion toward “the least of these my brothers” (v. 40). In the case of the wicked, Christ will condemn them for their failure to do likewise. The righteousness of Christ’s judgment and separation between the sheep and the goats will be openly displayed for all to see.
Even though the final judgment rewards the sheep and the goats according to their works, several features of Jesus’ teaching in this passage clearly militate against the idea that He meant to treat a doctrine of salvation by works. First, before saying anything about the good deeds of the sheep, Jesus notes that their inheritance of the kingdom was “prepared [for them] from the foundation of the world” (v. 34). This language is reminiscent of Jesus’ earlier description of His disciples as God’s “elect” (24:22, 24). It is also consistent with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew that those who enter the kingdom do so by God’s grace and forgiveness, not by their own merits or accomplishments (5:3; 6:12; 18:23–35; 19:25). Second, the principal difference between the sheep and the goats lies in their relationship to Jesus. By showing love and kindness to the least of Jesus’ brothers, the sheep demonstrated their love for Him. And third, the sheep’s surprise, even forgetfulness, regarding their service to Jesus’ brothers confirms that their deeds were gladly and gratefully performed. In no sense were these deeds motivated by a desire for reward or by the fear that failure to do them would lead to their condemnation in the final judgment. The sheep’s deeds simply confirmed their confession of Jesus’ lordship (see 7:25).
Romans 2:1–16: To Each One according to His Works. The second passage, Romans 2:1–16, offers one of the clearest statements in Scripture regarding a final judgment according to works. In this passage, the Apostle Paul affirms that all human beings, Jews and gentiles alike, will be subject to God’s judgment. God “will render to each one according to his works” (2:6). The criterion of this judgment will differ in the case of the Jews, who were given the law, and of the gentiles, who were not given the law, but on whose hearts the work of the law was written (vv. 14–15). Though the standard of God’s judgment will be commensurate with what God has made known to Jews and gentiles regarding the law and the gospel, no one will be exempt. The final judgment will reveal that “it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (v. 13). In the case of those who are condemned, the justice of God will be manifest for all to see.
Though some interpreters of this passage claim that it teaches a final justification of believers on the basis of works, it is critical to note that Paul speaks of a judgment according to but not on account of good works. To conclude from this passage that Paul views the final judgment as an act of justification on the basis of works would be to contradict entirely what Paul teaches about justification elsewhere in Romans. Within the setting of the argument in Romans 1–3, it may be that Paul is speaking hypothetically, as John Calvin and many other Reformed exegetes have argued. Since no one is able to do what the law requires (see Rom. 3:9–19), no one will be justified on the basis of works. However, even if Paul is interpreted to speak of what is actually the case, this would not compromise his teaching that justification is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. On this interpretation, Paul may simply be teaching that only those whose faith is “working through love” (Gal. 5:6) will be justified, even though their works are imperfect and contribute nothing to their justification. Because those who are justified by faith alone are also sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, the final judgment will confirm that the justified were not saved by a faith devoid of any fruits.
When the relationship between justification and a final judgment according to works is properly construed, two conclusions follow. First, the prospect of the final judgment need not imperil a believer’s confidence that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. In the day of judgment, believers who trust in Christ alone as their righteousness before God will be openly acquitted. Their faith in Christ will be vindicated. And second, the open acknowledgement and reward of the good works of believers will serve to evidence the genuineness of their faith. Because true faith is always accompanied by its fruits, believers derive encouragement from the prospect that their good works will be noticed, even rewarded, in the final judgment. Indeed, for such believers, it will be a day of rejoicing, when their Master says to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:22–23).