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.