The role of works in the final judgment is the big kahuna of theology. The topic divided the Protestant Reformers from the Roman Catholics in the 1500’s. Up till today in theological discussions people will espouse very strong positions and argue a person’s salvation depends on how they understand it.
So I decided to read a few books on it and come to a better understanding of what the scriptures say on judgment according to works and its relationship to salvation.
- Link: Amazon
- Length: 213
- Difficulty: Medium
- Topic: Theology, Final Judgment
- Audience: Mainstream Christians
- Published: 2013
I’ve found out there are a large number of interrelated concepts, passages and verses which impact on the topic. See this chart. Consequently the topic is quite complex and many elements need to be held in balance.
The editor of the book is Alan Stanley, author of ‘Salvation is More Complicated than you think, A study in the teachings of Jesus’. He says in the introduction:
“This book comes, then, on the heels of these debates, and I hope will serve to make this subject more accessible to the wider church public. The four essays that follow will show that there are indeed things for us to consider that perhaps many of us have not. While there are many scholars that could serve these views well, the four are leading proponents.” (23)
This post is one of my book reviews.
Contents – Overview
- Introduction: Alan P. Stanley
- 1. Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment, by Robert N. Wilkin
- Thomas R. Schreiner
- James D. G. Dunn
- Michael P. Barber
- 2. Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification, by Thomas R. Schreiner
- Robert N. Wilkin
- James D. G. Dunn
- Michael P. Barber
- 3. If paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us? by James D. G. Dunn
- Robert N. Wilkin
- Thomas R. Schreiner
- Michael P. Barber
- 4. A catholic perspective: our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with christ by grace, by Michael P. Barber
- Robert N. Wilkin
- Thomas R. Schreiner
- James D. G. Dunn
- The puzzle of salvation by grace and judgment by works: alan p. Stanley
- Scripture index
At the end of his introduction Stanley gives a description of each of the contributors. I’ve put these descriptions at the start of each of their sections.
Bob Wilkin – Christians Will Be Judged According To Their Works At The Rewards Judgment, But Not At The Final Judgment
Wilkin is my least favourite. His position strongly favours the gospel according to John. He denies Christians are judged by leaning heavily on Jn 5.24. He denies Christians need to persevere. He distinguishes between the judgement which leads to eternal life or damnation and the judgement which determines a person’s reward. In my opinion he uses a few verses to base his entire argument, sometimes in opposition to other scriptures.
The Perseverance-Free Promises in John’s Gospel
… John 3:16, for example, concerns “whoever believes in Him,” not “whoever perseveres in Him.” Clearly the one who simply believes in Jesus has eternal life. The New Testament is united on this point.
Not once in John does Jesus ever say that one must persevere in order to obtain or retain eternal life. Rather, He promises eternal security the moment one believes. Once a person drinks the water of life—believes in Jesus—he or she “will never thirst” (John 4:14; 6:35). No perseverance is required. Even the Samaritan woman understood Jesus to mean that a one-time drink would forever quench her thirst (4:15). The one who eats the bread of life—another figure for faith in Christ—“shall never hunger” (6:35). It’s a simple point: perseverance in faith or works is excluded by such promises.
We find no statement from Jesus declaring that a believer must persevere to retain eternal life or show evidence of it. (27-28)
Wilkin also denies there is a relationship between faith and works.
Many would agree that there is a necessary connection between believing in Jesus and obeying His commandments. I would not. Before the judgment begins, the Son of Man will separate the sheep from the goats. He already knows which is which. (38)
Despite strong agreement that works are not a condition for salvation, Schreiner had some really strong remarks against Wilkin’s argument.
Extraordinary presuppositions. Now I come to the fundamental and most serious problem with Wilkin’s essay: he forces every text to fit his paradigm. All of us, of course, bring our theology to the text. None of us, if we’re honest, are free from presuppositions. There is no neutral reading of the text. Nevertheless, there would be no point in doing exegesis if our preconceptions could not be altered. We must be willing to listen to the text and ask ourselves if we have adopted a system that is alien to the scriptural text. (53) …
Hence, the main problem with Wilkin’s essay surfaces again. Yes, we all have presuppositions. We all interpret texts in light of other texts. Scripture interprets Scripture, and so it is fitting to consider other texts in interpreting any particular passage of Scripture.
Nevertheless, there comes a point where a doctrine needs to be revised because other texts speak so clearly against the doctrinal formulation. I would suggest that Galatians 6:8 is such a text (and it isn’t a rare exception!). Those who do not sow to the Spirit will experience eschatological corruption. To put it another way: they will go to hell. Wilkin rejects this reading, claiming that eternal life can’t mean inhabiting the kingdom since that would contradict other texts.
I ask again: What could ever convince Wilkin and those who support him that they are wrong? If the text says good works are necessary for eternal life, then (according to Wilkin) the eternal life is different from the eternal life that brings salvation. His reading is unfalsifiable. He has already decided that works aren’t necessary for eternal life, so if the text says that works bring eternal life, then we have a different kind of eternal life. I truly hope I am not being unkind, but this seems like a can’t-lose proposition. No evidence could ever be adduced that would prove the contrary. For even if the Bible were to say, “Good works are necessary for eternal life and to escape hell,” it seems that Wilkin would say, “Eternal life and hell have a different meaning here.”…
The necessity of works for final salvation is ruled out dogmatically and presuppositionally from the outset. (55)
Schreiner’s response is a great example of how the scripture should continually call into question our existing understandings. We should improve our understanding in light of what the scripture says. I felt at times Schreiner falls victim to his own unfalsifiable presuppositions.
Tom Schreiner – Justification Apart From And By Works: At The Final Judgment Works Will Confirm Justification
Second is Tom Schreiner, one of the world’s leading New Testament Pauline scholars. Having written often on faith’s relationship to works, Paul and the law, not to mention commentaries on Romans and Galatians, it is difficult to think of anyone more qualified to represent the second view. (24)
Schreiner is second best in my opinion. He starts off giving his definition of key terms. Justification and Salvation.
Justification and salvation don’t mean the same thing, of course, but they are closely related. Though space is lacking to defend the definitions offered here,
I define justification as being acquitted before the divine judge. Those who are justified are declared to be “not guilty” before God. In addition, justification is understood in this essay to be an eschatological reality. Hence, the verdict of “not guilty,” which believers receive now by faith, is confirmed at the final judgment before the whole world.
Salvation, by contrast, means that one has been rescued or delivered; here the focus is on being rescued from God’s wrath or punishment on the last day.
I have attempted to show elsewhere that justification is a soteriological term, and thus justification and salvation both address the question of the human being’s standing before God on the day of judgment, whether one stands in the right before him or is saved, or whether one is condemned before him or destroyed. (71-72)
I find his definition of justification quite limited. The term is applied in contexts talking about the covenant, ethics and sacrifice in addition to lawcourt. Justification is not a declaration as if to say God has to communicate something by speech or in writing in order to justify a person.
I’ve written elsewhere that justification denotes one of two things:
- An event where a sinner is made righteous in God’s sight by a certain means, or
- An event where a righteous person is identified or proven to be righteous by a certain means.
This first soteriological understanding leads to the second ecclesiological understanding. That being said I have no problem with his definition of salvation having written a word study on it.
The structure of the essay is as follows. First, I examine the texts in Paul that teach that justification or salvation cannot be obtained by works. Second, I move to texts where works are said to be necessary for justification or salvation. …
I propose here a solution to the dilemma posed in the teaching of both Paul and James and New Testament writings, arguing that works are necessary for justification, but they should not be considered the basis or foundation of justification. Instead, they constitute the necessary evidence or fruit of justification. (73)
The words Schreiner uses are really important to his argument and distinguishing between justification by faith and judgment according to works:
- justification by faith: ‘basis’, ‘foundation’, ‘ground’
- judgment according to works: ‘necessary’.
His basic position is that both have their place. He leans strongly on justification by faith texts assuming they relate to the final judgment and salvation. He gives them the most weight in his argument.
He then walks through the according to works passages and says they are ‘necessary evidence’ following from justification. This is the classic reformed position. No surprises here.
On eight occasions in his letters Paul teaches that justification or the reception of the Spirit is not obtained through works of law. Three times in Galatians 2:16 he affirms that human beings are not justified by works of law but only through faith in Jesus Christ.
The importance of this verse can scarcely be exaggerated, for it occurs in the part of the Galatian letter that Betz calls the propositio, representing the thesis of the letter. Boundary markers (i.e., observing that part of the law that particularly set Israel apart from the other nations: e.g., Sabbath, circumcision, purity regulations) are the impetus for Paul’s declaration since Peter was in effect compelling Gentiles to abide by the food laws in order to belong to the people of God (2:11–14).
Furthermore, the burning issue in Galatians is whether circumcision is mandatory for salvation (cf. 2:3–5; 5:2–6; 5:11–12; 6:12, 13, 15). Hence, the new perspective rightly sees that the inclusion of Gentiles is a major concern in Pauline theology. Nevertheless, the debate in Galatians is not restricted to boundary markers since “works of law” encompass the whole law. (73)
I disagree with his definition of ‘works of law’ following the New Perspective and the early church. They do not encompass the whole law of Moses. I’ve written the counter to this Galatians argument several times. Among other arguments of mine, I fail to see how the prohibitions against idolatry, stealing and adultery in the law of Moses could be thought of as works or deeds.
Justification cannot be gained by works of law, for the law demands perfect obedience to stand in the right before God. Galatians 3:10 is clear here. One must abide by everything in the law to be justified if one opts for circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic law. …
Those who place themselves under the law and rely on circumcision for salvation cut themselves off from Christ (5:2–4), and hence their only recourse is to keep the entire law for salvation (5:3). But no one can keep the law perfectly, and thus turning to the law is a vain and hopeless endeavor. (73-74)
I also disagree with him here. Nowhere in the scriptures is perfect obedience stated as the requirement to stand in the right before God. God commanded his people to keep the law, to keep his commandments. This entails an imperfect practice of all God’s commands and we can see this because scripture says some did keep God’s commands and stood before him righteous (e.g. Lk 1.5-6). I believe this is because Jesus has enabled them to (Rom 14.4).
After discussing Rom 5.9-10; Eph 2.8-9; Tit 3.3-7; 2 Tim 1.9-11 Schreiner writes;
When we consider the role of works in final justification, we must begin where Paul does. Human beings cannot be justified or saved on the basis of their works, for they are sinners and fail to meet God’s standard. They need to be rescued, redeemed, and reconciled. They need to be justified and saved. They need to be cleansed and washed to be adopted into God’s family. Justification must be apart from works, for human beings do not and cannot do what God demands. (78)
I cannot agree with his interpretation of these passages. Each of them refer retrospectively to past events in the believers life. See the diagram below for example.
Schreiner simply assumes they speak about the final judgment. Using the term ‘human beings’ he lumps Saints in with Sinners assuming we all need to be rescued, redeemed, justified, reconciled and saved. He does not acknowledge these have already been accomplished by God in the case of believers. It’s with these benefits already given is the believer urged to pursue holiness in order approach the final judgment (e.g. 1 Pet 1.16-18).
James Dunn – If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?
The third contributor is James Dunn, a leading British New Testament scholar and widely known for his work on Jesus and Paul. As the one who coined the term “New Perspective,” he too is particularly suited to represent the third view. (24)
I liked Dunn the most. Dunn’s position is very close to Schreiner’s. I’ll draw out the main points below. But he doesn’t end up saying works are necessary evidence as Schreiner argues.
He is one of the main players in the New Perspective so its always good to see what he says about justification.
Paul takes his start from the fact that God gave his promise to Abraham without precondition, made his covenant with Abraham when he was ungodly.
For Paul, Genesis 15:6 made clear the character and terms of God’s justification: “Abraham believed God (God’s promise) and it was reckoned to him for righteousness”; he was acquitted before God, treated as righteous by God.
So this initial act of righteousing/right-wising the ungodly, this definitive act of justifying the sinner, was an act of pure grace.
Not only so, but God remained faithful to the descendants of Abraham embraced by his promise, even when they proved faithless (Rom. 3:3–6), so that the righteousness of God to Israel was displayed as saving righteousness, vindicating righteousness. … So God’s acceptance/justification of the sinner lies at the heart of Paul’s gospel, not as a corrective of Israel’s salvation history but as an extension and further application of it. (123)
I disagree with him here when he says ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Rom 4.5) applies to Abraham in Gen 15.6. I follow NT Wright instead applying that to the promise Abraham believed. God would bring in massive numbers of people [Gentiles] into his family. See my Simply Romans post on Romans 4.
Otherwise I cant see much in what he says to be different from the reformed view.
It is easy, then, to forget that for Paul “salvation” is a process. Indeed, Paul uses the term itself, “salvation,” to speak of the end result of the process (particularly Rom. 13:11; 1 Thess. 5:8–9), and the verb “save” in the future tense as something still hoped for (Rom. 5:9–10; 10:9, 13; 11:26; 1 Cor. 3:15; 5:5). Christians most typically are “those who are (in process of) being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18; 15:2; 2 Cor. 2:15).
The question, then, is how these two tenses, the already beginning and the not yet completion, are related to each other in Paul’s thought. Does the beginning guarantee the completion? A reading of Philippians 1:6 might suggest so: Christ will complete what he has begun. But a reading of Galatians 3:3 might as easily suggest much more caution: Is it possible that those who have begun with the Spirit will revert to the flesh—and so fail to complete? (125)
I found his attention to the tenses of salvation much needed. A seeming omission in Wikin’s and Schreiner’s arguments.
Here we find ourselves caught in the same dilemma as referred to in the opening section:
that there are two emphases in Paul that his post-Reformation followers have found difficult to hold together.
On the one hand, there is little doubt that Paul used the verb “justify” to refer to God’s justifying the sinner, vindicating the ungodly, acquitting the guilty. …
On the other hand, however, we can hardly ignore Paul’s equal emphasis on the transforming character of divine grace. (129)
These two emphases set the context for how her understands the final judgment. But there is an additional ‘not so fast’ issue which guarantees all who come to believe will be saved.
The problem, however, is that Paul’s ethical teaching consistently assumes that his readers were responsible people, who should be making effort—enabled by God’s Spirit, of course—but nevertheless having the responsibility to walk by the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, with the express corollary that failure to do so would have severe and possibly damning consequences. (134)
Dunn highlights the possibility believers can lose their salvation. Schreiner takes issue with this below.
Consequently Dunn’s combined argument emphasizes the need for initial salvation and the following process of salvation in the life of the believer in order to have a positive verdict in the final judgment. And takes into account the possibility that Christians can be swayed from the faith.
He has some good things to say about how to interpret the scriptures.
This brings us right back to where we started. Rather than take one dimension of Paul’s gospel/theology as a fixed given and then try to make the rest of his theology cohere with what is deemed to be most fundamental, we should rather tease out all the emphases he makes in relation to our questions. Once that is done, once we have properly respected the full range of what Paul taught on a subject, we should then try to see how the different emphases hang together and whether they cohere.
We may not find that process easy; the history of Pauline scholarship shows just how hard it is. We may find that in attempting to identify the degree of coherence Paul evidently was content with, we force them together, knocking off awkward edges to make them fit with each other; that too has been a repeated experience in the attempts to systematize Paul’s theology. (136)
I found aspects of Schreiner’s response quite interesting. He takes issue with his argument based on the warnings in scripture that Christians can lose their salvation.
I agree with Dunn that believers must persevere to the end to be saved and that good works are necessary for final vindication.
At the same time, the promises are not conditioned by the warnings. Instead, the warnings and promises are complementary. They are corollaries and do not stand in competition with one another.
The warnings function as the means by which the promises are secured. In other words, the warnings are always effective for the elect and for those who are justified.
The immediate objection is that such a view makes the warnings superfluous, for the elect always heed the warnings. But such an objection misses the mark, for it reads the warnings abstractly, as if the promises are secured apart from the warnings!
But is such a view of the warnings biblical? (150)
Scripture is quite clear, believers can fall away and lose their faith. In Hebrews the author believes it has already happened (‘those who have once been enlightened and then fallen away’) and uses it as part of his warning (Heb 6.4-8).
I find the argument that the warnings are part of the means by which the promises are secured to be incoherent logic. No one issues a warning using this rationale. People issue warnings because they know and fear they will happen. Warnings are given to counter a very real possibility.
Dunn said something else about Phil 2.12-13 which challenged Schreiner. He denied the so called theory of ‘monergism’ is biblical.
Monergism is the position in Christian theology that God, through the Holy Spirit, works to bring about the salvation of an individual through spiritual regeneration, irrespective of the individual’s cooperation. …
Monergism states that the regeneration of an individual is the work of God through the Holy Spirit alone, as opposed to Synergism, which, in its simplest form, argues that the human will cooperates with God’s grace in order to be regenerated. (Wiki)
This is what Dunn wrote regarding Phil 2.12-13 and Monergism;
Another way to pose the issue of this section is in terms of a contrast between “synergism” and “monergism.” Those who want to play down Paul’s emphasis on judgment according to works do so by claiming that Paul opposed the Jewish scheme of salvation because it was “synergistic,” that is, depended on human cooperation with God.
In contrast, so the argument goes, Paul put forward a scheme of salvation that was “monergistic,” that is, solely and wholly dependent on God’s doing.
But now it should be clear that Paul did lay responsibility on his converts, in language that reads far more synergistically than monergistically.
The classic text, Philippians 2:12–13 expresses the point succinctly: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (NRSV); why should it prove so problematic that Paul could put both clauses in the same sentence? (132)
Schreiner responded to this saying;
It also seems that Dunn misunderstands what is typically called monergism in Reformed theology. He says that Philippians 2:12–13 is synergistic rather than monergistic, presumably because it calls on believers to work out their salvation.
Monergism in the Reformed tradition, however, has never denied that human beings must choose and act. Similarly, he suggests that monergists believe that since the law is fulfilled through the Spirit, no effort is required of believers. Again, he misconstrues monergism.
Instead, 2:12–13 perfectly captures what monergists believe. Human beings must act and choose, but ultimately what they choose and act is attributed to God. He causes them to will and to work for his own good pleasure.
In other words, the ultimacy of God’s work does not cancel out the proximate will of human beings or the authenticity and reality of human choices and decisions. God’s work is not understood as cancelling out the reality of human work, nor is human responsibility dissolved, as Dunn suggests. (153)
I think Schreiner misunderstands Monergism. His description of Phil 2.12-13 sounds more like cooperation between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility – that is he has stated both need to be involved. He has not defined monergism in terms of God’s sovereign action alone despite mans involvement. In effect he calls synergism, monergism.
Michael Barber – A Catholic Perspective: Our Works Are Meritorious At The Final Judgment Because Of Our Union With Christ By Grace
Finally, Michael Barber is Professor of Theology, Scripture, and Catholic Thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University. As the author of several books and host of Reasons for Faith Live, a radio show heard weekly across America, Michael presents the Catholic view on the role of works at the final judgment. (24)
Barber has some good points to make, but I felt he let his team down by putting to much emphasis on merit. He comes equal with Wilkin.
Here are some of his good points.
Though it is impossible here to offer a detailed look at the various ways the New Testament speaks of salvation, what should be pointed out is that, as a growing number of scholars have noted, salvation in Christ is described as a past, present, and future reality. Salvation is something that believers have already experienced. In Titus we read that Christ “saved us [esōsen]” (Titus 3:5; cf., e.g., also Rom. 8:24). Yet Paul also describes salvation in terms of an ongoing process: “to us who are being saved [sōzomenois]” (1 Cor. 1:18). Similarly, we read in Acts 2:47, “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved [sōzomenous].” In addition, the New Testament describes salvation as a future reality; believers “will be saved [sōthēsetai]” (John 10:9; Acts 15:11; Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 3:15; 1 Tim. 2:15). (162)
Yep, completely on board with this.
Catholics affirm that salvation is the result of God’s free gift. Yet Catholic teaching also recognizes that there are passages in Scripture that describe good works as a criterion for salvation. In particular, over and over again, Scripture insists that God will judge each person according to his or her works: [Then he quotes] (Mt 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 2:23; 20:12; 22:12) (167)
Again, scripture teaches it. I believe it.
Here we have two critically important ideas. First, believers must do the impossible to be saved: we must be perfect. Jesus holds believers to this same standard in the Sermon on the Mount: “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Note here that the perfection Jesus points to is not just human perfection but divine perfection (“as your heavenly Father is perfect”). This, obviously, is an unattainable goal for human beings. Second, God makes it possible for us to attain what Jesus is calling us to achieve. With him, somehow, we can do the impossible. (170)
I disagree with his understanding of what Jesus means about being perfect in this passage. This is one passage which is frequently misinterpreted in my opinion. Normally people will love their family and friends. These people are easy to love. But in Mt 5.43-48 Jesus is instructing his followers to love their enemies as well. This is what God does. This is how Jesus understands perfection in this passage: someone who is perfect loves their family and friends as well as their enemies just as God does. Jesus is not talking about sinless perfection. Rather a universal scope for who we should love.
Otherwise what he says about ‘with God we can do the impossible’ is good and is what Jesus says in Mt 19.19 But it is one passage. I prefer not to put to much weight on a single passage.
Not surprisingly, then, the final judgment is often described in Jewish sources with imagery reminiscent of the marketplace: scales. Such works describe how one’s good and evil deeds are weighed against each other. Salvation depends on which weighs more heavily: one’s good deeds or bad deeds. (173)
I can see some getting nervous about this. Judgment is according to works. Salvation is never said to be by works. He needs to be careful to say only what the scripture says.
Put simply, to argue that Scripture teaches that salvation is the result of “faith” alone and that works themselves are not rewarded with salvation flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. One can only come to this conclusion through a tortured reading that obscures these texts’ plain sense by imposing on them preconceived theological ideas. (177)
Yep. Rom 2.6-11; Gal 6.6-8 and Mt 25.31-46 are fairly clear on this as long as we understand ‘salvation’ to mean ‘eternal life’.
The Catholic understanding of works at the final judgment preserves the entirety of the biblical witness regarding salvation. Salvation is a moment and a process of maturing in sonship. Initially we are saved by grace and not by anything we do. However, God’s grace in the believer allows him or her to do the impossible: perform works meritorious of salvation. And it is by these works that the believer is truly saved—he or she is fully conformed to the image of the Son of God. All that the Son has been given by the Father he shares with those united to him by grace (John 16:15)—including his capacity to merit. (183)
His focus on justification being sonship lost me. While I do believe God’s people are adopted into his family when they initially come to believe. I don’t think it is the same thing as being made righteous. They run in parallel, they are not the same thing. I need more scriptures to prove this.
Stanley articulates my recommendation quite well:
One thing I hope this book has done is to show that we cannot so easily dismiss the views of others without thoughtful engagement. It is all too easy for readers to pick up a book like this and with the information they already have accumulated in their time as believers, simply latch on to one view and rather dismissively—and perhaps disrespectfully—brush the others to the side.
But each of these four scholars deserves respectful attention. Who knows? You might be persuaded.
I personally have found that before critiquing someone’s point of view, it is always helpful to try and put myself in their shoes, to try and see the text with their eyes, and to seek to really understand where they are coming from. Otherwise, I’m tempted to write them off before giving them a hearing.
The four contributors here have given us good models, I think, in how to go about responding to one another thoughtfully. (210)
I’d encourage people to read this book for the following reasons;
- To learn more about what the scriptures say about judgment according to works,
- To get a greater understanding and appreciation of other views out there, and
- To learn how to interact with others with different positions in truth and love.
Copyright © Joshua Washington and thescripturesays, 2016. All Rights Reserved.