Review: Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment

4 Views on the Role of Works

Alan Stanley, editor. Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.

Scripture consistently holds two seemingly contradictory truths in tension: we are justified by grace through faith, and we will be judged according to our works. How are we to resolve this tension while respecting the authority of all of Scripture? It is a dilemma that has divided not only Protestants from Catholics, but also Protestants from Protestants. While Roman Catholic theology has traditionally reserved a role for human merit (albeit based on God’s initial grace), Protestantism has consistently denied such a role. But Protestants have differed among themselves over how to relate the believer’s obedience to the final judgment. With the rise of the New Perspective on Paul in recent years, these questions have yet again come to the fore, making this volume a timely contribution to the discussion.

Stanley writes the introductory chapter, which helpfully summarizes the biblical evidence about the final judgment, the role of faith and grace in salvation, and historical developments within Western Christianity regarding these points. From the time of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century to the New Perspective in the twentieth century, there has been no shortage of divergent views. These scholarly disagreements within Protestantism have more recently been brought to the public eye through the ongoing dialogue between American pastor John Piper and British New Testament scholar N. T. Wright. This dialogue thus sets the stage for the four contributors of this volume: Robert N. Wilkin, Thomas R. Schreiner, James D. G. Dunn, and Michael P. Barber.

The “Free Grace” View

Wilkin’s chapter represents a somewhat more idiosyncratic view: “Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment” (25). To get a better sense of this view, one needs to see it in the context of the “Lordship salvation” controversy that began in the 1980’s with the writings of “Free Grace” theologians like Charles Stanley and Zane C. Hodges.[1] These theologians have taught that the moment of faith at a believer’s conversion is decisive for salvation, and thus commitment, obedience, and perseverance are not necessary for eternal life. Wilkin concurs: “Many would agree that there is a necessary connection between believing in Jesus and obeying his commandments. I would not” (39). Given this premise, Wilkin distinguishes between two eschatological judgments: the Judgment Seat of Christ (for believers; 2 Cor. 5:9-11), and the Great White Throne Judgment (for unbelievers; Rev. 20:11-15). The former takes place before Christ’s millennial reign on earth and determines which believers will be rewarded for their perseverance and good works. While some may be disqualified from ruling with Christ, no one at this judgment will be disqualified from final salvation. By contrast, there will be only one verdict at the Great White Throne Judgment: condemnation. To defend this view, Wilkin devotes a great deal of space to answering biblical objections (33-47).

Wilkin is to be commended for his determination to protect the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, the sheer number of biblical passages marshaled against his view should make one wonder whether he is operating from fundamentally mistaken premises. The weaknesses of his position can essentially be reduced to two points (both of which are recognized by the other contributors). First, his position rests critically on the assumption of a certain version of dispensational premillennial eschatology. If this assumption is incorrect, then the whole superstructure of his argument collapses.[2] Second, Wilkin is so committed to his premises that there seems to be no way of correcting them. Every biblical passage raised against his reading is given a harmonizing reinterpretation, even to the point of special pleading. But as Schreiner accurately observes, this makes Wilkin’s reading “unfalsifiable” at the presuppositional level (55). Now of course we should acknowledge the role that our presuppositions play in how we interpret the data. But there ought to be a dynamic and mutually-correcting interplay between our presuppositions and our interpretation of the data. In other words, we ought to be critical realists.

The Reformed View

Schreiner in turn represents a standard Reformed view of the relationship between justification and final judgment. His chapter is titled, “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification” (71). Lest the reader get tripped up by his use of prepositions here, Schreiner is careful to clarify that good works are by no means the basis or meritorious instrument of the believer’s salvation. Rather, they are the necessary evidence or fruit. Schreiner proceeds to examine various passages on both the undeserved grace of God in justification and the necessity of the believer’s obedient response, first in the Pauline epistles, then in James, and then briefly in other NT passages. He then sums up his case with some theological reflections, emphasizing the need to respect the authority of all of Scripture, and the need to understand each of the biblical authors on their own terms.

Although I find myself in almost complete agreement with Schreiner’s position, I do have some critiques. In particular, my main complaint is his exegesis of Galatians (73-75). He claims that “one must abide by everything in the law to be justified,” and that it is necessary “to keep the entire law for salvation.” To put it more starkly, “There is no middle ground; righteousness is either gained through the cross of Christ or the law.” While such a reading of Paul has wide currency within the Reformed tradition, I would argue that it fails to do full justice to Paul’s line of reasoning. Schreiner imports a premise into Paul’s argument that is nowhere present in the text itself: that there is a “works-principle” contained in the law, whereby perfect obedience merits the reward of a righteous verdict. Taken in this sense, the law becomes nothing more than a reminder of what we can’t do. Now it is certainly true that we sinners are incapable of keeping the law perfectly. But that is not Paul’s main complaint against those who rely on works of the law. The reason why we cannot be justified by the law is not because we cannot keep it perfectly, but rather because that is not why the law was given in the first place. Galatians 3:21 explicitly says, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” In my opinion, this rules out entirely any kind of works-principle as a category error. Nevertheless, I think that Schreiner’s overall case is strong, notions of hypothetical justification by law notwithstanding. In reality, we cannot merit justification, and Schreiner is absolutely correct in highlighting this fact.

The New Perspective View

Of all of the contributors, Dunn, who represents the New Perspective, is the least concerned with forming a coherent theology. His chapter is thus titled, “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us” (119)? He begins by highlighting the basic inability of human language to capture the fullness of spiritual realities. For this reason, Dunn eschews any efforts at constructing a systematic ordo salutis that tries to harmonize the Bible’s (and especially Paul’s) seemingly conflicting statements about justification and perseverance. This penchant for paradox allows Dunn to hold together such concepts as imputed and infused righteousness, monergism and synergism, and spiritual enablement and self-determination (131-134). Likewise, he is quite comfortable talking about two distinct justifications: one initial and by grace, and the other final and conditioned upon continued obedience. Both justifications are subsumed under the heading of “covenantal nomism,” a familiar concept among New Perspective proponents.[3] Dunn closes the chapter by insisting that, when the Bible holds two contrasting realities in tension, we should not “fall into the trap of playing one off against the other” in a way that diminishes the force of each (141).

Dunn is quite clearly a capable exegete, but by his own admission he falters as a systematician. While he takes this as a point of pride, I see it as his greatest weakness. He evidently thinks that respecting the biblical authors means allowing them to sometimes contradict each other (and also themselves!). But is that truly the best approach to God’s inspired and inerrant Word? Dunn seems to neglect the reality of divine authorship, by which the Bible as a unity was delivered to the church for all times and places. Further, although Dunn insists on the need for living with tension and paradox, he is not fully consistent in this practice. Schreiner rightly points out that Dunn often “breaks the tension” himself, by elevating the Bible’s warning passages over against passages on assurance (149-150). In effect, Dunn’s covenantal nomism amounts to what Wilkin calls a “probationary justification,” in which believers cannot have any confidence of their final standing before God (142). But surely the Bible offers believers greater hope than that.[4] Lastly, Dunn fails to recognize that systematic theology does not preclude the possibility of mystery and paradox. For example, while he tries to simultaneously embrace both monergism and synergism, Calvinists have historically upheld the doctrine of compatibilism, which affirms the mysterious reality of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.[5]

The Catholic View

The final contribution by Barber presents a Roman Catholic perspective on justification and works: “Our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ by grace” (161). Barber is quick to dismiss certain caricatures of Catholicism, which associate it with a graceless kind of legalism or works-righteousness. Instead, Barber finds much common ground between Catholic and traditional Protestant theology: both sides affirm the priority of God’s grace in salvation, the centrality of union with Christ, and the process of “spiritual maturation” (164). But substantive differences emerge in how these concepts are defined. For Barber, God’s grace is resistible, so that believers play a causally determinative role in whether they persevere in salvation. Barber also believes that if our sins are understood as “debts,” then we should also be able to see our good deeds as meriting a salvific “reimbursement” (172). Additionally, Barber argues that justification is first efficaciously granted in the sacrament of baptism. However, he sees justification as ultimately transformative, since our righteous status is dependent upon our continued cooperation with this infused grace.

Although I deeply appreciate Barber’s irenic tone, I have a number of difficulties with the distinctives of his position. He (along with Dunn) operates on the assumption that human agency precludes a monergistic account of salvation. However, this is a misunderstanding of the Reformed view, which would more accurately be characterized as a kind of “bilateral monergism.”[6] That is, God’s grace effectually and irresistibly produces the believer’s necessary response. Moreover, the Bible’s connection between sin and debt does not warrant Barber’s connection between good deeds and merit. What is meritorious about doing what we are already obligated to do (cf. Luke 17:10)?  If we are going to speak of merit at all, let us instead speak of the infinite merits of Christ, who freely gave his life to secure our redemption. Lastly, although I believe Barber is correct in describing baptism as a sacramental means of grace, we need to be careful here, for its necessity is not absolute and its efficacy is not automatic (i.e., it does not function ex opere operato).

Conclusion

On the whole, this volume provides an excellent introduction to various Christian approaches to the problem of relating justification to final judgment. But the reader should be aware that these approaches are not exhaustive. I personally side with Schreiner for the most part, but I think that there are a number of ways in which his presentation might be improved. For example, I believe that the Presbyterian tradition is at an advantage in reconciling the Bible’s various passages on assurance and apostasy, through its distinction between the invisible church and visible church (see Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1-4). Elect members of the invisible church are secure in their justification by grace alone, but such members are only recognized by their fruit in the visible church, which is a mixed company of elect and non-elect. This is why the New Testament authors can exhort us to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5), and to make our calling and election sure (1 Pet. 1:10). In other words, if saved, always saved. But that is a critical “if!”

Notes

[1] See Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989).

[2] For a helpful critique of dispensational premillennialism, see Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 194-222.

[3] The term was first coined by E. P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977), 75: “Covenantal nomism is the view that one’s place in God’s plan is established on the basis of the covenant and that the covenant requires as the proper response of man his obedience to its commandments, while providing means of atonement for transgression.”

[4] See Robert A. Peterson, Our Secure Salvation: Preservation and Apostasy (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009).

[5] See Paul Helm, The Providence of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 39-68; Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams, Why I Am Not an Arminian (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 136-161.

[6] For this insight, I am indebted to K. J. Drake, my friend and former classmate at Covenant Theological Seminary.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Review: Baptized into Christ, by Jordan Cooper | Allkirk Network - August 12, 2016

    […] Where I might differ with Jordan is in his apparent denial of any vertical dimension to the believer’s obedience. He insists that our law-keeping cannot be the grounds of assurance for our salvation or the means of entering heaven (39-40). To be sure, we can never say that we are justified by obedience to God’s law, but Reformed theologians have generally been more comfortable speaking of the law’s positive role in sanctifying us, assuring us of God’s favor, and attaining final glory. On this subject, as well as on the more general subject of the law/gospel distinction, I have already responded to Jordan here and here. I would also mention the contributions of John Piper, Mark Jones, and Kevin DeYoung (in the interest of fairness, I should add that Jordan has responded to these writings here). In short, it seems difficult to square Lutheran theology with the Bible’s teaching on the law as a blessing (Ps. 19:7-11; Jas. 1:25) and on the role of works at the final judgment (Matt. 25:31-46; see my review here). […]

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