Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Believer and the Judgement Seat of Christ

I hope you would agree that the following two statements are true: a) The believer is justified by faith alone. b) The believer will be judged according to his works. Agreed? Good. After all, Scripture teaches both. Have a look at Galatians 2:16 and 2 Corinthians 5:10.  So, there we have it. We are justified by faith and we will be judged according to our works. End of post.

But hang on a minute. Justification means that in advance of the Day of Judgement God has declared the believer righteous on the basis of the finished work of Christ. We stand acquitted before God with no fear of condemnation on Judgement Day, Romans 8:1. How exactly does that fit with what the Bible says about the Christian being judged according to his or her works?

1. Justification on the basis of works

N. T. Wright attempts to resolve the issue by saying that justification in the present anticipates God’s future verdict on the believer on the basis of a life of good works. He cites Romans 2:13 as evidence for his claim[1]. But in this text Paul is not teaching that anyone will actually achieve justification by works. He wants his readers to understand that simply having and hearing the law of God (as with the Jews) won’t put anybody right with God. The law must be obeyed. The trouble is that no one has obeyed the law. Both Jew and Gentile are subject to the judgment of God on account of their sin, Romans 3:9, 19-20.

But Wright is not simply advocating justification by works, as if we could save ourselves by our own efforts. The thing is that for him justification is not so much about the sinner’s right standing before God, as the true identity of the people of God. Because we believe in Jesus, God declares that we belong to his people. The evidence that we belong to his people is a life of Spirit-enabled good works. And so Wright can say,

The Spirit is the path by which Paul traces the route from justification
by faith in the present to justification, by the complete life lived, in the

Do you see what Wright has done? Justification is no longer by faith alone. Future justification is “by the complete life lived”. In putting it like that Wright has undermined what the Bible says regarding justification apart from works, Romans 3:28, 4:5, Galatians 3:10-14[3]. We are justified by faith alone. God declares the believer righteous before him solely on the basis of the obedience and blood of Christ. That’s it. Granted, those who have been united to Christ for justification have also been called to live a life of good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). But future justification is not on the basis of good works. The sinner is justified and only ever will be justified because of what Christ has done for us, not because of what the Spirit is doing in us.

Judgement according to works does not mean justification on the basis works. More on that later.

2. Justification by faith and the Day of Judgement

So, what is the relationship between the believer’s present justification by faith and the Day of Judgement?

The New Testament makes the contrast between what is true of the believer presently “by faith” and what will be true of him “by sight”. Consider 2 Corinthians 5:7[4]. Now the believer is “justified by faith”. On the day of judgement the Christian will be “justified by sight”, or visibly justified.

What does that entail? Although justified by faith, the believer still dies. The body or the “outer man” does not yet partake of the benefits of saving union with Christ. Visible justification will consist of the believer being bodily raised from the dead. Paul contrasted Jesus’ condemnation by the Jewish rulers (Acts 13:27-29) with the fact that “God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 13:30). Christ’s resurrection is described as his justification in 1 Timothy 3:16[5]. There is a tight link between Christ’s resurrection/justification and that of the believer, Romans 4:25, 8:33-34. Now we are justified by faith. We shall be publicly and visibly declared righteous at the resurrection. This is the “hope of righteousness by faith” (Galatians 5:5).

‘Justification’ necessarily brings with it the resurrection from the dead, and nothing less. The display of God’s saving righteousness in the resurrection of Christ anticipates the end of history, when he will triumph over the world in bringing his ‘sons’ to glory.[6]

Christ will raise his people from the dead at the last day. Their resurrection will involve their final justification, “whom he justified, these he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). As Richard Gaffin concludes,

believers in union with Christ, will appear at the final judgement as already resurrected bodily... they will appear there as already openly justified.[7]

With that in mind the believer can look forward to the Day of Judgment with joyful hope and bold confidence.

3. Judgement according to works

Where does the fact that the believer will appear before the judgement seat of Christ already justified leave “judgment according to works” (2 Corinthians 5:10, Revelation 20:11-12)?[8]

1)      Good works are the evidence of genuine justifying faith

While the believer is justified by faith alone, the faith that alone justifies does not remain alone. Faith works by love (Galatians 5:6). Faith without works is dead (James 2:26). On the Day of Judgement God will assess the presence of true saving faith according to the evidence of good works. That is the searching message of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46. The fact that we are going to be judged according to our works calls for sober self-examination lest our faith be found spurious before the judgement seat of Christ, Matthew 7:21-23. 

2)      On the day of judgement the Lord Jesus will evaluate our service and stewardship

James warns, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Paul reminds Timothy of his accountability to the Lord Jesus Christ, 2 Timothy 4:1-5.  In 1 Corinthians 3:5-17 the apostle urges Christian workers to build wisely on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Our efforts will be tested by the fire of God’s judgement. Be sure to build for eternity, doing God’s work in God’s way. Faithful service will be amply rewarded, 1 Peter 5:4

3)      On the day of judgement the Lord Jesus will reward believers for their labours

Clearly all believers will enjoy the blessings of eternal life and resurrection glory in the new creation. But Scripture also seems to suggest that the Lord will bestow special privileges upon those who have served him faithfully.[9] Look up Matthew 25:14-30. The faithful servants who wisely invested their master’s money were rewarded proportionately (see also Luke 19:11-27).

Now, we must insist that these rewards are gifts of grace. They are not earned on the basis of merit. We could do no good apart from Christ, John 15:5. Yet, the Lord delights to acknowledge the loving service of his people. We are not told what form these rewards will take. Perhaps those who have served most faithfully will be granted higher privileges in the new creation? We don’t know. One thing’s for sure, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). 

Let every believer so live as to hear the words of the Master saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:23).*

* A draft article for Grace Magazine

[1] What St Paul Really Said, Tom Wright, Lion, 1997, p. 126-127.
[2] Paul: Fresh Perspectives, N. T. Wright, SPCK, 2005, p. 148. See John Piper’s interaction with Wright on this point in his The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright, Crossway, 2007, p. 103ff
[3] I am aware that for Wright “works of the law” mean Jewish identity markers such as circumcision rather than an attempt to earn salvation by works. See The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ, Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth, 2006, p. 169ff for a cogent response.
[4] Compare the “inner man/outer man” contrast in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. See By Faith Not Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Paternoster, 2006, p. 80-108.
[5] The word is sometimes translated “vindicated in the Spirit” (NIV, ESV), but KJV/NKJV accurately translate, “justified [dikaioo] in the Spirit”.
[6] Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification, Mark A. Seifrid, IVP/Apollos, 2000, p, 76
[7] By Faith Not Sight, Gaffin p. 99.
[8] See The Gospel of Free Acceptance, Venema, p. 257ff.
[9] See The Promise of the Future, Cornelis P. Venema, Banner of Truth, 2000, p. 405-419. 


Stephen said...

Guy, Thanks for this. It is a helpful article.

I was struck recently in considering Luke 19:11-27, that though rewards are in accordance with service for the Saviour, they are still massively out of all proportion to the work put in!

Guy Davies said...

Yes, "ten minas...ten cities". The extravagant disproportionality of grace.