Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works (Part II)

Article by   June 2009
Editor's Note: This begins part two of the article. Part one can be found here.

Argument #4: The future judgment of believers consists only of reward and praise.  Those who support future justification according to works will cite the numerous Bible passages that in one form or another state that we must all stand before Christ's seat of judgment.  Paul says that knowing this, Christians therefore "make it our aim to please him" (2 Cor. 5:9; cf. Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 9:6; 1 Pet. 4:17).  In the parable of the talents, Jesus says that when he returns he will "settle accounts" with his servants (Mt. 25:19).  Then, in his depiction of the final judgment, Jesus speaks of the good deeds of those who are received into eternal life.  He will say: "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" (Mt. 25:35-36).  "The righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'" (Mt. 25:37-39).  Jesus answers, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Mt. 25:40).  Do these passages not prove some form of future judgment for believers that is according to works?
 
The answer is No.  Taking Jesus' words in Matthew 25:31-46 as an example, notice how inappropriate is the language of justification to this scene.  Christ is expressing his delight over the humble good works of his people, not establishing a basis for their righteousness.  Jesus does not turn in the Bible to Romans 2:13 and say, "For you were those who not only possessed the law but were also doers of its commands."  This is not justification by works: it is not justification at all, because the believer's righteousness before God is no longer in question.  Instead this depicts the believers' coronation and installation into the eternal blessings of our sonship in Christ.

This raises a question: if redeemed believers are to be present at the final judgment and must stand before Christ's judicial throne - facts that cannot be denied from the Bible - does this not suggest some painful ordeal involving the assessment of our (sinful) lives according to Christ's holy standard?  Simon Kistemaker states the view that believers must be judged and held accountable for their actions, which then will be judicially "forgiven through Christ."  [1] Kistemaker sees this as an instance of human responsibility accompanying divine grace in salvation.  But do we realize what such a judgment - if true - would involve?  Do we forget how reprehensible we are before the Lord on the basis of the filthy rags of even our best works (Isa. 64:6)?  With what disgust, contempt, and hatred Christ must look upon every second of our lives, the reviewing of which must be a long torture for us, were such a judgment in our future!  I, for one, must consider the return of Christ and such a judgment a dread and horror to be feared and loathed, rather than "our blessed hope," as Paul puts it in Titus 2:13. Yet how inconsistent this is with the imputed righteousness of Christ that was granted to us at the moment we believed.  Can this be the teaching of God's Word?

The answer is No.  When we consider the many biblical descriptions of the appearance of Christ's people on the day of judgment, not one involves Christ embarrassing or chastising believers, much less condemning them, whose demerits are all cleansed by his blood: all is gracious praise and reward of what Christ has himself done in and through us.  Clearly, the Bible teaches that believers must all appear before Christ in this glory.  But A. A. Hodge, commenting on the Westminster Confession of  Faith's teaching, helpfully distinguishes between the unbeliever, who is "judged by the law" (Rom. 2:12), and the believer, who is "judged by the gospel." [2]  Believers in Christ await only a final reward: an award ceremony at which his faithful servants receive crowns to place before his feet.  According to Jesus' teaching in Matthew 25:35-40, our Lord will especially cherish the memory of daily mercies and ministry that even his people will have forgotten.  This praise will be the only shock awaiting us on that day: "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'" "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me" (Mt. 25:40).  So far as judgment, the only verdict rendered by Christ towards his own - those already justified through faith in his life and death - comes in the form of these words that truly are our blessed hope: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world'" (Mt. 25:34).  Knowing that our service and works have this eternal significance is to motivate us in this life.

Argument #5:  Prior to the final judgment, believers in Christ will already have received final justification.  It is true, of course, that there is a future perspective to our justification, an already-not yet perspective to this aspect of salvation just as with all the others.  This future to our justification is our resurrection into glory, which is our final, public, and bodily justification before all creation.  Paul writes that "we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:24).  Adoption is a legal matter, and we still await the public declaration of our adoption as God's children.  We now have "the firstfruits of the Spirit" by which our faith enjoys the blessings of heaven, but through our bodily resurrection we will take up our full inheritance together with Christ  (Rom. 8:17).
 
This final justification/resurrection will happen at the moment when Christ returns in glory.  Paul says that then believers "will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:51-52).  The Bible does not teach that we are raised, then judged, and then, if justified, we are then glorified.  Rather, the Bible teaches that those who belong to Christ through faith, having their sins cleansed through his blood and having already enjoyed the first resurrection in their rebirth, so that they not only believed but went on to do many good works, finally receive the second resurrection into the fullness of glory.  After the resurrection, there is no "not yet" to our justification.  This occurs before the final judgment.  How then, are those who have already been glorified and declared before the watching cosmos to be the sons of God then to be judged in the law-court of the final judgment?  This is not what we find in judgment passages like Matthew 25:31-46.  Rather, the sheep, who are outwardly distinguished from the goats, are separated so that we do not enter into judgment but are instead praised for the least of our good works in his name.
 
For these five reasons, we should reject the doctrine of future justification according to works in favor of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone.  In fact, we should avoid the use of this language altogether, for even in the most highly nuanced form this expression misrepresents what believers face in the Second Coming of Christ.  First, the Bible regards all who have believed as fully justified, not provisionally justified.  Second, we need fear no future judgment of our sins because they were judged in the past on the cross of Christ.  Third, the Bible's teaching of future judgment according to works refers only to the condemnation of wicked unbelievers.  Fourth, the biblical depiction of the judicial assessment of believers lives involves only praise and reward.   Fifth, we can be sure that believers do not await justification by works in the final judgment because we will already have received the full and final manifestation of our justification in our resurrection into glory.

NO SWEATY PALMS
As a young officer in the U.S. Army, I was once charged with two felony counts for an offense of which I was innocent (the charge was hit-and-run driving because during field operations my tank ran over a jeep that parked behind us in the dark; neither I nor my tank crew were even aware we had backed over it!).  When I was cited, my battalion commander assured me that the military police were simply flexing their muscles.  My defense attorney assured me there was no basis for a conviction.  I, too, did not see how I could possibly be found guilty.  And yet as I faced that judgment, I can tell you that I did not sleep a wink the night before.  Why?  Because even though the charges were ridiculous, and even though my innocence was obvious, I had not yet been justified.  I showed up with a pale, drawn face and sweat dripped from my palms even as the judge threw out the charges against me.
 
Here is the point: no Christian, justified through faith in Christ, should ever face the final judgment with that anxiety.  For we will not stand before that throne as those awaiting judgment.  Unlike my trial, Christ's final judgment is one in which we could never stand by our own works.  So why should we not fear?  Why should there be no sleepless nights for us?  Because we will be present on that day having our justification through faith alone finally, fully, and publicly consummated by our resurrection into glory, present only to be separated to the right hand of Christ to enter into joy of his reign.  We will face not judgment but coronation as joint-heirs together with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
 
This is what C. S. Lewis profoundly portrayed in his famous novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  For when Aslan had returned and won his victory, his servants were crowned.  Even Edmund, the younger brother whose sin had caused Aslan to die in his place, was crowned in glory.  Edmund had repented and believed, and though he had served faithfully in the battle he could not hope to be justified by his works.  But there sat Edmund, once condemned by his sin, enthroned with the crown placed upon his head: "Edmund the Just," Aslan cries aloud.  This accolade was not given by virtue of Edmund's supposed life of good works!  Rather, Edmund the sinner was justified by the grace of the King, through his atoning blood and as the unmerited gift of his grace.

Likewise, the final day is not a day of judgment for us, but the day of our entry into glory, the day when Christ calls us to his right hand.  "Come, you who are blessed by my Father," Jesus will say to us, not according to our works but according to the grace of God through faith in Christ, "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Mt. 25:34).



[1] Simon Kistemaker, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker 2001), 547.
[2] A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1896, reprint 1958), 391

Richard Phillips is the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and the Senior Minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.

Rick Phillips, "Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works", Reformation 21 (May 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

© Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Inc, 1716 Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA 19103

Recommended Resources
Precious Blood: The Atoning Work of Christ Edited By Richard Phillips
Right with God: The Doctrine of Justification 2009 Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology



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