Judgment of Believers in the Westminster Standards

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In my most recently published article on Ref21, Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works (see part 2 here), I expressed the position that the judgment of believers in Christ on the last day will consist only of reward and praise, all to the glory of our Lord.  My main arguments for this were that 1) the biblical representations of believers on the last day involve no depictions of chastisement or shaming, but only reward and praise; and 2) believers will appear at the final judgment after they have entered into their glorified states via the final resurrection, which occurs prior to the final judgment, and the idea of judgment is incongruent with believers' glorified state.  In response, I have received a query as to the conformity of my view with the Westminster Standards.  In particular, WCF 33:1 says that "all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds, and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil."

In answering, let me first say how much I welcome such a question.  There is much gnashing of teeth these days whenever ordained ministers are querried as to the confessional standard to which they subscribe, replete with accusations that the Bible is being set aside in favor of tradition and human standards.  My teeth remain ungnashed in this case because I have vowed before God and the church that I believe that the Westminster Standards present an accurate summary of the Bible's teaching.  So if some think that I have taught in a manner that is contrary to the Standards, then I am not offended by a request for an explanation.  The whole point of confessionalism is the accountability of teaching elders for their teaching, and I am fully committed to such accountability in my own case.

 I would answer the question by saying that it is obvious, in light of the system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, that the teaching of WCF 33:1 that "all persons" must stand for judgment "to receive according to what they have done" is a preliminary principle of law and justice that is answered by the subsequent principle of gospel and grace (as seen in the opening line of 33:2).  As I argued in my article, if the teaching of WCF 33:1 is to be isolated as a final statement on the final judgment, then what we also confess regarding God's holiness and human depravity informs us that none (believers included) could survive this final judgment.  So I take the Confession's teaching that all will be judged as a basic principle that is modified in the case of believers by the gospel.  I admit that the Confession does not spell this out in the chapter of the final judgment, but I assert that the system of doctrine taught in the Confession demands this view.

With this in mind, I would make these observations about the Confession and believers at the final judgment: 1) coming last among the doctrinal headings of the Confession, it seems to me that the teaching here both relies upon and assumes all the salvation doctrine - sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus - that has preceded it; 2) the treatment of the matter is brief and does not delve into details, perhaps out of modesty with respect to the biblical materials; and 3) the polemical context of the Confession determines what the Confession elaborates on and what it doesn't - therefore, we should not be alarmed if matters that need careful treatment today did not receive elaboration in the Standards.

The question came to my mind as to whether or not I should submit an exception to my presbytery for the teaching contained in the article I published here at Reformation 21.  I am willing to take an exception if appropriate (I have other exceptions), but in general it gives me pause to go against the proven judgment of the Westminster divines.  In order to get a sense of the general opinion of WCF 33:1 I perused some of the main commentaries on the Confession, with the result that I decided that I did not need to submit an exception, since the view I have expressed seems to be the majority view.  Like the Standards, the commentaries reflect the polemical context in which they were written, so they do not always treat the future judgment of believers very extensively.  But where they speak on the matter, I did not find anything like a consensus against the view I have taught.  To the contrary, the overall treatment is generally friendly and sometimes nearly identical with my position.  Here are some samples:

A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith, pp. 391-392.  Hodge devotes most of his treatment to the judgment of unbelievers.  However, when it comes to believers' presence at the final judgment, he makes the distinction that I have made (in fact, I quoted him), that unbelievers will stand for judgment under the law whereas "every may who has lived under the dispensation of the gospel shall be judged by the gospel" (Jn. 7:24).  This was a real encouragement to me.  Hodge goes on to say that whereas the final judgment will "manifest the righteousness of God in the condemnation of his enemies," it will manifest "his glorious grace in the sanctification of his people."  This is another way of saying what I have said, that our judgment will be all praise and reward by grace alone.  God will crown what He has wrought in our lives, so that we may cast our crowns at his feet. 

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:844-851.  Charles Hodge is very sparse in his treatment of the matters that I have considered, dealing with them only obliquely.   Most of his material deals with challenges current in his day and focus on establishing the reality of the final judgment as a future event.  Nonetheless, I thought his reference to 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 was helpful.  Paul gives two purposes for the final judgment that concur with my own position: Christ taking vengeance on those who have refused him and being glorified in those who have.  He also follows the Confession in the paucity of his treatment of the judgment itself, not delving into the matters I have considered.  After stating the basic principle of final judgment, he says, "Beyond this the representations of Scripture do not require us to go" (3:849).  In short, Charles Hodge simply does not address the question of what the future judgment involves for believers.  With this being said, C. Hodge does emphasize the separation of believers in the final judgment (which he places prior to the judgment by works, 3:848) and emphasizes the salvation of believers from the judgment because of faith in Christ (3:850).  So far as Hodge goes, I find endorsement for the view I have espoused.  I agree with Hodge's call for modesty when it comes to details of the final judgment, although I believe that recent challenges to the doctrine of justification have necessitated delving with the matters I addressed in my article.

Robert Shaw, The Reformed Faith, pp. 409-414.  Shaw takes a view similar to Kistemaker's, which I cited in my article, that believers will stand for a scrutiny of all their life-long works only to have them forgiven at the end (413).  I have contested this view as inconsistent with the biblical depictions - since such a judgment would involve crushing shame to Christ's people (even though Christ already bore our shame on the cross), of which we see nothing in the biblical descriptions.  It is interesting to me that Shaw emphasizes the good works that will evidence our justification.  This is quite proper and in line with the biblical materials, but is inconsistent with the view he earlier expressed.   So, while Shaw teaches a future judgment of believers, including the display of all the sins and failures of our lives, his subsequent exposition ignores this and focuses on our reward and praise in Christ.

Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, p. 126.  Vos's treatment is very brief.  He simply says that believers "will be judged, but not condemned."  He elaborates in much the same way that I have done: "In their case, the sentence will be one of acquittal because of Christ's blood and righteousness which are imputed or reckoned to their account."  While Vos does not delve into the precise question of what the judgment of believers consists of, he is leaning quite strongly in the direction that I have taken.  You see this in his proof texts, for instance, where he understands 2 Cor. 5:10 as relating to the imputation of Christ's righteousness.  So Vos, with me, see the judgment of believers taking place according to the works of Christ, in keeping with the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness.

R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess, 3:193.  While most of what RC says about the final judgment deals with other matters, he does say that "we will still undergo an evaluation.  Christ will examine our lives and determine our degree of obedience and sanctification."  This motivates us to be obedient now.  Thus, I think that RC disagrees with me on this matter, although I intend to ask him about it sometime in the future, dv.

Posted June 13, 2009 @ 12:29 PM by Rick Phillips
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