Results tagged “James” from Reformation21 Blog

The Powerlessness of Prayer-Shaming


"What if you and your family were starving, and someone with an abundance of food responded by letting you know that they were 'offering thoughts and prayers'?" You're immediate inner thought would be, "Stop praying. Do something!" A preponderance of these and similar reactions fire around social media in the wake of national tragedies, and have dug trenches of familiar battle lines over the past decade. One 'side' reaches out with general condolences, which the other 'side' interprets as dismissive, patronizing, or at best, lazy. Thus the battle is taken to the field whose terrain is most conducive for facilitating thoughtful dialogue and spawning effective solutions--that of social media, of course. Prayer-shaming ensues, adeptly rebuffed by shaming the prayer-shamer.

For the moment, let us put aside the issue of the rhetorical triteness of the phrase 'thoughts and prayers', and examine three underlying assumptions of a prayer-shaming statement:

Assumption 1: Prayer and action are mutually exclusive.

If we block out the noise of some assumed political track which responsive action must surely take--which is often suggested in contrast to prayers--we can nevertheless join in rejecting passivity. "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you." (Phil 2:12) We work because God works in us. James 2 assaults the man of empty faith, who sends well-wishes, while neglecting the resources at his disposal to do real help.

Assumption 2: Prayer is not the same as thoughts.

Prayer is petitioning an Almighty God, through the blood and mediation of Christ, to act in ways beyond human capacity. This, however, offers perhaps the best angle through which a believer can empathize with prayer-shaming outrage. What if you really believed thoughts and prayers were the same, while believing human solution was in reach? What if someone responded to your fundraising request by sending their thoughts?

Assumption 3 - Prayer does nothing. Here's where it gets more complicated. Can you, as a believer, honestly say that you've never entertained that doubt? Just like the sneer that Christianity is a crutch opens the door to proclaim that it's not a crutch, but a wheelchair, so the attack on the impotence of prayer opens the door to own, even celebrate our weakness and dependency. For the Christian, part of the haven of prayer comes in that sweet release of finitude. We have desires which exceed our capacity. Would you have it any other way?

But the power of prayer is not merely the cathartic satisfaction of coming to the end of one's rope, and then confessing that. The power of prayer comes by the power of the being prayed to. "For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness and treads on the heights of the earth--the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!" (Amos 4:13) Prayer does. Prayer achieves. Yet how natural it is to discount prayer, if you have already discounted God. Such a response flows instinctively from an antropocentric worldview. Prayer, properly relied upon, will smack as an offensive, radical, arrogant, and naive act of faith, if you are so bold as to say that your private speaking to an invisible being can impact the thoughts and hearts of people thousands of miles away.

James, Justification and the Human Court


I have often taken comfort in the fact that the Apostle Peter said that Apostle Paul wrote "some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:15-16).  I don't take comfort in this as a license for misinterpreting Scripture; rather, I take comfort in the fact that an Apostle did not find everything in Scripture easy to interpret or understand. The Westminster Confession of Faith, picking up on Peter's statement, suggests: "All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all..." (WCF 1.7). It may just as rightly be said that James, the brother of our Lord, wrote some things that are hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction. Not the least of these is the "less clear" passage found in James 2:14-26--with a specific focus on verse 21. What does James mean when he says, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?" How do we understand this in light of what the Apostle Paul says about justification in Romans 4:2-5, where we read:   

"For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about--but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Rom. 4:2-5)."

There are essentially four ways interpreters have sought to interpret James 2:14-26. Either (1) James and Paul are contradicting one another, or (2) James and Paul are teaching that our faith in Christ together with our Spirit-wrought good works form the basis of a final justification (i.e. the Roman Catholic position) or (3) James is speaking about an eschatological dimension of justification--in so much as believers are openly vindicated in accord with their good works, or (4) Paul is talking about our justification before God and James is talking about our justification before men. It is this fourth view that seems to fit in the exegetical context the best. According to this interpretation, Paul is talking about justifying faith in the Divine court and James is talking about saving faith as being evidenced in the human court. The following considerations serve to defend this position as the biblical position.

As with everything in the Bible, context is king. Just as the three laws of realty are "location, location, location," the three laws of biblical interpretation are "context, context, context." Related to this principles is the Reformation principle of  scriptura sui ipsius interpres (i.e. Scripture is its own interpreter). We will only and ever come to a right understanding of James 2:21 when we have first carefully considered it's immediate context and then the OT context from which James is drawing.

At the beginning of his epistle, James introduces the subject of testing in the life of believers. In chapter 2, the sincerity of faith is in view. Chapter 1 ends with James saying, "Whoever thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, this one's religion is useless." As chapter 2 develops, the idea of evidencing whether or not one has saving faith comes to the forefront. In order for someone to show whether or not they have saving faith, he or she must be tested. 

Related to the idea of testing, the context of James 2:21 also carries with it the idea of sincerity with regard to saving faith. This is the flip side of the coin. The pastoral question that James is dealing with is whether or not someone has saving faith vs. a mere intellectual profession of faith (which he essentially calls a demon-faith and a dead-faith). James Gidley helps us better understand the context of James' use of the word "justified" in 2:21 when he writes:

Some of James' hearers were using the doctrine of justification by faith alone as a pretext for being complacent about ungodly living. What better way to awaken them than by using words that at first glance seem to be a shocking departure from what they have been taught? James 2 is a bombshell that explodes carnal confidence at its foundation. The complacent can scarcely be moved by anything less.1

All of this leads naturally into the testing and faith-demonstrating of Abraham and Rahab. When we give consideration to James' statements about Abraham and Rahab, we must first understand something of his rationale for singling out these two figures. Both Abraham and Rahab are singled out to serve as examples of diverse individuals who possessed saving faith. Abraham was a man and Rahab was a woman. In Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female. Abraham was a Jew and Rahab was a Gentile. There is no distinction between Jew and Gentile in Christ.

In the second place, both Abraham and Rahab were tested before a watching world--their test is revealed in Scripture to serve as an example to us who are seeking to walk in their steps. For Abraham, the test to which he was put came 25-30 years after he first believed the promises of God. He believed the promises of God about Christ and was therefore justified once-and-for-ever in Gen. 12:1-3 and 15:6; then he offered Isaac (i.e. the one through whom the seed promises were to be initially fulfilled) in Genesis 22:1-19. This was the one-time test upon which James fixates our attention. There is nothing in the context that would suggest that James is speaking of an entire life of law-keeping (as some have mistakenly suggested). The law was not even given to God's people until 400 years after Abraham lived. The Scriptures are clear that "Abraham believed God," and--in one, definitive moment--"it was accounted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6). James is telling us that the declaration made in Genesis 15:6 was demonstrated to be true of Abraham in that he endured the test by faith (James 2:21-23). Abraham evidenced his saving and justifying faith by his act of obedience.

Rahab also heard the word of the Gospel. She heard about the exodus (i.e. the typical redemption that pointed to the spiritual redemption that God would provide in Christ), and she believed in the Covenant God of promise (Joshua 2:9-11). She, like Abraham, believed the Gospel (John 8:58; Gal. 3:8). She then acted in obedience because of the faith that she had in the Redeeming God of Israel. She demonstrated that she had saving faith by her reception and defense of the Lord's spies. It was her confidence and faith in the coming Christ that enabled her to receive and hide the spies. James nowhere intimates that Rahab had an entire life of law-keeping for her justification before God. 

James alluded to a single event in Abraham's life, as well as to a single event in Rahab's life, in order to show that they both had a sincere and living (i.e. saving) faith. Abraham and Rahab were both justified before God solely because they believed on Him who was to come; they were justified before men by their acting in accord with that faith in obedience. In this way, James is saying that they were justified before the watching world on account of the works that their saving faith produced. They had a saving faith that was demonstrated by their subsequent acts of obedience.

When we consider James' use of the word 'justified' in 2:21, one massively important interpretive principle must be understood:

The word 'justify' (δικαιω) and it's various forms is used several different ways in Scripture. Context always determines how it is used. It is true that the majority of Pauline uses of 'justify' have to do with the legal (forensic) standing that men have before God. Jesus, however, uses the word in Luke 7:35 to denote evidence, when he said of His own works bearing evidence to who He was, "wisdom is justified by her children." In other words, Jesus said, "I am shown to be who I am and who I say I am by the works that I do." This seems to be the exact same usage as that found in James 2. In fact, in the context, James says, "You show me your faith without your works..." and "I will show you my faith by my works..." It is clear that the human court is in view in James 2. In Romans 4, however, where the Apostle Paul says, "For if Abraham was justified by works he has something to boast about--but not before God," the Divine court is clearly in view.

The 19th Century Scottish theologian, James Buchanan, differentiated between justified in Paul and justified in James by the use of the terms actual justification and declarative justification (see Buchanan Justification pp. 223ff.). Accordingly, Paul speaks of actual justification before God and James speaks of declarative justification before men. The late professor John Murray--perhaps even more helpfully--employed the term declarative and demonstrative.3 Murray put declarative in the place where Buchanan had used the term actual and demonstrative where Buchanan had used declarative. Murray suggested that Paul refers to declarative justification and that James speaks of demonstrative justification. Under this explanation, God declares one righteous by faith alone in Christ alone, and the one who has been declared to be righteous then demonstrates that he or she is so by observable good works. J. Gresham Machen summed up the difference between the two justifications being spoken of when he wrote:

The faith which James is condemning is a mere intellectual ascent which has no effect upon conduct. The demons also he says, have that sort of faith, and yet evidently they are not saved (James 2:19). What Paul means by faith is something entirely different; it is not a mere intellectual ascent to propositions, but an attitude of the entire man by which the whole life is entrusted to Christ. In other words, the faith that James is condemning is not the same as the faith that Paul is commending.2

As we navigate through the pages of Scripture, we must be ever careful in our efforts to come to an understanding about the "less clear" portions of Scripture. We must gives ourselves to a prayerful consideration of the context. We must study the details of the Old Testament examples picked up in New Testament exposition. We must labor to understand the way that words are used. We must always try to find a resolution based on the more clear passages of Scripture. In this short study, Romans 4:2-5 is the "more clear" passage by which the "less clear" passage (James 2:14-26) must be understood. The explanation above is a brief attempt at resolving for us any seeming contradiction. Though not all passages are equally important to our salvation, to err in our understanding of James 2 is to jeopardize the Gospel itself. May God graciously keep us from ever doing so. 


1. Gidley, James S. James and Justification by Faith. New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Feb. 2005.

2. J. Grecham Machen Notes on Galatians (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1977) p.. 146

3. John Murray Romans pp. 350ff. 

*This post is a modified version of a post that originally appeared over at the Christward Collective.

Wisdom Christology in James and 1 John


In the previous post in this series, we briefly considered how Calvin's appreciation of wisdom theology is particularly present in his comments on the Johannine literature. In Calvin's commentary of 1 John, we discover one of the marks of the wisdom theology, namely, its appreciation of the transcendent nature of God's Word. For Calvin, The Word "which believers we have heard and believed" is the same Word who is from the beginning the divine Wisdom. We find this very clearly in the following comment by Calvin:

"Moreover, the term Word may be explained in two ways, either of Christ, or of the doctrine of the Gospel, for even by this is salvation brought to us. But as its substance is Christ, and as it contains no other thing than that he, who had been always with the Father, was at length manifested to men, the first view appears to me the more simple and genuine. Moreover, it appears more fully from the Gospel that the wisdom which dwells in God is called the Word."

The Word of God is a transcendent reality. In fact, it is the fundamental transcendent reality of our salvation. We also notice from Calvin's commentary that the Word of God has the capacity to enliven. Wisdom, as it is understood in Scripture, is far removed from the sort of abstract intellectualism that many associate with an education in philosophy, the humanities, and the sciences. Wisdom is a way of life, but more than that, it is a power and "sacred vitality". This, too, is a mark of wisdom theology. When the text speaks of the "Word of life", Calvin interprets this to mean the "vivifying Word." This vivifying "Word of life" was with the Father, according to the text. Calvin comments:

"This is true, not only from the time when the world was formed, but also from eternity, for He was always God, the fountain of life; and the power and the faculty of vivifying was possessed by His eternal wisdom."

As Calvin understood, the eternal Wisdom is a creative, redemptive, and sanctifying wisdom; therefore, this Wisdom is a fountain of life. This divine Wisdom is a redemptive, transforming power. The ability of the Word to transform human life is the basis of its authority and its glory. It is this Word of life - the divine Wisdom - which brings us into fellowship with God and restores the bond of love between believers and God, and between believers one with another.

A very different aspect of the biblical wisdom theology is found in the Epistle of James. James describes Christian wisdom - both its theoretical knowledge and practical application - as embodied within the covenant community. James, like the book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, is a collection of wise sayings on good conduct which reverberates with themes from the biblical wisdom tradition. Neither of these books tells a story nor develops a systematic line of thought. Typical of the wisdom writers (such as the sages of ancient Israel) is this delight in collecting proverbs on living the godly life.

As is well known, Luther had little appreciation for the moral concerns of James because it seemed to him to be be bogged down in works righteousness. Calvin was of a different mind, as he relates in the introduction to his commentary on James. In responding to the claim that James was not as clear on the subject of the grace of Christ as an apostle ought to be, Calvin commented:

"See how the writings of Solomon differ widely from the style of David. The former was concerned with the training of the outward man, and with handing down rules of social behavior, while the latter is noted for his profound attention to the spiritual worship of God, peace of mind, God's lovingkindness, and the free promise of salvation. Such diversity does not make us praise one and condemn the other."

This passage clearly indicates that Calvin recognized a "Solomonic theology", that is, a wisdom theology. By saying that James is to the rest of the New Testament as the writings of Solomon were to the Old Testament, we discover Calvin agrees in substance with what modern biblical scholarship has recognized concerning the strongly Semitic and sapiential character of James. The whole nature of Calvin's piety was positively disposed toward those beautiful passages in the Epistle of James which speak of the character of wisdom. Consider Calvin's comments on James 3:13-18:

"For James takes it as granted, that we are not wise, except when we are illuminated by God from above through his Spirit. However, then, the mind of man may enlarge itself, all its acuteness will be vanity; and not only so, but being at length entangled in the wiles of Satan, it will become wholly delirious... For wisdom requires a state of mind that is calm and composed, but envying disturbs it, so that in itself it becomes in a manner tumultuous, and boils up immoderately against others."

Consistent with the sages of Old Testament Israel, Calvin understands that wisdom is truly a divine gift. The notion that wisdom is obtained by asking God for it is rooted in the prayer of Solomon (1 Kings 3) and the relationship between wisdom being a gift and, therefore, the need to ask for it is developed in Wisdom of Solomon 8:17-9:18. In addition, because true wisdom comes "from above" it is inappropriate to boast about it. True wisdom is therefore humble. Calvin elaborated on this point further in his commentary, when he wrote:

"He now mentions the effects of celestial wisdom which are wholly contrary to the former effects. He says first that it is pure; by which term he excludes hypocrisy and ambition. He, in the second place, calls it peaceable, to intimate that it is not contentious. In the third place, he calls it kind or humane, that we may know that it is far away from that immoderate austerity which tolerates nothing in our brethren. He also calls it gentle or tractable; by which he means that it widely differs from pride and malignity. In the last place, he says that it is full of mercy, etc., while hypocrisy is inhuman and inexorable. By good fruits he generally refers to all those duties which benevolent men perform towards their brethren; as though he had said, it is full of benevolence. It hence follows, that they lie who glory in their cruel austerity."

It's clear that Calvin appreciated wisdom that was calm and well composed - the kind of wisdom that was learned but without pretension. Rather, Calvin admired simplicity, sincerity, and sobriety. Following the biblical wisdom tradition of the Old Testament, this sobriety is most clearly demonstrated in speech ethics (cf. James 3:1-12) and humility (cf. James 3:13-18). Calvin understood that true divine wisdom produces ethical fruit primarily because it is the "vivifying Word". Because this divine Word transform human lives, it is expected that the wisdom from above produces true humility, true learning, and true godliness. The Epistle of James taught exactly the sort of piety that he so much admired and that he lived to emulate throughout his life.

Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a peculiar sort of apologist for the spiritual earnestness he believed is demanded by the gospel and necessary to being human. It is not surprising, then, that Kierkegaard had much to say about despair before God (coram Deo) since spiritual despair is, in many ways, the great enemy of spiritual earnestness. The theme of spiritual despair, developed under various terms, runs throughout his literature and takes center stage at the culmination of his pseudonymous corpus in his 1849 masterpiece, Sickness unto Death. Not much later, Kierkegaard muses under his own name on what spiritual despair does to us before God's word (coram Scriptura) in his 1851 discourse, "What Is Required in Order to Look at Oneself with True Blessing in the Mirror of the Word?" Reading the latter in light of the former, as he intended, is instructive: my aim here is to draw out and give voice to his warning about the subversive exegetical danger of spiritual despair to would-be Bible readers.

Since there are many aspects to his analysis of spiritual despair and warning to Bible readers, I intend to develop this line of thought over a several posts, each one capable of standing on its own but better when held together. Along the way I hope to set out something of Kierkegaard's concept of spiritual despair, draw out several dimensions of Spiritual despair, and then observe how this analysis of despair applies to the dynamic of reading and interpreting God's word. Some readers will no doubt recognize similar themes in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Blaise Pascal, a number of Puritan and Nadere Reformatie (Second Reformation) writers, and perhaps others. The significance of spiritual despair has long been recognized in the Christian tradition and is inescapable among all who aspire to reflect soberly on living before God, few have given it the attention of Kierkegaard.

"What is Required?"

"What Is Required" is the first of the three discourses that make up Kierkegaard's little book, For Self-Examination. Dated the fifth Sunday after Easter, it is in fact a sermon on James 1:22-27:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

The spiritual distance between being a doer of the word who practices true religion before God and a mere hearer of the word is a matter of faith. The mere hearer of the word is just the sort of spiritually confused person who thinks she believes and perhaps claims she believes but whose life shows no evidence of faith apart from certain "counterfeit affections," as Edwards calls them (WJE, 2:379-80). "What good is it," James asks,

If someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?...[F]aith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead...You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!...[F]aith apart from works is useless (James 2:14, 17-20).

The person who has only the faith to hear but not to do does not have saving faith--the sort of earnest faith Westminster says "acts differently upon that which each particular passage [of Scripture] contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come" (WCF 14.2). The mere hearer of the word lacks or fails to live by this sort of faith and is therefore in what Kierkegaard calls despair.

Despair is the faithless, hopeless, and in a sense, loveless condition of not living for what is promised, desiring what is given, and doing what is required but rather as one "having no hope and without God in the world" (Eph 2:12). The one who lives by faith hears the promise that the doer who acts "will be blessed in his doing" and rises up in hope and does whatever is commanded in love--and is indeed blessed in the doing; the one who lives in despair, however, may hear the promise and even want to be blessed but fails to do what is written and enter into the joy of the benediction, the blessing that belongs to those who live according to this word. Faith is the difference.

Despair as Universal as Sin

For reasons rooted in Kierkegaard's broadly Augustinian anthropology, he views faith as essential to being human. This is not just a psychological point for him: faith is not just necessary for humans to have a sense of wholeness in life but is actually necessary to being whole. The very structure of being human is such, he argues, that we can only be what we were created and are called to be by resting in the One in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

As such, all humans are absolutely dependent on God not only for our objective existence in the world, as rocks and trees and birds depend on God, but also for our subjectivity--depending on him at the level of self-consciousness and personal identity, for our knowing and willing and desiring and doing in the stream of being and becoming that is our life. In Augustinian terms, only faith is able to settle our otherwise incurably "restless" hearts; in Pascalian terms, only faith is able to bring us into that communion with God that fills the "infinite abyss" in our souls; in Kierkegaardian terms, only faith enables us to be and become a true human self before God:

Every human existence that is not conscious of itself...before God,...every human existence that does not rest transparently in God,...whatever it achieves, be it most amazing, whatever it explains, be it the whole of existence, however intensively it enjoys life esthetically--every such existence is nevertheless despair SUD, 46 (XI 158).

If, he explains, in faith "the [human] self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God," then in despair the human self fails to be itself by not resting transparently in God. Every fallen person fails in just this way: fails at life's great "task" of being human before God and is thus in despair. Even those of us who are being delivered out of despair through faith are susceptible to despair and remain in some measure of despair insofar as our faith remains imperfect in this life.

Despair, therefore, is universal, This means none of us are absolutely trustworthy handlers of God's word--none of us are beyond the possibility of taking offense at what is written or being tempted to defend ourselves against the force of it in our lives. Though "no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account," in the weakness of our faith not one of us rests in him with perfect transparency. So Kierkegaard is convinced, at least; and convinced of this, he's also convinced we're all a little too willingly distracted and diverted before God's word even as we (pretend to) hear and read it.

Judgment According to Works

Part 6: Judgment According to Works (see below)

It is well nigh impossible to deny that Christians will be judged according to works when Christ returns (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:27; Jn. 5:28-29; Gal. 6:7-9; Rev. 20:13; 22:12). The question arises, then, how do we maintain the teaching of the passages above with the equally clear teaching that justification is received by faith alone? We do not, as I have written previously, hold to the Roman Catholic version of "two justifications." We hold to one justification by faith; but we must also grapple with the nature of true, saving faith, and the not too infrequent conditional language of the New Testament (see WCF 13.1, citing Heb. 12:14; 2 Cor. 7:1).
In relation to faith, Owen says: "For there is a faith whereby we are justified, which he who has shall be assuredly saved, which purifies the heart and works by love. And there is a faith or believing, which does nothing of all this; which [he] who has, and has no more, is not justified, nor can be saved" (see WCF 11.2). This concept forms the backbone of the judgment according to works.
Justification has both an "authoritative" aspect and a "declarative" (or "demonstrative") aspect. Thomas Goodwin points out that "the one [i.e., authoritative] is the justification of men's persons coram Deo, before God, as they appear before him nakedly, and have to do with him alone for the right to salvation; and so they are justified by faith without works" (Rom. 4:2-5) (see Works, 7:181ff.).
But there is a demonstrative aspect to our justification. God will, at the Day of Judgment, judge men and "put a difference between man and man, and that upon this account, that the one were true believers when he justified them; the other were unsound, even in their very acts of faith" (Goodwin) (Acts 8:13). God will therefore make evident, for all to see, the difference between those whom he has truly justified and those who have been left under wrath, even though they may have "professed" faith. Matthew 25:31-46 is instructive on this point.
Returning to the "right" versus "possession" distinction, Goodwin, who has affirmed that the right to salvation as received by faith alone, also posits: God will not "put the possession of salvation upon that private act of his own, without having anything else to show for it." This language is remarkably similar to Petrus van Mastricht: "God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10." This is not a "Puritan" distinctive, as some seem to think. Dozens of Continental theologians spoke this way.
The key in all of this is to understand that Goodwin is making an argument for God's own justification of himself at the Day of Judgment. God justifies apart from works, but he also will "go demonstratively to work" and clearly distinguish between a true believer versus a spurious believer. God will "justify his own acts of justification." Or, to put the matter another way, God will justify the faith of the believer who has been justified - the judgment will prove we had a lively faith that worked through love.
The contrast between Paul and James is then brought into clearer view: "In a word, Abraham's person, considered singly and alone, yes, as ungodly, is the object of Paul's justification without works, Rom. 4:3-5. But Abraham, as professing himself to have such a true justifying faith, and to have been justified thereupon, and claiming right to salvation by it, Abraham, as such, is to be justified by works" (Goodwin).
Goodwin speaks about what sense "a man may be said to be judged by his works at the latter day." All those judged will either be justified or condemned. "So there is no more danger to say, a man at the latter day shall be justified by his works, as evidences of his state and faith, than to say he shall be judged according thereto." He essentially argues that we will be justified by works, but only demonstratively as God justifies his own act of justification in each believer. After all, Christ speaks of a (demonstrative) justification according to works in Matthew 12:36-37, "...for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
Goodwin adds: "neither is it anywhere said, that God will judge men according to their faith only." (As Calvin says, justification "by faith alone" is ambiguous; the sense of "alone" has to be understood adverbially, not adjectively). "God will say, I am to judge thee so as every one shall be able to judge my sentence righteous together with me: 1 Cor. 4:5, the whole world may know that he justified one that had true faith indeed." The final judgment is as much about the vindication of the triune God as it is about true believers having their lives vindicated. 
The result of this, for Goodwin, is that "Paul's judging according to works, and James his justification by works, are all one, and are alike consistent with Paul's justification by faith only. For in the same epistle where he argues so strongly for justification by faith without works, as Rom. 3-4, he in chapter 2, also declares, that 'he will judge every man according to his works.'" 

Most of the Early Modern Reformed did not view Romans 2:7-11 as hypothetical, contrary to what some in the Reformed camp today have suggested. Rick Phillips has addressed this question in the past, but I remain concerned about some historical and exegetical issues made therin; his post also strikes me as far too defensive. Better, in my view, is the approach taken by Richard Gaffin in By Faith, Not By Sight
Should this cause people to despair regarding the future judgment? Only if one is a bona fide hypocrite. Christ will rightfully condemn the hypocrites in the church (Matt. 25:41-46). They are marked out as those who did not do good works. They are those who neglect the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23).
Here is the good news for those who have a true, lively faith: the resurrection will precede the judgment (Larger Catechism, 88; 2 Cor. 5:10). Based on 1 John 3:2, we shall see Christ and be immediately transformed by the sight (beatific vision) of him. We shall appear, then, in a manner of speaking, as already justified at the judgment. Remember, when we first believed, we received the "right to life." This is the glory of justification (Rom. 5:1; 8:1). Nothing can separate us from God's love, especially at the judgment.
We do not need to fear the final judgment if we are children of God. But, as children of God, glorified in the presence of Christ, we "must [nevertheless] 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 Cor. 5:10). And, yes, there will be those in the church who will not do so well at the final judgment because their faith was dead (i.e., did not produce fruit, Jn. 15:2-5, 10, 16).

One final thought. It occurs to me that some speak of the final judgment in a sub-trinitarian way. It is all about declarative justification for some. Now, of course, declarative justification gives us the right to life. Only the imputed righteousness of Christ can withstand the severity of God's judgment. But, demonstrative justification, as I have highlighted above, is the Father's approval of the Spirit's work - that is, the Spirit of Christ - in his people because of our union with the Savior. 

The Father who gave two gifts to us, the Son and the Spirit, will look upon us as justified in Christ and sanctified in Christ by the Spirit; and he will be well pleased with his work. He will accept us for Christ's sake and reward and vindicate us because of Christ's Spirit, who has enabled us to do good works, which were prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).  

So, it seems to me, we need to do a better job - at least, from what I've been able to read - of describing the final judgment in explicitly trinitarian terms. To that end, I believe the account above aims to do just that.

If there is a better way to bridge together the freeness of justification by faith, the conditional language of Scripture (Rom. 8:13), and the fact that Christians will be judged according to what they have done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10), I'd be very interested in such an account. But I trust and hope the basic map laid out above, with help from a well-respected Westminster divine, is faithful to the overall teaching of the Scriptures. 

I do wonder, given the zeal of some today, whether Goodwin might not find himself in some trouble in certain Presbyteries, and no amount of squirming on his part ("hey, I wrote the Confession") will absolve him from his errors.