Four Views on The Role of Works at the Final Judgment

Chris Bruno
Four Views on The Role of Works at the Final Judgment. Counterpoints: Bible and Theology. Edited by Alan P. Stanley. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 234 pp. $17.99. 

This book, edited by Alan Stanley, addresses four major views on the role of works at the final judgment. In light of the recent debates between John Piper and N.T. Wright, the proliferation of justification talk in the last few decades, and the emergence of the "post-New Perspective" era, the question the role of works at the judgment is an important one. While the strength of their respective arguments varies, each of the contributors presents his position and the biblical evidence supporting it quite clearly. In his introductory comments, Stanley frames the discussion well and reminds us of both the importance of this debate and the necessity of careful thinking and listening as we enter the discussion. Moreover, even though some may not love the "multiple views" books that are being published at what seems like an ever-increasing pace, I have found that these books are worthwhile tools when read carefully and thoroughly. While these volumes don't exactly fit in with those Christian books that are made into movies, the proliferation of these sorts of books are helpful, for they force us to sit down and wrestle with the issues and interact with perspectives that are outside of our comfort zone. In fact, if thinking outside of our traditions and positions is the goal of these sorts of books, then this new volume in Zondervan's "Counterpoints: Bible and Theology" series has hit the target. 

As we consider the four views in the book, three of the contributors agree that faith and works are both necessary for final salvation; however, they disagree about the relationship between the two and the contribution of works in particular. One contributor, Robert Wilkin, sees no necessary role for good works in the life of the believer or at the judgment. Therefore, we will begin with this position and then move to the conversation between the last three contributors (Thomas Schreiner, James Dunn, and Michael Barber).   

In the first essay, Robert Wilkin, executive director of the Grace Evangelical Society, argues the "free grace" position. In short, Wilkin's argument is that works will determine rewards but not salvation at the judgment. Arguing from texts that emphasize the security of those who believe, especially in John's Gospel, Wilkin insists that the New Testament knows nothing of the necessity of obedience for true believers. For example, in the parable of the unfaithful servants in Matt 24, when the master returns and finds the unfaithful servants, he "will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt 24:51). This single verse seems to be quite devastating to Wilkin's argument. However, he responds, "This refers to a painful experience in which the servant is verbally cut up at a future judgment" (p. 35). Wilkins writes a few pages later, "Many would agree that there is a necessary connection between believing in Jesus and obeying his commandments. I would not" (p. 39). Quite frankly, these interpretations twist the Scriptures in a dangerous way. 

In short, I found Wilkin's position to be the least defensible and most strained in the book. It is built on a suspect dispensational reading about multiple judgments, it assumes a rather unbiblical view of faith as mere mental assent (to the point of nearly explicitly affirming the position argued against in James 2), and, as seen in his explanation of Matt 24 and many other similar texts, it is astonishingly unwilling to deal with the clear evidence of the text.

In the church where I serve, we have many younger believers. I would be scared to put a copy of Wilkin's chapter into their hands, lest they assume we can continue in sin that grace might abound. While I suspect that the supporters of the "Free Grace" movement will insist otherwise, it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that Wilkins's reading of Scripture is shaped by his presuppositions about faith and salvation. While we all recognize that we cannot escape presuppositions, his manipulation of texts that clearly teach the necessity of good works as a result of faith strains the breaking point of credulity. As the western world becomes less biblically literate we cannot afford to shape the Scripture to fit our inclinations. It must shape us. My fundamental fear with Wilkins's essay is that he has failed to do this. He has come to the text with the assumption that, come what may, he will interpret the texts to support his view. Therefore, Schreiner is likely correct in his response to Wilkin's twisting of the text: "No evidence could ever be adduced that would prove the contrary [of Wilkin's view]. For even if the Bible were to say, 'Good works are necessary for eternal life and to escape hell,' it seems that Wilkin would say, 'Eternal life and hell have a different meaning here'" (p. 55). 

In spite of Wilkin's repeated insistence to the contrary, the Bible is very clear that faith and works are inseparable. Or, as James puts it, "faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (Jas 2:17). What is not as clear at times, however, is the exact relationship between faith and works. This is the question with which the last three contributors wrestle, and all three men provide different answers. However, when the smoke clears, it does seem that only one answer accounts for the diverse melodies found throughout the NT without the symphony of Scripture going out of tune. However, in order to see this clearly, we will need to move to the final contributor and then work backward.

The last contributor is Michael Barber, professor of Theology, Scripture, and Catholic Thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University. Given his title and institution, it should not be a surprise that Barber unapologetically supports the traditional Roman Catholic position. Barber argues, "The Catholic view of good works at the final judgment seeks to explain the entirety of the biblical witness without minimizing either passages that discuss the priority of God's grace or texts highlighting the role attributed to good works" (p. 162). In this reading, Barber clearly affirms the good works of a believer contribute to his or her salvation.

Moreover, while Barber affirms that justification is rooted in a forensic declaration, he also argues that it includes the process of transformation that will result in salvation on the last day. But let us be clear--Barber is not talking about works as evidence of salvation or as a secondary basis for final justification. Rather, the works of a believer clearly contribute to his or her merit on the last day. In fact, while evangelicals and even many Catholics have relegated them to the dustbin, Barber reintroduces the famous judgment day scales upon which our works are weighed. Citing with approval texts that refer to the weighing of our deeds, Barber seems to affirm that "salvation depends on which weighs more heavily: one's good deeds or bad deeds" (p. 173). Therefore, it also seems that every believer must accrue his personal treasury of merit. While, to his credit, Barber is quick to fight against Pelagianism, insisting that "the good works of the believer are the good works accomplished by Christ in him or her" (p. 180), they are nevertheless our works. However, because "Christ lives in me," Barber contends, I am able to make such a contribution to my salvation through my own works that they are actually considered salvific.   

While I appreciate Barber's desire to take the warnings and commands about good works seriously, I don't think that he reckons just as seriously with the NT's statements about the fundamental inability of human beings to justify themselves. Also, while he speaks of saving works, he does not explain what role works actually play. If indeed they are placed on the scale, is it as simple as a quid pro quo transaction? 

Therefore, while Barber's essay is to be commended for taking seriously the necessity of both faith and works in the NT, he does not consider the difference between causal and consequent necessities and, as a result, mistakes works as a causal foundation for salvation.

When we move to the essay by well-known NT scholar James D.G. Dunn, we are starting to get closer to a solution. Not surprisingly, Dunn argues for a New Perspective reading of Paul. Yet he also affirms that the apostle does indeed teach that the initial declaration in justification is indeed on the basis of faith alone. However, Dunn is quick to move to the conditionality of salvation. Thus, as he argues elsewhere (1),  Dunn claims that Paul's theology of salvation fits neatly within a modified covenantal nomism framework. That is to say, you get in by faith, but you stay in by the "obedience of faith."

Dunn would be quick to add as well that Paul's theology of salvation is not so neat and tidy. As NT scholars well know, Dunn would not be Dunn without emphasizing a little diversity in the NT. In this essay, he also emphasizes the diversity within the writings of Paul himself. He insists, "there is arguably as much place for contextual theology as there is for contextual ethics" (p. 107). Therefore, as we work to resolve the tension between faith and works in Paul (and the rest of the NT, for that matter), "we may simply have to accept, embarrassing as it may be, that we cannot discern an appropriate explanation that is both coherent and satisfying" (p. 137).

In spite of his rhetoric, it is not altogether clear that Dunn has been willing to let Paul's statements about the necessity of both faith and works rest without attempting to reconcile them himself. In fact, as I read his essay, it struck me that, at the end of the day, his argument suggests a fundamentally Wesleyan perspective, for in his readings of Paul's warnings, he sees "the loss of the prospect of resurrection life" as a very real possibility for true believers (p. 127). As Schreiner observes in his response to Dunn, "The promises are conditioned by the warnings, so that the warnings receive priority rather than the promises" (p. 150).

If you are hanging with this review to this point, you likely know which position I find most persuasive. Put simply, Schreiner's argument is that while justification is by faith alone, good works are necessary evidence of that justification at the final judgment. Among evangelicals who take the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Scriptures seriously, I do not see how we can avoid some version of this view. 

While some might disagree with Schreiner's argument for the non-hypothetical interpretation of Rom 2 (that is to say, Paul is actually speaking of believers who will demonstrate their faith by their works), I think his emphasis on the role of the Spirit in v. 29 makes a strong point in favor of his case. Regardless of whether one agrees with this interpretation or others, texts like 1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21 make it clear that Paul saw good works as the necessary fruit of justification. However, the necessity of good works does not, for Paul or the rest of the NT writers, make these good works foundational for salvation. The only foundation for our salvation, Schreiner rightly argues, is Christ, to whom we are united by faith, apart from works of law. But this does not mean we can deny the necessity of good works as a result of justification. Therefore, Schreiner is correct to observe, "Some worry that the necessity of good works for final salvation denies the grace of the gospel, but we must be careful that we are not more Pauline than Paul!" (p. 85). 

While Wilkin takes the promises and assurances of security seriously, he mutes the transforming power of the Spirit, the reality of the new birth, and the necessary fruit that union with Christ will produce. By removing good works from the Christian life, he puts many Christians in danger of judgment. On the other hand, Barber rightly emphasizes the necessity of good works, but fails to see our works, even Spirit-empowered good works, cannot be regarded as perfect righteousness and therefore contribute to our salvation. And Dunn, while claiming that it is unnecessary to resolve the tension between the promise of salvation by faith alone and the necessity of good works, actually resolves the tension by prioritizing warnings over promises. 

While one might disagree with the nuances of his view, Schreiner's view seems most consistent with the biblical evidence. Good works provide the evidence on the last day that one has actually been saved and is a member of the new covenant. 
Much more could be said about the arguments from all three contributors. This book is certainly worthy of a careful reading and consideration by pastors and all Christians who wish to understand the importance of good works in the life of the Christian. However, it is fitting to end this review by noting that, in spite of the many advances in our knowledge of first century Judaism along with the language, culture, and historical settings of the NT, the historic Reformed Protestant position remains the best explanation of the totality of the Scriptures' teaching on the relationship between faith and good works. Nearly 500 years after it was first penned, Calvin's summary in the Institutes of the Christian Religion remains one of the clearest and most faithful on the relationship between faith and works:  
Now, both repentance and forgiveness of sins - that is, newness of life and free reconciliation - are conferred on us by Christ, and both are attained by us through faith. As a consequence, reason and the order of teaching demand that I begin to discuss both at this point. However, our immediate transition will be from faith to repentance. For when this topic is rightly understood it will better appear how man is justified by faith alone, and simple pardon; nevertheless actual holiness of life, so to speak, is not separated from free imputation of righteousness. Now it ought to be a fact beyond controversy that repentance not only constantly follows faith, but is also born of faith. For since pardon and forgiveness are offered through the preaching of the gospel in order that the sinner, freed from the tyranny of Satan, the yoke of sin, and the miserable bondage of vices, may cross over into the Kingdom of God, surely no one can embrace the grace of the gospel without betaking himself from the errors of his past life into the right way, and applying his whole effort to the practice of repentance. (2)

Chris Bruno (Ph.D., Wheaton College) is a pastor at Harbor Church in Honolulu, HI. He also serves with the Antioch School Hawai'i and Northland International University.


1. See, for example, his discussion of final justification and judgment according to works in James D. G. Dunn, The New Perspective on Paul (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 71-97. 

2. Calvin, Inst. III.iii.1, pp. 592-93.