According to the reformational understanding of justification, the final judgment, though it involves God’s public acquittal of the believer, is not to be understood as a kind of final or future justification. Because justification is a definitive pronouncement of the believer’s acceptance with God on the basis of the saving work of Christ, the final judgment publicly confirms but does not determine the believer’s salvation and acceptance with God. Good works, which play an important role in the final acquittal of believers, are not the basis or reason for their acquittal, but the evidences and tokens of the genuineness of their faith. These works, which are themselves the fruits of God’s gracious working by His Spirit, are rewarded, but this reward is a reward of grace and not of merit. Believers will not be vindicated in the final judgment unless their faith has been active in good works. However, this does not mean that the good works that faith produces are the ultimate reason for their salvation and acquittal.
The question that must now be addressed is whether this understanding of the relation between justification and the final judgment is in accord with the apostle Paul’s writings. One way to put the question would be to ask, is this reformational view one that is born merely out of desire to protect the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone? Or does it represent a fair treatment of Paul’s understanding of the final judgment and the role of good works?
The Necessity of Sanctification
Before directly addressing the apostle Paul’s understanding of the final judgment in relation to good works, we need to observe that his epistles clearly teach that believers, who are justified freely on account of the righteousness of Christ, are sanctified through union with Christ. Those who receive Christ for righteousness also receive Him for sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). However emphatic may be the apostle’s declaration of free justification, he nowhere countenances the conclusion that this is at the expense of the work of the Spirit of Christ in renewing believers in the way of obedience to the “law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). Expressed theologically, the apostle Paul affirms that the gospel of God’s grace in Christ includes both the benefits of justification and sanctification. Antinominianism, which teaches that the free grace of God permits the believer to live indifferently with respect to the requirements of the law, is expressly rejected as a false conclusion that fails to appreciate the fullness of what salvation brings in the life of the believer. Though justification is a principal benefit of the gospel, it may not be separated from the grace of renewal by the working of the Spirit of sanctification. Salvation includes not only the grace of acceptance with God but also the grace of transformation after the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).
Without attempting to canvass comprehensively Paul’s epistles with respect to this teaching of the necessity of sanctification, we need only consider a few instances where the apostle emphasizes the indispensable place of the obedience of faith in the Christian life.
One of the more remarkable instances of this emphasis is to be found in Romans 6 and following, a section of the epistle that follows immediately upon the heels of the apostle’s treatment of the theme of free justification.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Vv. 1–4)
In this transitional portion of the argument in Romans, Paul anticipates a possible response to his preceding exposition of God’s “super-abounding grace” in Jesus Christ. If salvation is a free gift, which is granted solely upon the basis of the obedience of Christ (Rom. 5:12–21), the conclusion seems to follow that the more we sin, the more God’s grace is magnified. What possible motive or reason for obedience remains, if we justified by faith alone apart from works performed in obedience to the law? Remarkably, without backtracking from his insistence upon the grace of free justification, the apostle simply reminds his readers that those who are united to Christ by faith are thereby participants in His death and resurrection. By virtue of their incorporation into Christ, they have died to sin and are being raised in newness of life (v. 5). Through union with Christ, believers are “set free from sin” and made alive to God (vv. 7, 11). Therefore, to conclude that believers may live as they please because they are saved by grace alone represents a fundamental failure to comprehend what it means to be united with Christ.
The believer’s new life in union with Christ is not an optional “extra,” but an integral aspect of all that is entailed by being united to Christ by faith and indwelt of His Spirit. Consequently, the apostle sums up his response to any attempt to use the grace of God as a license for sin in the opening part of Romans 8: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (vv. 9-10).
This theme of “life in the Spirit” is sounded at various important points in Paul’s epistles. Fellowship with Christ, who is “become a life-giving Spirit” (II Corinthians 3:17; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:45), necessarily means that the believer no longer lives in the environment of the flesh but in the environment of the Spirit. In his letter to the Galatians, which primarily argues that believers are justified by faith and not by the works of the law, Paul insists that those who are no longer “under” the curse of the law may not use their new freedom as an opportunity for the flesh (Galatians 5:13).
Believers have been crucified with Christ so that the life they now live is no longer their own because Christ lives in them (Galatians 2:1920). Accordingly, they must “walk by the Spirit” and bear the “fruit of the Spirit [in] love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23). The same faith that receives the gracious promise of God and is opposed to the way of justification by works, is also a faith that “works through love” (Galatians 5:6). Just as in Romans 6, so in Colossians 3 the apostle appeals to the reality of the believer’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection as a basis for his exhortations to believers to live in a distinctive manner: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Within the setting of this reality of incorporation into Christ, crucified and risen from the dead, the apostle urges believers to “put to death” the passions and ways of the flesh (v. 5), to “put off the old self with its practices” (v. 9), and to “put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (v. 10; cf. II Corinthians 3:18).
Because justified believers are being progressively sanctified in union with Christ whose Spirit indwells them, the apostle Paul is also able to speak of their salvation as a still future reality. Indeed, only those in union with Christ who continue in the way of faith and obedience will obtain the end of their salvation, eternal life (Romans 6:22). The urgency of such persistence in the Christian life is the setting for Paul’s use of the metaphor of the Christian life as a race. As he reminds the Corinthian church, not all athletes who compete in the race obtain the prize. What is required is the kind of self-control and persistence in the course that will enable the athlete to finish the race and not be disqualified (I Corinthians 9:24–27). Believers are exhorted to work out their own salvation, because it is God who works in them both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12). Full participation in Christ, not only in the likeness of His death but also in the likeness of His resurrection, will only be obtained when perfection is reached in reason, the apostle confesses thata yet future state of glory. For this reason, the apostle confesses that he has not already obtained this, nor is he perfect, but “I press on to make it my own, because Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).
Thus, the fullness of salvation includes more than God’s act of free justification, which frees the believer from condemnation and death. It also includes an incorporation into Christ after whose likeness the believer is being conformed. Since this saving incorporation into Christ and His likeness has a future end or goal in view, Paul speaks of the believer’s “hope of salvation,” which suggests that from the vantage point of the future salvation is yet to be obtained (I Thessalonians 5:8, 9). The salvation of believers is, accordingly, nearer than when they first believed, though not yet their complete possession (Romans 13:11). Because salvation, whether in its present, partial realization or its future, consummate perfection, involves a complete transformation after the likeness of Christ, it can be described as an ongoing, yet-unfinished, process (cf. I Corinthians 1:18; II Corinthians 3:18).
A Final Judgment According to Works
Within the context of Paul’s insistence upon the necessary transformation of the life of the believer by the Spirit of Christ, it is not surprising to find that he links the procurement of the fullness of salvation in the future with a final judgment according to works. The believer’s present enjoyment of salvation through union with the crucified and risen Christ (“already”) does not represent the fullness of salvation that will be enjoyed when the end comes (“not yet”). According to the apostle, the present experience of salvation is an anticipation and beginning of a more glorious future of consummate blessing. To use the metaphor of harvest, the “first fruits” of Christ’s resurrection life, which are shared with believers through union with Christ by His indwelling Spirit (Romans 8:1–11), are the beginnings of the complete harvest, when all that believers presently enjoy in the form of an earnest or downpayment will be received in full (II Corinthians 5:45). The obtaining of salvation in its fullest measure will only occur within the setting of Christ’s coming and the final judgment.
The prospect of a final judgment is, therefore, a central and inescapable feature of the future. This final judgment is an unavoidable prospect for believers and unbelievers alike, all of whom will be judged according to their works and their respective responses to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even believers, who enjoy the grace of acceptance with God on the basis of Christ’s saving work, will be subject to a future judgment. Though they presently know that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), this does not exempt them from a future judgment that will include their public acquittal before others. Nor does it require the conclusion that good works are not a necessary fruit of faith, which confirm the believer’s incorporation into Christ and full participation in His death and resurrection.
Some passages in Paul’s epistles speak of the final judgment in the most comprehensive terms. All people, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether believers or non-believers, will be judged by God. In the opening chapters of Romans, which present the universal sin and divine condemnation that hold sway over all flesh, the apostle emphasizes that all will be judged by God in “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). At that time God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (vv. 6-8). This judgment will fall upon all who have sinned, whether those who sinned “under the law” or “without the law.” No one will be spared the judgment of God “on that day,” says the apostle, “when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (v. 16).
The point of the apostle’s insistence upon this universal judgment of God is to insist that all sinners, Jews as well as Gentiles, will not escape being examined by God and found guilty and worthy of condemnation. There is no possible escape available to anyone by means of the law. The advantage of having the law and oracles of God, which distinguishes the Jews from the Gentiles, will not safeguard those who do not do what the law requires, but rather live in disobedience to it. The principle the apostle enunciates in his argument is that all will be judged according to what they have received, and no one will be found acceptable to God by that standard: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12).
In other passages, the apostle speaks of the final judgment particularly with respect to its application to those who obey or disobey the gospel. These passages describe the final judgment as the occasion for a separation between those who are saved and those who are not saved. In the case of non-believers who have disobeyed the gospel of Jesus Christ, the final judgment holds only a fearful certainty of divine wrath and displeasure. In a passage remarkable for its vivid imagery, the apostle portrays the second coming of Christ as a time when Christ will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (II Thessalonians 1:7-8). The coming of Christ promises rest to His beleaguered people, but terrible distress for those who have rejected Him. In the case of believers, the final judgment promises the fullness of salvation, provided they continue in the course of faith and obedience (II Corinthians 11:15).
Whether in those passages that speak of God’s judgment in the most comprehensive terms or in others that speak more particularly of the judgment of believers, it is clear that this judgment will be “according to” works. When defending his own apostolic ministry, Paul is not content to appeal to his own judgment concerning himself. Rather, he appeals to the judgment of the Lord who will either vindicate or condemn his ministry. In the face of opposition and division within the Corinthian church, he notes that it is the “lord who judges me” (and, by implication, all believers). There is a day coming, he adds, that will not be a day in a human court but in the court of the Lord. “Therefore,” he warns, “do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (II Corinthians 4:5). The clearest statement of a final judgment of believers, however, is found in II Corinthians 5:10: “For 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.”
If we consider the features of the apostle Paul’s teaching that we have considered thus far, the general pattern seems fully consonant with what we have summarized as the view of the Reformation. Because justification is always accompanied by sanctification in the lives of those who are in union with Christ by faith, the apostle insists that only those whose lives confirm the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ will be saved. Salvation, in its fullest and comprehensive meaning, includes the consummation of that saving work in the lives of believers that begins in this life but that is only perfected in the life to come. Justification, which is a principal benefit of the gospel, does not encompass the whole of the believer’s salvation. Those whom God justifies He also sanctifies. Consequently, no one will be saved who does not exhibit the fruits of the Spirit’s working in his or her life, and who does not persist in the way of new obedience. This is the context for Paul’s clear teaching that all will be judged in the future and that this final judgment will be according to works. The final vindication or acquittal of believers will be according to their works, which confirm and evidence the genuineness of their faith and participation in Christ. However, despite this clear emphasis upon a final judgment and vindication that will be according to works, nowhere in Paul’s writings is this final judgment described as a kind of completion or final chapter in the believer’s justification. The grace of free justification remains the basis for the believer’s confidence of acceptance with God.
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is an the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is also a contributing editor for The Outlook.