Christians, justification, and the final judgment

One of the more perplexing dilemmas for many evangelicals is the spectre of a final judgment or evaluation of our Christian faithfulness and obedience on the last day. Our present assurance of complete forgiveness, the unmerited adoption into God’s family, along with every other glorious blessing encircled by the doctrine of justification by faith alone, can make a final judgment of works seem redundant at best and baffling at worst. How can it not corrode that precious confidence the Gospel entitles us to enjoy? Why is it even necessary if we are fully acquitted in Christ? What could possibly be at stake? The very suggestion appears to jar with the full sufficiency of Christ’s saving work.

The fact is, in several places the New Testament anticipates the genuine reality of judgment for believers. Famously, Jesus pictures a final separation of the righteous from the wicked, as a shepherd distinguishes his sheep from the goats. One way or another, the Son of Man will judge people according to the way they have treated him and the least of his brothers (Matt 25.31-46). Elsewhere Jesus refers to an ultimate assessment of every careless word (Matt 12.36-7). Likewise, the Apostle Paul indicates that a person’s ministry will be exposed and tested by fire on judgment day (1 Cor 3.12-15). And in the most unambiguous terms of all, he declares, 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 (2 Cor 5.10). Beyond these direct references to judgment, we might add Christ’s warnings about fruitless branches (Matt 7.19; John 15.2), alongside his expectation that only those who do the will of his Father will enter the kingdom (Matt 7.21, 24-27). Not to be forgotten either is James’s insistence that faith without works is dead , together with his notoriously challenging conclusion, a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jas 2.24. Cf., 14-26).

Since the Reformation at least, passages like these have generated a great deal of controversy concerning the nature of salvation, and particularly the doctrine of justification. For instance, what does Paul mean when he says, it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom 2.13)? Protestants have classically taken him to be pointing to the perfect standard of divine judgment no sinner can attain. Christians are those who have been justified, or put right with God, not by doing the law, but by faith in a perfect Saviour who has stood in their place. However, some wonder if Paul here really means to say that Christians who are now justified by faith alone, will somehow finally be justified on judgment day by faith together with the fruit of obedience the Holy Spirit has produced. Certainly, Roman Catholicism traditionally teaches a two-stage justification, where a person’s justification begins in the present through the gift of faith, but ultimately depends on a final assessment of faith and a Christian’s Spirit-produced works of charity.

There are obviously various considerations relevant to each of these passages which we cannot resolve here. Nonetheless, given these ongoing debates about a believer’s judgment and justification, it is worth briefly reacquainting ourselves with the classic approach to this question forged at the Reformation. In a short piece like this, alas we have to content ourselves with all the inadequacies of a mere outline. But an outline might at the very least help us get our bearings.

The first thing to notice is that against the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of a two-stage justification, the Reformation consistently emphasised a single, unified justification where a sinner is completely pardoned by God, and granted the legal right to every blessing of salvation through faith in Christ. Put simply, justification is a privilege enjoyed by faith alone ( sola fide ), through Christ alone and his perfect sacrificial substitution for sinners ( solo Christo ). Because faith trusts Christ to be a sufficient and exclusive saviour, it inherently renounces all confidence in itself or in any work of righteousness.[1] In other words, the sole foundation of our justification is Christ’s objective work on our behalf. This is why the language of Christ’s imputed righteousness needs to be reaffirmed as something unnegotiably fundamental to the Reformational doctrine of justification. It simply means the only reason a sinner may be forgiven and saved by God is because all Christ’s perfections and sufficient saving work are legally counted as theirs by faith.[2]

Needless to say, this formulation of justification emerged from sustained theological engagement with the New Testament, and particularly with the writings of Paul. But flowing out of this formulation there are two basic theological reasons early Protestants strongly resisted any talk of a two-stage justification.

First, such a prospect unavoidably questions the objective sufficiency of Christ’s substitution for sinners. If we presently enjoy the legal right to every blessing of salvation by faith alone, why might God require works to justify us on judgment day? Someone may fairly point out that these works Christians produce are really the fruit of Christ’s Spirit. It is not as if we will crassly earn our future justification through our own efforts. God will simply recognise the evidence of his own work within us, and justify us accordingly. The Reformation still saw a problem with this, however. No matter how much we stress that our works of love obedience are really effects of Christ powerfully present within us, we cannot extract ourselves from these acts. They are still in an important sense ours. And therefore, if our justification ultimately depends on these works, we can no longer say that Christ’s work is solely sufficient to grant us the right to salvation.

There is a second problem with a two-stage justification. If, by faith in Christ, apart from works, and on account of his righteousness alone, we are justified and freed from any charge of God’s law in the present, why would we need to answer a further case before God to be justified on judgment day? Is it that God’s law, or the Gospel for that matter, somehow brings a new charge for us to answer before we are finally justified—that we prove the genuineness of our faith through the evidence of works? If so, it means God’s present declaration of justification is provisional at best. There may be no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus, but who can be absolutely sure if there won t be then? The early Protestants realised this prospect casts a shadow over God’s Gospel promises. Two-stage justification inevitably undermines confidence in Christ’s finished work and replaces it with anxiety, or worse still, complacency over his unfinished work within us. This is why the Reformation considered it to be a Gospel issue , serious enough to cause a heart breaking rupture in fellowship.

Early Protestants were acutely conscious of the charge that justification by faith alone leads to license or lawlessness ( antinomianism ). They were equally concerned to uphold the New Testament teaching about the final judgment. There is no question that on judgment day Christian works of love and obedience will be summoned and evaluated as necessary signs of genuine faith, inasmuch as the Spirit unfailingly produces these fruit in all those truly ingrafted into Christ. It is not so much that God himself will somehow need the evidence of works to confirm those whom he has already united to Christ by faith, justified, and pardoned once for all. But it may be that these fruit are brought forth to silence any objection—from Satan, or even from a believer’s own frail conscience—to vindicate God’s glorious work in his elect. To use Augustine’s oft-quoted expression, God will crown his own works in us.

On this basis, Calvin and others had no difficulty saying that we ordinarily come to possess eternal life through the path of good works—not at all because we earn the right to it by works, or even that we are justified before God by them—but purely in recognition that they are the necessary, Spirit-produced fruit of true faith.[3] I say ordinarily because there is always the case of a genuine believer who dies before there is much real opportunity for these fruit to emerge, like the thief on the cross (Lk 23.40-3). But on judgment day, false faith will undoubtedly be exposed by its enduring lack of real fruit (cf., Matt 7.19, 21-7). Some early Protestants were even happy to refer to a judgment-day justification of our faith and works—both in the sense that works evidence or vindicate genuine faith (as James speaks), and in the sense that even our best Spirit-produced works are tainted by sin and need to be pardoned by Christ. But this was never understood to be a final stage or even aspect of that justification by faith alone, through Christ alone, which grants us the blessing of salvation and eternal life both now and in the future.

To be sure, then, on the last day our actions will be judged, rewarded, and even justified in a narrow and distinct sense. That should spur us on to love and good deeds, not in fear, but as adopted children of God who have been re-wired to seek our Father’s pleasure and approval. Indeed, there is truly is no place for fear because God’s final sentence of eternal life rests on an entirely separate foundation—Christ—and he will merely recognise what is true of us by faith alone, now and then. In fact, this is precisely the truth that liberates us for a life of love. Genuine Christian faith recognises God’s free mercies in Christ for what they are. And faith’s very awareness of divine grace sows the seed of delight that cannot but germinate into a life of Christian love and obedience that will glorify God on the last day (cf., Tit 2.12).

The Rev Dr Andrew Leslie


[1] This is what John Calvin meant when he referred to faith as something merely passive as regards justification: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), III.xiii.5.

[2] The Belgic Confession (1561) states the truth simply enough: [T]o speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all his merits, and so many holy works, which he hath done for us and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with him in all his benefits, which when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins (Art. XXII).

[3] Calvin, Institutes (1559), III.xiv.21; III.xviii.1, 2.

Eliza, Lady Darling

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