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What Role Do Works Play At Final Judgment for the Believer? A New Book Brings Fresh Clarity
This column is the first of a series appearing on Tuesdays from pastor Jeremy Bouma, who has joined the Koinonia Blog as a managing editor. The column will expose and engage new works of biblical and theological scholarship.
"It's the end of time, the place is heaven; the scene resembles a courtroom…Heaven and earth flee from [God's] presence. But the dead, great and small, stand before the throne, where very thick books lie open. Another book, the book of life is opened. And the dead are judged according to the information in the books." (9)
So begins Alan P. Stanley's introduction to a new contribution to biblical and theological discourse, The Role of Works at the Final Judgment. It's a topic that's been debated hard for generations in scholarly journals and monographs. Yet it's a topic that's as important to the wooden pew as it is to the Ivory Tower. Stanley quotes a former student-turned-pastor to stress this point: "This is not just a scholarly debate...to get this wrong is serious."
Indeed. Hence this important new book that brings fresh clarity to a staid conversation about a crucial question: What role do works play at final judgment for believers? Stanley's introduction helps tee-up the anticipated conversation about our crucial question in three ways: judgment in Scripture; the nature of who is judged and how; and the faith-works tension.
What Do We Find In Scripture?
Stanley starts with the Hebrew Scriptures: (pgs. 9-10)
- God is the rightful "Judge of all the earth" (Gen 18)
- No one will be exempt (1 Sam 2; Gen 18; 1 Chron 16)
- Judgment is according to people's works (Job 34; Ps 62; Prov 24)
- Judgment will bring "every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil" (Eccl 12)
- God will judge with justice and equity (Gen 18)
- The wicked "will not stand in judgement" (Ps 1) while the righteous "will sing before the Lord" (Ps 98)
Of course, the New Testament builds on what the Old Testament established: (pg. 10)
- God has "set a day" for judgment (Acts 17; Rom 2; 1 Cor 4)—i.e. "the last day" (Jn 12); "the day of judgment" (Matt 10)
- It is a day that has come closer, for "the hour has already come" (Rom 13); "the end of all things is near" (1 Peter 4)
- God has selected a man to carry out his judgments; that man is named Jesus, whom the Father has "entrusted all judgments" and given all "authority to judge" (Jn 5)
- Therefore, judgment will not be left to "any human court" (1 Cor 4)
- God's judgments through Christ will be "based on truth" (Rom 2)
- The "Sovereign Lord" is able and will judge "people's secrets through Jesus Christ" (Rom 2)
This list isn't exhaustive, and Stanley's introduction goes into more detail, but you get the point: Scripture has consistently testified to this final day of judgement in a number of ways.
Who Will Be Judged and How?
But what about Christians; will they be judged? According to Stanley, the simple answer is "Yes. God is 'the Judge of all' (Heb 12). Thus, 'the Lord will judge his people' (Heb 10); 'it is time for judgement to begin with God's household' (1 Pet 4). Those who teach the Bible "will be judged' (Jas 3)." He lists other passages, but in short, to quote Davids's The Epistle of James (NIGTC), "'The coming Lord is also the judge of the Christian.'" (pg. 14)
So the simple answer is Yes. But Stanley knows it isn't that simple, because he asks an appropriate follow-up question: "What will this judgement entail?" Good question, especially in light of what we are told in Matt 25, that the Son of Man is coming to judge the sheep from the goats, leading Keener to suggest that the "passage explicitly declares that this [final] judgment determines people's eternal destinies." (pg. 14-15)
Stanley presses the question: "But what are the possible outcomes for Christians?" He quotes Bloesch for some semblance of an answer: "all Christians who are faithful to the end can be assured that they are in the hands of a God who is…infinite mercy." (pg. 15) Again, "But what does this mean for Christians who are unfaithful?" Stanley demands.
What About the Faith-Work Tension?
While maintaining that "Christians are defined by their relationship to Jesus Christ, a relationship that they are in by faith on account of God's grace and Christ's finished work," (pg. 11) Stanley notes the dynamic faith-work tension regarding these questions of final judgment. This tension, of course, is the crux of the matter.
Stanley rightly notes that the New Testament itself creates a degree of tension: "the Bible teaches that people are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and yet will be judged according to their works. Are we to conclude, then, that the Bible has created for itself an intolerable impasse? Or should we resort to prioritizing doctrines?" (pg. 16)
And then our question, arising from the tension itself: "for the believer, what role do works play at judgment?"
What say you? How have you reconciled what we find in Scripture, who will be judged and how, and the dynamic of the faith-works tension?
Like every Four Views book, this one assembles a cloud of contributing witnesses to bring their scholarly acumen and theological perspective to bear on the subject at hand. This cloud contains: Robert Wilkin, Executive Director of the Grace Evangelical Society; Tom Schreiner, New Testament and Pauline Scholar at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; James Dunn, a leading British New Testament scholar known for his Jesus and Paul studies, not to mention coining the term "New Perspective;" and finally the venerable Michael Barber, professor of theology, Scripture, and Catholic thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University.
Next week we'll engage each of these four voices in brief, but before then I think it apt to end with Stanley's words: "this subject does tend to generate a lot of emotion...We need to discuss these issues with the same grace we have received. What's more, at times there is power in remaining silent. Ultimately it's our love for one another that will speak volumes to a lost and watching world." (pg. 24)
Jeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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