Role of Works

Title of Work:

Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment

Author of Work:

Alan P. Stanley, gen. ed.


Pastor Peter Sternberg

Page Number:


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Resize Cover Role of WorksThis book is a volume in Zondervan’s Counterpoints series which provides “a forum for comparison and critique of different views on issues important to Christians.” In this volume the focus is on the role of works at the final judgment, specifically how to handle biblical statements about justification by faith and judgment according to works. While scholarly debates have arisen over recent years in this area, in the view of the editor “most Christians … are completely unaware of the issues” (19). This book presents four different views that seek to resolve this debate because, as somebody commented to the editor, “This is not just a scholarly debate … to get this wrong is serious” (19).

The editor, Alan Stanley, begins the book with a general introduction to the topic and closes the book with a summary of the four perspectives. In between, each author (Wilkin, Schreiner, Dunn and Barber) gives a perspective, followed by a reaction from each of the other authors. Rather than summarizing those sixteen parts, this review will simply summarize each of the four perspectives, gleaning points from their own essay and their reactions to the others, which often help to bring clarification to their own perspective.

Robert Wilkin’s essay is entitled “Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment.” His perspective is unique among the four in that he speaks of two different judgments — a rewards judgment for believers at the Judgment Seat of Christ, citing 2 Corinthians 5:9-11, and a final judgment for unbelievers at the Great White Throne Judgment, citing Revelation 20:5-11. Believers will not be at the final judgment on the last day. Instead they will have already been judged for their works previously and this judgment will determine their rewards in heaven (31). A key passage for Wilkin is John 5:24, where Jesus states that believers “will not be condemned” and therefore cannot be at the final judgment. Underlying this perspective is a belief in the perseverance of the saints: once saved, believers cannot fall away. According to this belief, Bible verses that call for the saints to persevere in faith and works cannot be referring to final salvation, but rather to eternal rewards waiting in heaven (27-28).

Thomas Schreiner’s essay is entitled “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification.” Schreiner focuses his attention on Paul (especially in Romans and Galatians) and James. Throughout he affirms clearly that justification is apart from works while also acknowledging that works are necessary for salvation. Works, then, are “the necessary evidence and fruit of a right relation with God. They demonstrate, although imperfectly, that one is truly trusting in Jesus Christ” (97).

James Dunn’s essay is entitled “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?” Dunn prefers to let the tension between the two remain and holds up both sides as equal partners – really two justifications. He questions whether Paul had fully worked out how these fit together in his own theology (106), emphasizing justification by faith to a Jewish audience and justification by works to a Gentile audience. He also sees Paul influenced by a “covenantal nomism” of Judaism (which sees salvation in the Old Testament as focused exclusively on works and keeping the covenant). As a result, Paul saw salvation “conditional, at least in some degree, on his converts’ ‘obedience of faith’” (128). This made Paul’s language at times more synergistic than monergistic (e.g. Philippians 2:12-13) (132).

Michael Barber’s essay is entitled “A Catholic Perspective: Our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ by grace.” Barber wants to make clear from righteousness (165-66). His answer to the role of works at the final judgment is more nuanced. He says that works do play a role in repaying the debt of sin. Citing Matthew 19:26, man can do the impossible, because God’s grace makes it possible for his works to reach the standard of divine perfection (170-71). If Christ is in us and our works are not meritorious, then that claim means that Christ’s work lacks meritorious value as well (180). To those who would say that Catholic teaching limits grace by emphasizing works, Barber answers: “To say the Catholic view is incorrect is to say Catholics attribute too much to grace” (184). Grace makes possible the works that will be judged at the final judgment.

A fifth perspective could have been included on this topic that better reflects the difference between justification and sanctification, an understanding that would help to resolve the tension between grace and works. We are justified by grace through faith — it is an act that has been completed by Jesus. Passages that speak of works and an ongoing process reflect our sanctification, our life of good works that show our faith. At the final judgment, we will be judged based on faith in Christ’s work for us. Passages that speak of judgment according to works focus on works as the evidence of that faith in Christ. The mixing of justification and sanctification results in incorrect teachings like the perseverance of the saints or the process of justificatiothe start that “salvation is given to us as a free gift” and that “Catholic teaching rejects work n through work righteousness.

Another topic that would help to clarify this tension is a higher view of Scripture. While the authors are, by their own admission, limited by space to cover all of the New Testament on this topic, issues can arise when one verse or section is emphasized above all others (e.g. Wilkin’s singular focus on John 5:24 as well as the verses cited for different judgments; Barber’s heavy emphasis on a few of Jesus’ parables in Matthew). Also the view that the New Testament cannot have a unified message when written by different authors (Dunn) limits the helpfulness of letting Scripture interpret Scripture to give a balanced answer to such questions.

With our Lutheran heritage (Luther’s view is summarized in the book’s introduction to the topic on pages 16-17) we know well that we are saved by grace through faith alone apart from works. That is the core of the message that we preach. This book is a good reminder of the variety of views on this topic that still remain throughout Christianity today. Despite the flaws in these four views, the focus on Christ and grace (to varying degrees) throughout the book is refreshing at a time when Christ and grace are often not preached. Our encouragement is to always, as Stanley concludes, wrestle with the question, “What does the Bible say?” No matter how many views are put forth, we will want to be sure that “we have diligently and faithfully looked into the text” (212) as we share the gospel in our own preaching.

Contributors to this volume include: Alan P. Stanley (Lecturer in Bible and Christian Thought at the Brisbane School of Theology, Australia), Robert N. Wilkin (Executive Director of the Grace Evangelical Society, Denton, TX), Thomas R. Schreiner (Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY), James D. G. Dunn (Emeritus Professor of Divinity at Durham University, England), Michael P. Barber (Professor of Theology, Scripture and Catholic Thought at John Paul the Great Catholic University, San Diego, CA).