Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment. Stanley, Alan P., and Stanley M. Gundry, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013. 234 pp. $19.99. Purchase new at Westminster Books for $13.46. Purchased used on Amazon or for Kindle.
All Christians believe that there will be a final judgment of believers and unbelievers, with Jesus Christ presiding as the faithful judge of humanity. Yet beyond this basic agreement about the reality of judgment and the identity of the judge there are a number of disagreements about the coming judgment. Debates abound concerning the purpose of the judgment, the number of judgments, the timing of the judgment(s), and particularly the relationship between faith and works at the final judgment. This last debate is the focus of this new book in Zondervan’s Counterpoint Series on Bible and Theology, which presents four prominent views on the role of works at the final judgment. These different views exist because the Bible itself clearly teaches two things: that people are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (e.g., John 5:24; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-9), and that people will be judged according to our works (e.g., Matt 25:31-46; 2 Cor 5:10; Rev 20:11-15). Different ways of reconciling these two truths have led to a number of different views on the subject, of which the four in this book are representative. As with all the books in this series, a proponent of one view explains and defends his understanding, and each of the other authors responds, raising objections and questions, with the goal of making the subject more accessible to the wider church public.
Robert N. Wilkin, the Executive Director of the Grace Evangelical Society, presents the first view, which is that Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment. Wilkin operates from a dispensationalist paradigm (though as Schreiner notes in his response to Wilkin, dispensationalism does not require Wilkin’s position) that recognizes the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10), the Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31-46), and the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15), as distinct in both time and purpose. Christians will be judged by their works at the Judgment Seat of Christ, but what is at stake is their eternal reward and position in the kingdom, not eternal salvation. Christians can be unfaithful and not be rewarded, but they will still be saved (e.g., Luke 19:11-27). Unbelievers will be judged by their works at the final judgment, the Great White Throne Judgment, and eternal salvation is at stake for them. One of the key points Wilkins makes is that entering the kingdom means gaining eternal life, but inheriting the kingdom refers to the benefits and experience of reigning with Christ (e.g., Gal 6:7-9; Rev 3:5). Wilkin stresses that once a person believes she has eternal life once and for all, and therefore perseverance in the faith can have nothing to do with eternal salvation. Christians’ salvation cannot in any way be related to their works or that contradicts salvation by grace through faith.
Thomas Schreiner, Professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of the second view, which is that works will confirm salvation at the final judgment. Schreiner agrees with Wilkin that salvation is completely by grace through faith, but disagrees in that he believes the New Testament also teaches justification by works. Schreiner sees a coherent blend between these two truths because under the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit empowers God’s people to obey him (e.g., Rom 2:26-29). Therefore works are necessary for salvation because they are the necessary evidence of salvation, but still wholly of grace. Works will be put forward as evidence at the final judgment as the necessary outworking of faith (e.g., Eph 2:8-10). Works are not meritorious, but they demonstrate the reality of faith. Schreiner, in contrast to Wilkin, understands salvation as a process and not limited to a point in time, and believes all who are justified by faith in the present will certainly be justified by faith in the future, because God will equip them to perform the necessary good works.
The third view, that salvation at the final judgment will depend to some extent on works, is written by James Dunn, Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Durham. In contrast to the other three views in the book, Dunn doesn’t believe it is necessary to reconcile justification by faith with judgment by works, but to simply accept both as true. Dunn is hesitant to systematize writings that arose out of different contexts and address different problems amidst different circumstances. Focusing mainly on Paul, he insists that Paul emphasizes one truth when necessary and the other truth when necessary, and so should we. Agreeing with Schreiner that salvation is a process, Dunn disagrees that is a certain one, teaching instead that apostasy is a real danger for converts, and that beginning in faith does not necessarily entail finishing in faith (e.g., 1 Cor 9:27; Gal 3:3). Because obedience is a necessary condition for continuing in the faith while on earth, it follows that it is a necessary condition for receiving eternal life at the final judgment.
Michael Barber, Professor of Theology, Scripture, and Catholic Thought at the Great Catholic University, present the final view, that our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ. He explains the traditional Catholic position, and stresses throughout his essay that believers’ works are only meritorious because they are the result of Christ’s work. Barber agrees with Schreiner and Dunn that salvation is by grace and judgment is by works, but goes beyond both of them to affirm that salvation is also by works, because salvation is a process that is not confirmed until the final judgment. He does clarify that works do not get one converted, but rather that it is through works, performed by the grace of God working in the believer, that is one is saved (e.g., Matt 25:31-46).
Each presenter is a knowledgeable proponent of their position, and their responses clarify what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of the other positions. Alan Stanley, the general editor, offers a useful introduction to the debate, giving some brief historical and contemporary context, and also helpfully summarizes and contrasts all four positions in the conclusion. The format of the Counterpoints books does not allow for in-depth treatment of the issues or rejoinders to the responses, but footnotes in all four essays direct interested readers to further resources. The book serves as a strong introduction to the topic and would most profit scholars, pastors, and students unfamiliar with the subject. It would also function as a good supplemental textbook in a class on salvation or eschatology. Most importantly, the book will help readers to see how each position understands the Scriptures in the debate, and will capably equip them to understand the full breadth of what the Bible says the role of works in the final judgment.
Gary L. Shultz Jr.
First Baptist Church