The Role of Works in Final Judgment (Review, Part 1)

It was during my PhD research that is really struck me – Paul talks about judgment…a lot. Then it hit me again when I read James Thompson’s excellent little book, Pastoral Ministry According to Paul where Thompson argues that Paul recognized a major part of his mission was to help prepare his people (the Gentiles) for judgment. Since that time, it has stayed with me, a concern that evangelicals are ignorant of the “judgment” texts of Scripture, or that they cannot reconcile them with their theology of grace, so it is discarded.

So, I was very excited to see a book advertised several months ago called Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Zondervan Counterpoints; ed. Alan Stanley).

works-“Works will determine rewards but not salvation” (Robert N. Wilkin)

-“Works will provide evidence that one actually has been saved” (Schreiner)

-“Works will provide the criterion by which Christ will determine eternal destiny of his people” (Dunn)

-“Works will merit eternal life” (Michael Barber)

I would like to do a five-part series, devoting a short amount of space in this particular post to the introduction.

Alan Stanley’s introduction is a concise reflection on the tension between grace and judgment in Scripture, a survey of basic Biblical texts involved in the debate, and a bit of history on the development of the discussion. What I found interesting in the introduction is the matter of the Synoptic Gospels and passages such as Matt 25:31-46 with the judgment of the nations. Most commentators scratch their heads and wonder: where is the grace? Where is the mercy? Where is “Jesus”? (Stanley quotes F.W. Beare, Craig Keener, and David Hill).

Stanley engages a bit with Luther and his interpreters, as well as the ongoing “New Perspective on Paul” debate. However, taking the discussion to the more popular arena, Stanley spends some time (wisely, in my view) dissecting the debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright about justification and judgment that happened mostly in publications between 2005 and 2010. Piper apparently found problematic (even heretical) Wright’s oft-repeated statement that Paul claims that judgment of the believer will happen on the basis of his or her works. Piper would say that judgment may be “according to works,” but cannot be the basis, because that lies in justification through faith in Jesus Christ.

This may sound like a semantics game (and to some it is little more than this), but the way I have heard the debate run, some want to say that works will provide the evidence of justification by faith in Christ, but are not the grounds for it (so Schreiner, in basic agreement with Piper); others want to say that Paul’s language must stand: judgment will evaluate the life lived in obedience to God through Jesus Christ, a life that shows good works (so Wright; see Romans 2).

Without having read the book, my guess is that I will fall into the “Dunn” camp, but I wish Wright’s view was a “fifth” perspective, because he has spent so much time working it out, and it is not the same as Dunn’s (Note, for example, the work Wright has done on virtue and the Christian life). Nor does it resemble any of the others (though I am not sure what Barber is going for yet).

I am very strongly considering assigning this book as mandatory reading for my Galatians course in the Spring (along with Hays’ NIB commentary, the five view on justification, and perhaps also Rosner’s new book on Paul and the Law). We shall see if this book provides the kind of thoughtful engagement that will help my students and me work through some of the questions involved about Scripture, grace, mission, and judgment.


10 thoughts on “The Role of Works in Final Judgment (Review, Part 1)

  1. I wonder how different Wright’s view is from the Piper/Schreiner view, given Wright’s clarifying statements on the subject at ETS (and subsequently in JETS) a couple of years ago. See, e.g.:

    “Sometimes I have been quoted as saying ‘on the basis of works,’ with the meaning—at least, this is the meaning that has apparently been heard—that ‘works’ are thereby a kind of independent ‘basis,’ something entirely of my own doing which takes the place, on the last day, that is occupied in present justification by the finished work of Jesus Christ. . . . It appears that the word ‘basis’ is being used in different senses. . . . I repeat what I have always said: that the final justification, the final verdict, as opposed to the present justification, which is pronounced over faith alone, will be pronounced over the totality of the life lived. It will be, in other words, in accordance with ‘works,’ with the life seen as a whole—not that any such life will be perfect (Phil 3:13–14) but that it will be going in the right direction, ‘seeking for glory and honor and immortality’ (Rom 2:7). When I have spoken of ‘basis’ in this connection, I have not at all meant by that to suggest that this is an independent basis from the finished work of Christ and the powerful work of the Spirit, but that within that solid and utterly-of-grace structure the particular evidence offered on the last day will be the tenor and direction of the life that has been lived” (Wright, “Justification: Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” JETS 54 (2011): 49-63, at 60).

    This sounds like Schreiner’s position to me. Thoughts?

    1. John – I think they sound similar, but Wright (based on some of his arguments in After You Believe) is pushing the “discipleship” piece very strongly, as if one can resist the work of God and end up “lost” on judgment day despite a good beginning (maybe I am reading too much into his reading of Rom 2). Piper, however, would not see such a thing as an option. Certainly, Westminster Confession, he would see the “chief end of man” to glorify God and enjoy him. I don’t think Piper is so concerned that the believer will “fail” judgment. If Piper is the kind of Calvinist that I think he is, I would think he and Wright may be quite a distance on the issue of “once saved, always saved” (I bet Wright, even if he has a notion of the preservation of the saints, would not buy into a “once saved, always saved” mentality).

      I am not sure where Schreiner is. I am more familiar with Piper.

      1. Thanks for posting this…and I am looking forward to your reviews. Having read the book I was thrilled to see a Roman Catholic participant with quite strong arguments! Schreiner and Dunn do not seem to far a part and maybe Wright would “fit” in the middle (though this is always hard to navigate).

        I thoroughly enjoy your blog and am thankful for your work!

  2. Great book! I used this book to teach a Sunday School class at my church and they loved it. Glad you are reviewing it!

  3. Would have “loved” to have Wright; don’t think I didn’t enter my mind. BUT the man is busy! Look forward to reading the review.

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