The Role of Works at Final Judgment (Review, part 2)

I am working my way through the new Zondervan Counterpoints title The Role of Works at the Final Judgment (part 1, here)

First up, Robert Wilkin (Grace Evangelical Society) who argues that “Works will determiner rewards but not salvation.” In his essay, Wilkin is concerned to argue that, for grace to be true grace, it cannot be mixed with works in judgment. All that God expects from humans is belief (as in John 3:16; see p. 27). Thus, when it comes to “perseverance,” believers will be “judged” in view of rewards only. (Notice the logical [?] connection Wilkin makes between perseverance and works, as if the former had nothing to do with belief)

Wilkin sees two judgments involved: the judgment of all people (where believers are saved by faith alone), and the secondary judgment for believers (what I call the “awards ceremony”). Wilkin is insistent: “salvation is based on faith in Christ, not faithful service for Christ” (29).

Wilkin engages in numerous Biblical texts (especially the ones others might use in disagreement), but his own interpretations (which strain to defend his own theology) come across as special pleading. For example, in Matt 24:45-51 we have the story of the “unfaithful servants.” When the master comes home and finds his servants acting violently and in drunkenness, the master cuts them in two and assigns them a place with the hypocrites (where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth).

Now, Wilkin is compelled to argue that this parable is not about final judgment of salvation, but about rewards.

This refers to a painful experience in which the servant is verbally cut up at a future judgment. SInce this person is a servant of Christ, it is the Judgment Seat of Christ that is in view (p. 35).

I will not rehearse all of Wilkin’s examples, because they are all just as shocking as this one (such as his argument that “having eternal life” is not the same thing as “inheriting the kingdom”). The respondents do a fine job of demolishing Wilkin’s flimsy arguments.

Schreiner: Wilkin defines faith too narrowly as “mental assent” (52). Wilkin is so committed to his own theological construct, he cannot accept the challenges of reading a given text on its own terms.

Dunn: Wilkin is developing his whole theological construct based on his reading of John 5:24 and Rev 20:11-15, which simply cannot take that kind of systematization (57). Revelation mentions only one judgment, so even if Wilkin wanted to draw from Revelation, he is importing something even there (59). Being among the teeth-gnashers sounds a lot worse than simply getting reprimanded at the secondary “rewards” judgment for believers.

Barber: Wilkin sees the Gospel of John as a main ally in his forced argument, but Wilkin neglects the teaching of John 15 where the branches must remain in the vine.

Gupta (I am adding my two cents): Two problems (aside from exegetical silliness). First, Wilkin’s soteriology is not missional. That is, if believers are only meant to believe (with no care for “works” as central to God’s redemptive purposes), then God doesn’t really have a plan for the whole world where the Church is the main agent. Secondly, there is no place for “covenant.” Covenant isn’t just relationship, nor is it just promise. A covenant has two parties, both with obligations and expectations. I don’t know what Wilkin would do with this, but he has to do something.

If there is one merit to Wilkin’s essay, it is the overwhelming compulsion he has to let grace be pure grace. While I think his argument buckles under the pressure of the weight of complex texts and their clear message that works will have something to do with the final judgment, it is fortuitous that his essay comes first – it establishes the challenge of having “justification by faith” and “judgment according to deeds” in the same New Testament.

On a side note, I wonder what it would have been like to have had an OT scholar contribute from his or her “first testament” perspective (perhaps someone like Christopher Wright, John Goldingay, or Tremper Longman). By the way, Dunn seems to interact with the OT the most, then Schreiner, but Wilkin and Barber hardly at all (from a glance of the Scriptural index).

Next up: Schreiner: “Works will provide the evidence that one actually has been saved”

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