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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16 thoughts on “The Role of Works at Final Judgment (Review, part 2)

  1. In arguing that “true grace” is entirely unrelated to works, I suspect that Wilkin misses how in antiquity gifts/grace entail reciprocity and obligation. Barclay treats this issue well, in addition to arguing that while grace is given to ungodly and thus unworthy recipients, the final judgment will reveal how the Spirit has begun to re-create unworthy/unfitting recipients of the divine gift into the image of one who is fitting. He says:

    “This gift begins — shockingly — as gift to the unworthy, the unfitting and wholly unsuitable; this is ‘creation out of nothing’ (Rom 4:17; 1 Cor 1:28), without prior condition, and nothing that results from it (in the obedience and holiness of the believer) could ever constitute a reason or basis for this saving gift… But this gift has a shape and a purpose, and will finally be completed (as gift) in the full transformation of fitting recipients. These will be made fully fitting only at the day of the Lord, when they will be presented ‘blameless’ and given imperishable bodies, but God is already at work in them in this life to press them towards that ‘fit’, a work which is also theirs at the same time as it is God’s (Phil 2:15-16)… The final judgment of believers will test and reveal this ‘fit'” (“Believers and the ‘Last Judgment’ in Paul: Rethinking Grace and Recompense,” in Eschatologie – Eschatology: The Sixth Durham-Tübingen Research Symposium: Eschatology in Old Testament, Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity [ed. H.-J. Eckstein et al.; WUNT 272; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. 2009], 195-208, at 207-07).

    • I am just a farmer that reads my bible. So what you are saying in my quest to find out what the bible says about where I will spend eternity I will not be able to know for sure. You’re telling me that it will depend on judgement day and how well I performed as part of believing. Am I correct? Roger

      • Hi Roger. While Wilkins would be a separate voice, the other three essayists (Schreiner, Dunn, Barber) are all saying, yes, works will be evaluated in some respect in view of final judgment. I think texts like Romans 2 offer the strongest affirmation of this notion, but as I am currently reading Dunn, I agree with him that somehow people like Paul held together both convictions at once: God accepts graciously and mercifully, but all must face judgment in view of their deeds. The purpose of the book is to try and sort out how to think about these things together, as they are both within Scripture.

      • With respect to Nijay, I would respond to Roger.

        While *Believers* may be ashamed of their deeds. 1 John 2:28

        Salvation cannot be lost. Once justified we have passed from death to life. Once drunk of the water of life we can’t un-drink. We can, on the other hand, live lives we may be ashamed of.

        John 20:21 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

        Seems to imply surety is possible. If I believe in Jesus for my salvation I’ve got it–end of story.

        Best wishes,
        Sam

    • Thanks for this, John. I haven’t read much past Wilkin thus far, but my hunch is that Barclay fits none of the options, and is closer to Wright than he might want to admit! 🙂 I think Barclay would accept some of the concerns of Dunn (about not trying to resolve tensions too neatly where it won’t work), but would want to see more cohesion. Barclay would be warm to Schreiner’s position (insofar as it focuses on the grace of God in Christ), but would probably push back against a “systematic” Reformed approach. Otherwise, I am not sure. Thanks for the quotation!

  2. In response to your review of Bob Wilkin’s writing on the role of works at the final judgment, I am offering up a few thoughts. First of all, I think you have Wilkin’s ideas misrepresented when you say that Wilkins sees two judgments. There are indeed two judgments, but one is only for believers (termed the Judgment or Bema Seat of Christ) and the other is only for unbelievers (known as the Great White Throne Judgment). Wilkin does not advocate the “judgment of all people” as you claim he does. In fact, in John 5:24 it states that he who believes will “not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.” In other words, he has passed out of a judgment based on eternal death or life. From what I have read, this is what I believe to be the nutshell of Wilkin’s position.
    Secondly, what you want to call the “awards ceremony,” which acts here as a euphemism designed to stigmatize an idea, has direct scriptural support. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-4:5, Paul talks about building on a foundation according to the grace of God which was given to him. He talks of works which will survive through fire and those that won’t. “If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:14-15). It seems as though in both cases of either solid works or works burned up, the individual concerned is still saved, which means that he must have believed in Jesus’ promise of everlasting life. Paul then makes it clear that this judgment will be at a future time in 1 Cor 4:5, saying to “not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes…” and rewards are then emphasized again as well, “…and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.” Again, in 2 Cor 5:10, we see Paul say that “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” If we believe that this judgment deals with eternal destiny, we would have to conclude that we are judged in large part by works, which would mean that our “formula” for salvation would be faith + works = salvation. Here, we don’t see much room for grace or phrases such as “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9).
    You call Wilkin’s exegesis “special pleading.” Is this because you believe he is claiming to take things out of the text that aren’t there or because his exegesis is not in agreement with conventional reformed theology? You don’t seem to explain how his argument is “shocking,” but you just say that it is and move on. In fact, in your position, you would have to defend parallels such as the following: Are slaves of a Master, who is God, to be considered as everyone in this world? In other words, is everyone a slave to God, and how is that different from when James calls himself a slave of God? (James 1:1). Notice that it is a given that the concerned individual in Matthew 24 is a slave; the Master doesn’t come back and declare that the individual was not truly one of his slaves, but that his slave did not act faithfully. I don’t believe that the unsaved are also charged with being faithful as in verse 45 of Matthew 24.
    You then present the viewpoints of the other authors who disagree with Wilkin. Schreiner implicitly claims to have a wider definition of faith than Wilkin, but what must it then include? If it includes any type of works, then he would have to admit that faith + some works = salvation. This again is not compatible with many passages that stress the absence of works in God’s grace, like Romans 3:28 which says “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” Dunn says that weeping and gnashing of teeth would be worse than “simply getting a reprimand.” Is not possible that weeping and gnashing of teeth is a form of regret that some who have lost reward will experience when being confronted with the worthless things they did in life now that eternity is staring them in the face? Barber references the upper room discourse in the book of John. He fails to mention that the upper room discourse stresses obedience to God’s commands. (John 14:15 – “If you love me, you will keep my commands.”) Thus, he also ends up in the equation faith plus works of obedience must somehow equal salvation, or else.
    As for your two cents: For your first cent (or problem), you claim that works are “central to God’s redemptive purposes.” Does that mean that in order for God to have a plan or will for Christians to be missional, that he has to do so under compulsion through works tied to our salvation? Just because God doesn’t add works to the ultimatum of salvation doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want us to live a holy life of good works. In order for God to want us to do something, does he have to make if compulsory? A covenant actually would have two parties if grace were nothing but only grace, because God says “believe in me for everlasting life.” We believe, he gives everlasting life. If we had “obligations and expectations” in our contract of salvation (as it seems to be described), then can I not conclude that we must have faith and works (both considered obligations) to be saved? We’re back to that equation again: are you claiming that faith + some amount of obligated works = salvation? What then does Paul say in Romans 11:6? “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.”
    In conclusion, it doesn’t seem to matter how the terminology game is played. No matter how we word it, if our eternal salvation somehow or some way requires the presence of some type of works, how can we not conclude then that works must be a basis for salvation? That would indicate that we can’t have eternal life apart from some works. That would then make null all of the promises in the New Testament that God’s grace is apart from works. It is as Paul says in Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

    • Thanks for this, Joel. Where to begin! Firstly, please do try to write in paragraphs separated by spaces. This was a bit tough to read. I cannot address everything here, but I will try to hit some key points.

      (1) You say that I misrepresented him in talking about two judgments when one is just for believers. Fair enough, sorry I misrepresented Wilkin. Still, I would think this is assumed in Heb 9:27 – death and judgment for all. Wilkin would say it is talking about two completely different judgments for two different types of believers? That’s what I would think of as “special pleading.”

      (2) “award ceremony” – not meant to be pejorative. Not sure you can build 1 Cor 3:14-15 into as much as you did – implying “salvation” in the full-blown theological sense. If that be the case, how does the “passing through the flames” work? Did he just make the cut because someone believes but produces no works – of what good would that person be in the kingdom of God? I don’t think we can systematize this without adding more problems, hence Dunn’s concerns and the thrust of his essay.

      (3) I think your “faith+works = salvation” needs some re-thinking. Actually, the whole purpose of the book is that this is not so cut and dry (as you or Wilkin make it seem). (see #8)

      (4) Your appeal to Eph 2:9, again, may be proof-texting here. Read “boasting” issues in Wright, Kent Yinger, and Gathercole. A much debated issue. Not something facilely touted as obvious in a blog reply.

      (5) You wonder about my statement of “special pleading” and then say I give no evidence of what I mean. Do I not say, next, “For example…”? But, to go further, when pretty much no other Synoptics scholars come to the same conclusions about how to read the parables as Wilkin, what does that mean?So, he came to this truth rather independently of the best knowledge and voices in the field? Doubtful, though not impossible. Still, that is why I call it “special pleading.” You have to remember, I am not the only one criticizing his view – there are three other respondents expressing similar concerns!

      (6) Not sure what you mean by “compulsion” – also, I am not “reformed” and I am not sure what you mean by that. I am Methodist, and that may give you a clue as to why I am emphasizing works.

      (7) You say, “If we had ‘obligations and expectations’ in our contract of salvation, then can I not conclude that we must have faith and works (both considered obligations) to be saved?” – Ummmm….isn’t that precisely what James says? I wonder what James would do with your concern about “faith+some amount of obligated works = salvation?” I think he would say, “Not amount, but true pistis, faithfulness empowered by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.”

      (8) It sounds like you won’t tolerate listening to or appreciating any of the other views in the book (which it sounds like you haven’t read). That is your choice. The point of the book is that the answer is not obvious and requires much reflection and patience. I am reading the book because I know it is complex. I am not prejuding the issue before I select the view I find most persuasive (unlike you, it would seem). I did not think I would like what Schreiner has to say, but, honestly, I was extremely impressed and found it a viable option. I am still open on the issue and willing to be convinced. Wilkin just did not come across as coherent.

    • Thanks Joel. You cleared up a lot of “misrepresentations” in the biased assessment I just “waded” through. Now for my own bias, There are only two camps concerning salvation. One is “by Grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ without works” and the other always includes works (___ + works = Salvation). Those who insist upon works as a “part” of salvation have no security before that “judgment.” At that final judgment they will learn whether they persevered or performed satisfactorily. At THAT judgment they will find that there are NO works that will qualify or merit salvation but the “work of Christ” alone. The Scriptures give us security. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (who he is and what he has done) and have eternal life. Whether Reformed or Arminian or RCC or all the other religions in the world, there is no security for them because “salvation” depends on their own works or perseverance (performance).

      I hope I did not write too long a paragraph so it could be easily read.

      • Hi Jeff. Are you implying a “Four Views” book should not be written because your perspective is the only Biblical one? How do you know you are right and Barber (Catholic) is wrong? Are you saying he has not read the Biblical texts you are assuming (but did not refer to)? Or are you saying he is deluded? I think charity is the order of the day in these conversations because this is complex, and (whether you agree or not) the Biblical witness points to both God’s grace/mercy and the evaluation of human works at the final judgment. the purpose of the book is to try and make sense, to establish a coherent framework for putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

        I am rather surprised, based on your judgments, that Schreiner would be committing heresy in your book. This bespeaks to me a kind of hermeneutical imperialism – you cannot learn from anyone different than you because you must be right in your own eyes.

        Again, my purpose in reading this book is to learn and make an informed decision – to respect scholars who have invested time and energy, and prayer, and research into their exegesis and theological interpretation. It sounds like you are done learning.

  3. It would seem that the whole idea of “covenant” would be implied and not specifically stated. Not all covenants have a two-party system in which both parties are responsible. The Abrahamic Covenant stands to shows that God alone is the responsible party in the covenant regardless of Abraham’s failures (Genesis 15:1-21). This covenant is unconditional. If the “covenant” being implied is the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34), we must ask ourselves why such care was made in addressing Israel and Judah and why the specifics of the covenant have not come to pass if the New Covenant was enacted by Christ on the cross (specifically being “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” -This is most certainly not the case today, so how do we explain it?)

    Another thing that would help to bolster your views against Wilkin would be that of defining “faith.” The phrase “mental assent” is nothing but pejorative name-calling within Reformed circles and really does not stop to use any lexical sources for bolstering their opposing view. If “faith” doesn’t mean “believing” then what does it mean? How do the lexical sources back it up? If “faith” is defined as “obedience” how does this work with a passage like Romans 4:1-5 and Ephesians 2:8-9?

    It is easy to be “logical” and “rational” in this worldly age with discrediting someone’s work. It is much harder to do the spade-work yourself and present sound evidence as to why someone is wrong. If we are going to be logical, let’s make sure that it is logical that is consistent with biblical revelation.

    • Thanks, Jeremy. Let me just say, I prefer that comments on this blog not be wholly negative. You may not feel this comfortable since you don’t like what I have to say, but I think we should set proper terms of conversation (I assume you want conversation, and are not just trying to pummel me with words). If you notice, I do my best (despite my criticisms) to say something positive about each view. I hope you can have the same spirit. If not, so be it, but chances are I will not respond then.

      Secondly, there seems to be a desire for me to engage longer and deeper with Wilkin – I didn’t know he had such a following! Let me say, most academic reviews of books are about 1000 words. Good blog posts tend to be quite short to maintain interest (like 200-300 words). This post is 700+ words, and I will do five parts – that will end up being quite a lot of words for a review (more than most print reviews). I just don’t see how I can devote enough words to refuting Wilkin. Is there no place for a short criticism? Especially assuming other reviews will appear in time? I think of Expository Times – 100-200 word reviews. Can they never be critical? Because they are short?

      OK, now on to your concerns.

      Jeremy – thanks for this.

      Covenant – I don’t see why it would be assumed, since this whole justification/judgment issue is so opaque and complex. I think it best to put all the cards on the table. Also, I disagree with you about the existence of single-party responsibility in some covenants. Especially with the Abrahamic covenant, Jews throughout history have read this is view of Abraham’s faithfulness and obedience to the covenant (so Sirach 44:20; – Paul’s concern is not to absolve Abraham of any responsibility, but instead to disassociate it from circumcision (we could go round and round on NPP issues here, but I think that is a very valid way of thinking about this). Even with James, he says: “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” – what can you do with that, expect conclude that this is a demonstration of his covenantal commitment?

      Also, it is not a “given” that the New Covenant is “unconditional” – notice the “if” statements in Colossians 1:23 (“If indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast…”) and Romans 8:17 (“if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him”).

      Faith – note that it was Schreiner who referred to “mental assent.” But I do think that is an accurate judgment on Wilkin’s hermeneutic because of the very disassociation he makes between faith and works. I am not sure referring to “Reformed circles” is helpful here (How is that not also name-calling?) – does this represent all circles of Reformed? Also, I hear it in Wesleyan circles (of which I am a part), so that is very confusing for me (since I am not Reformed).

      As for the meaning of “faith” – pick up Josephus and study closely what pistis means – it appears dozens of times in Josephus and almost never means “faith” – it means something close to “security,” “covenant faithfulness,” “pledges,” “allegiance” (etc…, depending on the context). It almost never means “faith” in the “belief” sense we are accustomed to. Now, could Jesus and Paul have moved it into that direction – yes. But it hardly would lose its “faithfulness” focus, since that meaning of pistis is so strongly anchored in the LXX.

      As for someone doing their “homework” on “faith” (I think you were implying that I should), I just completed writing a 6000-word dictionary article on the Biblical concept of “faith” and I am in the midst of writing a series of articles (perhaps even a book) on Paul’s understanding of the word “faith.” For that, not only am I utilizing my commentary research on 1 Thessalonians, but also the extensive study I have done on pistis language in Josephus, Philo, LXX, and the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha so far. In my findings, I have discovered that pistis as “faith” (what I call the epistemological meaning of pistis) is only one dimension of how it is used by Paul, and sometimes not even the most important (again, read 1 Thessalonians, where pistis seems to focus on “faithfulness” [as a covenantal concept] rather than doctrinal belief, or “trust in Jesus.”

      Spade-work – Your comment, which is pretty harsh in my opinion, is quite short compared to my blog post, so I am not sure you are practicing what you preach. You seem quite quick to proof-text. On Eph 2:8-9, read Jews, Gentiles and Ethnic Reconciliation, where Tet-Lim N. Yee attempts a New Perspective reading of Ephesians under the dissertation supervision of James D.G. Dunn. I am not saying Yee is right, but you make the discussion of faith, works, justification and judgment to seem quite simple, and Yee helps us to see that your “plain reading” may not be so plain after all. There are more exegetical and hermeneutical dimensions we should consider.

      It sounds like you will only tolerate a “Free Grace” perspective on justification and judgment. It sounds like your mind is made up. That is not the case with me. I have not finished the book, and I am open to hearing the best case. Perhaps Schreiner may have the best argument (Reformed view), perhaps Dunn (NPP), perhaps Barber (Catholic). I did not find Wilkin convincing exegetically. To just throw “let’s take the Bible seriously” seems condenscending, since each contributor (again, it sounds like you didn’t read the book) works very closely with Scripture and most of them are highly respected Biblical scholars.

  4. I got to thinking, in your request for someone to say something from his or her “first testament” perspective, to consider that the first testament also had a deliberately expressed juxtaposition of forgiveness and judgment.

    Does not Ps 99:8, regarding those under the first testament, including, specifically, Moses and Aaron, assert this? It says “You were a forgiving God to them, and and avenger of their deeds.” In the Pentateuch there is also expressed, I think more than once, the same idea. Nm 14:18, “the Lord is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear [the guilty]: visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth.” cf. Ex 34:6-7. In both these texts, brackets around [the guilty] indicate, that the translators have supplied words that are not in the original. Without that added phrase, to be forgiven, but by no means cleared, shows up. So we have these three texts, that describe explicitly (Ps 99), the idea of being forgiven but not unjudged. (Contrary to perhaps many in evangelicalism, the fate of Moses dying under judgment outside the Promised Land was well known, but muted … cf. Heb 3:5).

    There are also some rather famous examples of being forgiven and getting clobbered by their sins, in the “first testament.” Who could forget Is 40’s “comfort, comfort my people … she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” There is that famous example so often quoted on behalf of the “second testament,” about having a new spirit and heart and ability, Ez 36:26. A problem for that, but an interesting sidelight when we think of the relationship between forgiveness and God’s sternness to the very people He forgives, in Ez 36:31-32. In this example, God forgives … then rebukes them!

    This relates to the relationship of forgiveness and judgment under the New Testament. The closest parallel to the verses above is Paul’s summary in 1 Cor 10:4-5. And there, lo and behold, Paul uses the wildnerness experience of Israel, including those within it being judged, for a surprising purpose: purely “for our instruction” (1 Cor 10:11). Yes, also “for an example,” but the example (10:11), is a reminder of the moral obligation to avoid the sins, not an eternal destiny warning. Not a single one. He tells them “I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say.”

  5. Wilkin can be sloppy and uncouth, socially (i.e., with respect to sophistication) an embarassment. But that’s no more than being like the woman at the banquet crying on the feet of Jesus and wiping her tears with her hair. How can it _not_ matter whether someone relies on Jesus alone, or places their confidence, even partially, in what the other authors are telling them is also requred, a non-specific amount of their own doings? I’ve read all the views in the book. Hedging your bets, placing our confidence outside Him as well as supposedly in Him? The quickest cure for that, I would hope, is to say it to the Lord’s face, in our prayers: “Lord, I’m relying some on you alone, some on myself, for my very eternal destiny.” I would hope that would cure it.

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