The Role of Works at Final Judgment, Dunn (Review, part 4)

Our review of Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment is nearly at a close. We have worked through the introduction, and essays by Wilkin and Schreiner. Now we are up to James D.G. Dunn.

The title of Dunn’s essay captures his overall view: “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?” A key example of his own perspective is found in Philippians 2:12-13 – “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” – why should it prove so probematic that Paul could put both clauses in the same sentence (p. 132)?

In this essay, Dunn makes six points I wish to highlight.

#1: We should not be so quick to read a coherent system and logic into the text that we neglect a key emphasis (i.e., judgment). This point is made using examples like Phil 2:12-13.

#2: There are many indicators that salvation/justification is conditional. So Rom 8:13; Gal 6:8; 1 Cor 15:2; Col 1:22-23; 1 Cor 3:10 and so forth. Dunn writes, “it is hardly possible to doubt that part of Paul’s pastoral theology was his all-too-real concern that faith could once again be compromised and cease to be simple trust, that commitment could be relaxed and resolve critically weakened. The result would be an estrangement from Christ, a falling away from grace, a reversion to life solely ‘in accordance with the flesh’, and the loss of the prospect of resurrection life” (p. 127).

#3: Covenantal Nomism? Dunn tries, despite his warnings to avoid systemization, to think about the relationship between justification and judgment, and keeps coming back to the nature of early Judaism – founded on grace and election, but determined also by covenantal obedience. Keep in mind Sanders didn’t think Paul’s theology was CN. But Dunn feels comfortable reading Paul this way.

#4: Transformation: this was my favorite section. Dunn establishes a teliology for justification. What is the goal of faith? In Dunn’s reading of Paul, “it is never less than the divine intention that faith should be expressed in faithfulness” (129). Furthermore, grace is not just a blank slate or a clean record. We must attend in Paul’s theology to “the transforming character of divine grace” (p. 129).

#5: The purpose and nature of Paul’s letters and teachings. Dunn notes how much Paul focuses on ethical/pastoral issues in his letters.

Paul’s ethical teaching assumes that his readers were responsible people, who should be making effort–enabled by God’s Spirit, of course– but nevertheless having the responsibility to walk by the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit, with the express corollary that failure to do so would have severe and possibly damning consequences. (135)

#6: The Teaching of Jesus: The devaluation of the reality of judgment, or the over-emphasis on “free grace” among modern Christians, Dunn urges, may have something to do with the lack of attention paid to Jesus in the Gospels. Even John records Jesus saying, in the last day, “those who have done good will come forth (from the grave) to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). Matthew’s Jesus condemns the judged because they are “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:21-23).

RESPONSES:

I am not going to line them up individually except to say that several of them commented that Dunn is more deconstructive than constructive. He nods his head at covenantal nomism, but continues to press again forced systematization where something important is lost.

Wilkin raises the important question regarding assurance – should Christians have a doctrine of assurance? What kind, if salvation is conditional? I think Wilkin asks a fair question, but in the end I do not think we were meant to have impenetrable assurance (a “get out of jail free” card). This is where Dunn’s discussion of transformation is important. What if God’s goal is not just to “save,” but to restore-in-order-to-equip-for-agency? I once gave a paper called “To What End Dikaiosyne?” We often think about what we get from justification. What about what God gets? I think that is the point behind Rom 2. Does God want “saved people” or does he want “good people”? He wants “good people.” Wouldn’t you? [Now I am starting to sound Catholic, aren’t I? Well, its very Wesleyan too]

Ultimately, we see that Schreiner, Dunn, and Barber share much in common. Dunn even affirms the Catholic view briefly. So, I will look forward to reading Barber’s own essay, and the responses.

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4 thoughts on “The Role of Works at Final Judgment, Dunn (Review, part 4)

  1. I’m not sure that systematizing always (or even mostly) means a systematizing of the biblical text. There’s clearly no biblical “system” in the way we use the term nowadays. But can we not draw out theological conclusions from the text like a doctrine of assurance and then evaluate such theology? I don’t see why not, especially when those who agree that Paul (or other authors) was not a Nicene trinitarian still hold to a doctrine of the Trinity.

    • Fair point, Jordan. Even with Covenantal Nomism, it is not a “system” but a pattern. Perhaps “coherence” is what is at issue. I wrote a post recently on the relationship between doctrine and Scripture – I think that is what we are talking about here. Its messy. When it comes to “assurance,” how do we square that away with warning and judgment texts, which are as pervasive in the OT as in the NT?

      • I should have been more clear that my beef was with Dunn and not with your points. For me, I worry that too often assurance is very me-focused (do I have assurance, am I “in” or elect or not falling) when it should be zeroed in on Christ, our only assurance. Warning and judgments texts are crucial. We’re accountable. But accountable to what, and for what? Those are debatable (more so the latter).

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