Here is the question for today: Can we weave a coherent theology of justification by grace and works at the Final Judgment? For those that believe it cannot be done, the book review below will attempt to do just that. I am continuing my review of the book in the Counterpoints series: “Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment.” My review of the first chapter (the argument of “By Grace Alone”) is here, the response by the author, Robert Wilkin, is here, and my response back to him is here. For those that don’t know, the Counterpoints Series takes arguments from all sides of the issue and presents them from leaders of each school. Great reads.
Today we will review Chapter Two of the book. Thomas R. Schreiner, the author, is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has presented a worthy argument, so let’s jump in:
Justification Apart From And By Works: At The Final Judgment Works Will Confirm Justification
by Thomas R. Schreiner
First, Schreiner sets up the argument from Scripture that it is by Grace alone that we are saved. He looks at Paul’s reasonings in Galatians and Romans to lay the foundation:
Justification and Works of Law in Galatians
On eight occasions in his letters Paul teaches that justification or the reception of the Spirit is not obtained through works of law. Three times in Galatians 2:16 he affirms that human beings are not justified by works of law but only through faith in Jesus Christ. … Justification cannot be gained by works of law, for the law demands perfect obedience to stand in the right before God. Galatians 3:10 is clear here. … The only way to escape the curse is through the cross of Christ, for he took the curse upon himself that human beings deserved (3:13). … Galatians clearly teaches that human works cannot justify. Righteousness comes by faith instead of by the law (Gal. 3:11)
Justification and Works in Romans
Romans flies in the same orbit as Galatians. Justification is not obtained through works of law (Rom. 3:20, 28). … Every mouth is shut before God because of human sin (3:19), and justification cannot be obtained by works of law, for the law discloses human sin (3:20). Righteousness is, therefore, available only through the atoning work of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21–26), just as we saw in Galatians. … In Romans 4, Paul brings up Abraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, to confirm his teaching on justification (cf. also Gal. 3:6–9). Here the discussion is no longer on “works of law” but “works.” This is scarcely surprising, for Abraham did not live under the Mosaic law, and thus “works of law” do not fit the era in which he lived. … Hence, he says in 4:2 that if Abraham did the works required for justification, he would have a reason for boasting. The term “works” is used in the broadest sense here, referring to what human beings do (cf. 9:11–12) and explaining that they would provide a basis for righteousness if they were observed. Abraham did not meet the test, however, for he lacked the necessary works before God (4:2).
I feel that Schreiner has done a good, concise job of laying a foundation that our works will never vindicate us before the throne. But that being said, he now turns a corner. Many Scriptures speak of how we will be judged and many are alarmingly works oriented. He picks up on that note with his section: “Justification by Works”.
In 2:6 Paul articulates the thesis for all of 2:6–11, namely, that God “will repay each one according to his works.” Verses 7–10 unpack the meaning of this statement in a chiastic arrangement:
- A He will grant “eternal life to those who seek glory and honor and incorruptibility by patiently enduring in a good work” (2:7).
- B Conversely, he will pour out his “wrath and anger” on those who pursue evil (2:8).
- B’ Those “who carry out evil,” whether they are Jews or Greeks, will experience “affliction and distress” (2:9).
- A’ But “the one who does what is good” will enjoy “glory and honor and peace” (2:10).
The doing of the law is not optional but necessary on the day that “God judges the secrets of human beings” (2:16), for “the doers of the law will be justified” (2:13).
Paul considers a situation where an uncircumcised person, a Gentile, observes what is commanded in the law, which is an astonishing statement in its own right since circumcision was commanded in the law! In any case, if the uncircumcised person does what the law requires, he will be counted as circumcised. In other words, he would be considered a covenant member, a part of the people of God, since he observes what the law requires. Paul takes the argument a step further. Not only will the uncircumcised person be counted as a covenant member, but since he keeps the law, he will judge so-called Jewish covenant members who possess the law and circumcision but fail to do what the law says.
The New Covenant Character of Romans 2:28
The logic runs like this: the uncircumcised person (the Gentile) who keeps the law will be counted as a covenant member (as a Jew) and will judge disobedient Jews on the last days, for true Jewishness and true circumcision are not outward and physical matters. They are matters of the heart and are the result of the Spirit’s work in a human being. … The circumcision of the heart was what Israel lacked (Deut. 10:16), but the Lord promised in the last days to circumcise the hearts of his people (30:6). Jeremiah laments the uncircumcised heart of Israel in his day (Jer. 4:4; 9:25–26), but hope is not extinguished, for he looks forward to a future day, to a new covenant, when the Lord will write his law on the hearts of his people (31:31) … God has fulfilled his covenant with Israel and Judah, and shock of shocks, Gentiles who are circumcised in heart and recipients of the Spirit’s work are part of the true Israel. … Their Spirit-wrought obedience warrants eschatological reward. The will receive “praise” (epainos) from God for being true Jews and circumcised in heart.
In order to find a complimentary voice for what Schreiner believes Paul is saying, he turns to James. In a convincing manner, he shows how James affirms both “Faith Alone” and “Justified by Works” at the final judgment. Here is a brief summary:
The Need for Mercy on the Day of Judgment
James clearly teaches that good works are necessary for justification. … We must beware of overreading what James says as well. Good works must be present, but they must not be confused with perfection. What James says in James 3:2 is remarkable. “For we all stumble in many ways.” The word “stumble” … means “sin” as in 2:10, where James says, “for whoever keeps the entire law, but stumbles … in one point, has become guilty of all. … Furthermore, he includes himself as a transgressor (“we all”). Nor does he say that the sin of believers is rare, for we all sin “in many ways.” Now this does not detract from the insistence that good works are necessary for justification, but it does spare us from thinking that good works signify perfection. … On the other hand, James recognizes that believers need God’s mercy when the judgment arrives! Their works do not qualify them to stand before God and to claim salvation on the basis of their deeds. Their only hope for salvation is the mercy of God. The notion that mercy is needed to stand before God accords with Paul’s claim that no one is justified by works of law.
Justification by Works in James
What James teaches in James 2:14–26 needs to be examined more closely. … James is not teaching that works are the basis of justification, for as we have already seen, believers need mercy on the day of judgment. Still, James teaches that human beings are declared to be righteous by works. So, if the works are not the basis of justification, how should we understand their role? Perhaps James thinks about justification eschatologically. After all, “save” is typically an eschatological word, and it seems James uses the word “save” eschatologically as well (Jas. 1:21; 2:14, 4:12; 5:20). 30 Furthermore, the word “save” is used in the same text with “justify” (2:14), suggesting the eschatological character of justification. … Another feature of James’s argument in James 2:14–26 should be noted. James does not deny the Pauline teaching that faith alone justifies (Rom. 3:28), though this will need some explanation. What James rejects is a faith that is devoid of works. Faith that does not produce good works is “dead” (Jas. 2:17, 26) and “useless” (2:20). Faith without any corresponding works is not saving faith (2:14).
Again, I have little disagreement with his treatment of James. James’ tension of intellectual faith verses living faith becomes a key point in his argument, as well it should. Schreiner then concludes with these thoughts:
The Role of Works at the Final Judgment: Scheiner’s Conclusion
What we have seen in our study is remarkable. On the one hand, New Testament writers teach that justification and salvation cannot be gained by works. On the other hand, they declare that works are necessary for justification and salvation. … The saving righteousness of God given to us in Jesus Christ is the foundation and basis of our right standing with God. But if works aren’t the basis, what are they? They are surely necessary, for one is not saved without them. But they can’t be the necessary basis since God demands perfection and all fall short of what God requires (Rom. 3:23). It seems legitimate to say that works are the necessary evidence and fruit of a right relation with God. They demonstrate, although imperfectly, that one is truly trusting in Jesus Christ. … Paul, like James, believes that works are necessary at the final judgment, but the works are the fruit of the faith, the result of a faith that embraces and rests on Jesus Christ. I conclude, then, that the New Testament witness is consistent. Works are necessary for justification, but they are not the basis of justification or salvation since God requires perfection and all human beings sin. Hence, works constitute the necessary evidence or fruit of one’s new life in Christ.
While every Evangelical bone in my body is resisting this conclusion, I must admit, I feel it treats more plainly what the individual passages are saying. And with him synthesizing his theology thus, I have little argument as well:
It seems legitimate to say that works are the necessary evidence and fruit of a right relation with God. They demonstrate, although imperfectly, that one is truly trusting in Jesus Christ.
Since he puts works as evidence of a living faith, as James does, our justification still comes by faith alone. A tidy way indeed for God to wield judgment by both works and grace from His Throne.
There is one critique that I would like to propose. It will be one of the topics in later chapters of this book, namely: did Paul, James, and the other authors of the New Testament intend for there to be a coherent theology gleaned from their disparate epistles? Since they were reacting to specific circumstances, people, and mind-sets – is it fair to neatly tie up their views into one package? Since I, and the subsequent authors in the book, try and let each biblical author speak for himself, I am not sure that we can rashly rush in to a concise theology.
That being said, his argument is persuasive and bears much consideration. Again, if you have not purchased the book, I highly recommend it. Even if you disagree with the authors, their scholarship and brotherliness is refreshing.