I recently finished the book in the Counterpoints series: “Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment.” If you have not had a chance to read it, I highly recommend it. Each contributor is extremely adept at defending his views. It is a great work of Christian debate – done with passion, decorum, and grace.
In it, each contributor gives his theology on how we, as Christians, will be judged at the end of our lives. Will we stand before the Great White Throne? Will our works be used as proof of our righteousness? Will our works be used to justify us or condemn us? While you may be snug in you own theological leanings, this book is a great tool to confirm/shake up what you believe.
Today I would like to review Robert Wilkin’s Chapter on Grace Alone. Admittedly, this is the tradition that I grew up in. So reading his argumentation was like returning to my childhood church and listening to some of the great pastors that graced the pulpit.
It also, reminded me, however, of the struggle I had as I first wrestled with the Scriptures for myself. Mainly – it seemed like this theology had to be stretched over certain New Testament passages in order to make it fit right. (a critique his detractors picked up with gusto)
But, instead of muddying the waters before I’m supposed to, I will let Robert speak:
“Christians Will Be Judged According To Their Works At The Rewards Judgment, But Not At The Final Judgment”
by Robert N. Wilkin
Robert jumps in by starting with the Evangelistic Gospel: John. Here is the foundation of his argument:
The Perseverance-Free Promises in John’s Gospel
[The Gospel of John has been called] ‘the gospel of belief’ since the word pisteuo (“I believe”) occurs more times in this book than in any other New Testament book. Jesus said it is the one who ‘believes in Him’ (pisteuōn eis auton) that ‘has eternal life.’
John 3:16, for example, concerns ‘whoever believes in Him,’ not ‘whoever perseveres in Him.’ Clearly the one who simply believes in Jesus has eternal life. The New Testament is united on this point. Not once in John does Jesus ever say that one must persevere in order to obtain or retain eternal life. Rather, He promises eternal security the moment one believes.
Mind you, while these promises are decisive, they do not prove anything about the relationship between perseverance and rewards. They only say that in John’s gospel Jesus did not make perseverance a condition for eternal life. How could He? For John himself wrote ‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name’ (20:31).
In order to bolder his point, Wilkin turns to the Parable of the Minas in the Gospel of Luke. This, here, I feel, is his most convincing point.
Jesus … recounts the story of three … servants, each of whom had received the same sum of money (one mina) and been told, ‘Do business till I come.’ The issue in the judgment is productivity, not belief. But only the servant who turned his one mina into ten hears, ‘Well done, good servant’ (19:17). He receives praise and is promised rule over ten cities in the kingdom. Since only those who endure will reign with Christ (cf. 2 Tim. 2:12), we can be sure this first servant endured.
The third servant showed no profit and is given no cities to rule over. Rather than hearing, ‘Good servant,’ he hears, ‘Wicked … servant’ (Luke 19:22). While some conclude that this servant represents an unbeliever, there are strong reasons for thinking otherwise.
First, Scripture occasionally uses disparaging language to describe believers elsewhere. Jesus’ disciples are described as ‘wicked’ (ponēroi) (Matt. 7:11), the Corinthians as ‘unrighteous’ (1 Cor. 6:8), the Hebrew Christians as ‘dull of hearing’ (Heb. 5:11), and the church at Laodicea as ‘lukewarm’ (Rev. 3:16). Obviously Christians can fail to endure, fall away, and prove to have been wicked.
Second, the third servant is not part of the group that hated the nobleman. Jesus clearly makes a distinction between ‘the servants’ who received ten minas (Luke 19:13) and the citizens who hated the nobleman (19:14).
Third, Jesus uses a reflexive pronoun to emphasize the fact that all three of these servants belonged to the nobleman: ‘So calling ten of his own [heatou] servants, he gave to them ten minas’ (19:13). These servants belong to Jesus.
Fourth, the judgment of the third servant (19:20–26) stands in marked contrast to the judgment of the citizens who hated the nobleman (19:27).
All this suggests that the first judgment (of the servants) is the Judgment Seat of Christ while the second judgment (of the enemies) is the Great White Throne Judgment. At the first judgment believers are judged according to their works to determine their rewards (Rom. 14:10–12; 1 Cor. 3:5–15; 4:1–5; 9:24–27; 2 Cor. 5:9–10; 1 John 4:17–19). At the second judgment unbelievers are judged according to their works to determine their degree of eternal torment (Rev. 20:11–15). The first judgment concerns only believers, but not their eternal destiny, which has already been decided. They “will not come into judgment” (John 5:24).
This parable shows that believers and unbelievers will appear at separate judgments. Once the servants (i.e., believers) are judged, the nobleman asks that his enemies be brought to him to be slaughtered (Luke 19:27).
Click on the toggle to read the parable in full:
”The11 While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once. 12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas.[a] ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’
14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’
15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.
16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’
17 “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’
18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’
19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’
20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’
22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’
24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
25 “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”
Okay, so far so good. His distinction between the citizens and the servants seems clear. But his next point is where his argument goes off the rails for me. While Wilkin does a good job of shoring up the weak points in this theology, it still strains credulity. Here he answers the challenges that some of Jesus’ teaching seems clear that perseverance in good works is a necessary requirement to ultimately be saved:
Answering Biblical Objections The Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24)
He Who Endures to the End Will Be Saved (Matthew 24:13)
Jesus’ declaration that “he who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:13; cf. 10:22) would appear to put an end to the rewards view. In truth, though, there is more to this verse than meets the eye. Context is everything, and we must clarify the context Jesus has in mind.
First, what “end” is in view? In short, it is the future (eschatological) tribulation.
Second, what is this future salvation of which Jesus is speaking? The term “save” … occurs twice in chapter 24, the latter being verse 22, where Jesus says that unless those days (of tribulation) were cut short, “no flesh would be saved.” Jesus is not talking about eternal salvation. His point is that no one would physically survive the tribulation if God did not limit its duration.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1)
So what does the presence or absence of sufficient reserves suggest? The midnight cry here refers to the “abomination of desolation” at the midpoint of the seven-year tribulation (Dan. 11:31; Matt. 24:15; see above). The point is that only tribulation believers who have stored up sufficient spiritual reserves in the first half will make it successfully through the persecutions of the second half. And those excluded from the torch dance and other wedding festivities, while saved, will fail to rule with Christ in the life to come. It is a stretch to think exclusion from the torch dance equals spending eternity in hell.
”The“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4 The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’
12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’
13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Okay, so here we have the “hat hung” on the fact that any “saving” that is going on in these passages is merely physical salvation? The midnight cry is the mid-point of the Tribulation and not the Rapture? Also, that Christ saying, “I never knew you” is analogous to missing out on a virginal torch dance? Is it just me, or does this try and de-fang the real bite of the passage? To me, if my Lord and Savior barred the door on me and said He did not recognize me… I would be sweating bullets, not bummed that I didn’t get to “party.”
Wilkin, in an attempt to dismiss any kind of “works-righteousness,” goes on to give a treatment of Revelation 3:
Jesus Will Praise Believers Who Overcome (Revelation 3:5)
In light of His imminent return Jesus commands the church at Sardis to “be watchful” (cf. Matt. 24:42; 25:13; 1 Thess. 5:6, 10) and to persevere: “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the book of life; but I will confess his name before my Father and before His angels” (Rev. 3:5).
Note that Jesus does not say that He will blot anyone’s name out of the book of life. Many regard this as litotes, a figure of speech in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. If I say, “It is no big deal,” then I mean, “It is a little deal.” If this is litotes, then what Jesus is saying is that He will exalt the name of the overcomer. Another option, resulting in essentially the same conclusion, is that the term “name” (onoma) does not mean name here but reputation. Thus J. William Fuller suggests that verse 5 is a promise: God will remember and preserve the onoma [name/reputation] of the Christian who overcomes, implying a particularly close relationship between God and this believer. But the implicit warning is that the Christian who denies the faith will lose that privileged position and identity and relationship, even though that Christian will enter eternal life. The concept of an honorable name versus a shameful one is somewhat foreign to the western mind. The difference in perception, however, may be the very reason this verse has been misunderstood for so long.
This fits perfectly with what Jesus said in Matthew 10:32–33. He will confess before His Father those who confess Him before others, whereas the ones who deny Jesus before others He will also deny before His Father. It is precisely along these lines that we should understand Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 2:12: “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will also deny us.” What is at stake in all these passages is not the believer’s eternal destiny at the final judgment but rather the believer’s praise, or lack of it, at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Again, I am having a hard time with words like “deny” and “before My Father” being put in the same sentence. I think Wilkin would have to show that “deny” does not equal “disown” before I would move from this point. To be honest, I was a bit gob-smacked when he used the 2 Timothy 12-13 passage. Traditionally, this is used to show the three potential fates of Christians: Overcomer, Apostate, and Worldly. Here is the passage in its full:
The idea of two of these is fully illustrated in
I Corinthians 3:
”I10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
Here we see Christians that have persevered and “built” their lives with good works: Overcomers; then we see Christians who have not persevered in good works and “built” their lives with selfishness: Worldly. But the 2 Timothy passage clearly adds a third distinction, namely, those that deny God: Apostates. To throw around words like “deny” and “disown” and say that they merely mean “loss of rewards” – just does not seem right to me.
Finally, he gives some memorable points to nail home his thoughts on Grace Alone:
Exegetical Problems with the View That Christians Will Appear at the Final Judgment
Eternal Life Is Everlasting
Charles Ryrie famously said, “Everlasting life is ever-lasting life. If everlasting life could be lost, then it has the wrong name.
Eternal Life Is by Faith Alone
We look in vain in the New Testament for any condition pertaining to eternal life other than faith in Jesus Christ.
Eternal Life Is Not of Works
We are saved by grace through faith. Salvation is a gift of God and not of works (Eph. 2:8–9). Jesus himself taught that eternal life is a gift (John 4:10) and not from works (6:28–29). And since perseverance is work, perseverance is not a condition for salvation.
Eternal Life Is Decided at Conversion
John 5:24 refutes the notion that believers will appear at the final judgment. That is where eternal destinies are decided, and Jesus specifically taught that believers “shall not come into judgment [krisis].
At the end of the day, I still walked away with the same questions I had with the “trouble” verses of his theology. There is a tension in the New Testament over Saved by Grace and Judged by Works. Every theologian has had loose ends to tie up… Wilkin being no exception.
Again, if you have not picked up this book, do so today. I read it on the Kindle edition, and some of the Greek words did not transliterate well into English. But that was a minor annoyance. All in all, a great way to be introduced to the spectrum of thought on the topic of Saved by Grace, Judged by Works.