Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works (Part I)

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The year 2009 witnessed a publishing event of real interest to many Christians: the publication of N.T. Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Wright is widely considered the most provocative writer on justification today and the arrival of this book has deservedly garnered much attention. My purpose in this article is not to review Wright’s book as a whole or even to assess his overall teaching on justification. Rather, I intend to respond to that part of his teaching that proposes a future justification by works for believers in Jesus Christ.


BELIEVERS JUSTIFIED BY WORKS?

N. T. Wright’s new book does not introduce his teaching of “future justification according to works,” as the teaching is usually expressed. Rather, this doctrine that has long been present in his writing is now declared plainly and directly. We can summarize Wright’s teaching on future justification in 3 points:

Point #1:  Present justification does not precisely equal future justification. Wright points to the final judgment of God as the eschatological terminus of justification, which is only anticipated in present justification. (This itself is not a controversial statement.) The question is the relationship of present justification to future justification. Are the two essentially the same, as classic Reformed theology puts it, so that final vindication merely republishes present justification through faith alone?  Wright argues that while present justification anticipates future justification, the two are not essentially the same, as follows.

Point #2:  Whereas present justification is according to faith, future justification is according to works. Wright bases his position in large part on Romans chapter 2. Classic Reformed theology has seen Romans 2 as Paul’s condemnation of Jewish attempts at law-righteousness. Contrary to this opinion, Wright and others see here a positive teaching of justification:”it is… the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). Wright describes this verse as setting forth the true way of justification, commenting, “Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance.” [1]  Here, Wright says, Paul plainly affirms a final justification according to works. Whereas classic Reformed theology sees justification based on faith alone, to which works are a necessary attestation, Wright reverses this, seeing final justification as based on good works, to which faith was a pledge and anticipation. Justification through faith places us on a path that is marked by good works, which good works serve as the basis for our final justification.
 
Wright had previously stated this doctrine clearly enough. In his Romans commentary, he says: “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly… on the basis of the entire life.” [2]  In the end, justification comes not through faith receiving Christ’s imputed righteousness, but by “the Spirit-led life,” [3] since future justification is “on the basis of the entire life” [4] and its performance of good works.
 
Whatever doubt there may have been about Wright’s view of future justification, his recently published book is abundantly clear: in the end, believers face a “judgment according to works.” [5]  To his credit, Wright asserts that those who are presently justified through faith alone may be confident of their final justification by works, since true faith always does works. Moreover, Wright does not say that we merit salvation by works.  Nonetheless, his view of final justification requires us to present to God a life of good works, on the basis of which we can finally be justified.

Point #3:  Justification does not rely solely on Christ’s death and resurrection for us, but also on the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in us.

According to Wright’s teaching, Christians must answer the question, “On what basis will you be admitted into heaven?” by reference to their works. To be sure, these are works that could never be possible had Jesus not died for our sins to give us a living relationship with God, and they are works for which the Holy Spirit deserves sole credit, since they were worked in his power. Nonetheless, our hope is in the works that we will present to the Lord on the last day. Wright is aware of this charge. Consider this remarkably clear passage from his recent book, the effect of which is to remove the sola from the solus Christus of our faith: “When, by clear implication, I am charged with encouraging believers to put their trust in someone or something ‘other than the crucified and resurrected Savior’, I want to plead guilty.” He then explains that he means that he wants us also to trust the life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit. [6] In this way, Wright knowingly conflates the declarative aspect of salvation - justification - with the transformative aspect - sanctification. No longer can believers assure themselves of acceptance with God because of what Christ has done in our place and on our behalf extra nos, as Luther put it, outside of us. Instead we must have confidence in sufficient evidence of what the Holy Spirit is doing on Christ’s behalf inside of us.  

FIVE ARGUMENTS VS. FUTURE JUSTIFICATION ACCORDING TO WORKS
It is tempting to respond to Wright’s teaching by pointing out the essential similarity of his doctrine of justification to that of Rome. Whereas Reformed theology teaches that faith = justification + good works, Wright joins Rome in teaching that faith + works = justification. I might also point out the similarity between Wright’s doctrine of justification and the prayer of a certain Pharisee in the Lord’s parable: the prayer in which the Pharisee thanked God for the good works that he believed justified him, works which he credited to God but on which he nonetheless assumed acceptance with God. Jesus, we remember, did not speak highly of this approach to justification (Lk. 18:1-14).
 
Instead, I would like to propose five reasons why “future justification according to works” is contrary to Scripture and why the classic Reformed teaching is right in describing justification through faith alone as final and full justification, now, in the end, and forever.  

Argument #1:  The Bible’s teaching that justification through faith alone is not provisional in character but utterly definitive in securing God’s righteous verdict. Paul writes to believers in Rome, “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). A believer has been justified and has peace with God through faith in Jesus. Jesus taught, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24). The present tense forms a glorious part of our gospel hope: through faith in Jesus we immediately possess eternal life, including release from final judgment (see also Jn. 3:36; Rom. 8:31-34, 10:10-13; and Col. 1:13-14).  

Argument #2: The idea of a future justification of believers suggests that Christians must stand before the Lord with respect to their sinful deeds.  Supporters of this view generally cite Romans 2:6-11 as applying to believers: “He will render to each one according to his works.” This suggests the possibility of “wrath and fury” on deeds done in disobedience to God. In contrast, the Bible teaches that Jesus has dealt with the sins of his people once-for-all on the cross. The reason our sins will not be judged in the future is that they have already been judged in the past, on the cross of Jesus Christ who bore the penalty we deserved (Eph. 1:17; Col. 2:14).

Argument #3: Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. Even while acknowledging that our sins have already been judged at the cross, some will argue that we must still be justified by our good works. Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law - the Torah - saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it.  John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” [7] This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.” [8]

According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works.  John says, “I saw the dead, great and small standing before the throne, and books were opened” (Rev. 20:12). The question is, “To whom does John refer when speaking of ‘the dead’?” On a simple reading, we might assume that he means everyone who had previously been dead prior to their resurrection, that is, all persons who ever lived. But on more careful consideration, we should realize that those who are resurrected to death are only those who are resurrected for eternal condemnation. Jesus noted two categories of persons resurrected in the future: some will be raised “to the resurrection of life,” whereas the wicked will rise “to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:29). Now, John says in the Revelation, “the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12). Here is the final judgment according to works, by which every man and woman outside of Christ will give an account before his holy judgment seat. But John mentions another book, by which those who are raised to life are justified: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).  By necessary inference, some are judged by their works and thrown into the lake of fire, and others are not condemned because their name is in the book of life.  

Future judgment according to works thus involves only those whose names are not written in the book of life. Elsewhere in Revelation, this book is described as “the book of the life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8). It is not just the book of life, but the book of the life of Christ: the life granted to those named in the book comes from Christ through his death. Moreover, as Revelation 17:8 says, those names were written in the book of life “from the foundation of the world.” Thus we err in thinking that believers as justified on the basis of their own works, when the Bible insists that eternal life is grounded on Christ’s atoning death (contrary to N. T. Wright’s denial of solus Christus, see above), and that its recipients are determined according to God’s eternal predestination. Thus, those named for eternal life are those whose justification is based not on their own works but on the works of Christ. Those raised to death are judged according to their works; those whose names are written in the book of Christ’s life are not judged: as Jesus taught, whoever believes “does not come into judgment” (Jn. 5:24). Revelation 20:10-15 therefore shows two different categories of persons who are judged by two different standards (book of their own works vs. the book of the life of Christ), which results in two different eternal destinies. Thus judgment according to works is a future that only those outside of Christ must face.

[1] N.T. Wright, Romans, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abington, 2003), 440.
[2] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 129.
[3] N.T. Wright, Romans, 580.
[4] Ibid., 129.
[5] Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 160.
[6] Wright, Justification, 163-164.
[7] John Calvin, New Testament Commentaries, tr. Ross Mackenzie, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 8;46.
[8] Ibid., 8:47.

Richard Phillips is the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology and the Senior Minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.


Rick Phillips, “Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works”, Reformation 21 (May 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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