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 Accordin 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.
Argument #4: The future judgment of believers consists only of reward and praise. Those who support future justification according to works will cite the numerous Bible passages that in one form or another state that we must all stand before Christ’s seat of judgment. Paul says that knowing this, Christians therefore “make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9; cf. Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 9:6; 1 Pet. 4:17). In the parable of the talents, Jesus says that when he returns he will “settle accounts” with his servants (Mt. 25:19). Then, in his depiction of the final judgment, Jesus speaks of the good deeds of those who are received into eternal life. He will say: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me I was in prison and you came to me” (Mt. 25:35-36). “The righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” (Mt. 25:37-39). Jesus answers, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40). Do these passages not prove some form of future judgment for believers that is according to works?
The answer is No. Taking Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:31-46 as an example, notice how inappropriate is the language of justification to this scene. Christ is expressing his delight over the humble good works of his people, not establishing a basis for their righteousness. Jesus does not turn in the Bible to Romans 2:13 and say, “For you were those who not only possessed the law but were also doers of its commands.” This is not justification by works: it is not justification at all, because the believer’s righteousness before God is no longer in question. Instead this depicts the believers’ coronation and installation into the eternal blessings of our sonship in Christ.
This raises a question: if redeemed believers are to be present at the final judgment and must stand before Christ’s judicial throne - facts that cannot be denied from the Bible - does this not suggest some painful ordeal involving the assessment of our (sinful) lives according to Christ’s holy standard? Simon Kistemaker states the view that believers must be judged and held accountable for their actions, which then will be judicially “forgiven through Christ.”9 Kistemaker sees this as an instance of human responsibility accompanying divine grace in salvation. But do we realize what such a judgment - if true - would involve? Do we forget how reprehensible we are before the Lord on the basis of the filthy rags of even our best works (Isa. 64:6)? With what disgust, contempt, and hatred Christ must look upon every second of our lives, the reviewing of which must be a long torture for us, were such a judgment in our future! I, for one, must consider the return of Christ and such a judgment a dread and horror to be feared and loathed, rather than “our blessed hope,” as Paul puts it in Titus 2:13. Yet how inconsistent this is with the imputed righteousness of Christ that was granted to us at the moment we believed. Can this be the teaching of God’s Word?
The answer is No. When we consider the many biblical descriptions of the appearance of Christ’s people on the day of judgment, not one involves Christ embarrassing or chastising believers, much less condemning them, whose demerits are all cleansed by his blood: all is gracious praise and reward of what Christ has himself done in and through us. Clearly, the Bible teaches that believers must all appear before Christ in this glory. But A. A. Hodge, commenting on the Westminster Confession of Faith’s teaching, helpfully distinguishes between the unbeliever, who is “judged by the law” (Rom. 2:12), and the believer, who is “judged by the gospel.”10 Believers in Christ await only a final reward: an award ceremony at which his faithful servants receive crowns to place before his feet. According to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:35-40, our Lord will especially cherish the memory of daily mercies and ministry that even his people will have forgotten. This praise will be the only shock awaiting us on that day: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40). So far as judgment, the only verdict rendered by Christ towards his own - those already justified through faith in his life and death - comes in the form of these words that truly are our blessed hope: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’” (Mt. 25:34). Knowing that our service and works have this eternal significance is to motivate us in this life.
Argument #5: Prior to the final judgment, believers in Christ will already have received final justification. It is true, of course, that there is a future perspective to our justification, an already-not yet perspective to this aspect of salvation just as with all the others. This future to our justification is our resurrection into glory, which is our final, public, and bodily justification before all creation. Paul writes that “we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:24). Adoption is a legal matter, and we still await the public declaration of our adoption as God’s children. We now have “the firstfruits of the Spirit” by which our faith enjoys the blessings of heaven, but through our bodily resurrection we will take up our full inheritance together with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
This final justification/resurrection will happen at the moment when Christ returns in glory. Paul says that then believers “will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52). The Bible does not teach that we are raised, then judged, and then, if justified, we are then glorified. Rather, the Bible teaches that those who belong to Christ through faith, having their sins cleansed through his blood and having already enjoyed the first resurrection in their rebirth, so that they not only believed but went on to do many good works, finally receive the second resurrection into the fullness of glory. After the resurrection, there is no “not yet” to our justification. This occurs before the final judgment. How then, are those who have already been glorified and declared before the watching cosmos to be the sons of God then to be judged in the law-court of the final judgment? This is not what we find in judgment passages like Matthew 25:31-46. Rather, the sheep, who are outwardly distinguished from the goats, are separated so that we do not enter into judgment but are instead praised for the least of our good works in his name.
For these five reasons, we should reject the doctrine of future justification according to works in favor of the classic Reformation doctrine of justification through faith alone. In fact, we should avoid the use of this language altogether, for even in the most highly nuanced form this expression misrepresents what believers face in the Second Coming of Christ. First, the Bible regards all who have believed as fully justified, not provisionally justified. Second, we need fear no future judgment of our sins because they were judged in the past on the cross of Christ. Third, the Bible’s teaching of future judgment according to works refers only to the condemnation of wicked unbelievers. Fourth, the biblical depiction of the judicial assessment of believers lives involves only praise and reward. Fifth, we can be sure that believers do not await justification by works in the final judgment because we will already have received the full and final manifestation of our justification in our resurrection into glory.
No Sweaty Palms
As a young officer in the U.S. Army, I was once charged with two felony counts for an offense of which I was innocent (the charge was hit-and-run driving because during field operations my tank ran over a jeep that parked behind us in the dark; neither I nor my tank crew were even aware we had backed over it!). When I was cited, my battalion commander assured me that the military police were simply flexing their muscles. My defense attorney assured me there was no basis for a conviction. I, too, did not see how I could possibly be found guilty. And yet as I faced that judgment, I can tell you that I did not sleep a wink the night before. Why? Because even though the charges were ridiculous, and even though my innocence was obvious, I had not yet been justified. I showed up with a pale, drawn face and sweat dripped from my palms even as the judge threw out the charges against me.
Here is the point: no Christian, justified through faith in Christ, should ever face the final judgment with that anxiety. For we will not stand before that throne as those awaiting judgment. Unlike my trial, Christ’s final judgment is one in which we could never stand by our own works. So why should we not fear? Why should there be no sleepless nights for us? Because we will be present on that day having our justification through faith alone finally, fully, and publicly consummated by our resurrection into glory, present only to be separated to the right hand of Christ to enter into joy of his reign. We will face not judgment but coronation as joint-heirs together with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
This is what C.S. Lewis profoundly portrayed in his famous novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For when Aslan had returned and won his victory, his servants were crowned. Even Edmund, the younger brother whose sin had caused Aslan to die in his place, was crowned in glory. Edmund had repented and believed, and though he had served faithfully in the battle he could not hope to be justified by his works. But there sat Edmund, once condemned by his sin, enthroned with the crown placed upon his head: “Edmund the Just,” Aslan cries aloud. This accolade was not given by virtue of Edmund’s supposed life of good works! Rather, Edmund the sinner was justified by the grace of the King, through his atoning blood and as the unmerited gift of his grace.
Likewise, the final day is not a day of judgment for us, but the day of our entry into glory, the day when Christ calls us to his right hand. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father,” Jesus will say to us, not according to our works but according to the grace of God through faith in Christ, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt. 25:34).
Editor’s Note: 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 © Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals Inc, 1716 Spruce St. Philadelphia, PA 19103
This article is part of the New Perspective on Paul collection.
- N.T. Wright, Romans, NIB 10 (Nashville: Abington, 2003), 440.↩
- N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 129.↩
- N.T. Wright, Romans, 580.↩
- Ibid., 129.↩
- Tom Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK, 2009), 160.↩
- Wright, Justification, 163-164.↩
- John Calvin, New Testament Commentaries, tr. Ross Mackenzie, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 8;46.↩
- Ibid., 8:47.↩
- Simon Kistemaker, Revelation (Grand Rapids: Baker 2001), 547.↩
- A.A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1896, reprint 1958), 391↩