The Role of Works at Final Judgment, Schreiner (Review, part 3)

The Role of Works at Final Judgment, Schreiner (Review, part 3) September 16, 2013

We are now up to part 3 of our review series on the book Four Views on the Role of Works At the Final Judgment (Zondervan, 2013).

First up was Robert Wilkin. The second contributor is Thomas R. Schreiner (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Schreiner’s chapter title, which captures his overall view, is: “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification.”

Given the vast area the topic covers in the NT, Schreiner limits himself to James and Paul (which is unfortunate, since Wilkin gave a heavy focus on the Gospels). Schreiner begins by articulating his own (traditional) understanding of justification by faith:

Human being cannot be justified or saved on the basis of their works, for they are sinners and fail to meet God’s standard. They need to be rescued, redeemed, and reconciled. They need to be justified and saved. They need to be cleansed and washed to be adopted into God’s family. Justification must be apart from works, for human beings do not and cannot do what God demands. Hence, their righteousness is not in themselves but in Jesus Christ their Lord (p. 78)

He goes on to engage with Romans 2 and the language of judgment. Long story short, Schreiner concludes: “Paul teaches here that works play a role in the final judgment. They are necessary for final salvation” (81). He emphasizes how they demonstrate the power and work of God: “Good works are energized and accomplished by the Holy Spirit, being rooted in the cross-work of Jesus Christ by which believers have been freed form the old creation and have been inducted into the new creation” (83). It really cannot be said better than this: “The grace received in conversion is not an abstraction separated from everyday life and behavior. God saves the whole person so that those who have received his grace are transformed by that grace” (85).

Schreiner devotes some attention to warning passages in Paul-  especially those where he lays out the kind of people that will not inherit God’s kingdom: “those who give themselves over to evil and fail to repent of their sin will not be members of the kingdom” (p. 85).

When it comes to James, Schreiner, again, gives a very cogent interpretation. He urges that James’ focus is not incompatible with Paul, and that James rails against a kind of superficial faith that is not internalized – “What James rejects is a faith that is devoid of works” (91). What actually united James and Paul is their mutual assumption that “faith” and “works” are deeply connected: “Faith and works can be distinguished logically, but in life they are inseparable” (91).

So what about final judgment? Schreiner is blunt: Paul and James affirm “both truths [justification by faith, and judgment by works] without explaining to us precisely how they cohere! Hence, the debate!” (96), In light of this, Schreiner must proceed in view of “clues and hints.” Here is his theory.

It seems legitimate to say that works are necessary evidence and fruit of a right relation with God. They demonstrate, although imperfectly, that one is truly trusting in Jesus Christ (p. 97).

And, again,

We can even say that salvation and justification are through faith alone, but such faith is living and vital and always produces works. (98)

Here are the responses from the other contributors:

Wilkin: Wilkin does not like the tension that Schreiner allows.

Dunn: Dunn actually finds much agreement with Schreiner – he even refers to his essay as “a breath of fresh air” (105)! Dunn pushes in the opposite direction as Wilkin, though –why try so hard to resolve the tension?

The fact that Paul never actually addressed the question of how to hold the two emphases together in so many words at least leaves open the question that he didn’t find it necessary to do so, and was content to bring out the different emphases in different situations as the situation demands (Dunn, 106).

I think perhaps Dunn is being too hard on Schreiner (who among us does not press for coherence?), but I really like the way Dunn puts his finger on a bad habit of scholars. Regarding Schreiner’s “neat” solution, Dunn  says it has

…the smack of the teacher who has retired into his study to reflect on the conundrum and has thus come up with a solution. (p. 109).

Dunn is saying, if we are quick to “resolve” the tension, will that make it go away? Perhaps we should not sweep the tension under the carpet too quickly…

Barber: I thought Barber’s response was quite helpful and it makes me look forward to his essay. In the short response, he explains the traditional Catholic view. In that perspective, judgment can and should happen for believers because of what God has done in justification – “God transcends the constraints of human juridical authority not by violating justice, but because he actually makes the wicked righteous” (113). This happens through union with the Son, Jesus Christ (Barber tips his hat to Mike Gorman’s work on justification, theosis, and union with Christ in Paul). What really made this persuasive for me was that Barber wrapped it all within a covenantal framework, where one is adopted and transformed through Christ. Christians can (and should) be judged because “Sonship entails growth” (117).

Gupta (my 2 cents): I found Schreiner’s essay very articulate and well-reasoned. I thought he captured the reality of justification and the complexity of judgment quite well. The major downside of his essay, I think, is that he spent so much time setting the stage, so to speak, for the tension and his solution, that he gave only brief attention to his perspective on the matter at hand.

There were a couple of other issues. First, he seems so tentative in his theory (judgment is about evidence-only of faith) that one has a hard time being convinced of it. Secondly, I agreed strongly with Barber’s suggestion that much tension can be dealt with when we place the divine-human relationship into a covenantal context where benevolence/good-will and demand/judgment are quite normal.

Finally, I was a bit confused by what appears to be a convoluted argument in his essay – on the one hand Schreiner affirmed that judgment must judge the commitment of faith one has placed in Christ. For example, he writes, “those who give themselves over to evil and fail to repent of their sin will not be members of the kingdom” (p. 85). However, in a footnote later on, he makes this statement: “I don’t believe genuine believers will ever apostatize, but space is lacking to explain why here” (pg. 93, note 33).

If believers will not apostatize, is final judgment for believers really a judgment? If a negative judgment is impossible because no one will be in that category, how is it judgment at all? Will it only be a judgment of whether or not someone was a “genuine Christian”? Is that really judgment “according to works”? How does God decide who is genuine? I found that comment and caveat serious setback to his argument.

Last thing I will say – Schreiner is careful to say that judgment is not on the basis of works, but just according to works. I am not sure I make that distinction in English. If someone said, “According to Dr. Smith, there will be an exam on Friday,” I would hear, “Based on the word of Dr. Smith, there will be an exam on Friday.” I just don’t think kata is that narrow in meaning. BDAG, for example, has one meaning of kata as: “the norm according to which a judgment is rendered .” If this is the correct nuance in Rom 2:6, for example, that means believers are judged “according to the standard” of works – presumably a certain expectation regarding works (quality?). I cannot see that as far from “basis.”

What do you think of Schreiner’s argument?

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