The Role of Works in Final Judgment (Review, Part 1)

The Role of Works in Final Judgment (Review, Part 1) September 5, 2013

It was during my PhD research that is really struck me – Paul talks about judgment…a lot. Then it hit me again when I read James Thompson’s excellent little book, Pastoral Ministry According to Paul where Thompson argues that Paul recognized a major part of his mission was to help prepare his people (the Gentiles) for judgment. Since that time, it has stayed with me, a concern that evangelicals are ignorant of the “judgment” texts of Scripture, or that they cannot reconcile them with their theology of grace, so it is discarded.

So, I was very excited to see a book advertised several months ago called Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Zondervan Counterpoints; ed. Alan Stanley).

works-“Works will determine rewards but not salvation” (Robert N. Wilkin)

-“Works will provide evidence that one actually has been saved” (Schreiner)

-“Works will provide the criterion by which Christ will determine eternal destiny of his people” (Dunn)

-“Works will merit eternal life” (Michael Barber)

I would like to do a five-part series, devoting a short amount of space in this particular post to the introduction.

Alan Stanley’s introduction is a concise reflection on the tension between grace and judgment in Scripture, a survey of basic Biblical texts involved in the debate, and a bit of history on the development of the discussion. What I found interesting in the introduction is the matter of the Synoptic Gospels and passages such as Matt 25:31-46 with the judgment of the nations. Most commentators scratch their heads and wonder: where is the grace? Where is the mercy? Where is “Jesus”? (Stanley quotes F.W. Beare, Craig Keener, and David Hill).

Stanley engages a bit with Luther and his interpreters, as well as the ongoing “New Perspective on Paul” debate. However, taking the discussion to the more popular arena, Stanley spends some time (wisely, in my view) dissecting the debate between John Piper and N.T. Wright about justification and judgment that happened mostly in publications between 2005 and 2010. Piper apparently found problematic (even heretical) Wright’s oft-repeated statement that Paul claims that judgment of the believer will happen on the basis of his or her works. Piper would say that judgment may be “according to works,” but cannot be the basis, because that lies in justification through faith in Jesus Christ.

This may sound like a semantics game (and to some it is little more than this), but the way I have heard the debate run, some want to say that works will provide the evidence of justification by faith in Christ, but are not the grounds for it (so Schreiner, in basic agreement with Piper); others want to say that Paul’s language must stand: judgment will evaluate the life lived in obedience to God through Jesus Christ, a life that shows good works (so Wright; see Romans 2).

Without having read the book, my guess is that I will fall into the “Dunn” camp, but I wish Wright’s view was a “fifth” perspective, because he has spent so much time working it out, and it is not the same as Dunn’s (Note, for example, the work Wright has done on virtue and the Christian life). Nor does it resemble any of the others (though I am not sure what Barber is going for yet).

I am very strongly considering assigning this book as mandatory reading for my Galatians course in the Spring (along with Hays’ NIB commentary, the five view on justification, and perhaps also Rosner’s new book on Paul and the Law). We shall see if this book provides the kind of thoughtful engagement that will help my students and me work through some of the questions involved about Scripture, grace, mission, and judgment.

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