In order to address these questions, we will begin with a summary of the traditional reformational answer to them. During the course of the debates of the sixteenth century on the doctrine of justification, the Reformers, who insisted that the believer’s justification is based wholly upon the righteousness of Christ received by faith alone, were compelled to consider how this is compatible with a final judgment according to works. Since the Roman Catholic objections to the Reformers’ understanding of justification often included an appeal to the Scriptural teaching of a final judgment according to works, the subject of justification and the final judgment was an unavoidable feature of their teaching.
Rather than attempt to sort out the variety of answers provided to this question during the sixteenth century, we will take the handling of it in the Protestant confessions to be representative. In these confessions, several themes are present.
Fundamental to the reformational view was the claim that justification was a judicial act of God that irrevocably and definitively declares that believers are right with God and heirs of eternal life. Justification is not, like sanctification, a process that occurs over time as believers are renewed and conformed to Christ by the working of His Spirit. Justification is a declarative act of God in which He pronounces the status of believers to be one of acceptance and favor with Himself. This free justification or acceptance with God is wholly based upon the work of Christ, whose righteousness is the sufficient and the only basis for God’s justifying verdict.
When believers come to enjoy the benefit of Christ’s saving work through faith, their justification declares, here and now, nothing less than the favorable verdict that God will publicly confirm at the time of the final judgment. Free justification declares that all the believer’s sins, past, present and future, are forgiven and covered by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, whose life of obedience and sacrificial death constitute their righteousness before God. In this respect, justification anticipates the favorable verdict that will be openly declared at the final judgment. When believers are joined to Christ through faith, they become beneficiaries of the verdict that God declared already in the resurrection of Christ from the dead (Romans 4:25). To state the matter conversely, if the final judgment were to undo or reverse the verdict already pronounced in the believer’s justification, the confidence of believers that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” would be compromised (Rom. 8:1). To speak of a “future” or final justification that is partly based upon works jeopardizes the believer’s assurance of full and irrevocable justification.
Nowhere in the confessions of the Reformation is this more emphatically stated than in the Westminster Confession of Faith. In Chapter 7, “Of Justification,” it is affirmed that “God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified; and, although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure, and not have the light of His countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance” (section 5, emphasis mine).
The language of this Confession unmistakably declares that justification is a once-for-all judicial act, which secures the believer’s right standing with God in a manner that is irrevocable. No room is left by this Confession for the idea of a future justification that completes what would otherwise be an unfinished reality.
In the Heidelberg Catechism, a similar point is made, though in the express context of its treatment of the final judgment. When the question is asked, “What comfort is it to you that Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead?,” the answer strongly insists that this judgment occurs within the framework of a solid confidence that Christ’s obedience and sacrifice have already secured, permanently and irrevocably, the believer’s freedom from the curse of the law: “That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same Person who before has offered Himself for my sake to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven” (Q. & A. 52). According to this confession, the final judgment does not represent a fearful prospect of loss for believers who place their trust in Christ, since Christ has secured once-for-all their freedom from the curse of the law and accomplished for them all that is necessary to secure their right standing with God (Romans 8:31–39; Philippeans 3:20; Titus 2:13).
According to the Reformation confessions, since this definitive and irrevocable declaration of the believer’s standing with God is based solely upon the righteousness of Christ, which is received by faith alone, the works that play a role in the context of the final judgment may not be regarded as the ultimate basis or ground for the favorable verdict and acquittal that this judgment publicly declares. The confessions clearly and repeatedly assert that the only righteousness that is the ground for the justifying verdict of God is the righteousness revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-24; 5:1,2,16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Philippeans 3:9; II Corinthians 5:21).
Since believers are justified by faith “apart from works,” the final judgment’s contemplation of the works of believers may not be construed as a justification by works, even though such works are the necessary and inevitable fruits of a true and living faith. Though it is acknowledged that the final judgment includes a public confirmation of the believer’s present justification, this judgment is not described as a kind of future or final justification that completes an otherwise unfinished process. To regard the final judgment as a final justification would inevitably compel the view that justification, at least in its ultimate expression, is not a free gift of God’s grace that is granted for the sake of Christ’s righteousness alone.
If the confessions of the Reformation clearly speak of justification as a once-for-act of God, which does not require nor comport with a future or final justification according to works, this still leaves open the question regarding the way they handle the final judgment and the obvious role that works play in this judgment. How, then, do the confessions treat the subject of the role of good works in the context of the final judgment?
Genuine Good Works
To answer this question, it is significant to observe that the confessions of the Reformation freely affirm the reality of a final judgment according to works. They also openly acknowledge that the good works of believers are genuine works that please God and are accordingly rewarded by Him. However, the reformational confessions are careful to note that the good works that God rewards in the context of the final judgment have at least three important characteristics.
First, they are not the kinds of works that could ever justly deserve the verdict that free justification pronounces. Such works could never be “the whole or part of our righteousness before God,” according to the Heidelberg Catechism, “[b]ecause the righteousness which can stand before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly conformable to the divine law, while even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (Q. & A. 62; cf. Romans 3:9,20; 10:5; 7:23; Galatians 3:10; 5:3; Deuteronomy 27:6; Leviticus 18:5).
Second, the good works of believers are themselves the fruits of God’s sanctifying grace at work in the hearts and lives of his people. They are those good works that God prepared beforehand for believers to walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
And third, the works of believers are only “good” in so far as they proceed from faith, the same faith that finds no other basis for acceptance with God than that provided by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. They are the inescapable fruits of a true and living faith, though faith alone “before we do good works” is the exclusive instrument whereby believers receive the free gift of justification (Matthew 7:18; John 15:5; James 2:18,22). The principal motive that is operative in the Christian life is that of gratitude and devotion borne out of the awareness of God’s super-abounding grace in Christ (Romans 12:1). To suggest that the good works of believers constitute the basis or reason for their final acceptance and favor with God would be to transpose them into an unbiblical key. Were believers motivated to obey God by the prospect of the loss of their justification and inheritance in the covenant, their works would be performed in “bad faith,” that is, out of an ungrateful denial of the perfection of Christ’s work on their behalf. When God rewards the works of faith, therefore, He rewards those works that He produces by His own Spirit in the lives of believers.
Since the genuine good works of believers, which play an important role in the final judgment, are not the kind of works that could justify anyone, the confessions also insist that their reward, though genuine, is not the gift of salvation itself or the title to eternal life (I Corinthians 3:14–15). Salvation is wholly a gift of God’s grace in Christ (Romans 6:13) and therefore it cannot be as a reward for good works that we are saved. The respective rewards and praise that God grants to the good works of believers are a genuine and undeniable feature of the final judgment. However, the praise of the believer’s good works in the context of the final judgment is not to be understood as though they were the basis for the believer’s salvation.
The believer’s acceptance with God and right to eternal life always, whether in this life and in the setting of the final judgment, remain based upon the gracious work of Christ. Were the believer’s acceptance with God or inheritance of eternal life to depend upon who they are or what they have done, the assurance of free justification would be lost and works would become the way whereby believers receive their salvation, which would be a denial of justification by the instrumentality of faith alone.
Acceptable Good Works
Among the more important features of the confessions’ treatment of a final judgment according to works is their insistence that the acceptance and reward by God of the good works of believers is by grace and not merit. When God rewards the works of believers, He does not reward them in terms of their inherent value, as though, strictly speaking, there would be a sense in which they “deserve” this reward. Since the works of believers are always imperfect and stained with sin, and since these works are themselves the fruits of Christ’s Spirit at work in them, it is not possible to speak of their reward as a reward that is properly merited. There is no sense in which the reward God grants for such works could be said to be “due” believers, as though this reward were like a wage that is due a worker who has satisfactorily fulfilled all his duties (cf. Luke 17:10; Romans 4:4). Indeed, however genuine and praiseworthy the works performed by believers, their acceptance and reward from God depends wholly upon a prior acceptance of their persons for the sake of the righteousness of Christ.
In this connection, the confessions introduce a distinction, which is also found in the writings of John Calvin and other Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, between the justification of the believer’s person and the justification of the believer’s works.
Though present in several of the confessions, nowhere is this distinction more clearly stated than in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (Chap. 16, section 6).
The point of this distinction is to emphasize that whatever pleasure God takes in the otherwise imperfect works of His children, this pleasure wholly depends upon and is undergirded by His prior pleasure in their persons, which is on account of the righteousness of Christ alone. By speaking of an acceptance or justification of the works of believers, the Confession clearly does not mean to speak of something that “completes” or complements the believer’s prior justification by faith alone. The acceptance of the work of believers is subordinated to, and only possible upon the basis of, a previous saving justification of the persons of believers. When believers come before God with their works, they come as those who are united to Christ and, in union with him, clothed with his perfect righteousness. The acceptance of their works, accordingly, is altogether gracious and unmerited. Apart from the saving acceptance of their persons in Christ, the works of believers could not possibly be pleasing to God, since, as the Confession rightly describes them, they are always “accompanied with many weaknesses or imperfections.” The acceptance of the works of believers is not a second part or chapter in the ongoing process of the believer’s justification. Rather, it is a fruit and consequence that follows from a more basic act, namely, the free justification of believers themselves on account of work of Christ on their behalf.
Within the context of these emphases, the confessions affirm that believers will not be acquitted in the final judgment, or receive the confirmation of their free justification and praise for their good works, unless their lives give evidence of the genuineness of their faith. God will not declare the final acquittal of professed believers whose lives belie or deny their profession. In this respect, it is permissible to say that believers will only be vindicated in the final judgment within the context of an acknowledgment of their good works, which prove their genuineness of their faith. The good works that true faith produces are a necessary part of what belongs to the salvation of any believer (a genuine conditio sine qua non). But they are not the cause or reason for the salvation of any believer. In other words, believers will only be saved when they embrace the gospel with the kind of faith that necessarily produces good works. However, this certainly does not mean that we should view the final judgment as a kind of final chapter in the believer’s justification, which would determine on the basis of works whether believers are worthy of eternal life.
According to the confessions, therefore, the final judgment and acquittal of believers is “according to” but not, strictly speaking, “on account of” their good works. Because true faith is “ever accompanied with all other saving graces” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 11, section 2), including good works, the final judgment will openly confirm the salvation of those in whom the Spirit of Christ has worked. The final judgment will show that the faith that alone justifies is not alone in those who genuinely believe in Christ. None of those whom God justifies freely for the sake of Christ are left in the condition in which they were found. Rather, the Spirit of Christ, who is the Spirit of sanctification, always and simultaneously renews believers in new obedience to the law of God. The purpose of the final judgment, accordingly, is to vindicate God’s righteousness in declaring his justified and sanctified people to be the proper recipients of their open acquittal and praise. By contrast, the judgment of the unbelieving and impenitent will publicly declare that they remain in their sins and are deservedly recipients of condemnation and death.
The classic treatment of the subject of justification and a final judgment according to works in the Reformation confessions, includes several interrelated themes. All believers, whose free justification is based upon the righteousness of Christ alone received through faith alone, will be judged at the time of Christ’s coming. Because justification is a definitive and irrevocable declaration of the believer’s acceptance with God and title to eternal life, this final judgment, though a judgment according to works, is not understood to be a final phase or step in a process of justification that is still unfinished. Rather, it is a judgment that will publicly declare and confirm what is already true, namely, that Christ has removed every accusation against his people and any basis for their remaining under the curse of God. Furthermore, because the same faith that receives the gift of Christ’s righteousness for justification is also, by the working of the Spirit of Christ, a faith that proves its genuineness by its fruits, the final judgment will declare the propriety of God’s judgment in favor of believers by recognizing and rewarding the works of believers. The works of believers will not be the reason or basis for God’s favorable verdict and acquittal of believers in the final judgment. Nor will the reward of these works be the gift of salvation or eternal life. The role of good works in the final judgment will be to offer the occasion for God to reward graciously, and not according to merit, those good works of believers that are the fruits of his gracious working in them. Believers will be judged “according to” their works, but they will not be saved “on the basis” or by reason of their works. Though we may properly say that believers will only be acquitted in the final judgment when their profession is confirmed by their good works, we may not say that this acquittal is based upon their good works.
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.