Saved by Grace, Judged by Works?

The final judgment is a culminating moment in the story of God. This means that if we are participating in that story, our own narratives are going to somehow walk a path that takes us from our life here and now through that judgment and out the other side as God’s vindicated people.

Inspired by Scot McKnight’s post on judgment a couple days ago and by finishing up my Romans-Revelation course on Wednesday night, I want to explore one particular dimension of final judgment in the NT. Here it is:

Every time the New Testament indicates the basis of the final judgment, that basis is the works of the people who are being judged.

This is a hard one for us in the Protestant tradition. Ours is a world that has generated conflicts about “lordship salvation,” and where “once saved always saved” has been a watch word of comfort for our churches.

More specifically, our salvation looks to grace alone by faith alone. And this has made us slow to accept the centrality of works in that final experience of salvation.

Here are some quick thoughts about the significance of works as part of the final judgment:

  • The NT writers assume that it is possible for the people of God to live in such a way as to please God.
  • The NT writers assume that those who are truly God’s people will, in fact, live in this God-pleasing way.
  • The NT writers (and Jesus!) assume that these God-pleasing lives will distinguish God’s people from those who are outside the Christian community.
  • These previous points together indicate another assumption, that the people who are brought into the community will live out their calling in such a way that they will, in the end, be vindicated.
  • The final judgment plays a role in exhorting the people of God to the faithfulness to which they have been called–and this is a real exhortation with real consequences for failure.
  • The final judgment plays a role in comforting the people of God who, most often in this life, will not see themselves rewarded for their faithfulness to the heavenly economy.

All of this got me wondering about the social conditions that give rise to different ways of thinking and talking about the final judgment.

Much of our hesitation about it seems to stem from our personal disconnect with the last point. Final judgment is good news for people who know that their faithfulness to God is bringing them real life hardship, and perhaps even death.

Final judgment is not good news for people in power, for people who exercise judgment. If there is a world upheaval and a putting of the top run on the bottom and the bottom on top at the End, then those of us who sit perched atop the world’s power structures don’t have much use for the final judgment in our systems.

Theologically, this raises questions about how we should understand the connection between our salvation by grace and the works entailed in final salvation. We might need to find better ways of holding onto the life of faithfulness that is expected as the outcome of placing our faith in the God of the crucified and risen Christ.

Is there a good news about getting in that corresponds to the life that is expected for those who comprise this family of God?

What do you think? Is a final judgment according to works problematic for how we understand salvation in our churches?

32 thoughts on “Saved by Grace, Judged by Works?”

  1. This is not a problem for those who to a union with Christ model similar to Jonathan Edwards and NT wright’s. the idea is that there is a double justification schema where you are justified at the Cross via substitutionary atonement, and then you are judged to be justified again…but this time its by works. NT Wright is quick to stress though that these works are Spirit wrought.

    the real problem is for those in Evangelical circles who hold to an oversimplified Lutheran model where the gospel = Justification. I wonder how much longer this view can hold in light of the tremendous amount of recent pauline and NT scholarship that challenges this view.

  2. It makes me wonder what the Lord will say if our “works” do turn out to be nothing more than trying to hold on to our spot on the top run, where as we Christians are concerned only with preserving our “Christian” culture through a utilitarian ethic in politics. In many ways, it seems rather difficult to identify with many segments of scripture when we are the ones on the top run. That then leaves us with two choices, to get off the top run and head for the bottom (which is never easy) or devise curious ways of circumventing those segments of scripture that call us away from the top run.

    Grace and Peace,

    Rex

  3. Ditto, Joe Kim. The problem is that many churches have adopted whole discipleship models based upon the oversimplified Lutheran “justification = gospel” concept (thanks, in part, to the “Gospel-Centered” empire). When they say the Gospel doesn’t just get you saved, it’s also for the entire Christian life, they more often than not mean “sanctification = discovering how much more I suck and getting that much more excited about justification.” The true spiritual life is reduced to incessant self-deprecation and existential ‘affections’ regarding imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me. (hence John Piper’s argument: “imputation just ‘does something’ to my people!”)

    In redefining the landscape of the whole ‘faith/works’ debate, the NPP, in my estimation, totally undercuts this entire mental framework and therefore causes a short-circuit in how people relate to God. I, for one, am terribly thankful for this change; others, not so much. I believe the process will be slow and will involve even more misunderstanding than has already taken place. But I do think it’s important to unhinge this model in people’s minds because, without doing so, I fear people won’t really understand the seriousness of what Kirk explained in this post: judgment will be according to our faith-guided-faithfulness. Our problem is that our faith is in the wrong direction–backwards, not forwards.

  4. Excellent observations Joe Kim & Jonathan. I like the last two comments, Jonathan: judgment will be according to our faith-guided-faithfulness. Our problem is that our faith is in the wrong direction–backwards, not forwards.

    I’d like to see elaboration on this point, Daniel: “The final judgment plays a role in exhorting the people of God to the faithfulness to which they have been called–and this is a real exhortation with real consequences for failure.”

    Two things come to mind.
    1) Salvation by “faith” it seems to me is not purely a one time “I believe” moment. It is that, but not only that. Abraham lived a life of faithfulness to God (albeit imperfect). Grace was still in play with his imperfections.
    2) So many NT texts speak to warnings about missing this:
    - Heb. 3:12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end,
    - Heb. 4:1   Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it.
    - Heb. 10:26   For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

    Any statement about judgment and God’s people has to deal with these texts written to God’s people.

    That said, I do think one cannot speak about grace enough. Grace is what motivates and empowers us toward good works (Eph. 2:8-10). The deeper confidence I have in grace & salvation, the more I can freely give up myself in sacrifice to others – it’s really nothing relative to what God is supplying. That deep awareness of grace is missing for many Christians; it is not something to treat flippantly but it is to result in good works and the denial of ungodliness (Titus 2).

  5. I agree in principle with what you are saying. But I think i can add something by piggy backing off your thoughts. scot McKnight’s blog post is really helpful here.. In the OT final judgement is restoratively ‘verdictive’ (I have no idea where he got that word). It brings justice and what ‘ought to be’ into reality. Thus the OT Jews never cringed at final judgment. Instead they longed for it in anticipation because they knew that when God’s judgment would come, everything would be gloriously ok again. The nt keeps the same apocalyptic and condeming language and follows the same trajectory path…ie judgment is a good thing because God is gonna open up a can of you-know-what on His (our) enemies.therefore, take care to see that you are not an enemy of God. The key point is that McKnight, following thistleton believes that judgement is always restorative. I really believe that this idea is the way to de-brutalize the concept of judgement and restore it to what it should have been…a hope to look forward to, not fear.

    1. You’re right in that this was generally the way the judgment was understood, but the prophets were also careful to point out that the judgment was only restorative of those truly doing God’s will, that for many of those looking forward to that day as a good day, a day of vindication for themselves, will be surprised:

      “Alas, you who are longing for the day of YHWH, for what reason would you want the day of YHWH? It will be darkness and not light!” (Am 5:18).

  6. Daniel

    As someone who often comments in disagreement, here I want to register my agreement. I am perturbed by the quasi-lutheran model that simply refuses to look at all the ‘whole counsel of God’.

    That being said, it is difficult to find the best form of words for holding the tension of justification by faith and justification by works. I do not think ‘faith and works’ is helpful. Certainly not ‘faith without works’. Even less ‘works without faith’. Faith evidenced by works is still for me the best shorthand.

    perhaps it is safer to say, however, there is no ‘shorthand’ that is satisfactory. Faith needs definition as does works and the pastoral context contols the emphasis.

  7. There need be no confusion or controversy here, it’s very straightforward Christianity 101:
    We are saved by grace through faith, and cannot lose our place in heaven. Nobody that is damned already can be saved at their judgement, and nobody that is saved already can be damned at their judgement, for the former will stand only in their own righteousness (which is only as filthy rags) but the latter will stand in the righteousness of Christ who was judged and condemned already in the stead of the believer. The believer is already dead in Christ, and on such the second death hath no power (Rev 20:6). Therefore, there are TWO different judgments – A judgement of the saved, and a judgement of the damned. These two judgements are held at different times, and in different courtrooms, for two different purposes. These two judgements are not ‘trials’ where the outcome is decided by the evidence given in legal process, but rather, they are simply summations of a person’s life, so that each person shall be left profoundly “without excuse” (Rom 1:20). In both cases, for saved or unsaved, the judgement has already been made before the personal appearance before the judge. The judgments are simply a gracious formality.
    Thus, at the resurrection, that is to say, at ‘The Judgement Seat of Christ’, where all Christians will be judged on their performance, (which as stated above, is a different place and occasion to ‘The Great White Throne Judgement’, where all unbelievers will have their ‘day in court’ before being mandatorily thrown into the Lake of Fire anyway) each of the saved shall be judged on our performance as Christians. Nobody will be cast out of heaven, but many will be brought to tears of shame at this point. Afterwards, God will wipe away these tears and distribute the rewards, crowns and mansions accordingly. Some will be given bigger and better mansions than others, though we will not be conscious of any disparity, for we shall be in repose in the manifest contentment of heaven :-) Rom 14:12, 2 Cor 5:10, Rev 2:10, 1 Cor 3:13-15, Rev 21:4

    1. Adam

      This is the view I was reared on. But I’m afraid I find it wanting. There is no justification for seeing the times and places of judgement as different and certainly we must not see the basis of judgement as different or we accuse God of unrighteousness.

  8. The answer is simple: the Sola Fide model never was true to begin with. It was built on a faulty premise of *conflating* conversion with final salvation, which Scripture and pre-Luther always distinguished. This is precisely why Paul never uses terms like “eternal life” in texts speaking of the believer converting to Christianity, instead only in regards to living a faithful Christian life (e.g. Gal 6:7-9).

    If the BASIS for entering Heaven is the Christian’s good works, which the Bible says it is, then Sola Fide is impossible. So Daniel is very correct, the Bible is clear a Christian can live an upright life.

    1. Nick

      I shouldn’t, I really shouldn’t. I don’t want to open up a debate here. But, I do think BASIS is not the most appropriate word. The BASIS is the blood of Christ and our holding to this in faith. There is no other basis. Works are the evidence or reality of this faith; faith works through love.

      Course we’ve disagreed on this many times.

      1. Hi John,

        I think the problem is conflating conversion from final salvation. The “basis” is not the Blood of Christ, but what the Blood ‘unlocks’ for us: the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit, making us Adopted Sons of God, and living as such (Gal 6:7-9). There is more to Christ being the Second Adam than the Cross.

        1. I think I’m with Nick on this one. To speak of our ‘faith’ being in the blood of Christ as the security for our eschatological salvation may miss the mark. Our faith should be in ‘the God who raised from the dead Jesus, our Lord’ (Rom. 4:24), believing that ‘He is, and that He earnestly rewards (on the last day) those who seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6).

          Christ’s death is the once-for-all sacrifice which both inaugurates the new covenant and sustains it, meaning that for all those who are new-covenant members, there is always forgiveness and reconciliation in so far as you confess your sins and repent towards God. Now, I know this probably raises questions about the mechanics of penal substitutionary atonement, but so be it. I’m not so sure the whole ‘God’s eschatological wrath being poured out on Jesus’ is sufficient.

          That being said, the new covenant inauguration is also what does away with the Mosaic Law and brings in the age of the Spirit, who directs our hearts and minds into Christ (as opposed to Torah) as we participate in his righteousness (which is not to say we are given his active and passive obedience, whatever that means). For those in Christ who, by the Spirit, ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (Matt. 5:6), God will declare a favorable judgment on the last day.

  9. John T., I grew up on the Lutheran-Reformed side of the aisle, and jumped over to the Pre-mil side. We might have passed each other mid-air! I want to respond to your response to Andy’s reply:
    In response to his reply, you wrote, “There is no justification for seeing the times and places of judgement as different and certainly we must not see the basis of judgement as different or we accuse God of unrighteousness.” Really? John, I’m intrigued by your confidence that “certainly we must not see the basis of judgment as different or we accuse God of unrighteousness.” Isn’t it at least plausible that Paul makes a distinction between the place of Judgement, and the basis of the judgments, eg, in 1 Cor. 3:9ff and 9:16ff? Paul’s repeated use of the differentiating pronouns “we” and “you” (plural) seem to argue that he is speaking to a specific group of people–the “church of God which is at Corinth”, “sanctified,” “saints” (1 Cor 1:2) This people, believers at Corinth, (as opposed to those who are not “we” or “you”) will undergo a judgment of works, based on their performance, with commensurate rewards for obedience.
    Also, just my opinion here, speculating that Adam may be “accusing God of unrighteousness” seems a bit over the top. Do you think that was Andy’s intent in his response, or that he might be accidentally insulting God by his writing?
    Laborers who worked different hours, and yet were paid the same at the end of the day had the same argument against God’s fairness, and Jesus dispatched such accusations by reiterating the divine right of God to do as He wished concerning the rewarding of people (Matt 20). Paul spoke of God’s right to elect and do as He wished in regards to His election of Jacob over Esau in Romans. So my point is this; is God somehow obligated to judge all people the same (by our standards), and at the same time, and in the same manner? And if some were covered by an atoning work of God Himself–might that atonement demand that they are “judged” in a different manner, perhaps even at a different time and place? Finally, I don’t see the necessity of making the Great White Throne Judgment synonymous with the Bema Judgement–it is certainly plausible to do so, and many have, but not demanded by the text–at least as I read it! Blessings, Ken

  10. As one reader of Flannery O’Connor to another, I had to quote these lines from “Revelation”: “Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and bottom!”

    There’s more than a simplistic reversal of power structures in the NT’s talk of judgment.

    There’s so much to say here. It’s a great question. For my take, I think Jesus’ death and resurrection provide the right lens. His death was God’s judgment on sin (Rom 5). We’ve participated in that judgment. There is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom 8:1). But Christ’s resurrection was God’s very public vindication of his faithfulness and obedience to God. Our resurrection will be the same for us and our works will play a major role in that vindication. This vindication doesn’t threaten sola fidei or sola gratia in the least. It’s a difference between justification before God and justification before the watching world.

  11. Ken

    Interesting to meet someone who has travelled the other way. By the way, I certainly don’t dismiss all of my background. I am agnostic regarding the Millennium (inclined to see it in Rev 20 but not convinced I can see it anywhere else).

    My point re judgement is that I think all judgement must be on the same basis else God is unjust. I was not saying Andrew was accusing God of such in any intended way. I do think God’s basis for judgement is the same for all. I think he lays it out abstractly in Roms 2.

    Rom 2:6-11 (ESV)
    He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.

    I understand those ‘who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality’ to be all believers, that is those who ‘obey the truth’. While those who do not ‘obey the truth’ are unbelievers. ‘Obeying the truth’ seems to tie in with ‘the obedience of faith’ that tail-ends the letter.

    In 1 Cor 3 the ‘we/you’ divide is simply the teacher/church divide. Undoubtedly here he is speaking specifically of the judgement of professing believers. However, the text does not comment on the where and who of the judgement. By that I mean, it does not say whether or not it is ONLY professing believers. Further, it is PROFESSING believers for some may well be eternally lost. This seems to be implied in the teachers who destroy the church of God – they in turn will be destroyed (not, like some others, saved though as by fire).

    I take ‘the Day’ to be a reference to ‘the Day of the Lord’ sometimes called ‘the Day’ sometimes ‘the Day of Christ’.

    My main contention Ken would be that the burden of proof lies with those who say the days (and principles) of judgement are different to so prove it. Except for Rev 20 I doubt if a case can be made.
    Good to discuss though.

    Peter G.

    I like your comment re death and resurrection. However, we are raised by virtue of being in Christ not by virtue of our works.

  12. Ken,

    Thanks. Good thoughts. I’d like to hear you tease out your view of judgment according to works sometime. I’m with you on God basing all judgment on the same thing. But that conclusion is part of what makes it hard for me to see Christians in view as Paul’s referents. But then I also take “obedience of faith” as one’s response to the Gospel, not a life of obedience that flows from faith (though I do think Paul has that concept in 1 Thess 1).

    Re: resurrection, I didn’t mean to convey that we are raised by virtue of our works. Still less that Christ was raised by virtue of his. Rather resurrection itself is the vindication of Christ and will be for us too. It will be a vindication of me insofar as it is a vindication of how I lived my life in obedience to God. People may think I’m crazy now for obeying Christ. At the resurrection they will no longer think so. God will vindicate my obedience and thus I will be vindicated.

    But again, this is a justification before men, not before God. That’s key. God is not waiting to see if we’ll make it. Nor is he waiting to see if the Spirit will be able to work enough good in us to get us through the fire. What he is waiting for is to reveal us as his sons, to vindicate us publicly (and that includes our obedience to him) before all men. I for one can’t wait for it.

    I think the Westminster Shorter Catechism actually puts it pretty well in Q38: “Q. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection? A. At the resurrection, believers, being raised up in glory, shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment, and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity.”

    At least that’s how I’m trying to put things together at this point.

  13. Peter G

    ‘Rather resurrection itself is the vindication of Christ and will be for us too. It will be a vindication of me insofar as it is a vindication of how I lived my life in obedience to God. People may think I’m crazy now for obeying Christ. At the resurrection they will no longer think so. God will vindicate my obedience and thus I will be vindicated.’

    I totally agree with this and have found your wording helpful. In Christ’s resurrection God vindicated the one everyone else had condemned and despised. He was declared to be the Son (Roms 1) and we will be too in the resurrection unto life (Roms 8). Our life, hidden now in God will then be revealed (Col 3). Our vindication being assured in Christ (who was raised for our justification/vindication).

    I am just not sure how it works out in terms of final judgement re suffering loss and images of the books being opened, giving account etc.

    In dealing with faith and works I juggle with phrases like: Our justification by faith ensures our justification by works: our justification by works reveals our justification by faith. Justification by faith is fulfilled/realized in our justification by works.

    1. Yeah, I wrestle with some of those same phrases though I think I land on “reveals,” especially in light of James 2. And the revealing is not a surprise to either us or God. Only to those who have rejected God’s Son and thus his sons.

      I think the hardest one for me is the first one: justification by faith ensures our justification by works. I just can’t see that Paul would ever be happy with that kind of language. I think my biggest concern in putting justification by faith and judgment according to works together is losing Paul’s intentionally radical claim that God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5; cf. esp. Exod. 23:7; Isa. 5:23; Mark 2:17). I’m not Lutheran, but I still think Luther was onto something inextricably Pauline with his phrase simul iustus et peccator.

      That’s my $0.02 anyway.

  14. Peter G

    I wouldn’t go to the barricades for ‘justification by faith ensures our justification by works’ however, definitions of faith come into play. Or better, aspects of faith come into play. Sometimes the emphasis is on the object of faith (faith in God’s revealed promise in Jesus)and sometimes it is on the nature of faith (faith as ongoing loyalty to Jesus). Pastoral considerations determine the emphasis. Thus in Galatians/Romans Paul combats a false view of works (faith in self-effort) while James combats a false view of faith (faith as mere assent without works).

    However, what I do feel strongly is that believers do not live with an uncertainty re final salvation. They do not live wondering if they are justified. They know (intellectually and emotionally) for certain that faith has justified them (therefore being justified…) and from there all obedience springs. If our justification is uncertain or in doubt we are immediately on the ground of ‘works’ and self effort. Only a healthy certainty of our justification through faith prevents our works being works intended to gain life (law-works rather than evangelical-works).

    Any thoughts and insights you have will be appreciated (including criticisms of the above). At a simple level (and perhaps this is all we need) I am happy with faith revealed in works (aka James) it is when I try to nuance or refine I find difficulty.

  15. The problem of definition does not only involve faith(fulness) and works, but also “justification.”

    Many of the problems mentioned in the discussion above are addressed when we properly translate δικαιόω as “made righteous” in these contexts rather than “justified.”

    God “makes the ungodly righteous” by putting his spirit into them, thus transforming them into righteous people who fulfill the righteous requirements (δικαίωμα) of the Law. This couldn’t be further from Luther’s “simul iustus ut peccator,” as for Paul, the once-unrighteous becomes righteous. That’s the whole point.

    1. Jason, not many Pauline scholars think δικαιόω can legitimately be translated “make righteous” as a moral transformation. Even Joseph Fitzmeyer, a Roman Catholic, argues for a declaration.

      Translating it as “God makes the ungodly righteous” sucks all the shock right out of Paul’s phrase and ignores important OT texts I cited above where the verbal parallels are unmistakable. Proverbs 17:15 and 24:24 are especially illuminating when compared to Rom. 3:25 and 4:5, for example. Note how ἀσεβής and δίκαιος are juxtaposed in Prov. 24:24, the two very elements Paul brings together.

      In any case, the Reformation tradition has never denied that God does transform believers so that they obey him. What it denies is that this is what Paul means by justification and further that God is dependent on this transformation in order to accept us. Again, the paradox of Rom. 4:5 won’t go away.

      But now I’m giving more than $0.02 so I should stop.

      Thanks for the conversation. Stimulating.

      1. There are two Pauline scholars participating in this discussion who disagree with Fitzmyer and think that it should be translated “made righteous” through much of the discussion in Romans.

        E.P. Sanders (not exactly a Pauline lightweight) suggested similarly when he coined the neologism, “righteoused.”

        The very form of δικαίοω (with the causative -οω ending “to make something something”) itself suggests the “made righteous” translation is better than “declare righteous.”

        In addition, as more recent scholarship is showing, many of the tensions in Romans are better exploited by understanding δικαίοω as “made righteous” and “vindicated,” depending on the context.

        Certain theological readings became embedded in the discourse and have long lead to misreadings of these sections, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. At least we’ll now be better able to integrate things like Romans 2 and Romans 11 into our understanding of Paul rather than (like most Pauline scholarship for the past few hundred years) throwing up our hands and declaring mystification at what Paul is saying.

        1. Well the jury is still out on whether these newer readings of justification are really better. Time will tell, I suppose. Either way, the “theological readings” of the past that now seem passe deserve as least as careful and contextual a reading as Paul does. Complaints of Luther’s caricature of Judaism when combined with caricatures of Luther don’t instill confidence in this reader’s mind.

          Also just a quick word on the causative translation of δικαίοω. In my mind it doesn’t really solve much since the Judge’s verdict can be just as causative as the Doctor’s medicine. The Reformation debates hinged not just on the meaning of “make” vs. “declare” but on the difference between an “infused personal righteousness” and a “credited alien righteousness.” Before we can hope to settle the issue, we at least need to know what the issue was.

          And for what it’s worth, Metzger lists δικαίοω along with ἀξιόω as exceptions to the “-οω as causative” principle (Lexical Aids, 3rd ed., p. 45).

          Again, thanks for the stimulating discussion. BTW, I just saw your article on Rom. 11 in JBL and I’m looking forward to it.

  16. I struggle to grasp the faith/ works concept but this is what’s been coming to my mind of late. In order to receive grace we have to have faith to believe. And faith without action is dead. Therefore true wholehearted faith is acting out what we say we believe. We say we believe in The grace of Jesus… If we really believe that then our behaviour should surely reflect it.

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