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?

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2 thoughts on “Saved by Grace, Judged by Works?

  1. Thank you for your blog. I agree 100% on this. The Bible is clear that faith and obedience are a team and that obedience is the evidence of our faith. So working for and towards obedience isn’t anti-faith, it’s the very purity of faith.

    God bless!

  2. Your six bullet points in this post are not controversial or confusing if you understand that “Once Saved, Always Saved” (OSAS) is a fallacy, and that there are some things we must do in this life before Jesus will claim us in the next. For instance, we are told in Matt 10:32 we are told that if we do not confess Jesus before men, He will not confess us before the Father, but if we do confess Him, He will confess (or claim) us. This then is an act that we must perform in this life that determines our destiny in the next (or our salvation). Another is repentance. Acts 3:19 says that we must repent for our sins to be washed away. Acts 11:18 says that repentance leads to life. Romans 6:1-14 and Colossians 2:11-14 both say that it is in baptism that our sins are washed away and we are united with Jesus in His death and resurrection.

    Given these passages of Scripture (and assuming the infallibility of Scripture), we must conclude that while belief is stated most often as the condition for salvation, there are other actions necessary for us to be saved. We cannot ignore any Scripture just because it does not fit with our preconceived notion of God’s intention. Many people preach “faith only” as the path to salvation, but the only place in Scripture where those words are found is in James 2, and it says we are NOT saved by faith only. The exact word used is “justified” which means to be made perfect or held blameless before God.

    Every time you see Paul write that we are not saved by “works”, he either says explicitly, or the context indicates he is talking about, “works of the Law” (of Moses). He is talking about the ineffectiveness of the Law and its “do this” and “don’t do this” commandments. Those are what he says won’t save us. But he never says that there is nothing we have to do to be saved.

    One last point is that belief and faith are not the same things. Faith, as defined in Heb 1:1, is physical, touchable, visible. Belief is something that happens quietly in your heart. Faith is something that other people can see and feel and experience with you. If then we receive grace “through faith” as we are told in Eph 2:8, then we receive grace through the actions we take in response to our belief in the Word.

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