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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