What is God Declaring at the Final Judgment?
It is common today for one to read these days that "justification is eschatological." It is often times unclear exactly what this means. However, there is a certain way of understanding "eschatological justification" which logically leads to the conclusion that obedience (works) are an evidential cause (cause is used here in the sense of "means through which God has chosen to work" and not something that twists God’s arm or works apart from Him) of being set right with (that is, accepted by) God. Not everyone, of course, who speaks of "eschatological justification" defines their view in a way that leads in this direction. But it is the purpose of this paper to look at one particular way of understanding eschatological justification that does lead to unbiblical implications concerning the doctrine of justification.
Even though an evidential cause is not an ultimate cause (the difference should become apparent as we continue), the biblical doctrine of justification by faith (affirmed by traditional Protestantism) does not allow for obedience to be any kind of cause at all in being set right with God (justified). Works can only be a result of having been set right with God, and can never in any sense be a means to being set right with God. Though I will not go into it here, it seems very incoherent to think of things we do before we are set right with God (i.e., when we are in a wrong standing with God) as a means to being set right with God.
To see which particular understanding of eschatological justification makes works an evidential cause of justification (and what exactly that means), we need to first look at the difference between that view and the traditional view. From there I will seek to show why I think the nuances of such a view turn works into a means of being set right with God, and in so doing will also briefly point out a few of my biblical concerns with such implications.
It is easier to follow the argument of a paper like this one if we focus on a specific representative of what we are critiquing rather than speaking in generalities. Since a friend of mine has recently written a paper that solidly represents the essence of the understanding of eschatological justification that this paper is intended to critique, for the sake of simplicity and clarity we will focus on his expression of this view.
The traditional view
The traditional Protestant view believes that there is only one justification. Justification is defined as being set right with God on the basis of Christ’s alien righteousness received by faith alone. It is a legal transformation of status and not a moral transformation of character. Works, then, are the evidence that we have faith and thus the evidence that this justification has occurred.
At the final judgment, God will openly make known to the whole universe that we are justified. That is, He will declare that we have already been set right with him. Works will serve as the evidence that we have been set right with God, and thus will be an evidential cause of God’s declaration. But God’s declaration here is not the same thing as the declaration that sets us right with Himself—that’s what the declaration in justification does. Rather, God’s declaration at the judgment is the declaration that we have already been set right with God. The declaration we receive in justification makes us right with God; the declaration that is publicly declared at the judgment makes known that we are right with God.
My friend explained this very well: "Traditional Reformed theology insists that the biblical concept of ‘judgment by works’ serves only as an evidence of a past justification." Unlike the traditional view, however, this friend of mine does not want to make such a sharp distinction between the final judgment and justification.
The alternative eschatological view
This friend shows us that his understanding is different from the traditional view when he goes on to write: "I want to say, rather, that the ‘judgment by works’ is the basis upon which God will issue the final, eschatological verdict of justification or condemnation, and thereby vindicate his initial pronouncement of ‘no condemnation’ to those who were yet ungodly (cf. Rom 4:5)! Judgment by works is not merely the evidencing or reiteration of a past justification. Judgment by works, according to the eschatological orientation of the New Testament writers, is itself justification, or condemnation (cf. Rom 8:33-34) depending upon whether or not one has persevered in ‘doing good’ (Rom 2:7) as a ‘doer of the law’ (Romans 2:13)" (p. 11, first emphasis added).
What exactly is this friend saying? I think that he is saying that the justification we receive at conversion and the passing muster at the judgment day are not two distinct things. They are the same thing in substance, the one simply being the possession in advance of the verdict that will be given on the last day. This is the only way I can understand the previous statement quoted and especially the following sentence (though I admit that I could be misunderstanding him): "I don’t think that biblically Paul had in mind two distinct things when he talked about justification and judgment by works" (pp. 11-12).
How the alternative view makes works a means to justification
If the right standing with God which I receive at conversion (that is, what the traditional view calls justification) is simply the present reality of what God will do on the judgment day (what the traditional view calls judgment), then justification has the same basis as the final judgment. For they are, in substance, the same thing. But this means that works are the evidential cause of being set right with God. Why? Because it is in the justification we receive at conversion that we are set right with God. Since this is the same thing, in substance, as what God does at the final judgment, then it follows that it has the same basis as it. But the evidential basis of God’s declaration at the final judgment is works. Therefore, our initial being set right with God has works as the evidential cause.
To state it another way: since works are the evidential cause of the final judgment, and justification at conversion has the same basis as the final judgment (since it is the same thing, in essence), it therefore follows that works are the evidential cause of getting set right with God (i.e., the justification we receive at conversion).
The best solution to this, I believe, would be to distinguish between a declaration that makes us right with God and is pronounced at conversion and a declaration that makes known that we are right with God and is pronounced at the judgment. If my friend were to do this, however, then he could not also affirm that Paul didn’t have in mind "two distinct things when he talked about justification and judgment by works."
I fully admit that I might not be understanding this friend correctly. If that is the case, I would love to see him clarify that he is not really saying that the justifying act that happens at conversion is, in substance, the same as the "justifying" act that happens at the judgment. But in case I am understanding him correctly, I would like to state a few of the initial problems that I have the logical consequences of his view (namely, that works are an evidential cause of being set right with God).
The problems of making works even an evidential means to justification
One problem is that we are ungodly when we are set right with God upon conversion (Romans 4:5). Therefore, works can in no way even be an evidential cause of our being set right with God—for we don’t have them (cf. also Titus 3:5ff).
The solution on my friend’s view, of course, is that works do not need to temporally precede this being set right with God, since this gift is given in anticipation of the works that will come after conversion. But is Paul speaking merely of a temporal relationship between faith and works in Romans 4:5? Doesn’t his statement in 4:6 (which is parallel to the statement in 4:5) that righteousness is reckoned "apart from works" teach that works do not even have a logical relationship of causality in bringing about our justification?
This relates to the next problem: That works are made necessary to be set right with God. I grant that, on my friend’s view, they are not necessary in the same sense that Christ’s work is, or in the same sense that faith is. But they are still necessary in order to be made right with God. In a logical (though not temporal) way works precede justification. And this violates, I think, the biblical teaching on justification by faith as well as the Reformation insistence that faith alone is all that is necessary in order to be set right with God.
Of course, the Reformation view does speak of works as being necessary to pass muster at the last day. Is that inconsistent? No, because they do not teach that works are an evidential cause for God’s setting us right with Himself, but rather that works are the evidential cause of the declaration that we have been set right with Him. There is a big difference! One makes works an evidential basis of becoming right with God, the other makes them the evidential basis of having our right standing with God made known at the judgment.
Why is this distinction important? Because if works are necessary to be set right with God in any way at all, then it follows that the work of Christ by itself is not enough to be right with God. For, if God only gives the work of Christ to us if we have works—even as an evidence of faith—then it follows that the work of Christ alone does not establish our right standing with God. Rather, works must be added to it before it is effective for us. Granted, this does not mean that the work of Christ could not be effective apart from our works, but the problem is that it is not in reality effective apart from works and thus not the sole thing needed to be right with God. And this would implicitly take away glory from Christ, for then God would not be displaying the fullness of what the cross of Christ can do—namely, justify us even without works in any sense at all.
Someone may object that on the traditional view God will only justify us if we have faith. Therefore, on this reasoning the requirement of faith would also implicitly deny the sufficiency of Christ.
But this does not follow because the nature of faith is to acknowledge the utter insufficiency of who we are for justification and the utter all-sufficiency of who Christ is for justification. Works, however, are not of this nature. Works are not simply the acknowledgement of our insufficiency, but are the presence of the God-given riches of righteousness. And so works are inconsistent with the utter sufficiency of Christ in justification. But faith is not.
Moving back to the problem of making works the evidential cause of getting right with God, we see the problem most clearly perhaps in the courtroom analogy my friend gives. He says that in a courtroom the verdict is given "on the basis of evidences." He goes on to say, "granted, as several have pointed out, a persons ‘fruit of righteousness’ is not the ultimate cause of the verdict of ‘not guilty’ being pronounced upon them on that day, just like the ultimate cause of O.J. getting acquitted is not the evidence, but the reality to which the evidence convincingly points. But that distinction, if you will, is beside the point in forensic, legal declarations. In a courtroom, evidence, the stuff ‘judges make use of,’ is what determines the verdict" (p. 10).
So what’s the problem? The problem is that if something is a basis of a legal verdict, then it would be unjust to proclaim the legal verdict apart from that evidence. Otherwise how is it meaningful to call it a basis?
This would mean, then, that if the reality was that O.J. was innocent, but the evidence was that he was guilty, O.J. would have to be sentenced to jail even though in reality he is innocent. This is the necessary consequence of make evidence a basis of the declaration.
One might say that reality would take precedence over the evidence, for the evidence is wrong. But then evidence is not really a basis, for then the reality is able to render the acquittal just totally apart from evidence. And if that is possible, then the evidence is not a necessary basis and thus not a basis at all—in, it seems to me, any meaningful sense of the term.
One might then say that instances such as this never happen in God’s court. It is just a hypothetical thought experiment, and so it has no significance or logical force. But no reducto ad absurdum ever happens in reality. Yet, they still have force. For example, one might argue that "A cannot be true because under circumstance C it would make B logically possible." Now, just because circumstance "C" will never happen does not invalidate the argument! To put this in concrete terms, I would say that if Jesus’ body were truly discovered in the tomb, the Christian faith would be invalidated. Now, Jesus’ body could never be discovered in the tomb because the reality is that He did rise and that He had to rise. Nonetheless, knowing what would happen if hypothetically speaking his body were truly found to be dead gives us necessary insight into the nature of the Christian faith—namely, that it is based upon a historical event without which it is invalid (1 Corinthians 15).
And so what issues does this court room analogy raise for the work of Christ? It means that, if my friend is right, then God is only just to accept us on the basis of Christ’s death if there is the evidence of works. For if works are an evidence that is necessary to have in order to be set right with God, then it follows that it would be unjust for God to set us right with Himself without them (for then he would be acting against what he has made necessary). And this is to deny the total sufficiency of the atonement. Granted, this does not mean that there is an inherent deficiency in the work of Christ; but it does mean that the work of Christ is treated as if it were not all sufficient. Or, more significantly, it is not shown to be all sufficient because works are turned into something whose presence is necessary in order for the work of Christ to be able to set me right with God.
The consequent need to distinguish justification from the final judgment
What my friend needs to do in order to solve these problems is to make a distinction between being set right with God and the declaration that we have been set right with God. The problem is that this is inconsistent with his affirmation that "I don’t think biblically Paul had in mind two distinct things when he talked about justification and judgment by works." But so long as we do not make this distinction, we are required to make obedience the evidential cause of being set right with God—which runs into all the problems that we saw above.
I think the only answer is, then, that we must of necessity distinguish between the final judgment and the justification we receive upon conversion. I think that somehow those who hold to an eschatological view such as my friend need to affirm this distinction—or explain that this is what they have meant to be communicating all along. As of now, it is not at all clear and, in fact, appears to be denied.