Even our standing at the Final Judgment is by faith alone, since in Christ we have already received all that we will need for that Day which is not yet here.
The debate over faith and works at the Final Judgment has been steadily brewing for awhile now. Launched by John Piper’s controversial “Does God Really Save Us By Faith Alone?“, the article has received a steady back and forth from Mark Jones (The Calvinist International) and Scott Clark (Heidelblog), as well as important contributions from other confessional voices (see here [With Heart and Mouth] and here [Kyle Borg | Gentle Reformation]). Now that the heat of these articles has died down some (I saw too much personality and not enough careful reading), I think one more observation is worth making. I bring this up not because it is original to myself (the rest of this post merely elaborates others’ ideas), but simply because I haven’t seen much of the eschatological nature of Reformed soteriology brought up.
Eschatology of Justification
Many New Testament scholars have pointed to the “already/not yet” pattern in Scripture, where God’s future blessings are already experienced by believers now, even though the fullness is not yet experienced. A classic example of this in Scripture in Jesus’ work with the Kingdom of God. In Christ’s first coming, the Kingdom has already been inaugurated among us (“the kingdom is in your midst,” Luke 17:21), but we await the day when the Kingdom will come in its fullness (“Your Kingdom come,” Matthew 6:10). Scripture repeatedly points to an eschatological fulfillment of present realities.
What if this eschatological fulfillment was also applicable to justification? Throughout Scripture, we often see the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, as being responsible for this eschatological character. So we should not be surprised when “justifying” language and the Spirit come together in Scripture to point to an eschatological character, even for justification. We see I Timothy 3:16 stating that Jesus was “justified” or “vindicated in the Spirit” (ἐδικαιώθη ἐν πνεύματι). Clearly Jesus did not have a need to be justified like sinful humanity does, so understanding the eschatological role the Spirit plays in Christ’s vindication/justification is important for understanding this passage.
Dr. Lane G. Tipton of Westminster Theological Seminary comments on this as follows (pp. 29-30):
The eschatology of Jesus’ resurrection sheds a great deal of light on the nature of his justification. Just as Jesus is raised to an eschatological order, never to return to the frail, provisional and transitory, so also with respect to the justifying aspect of his resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection as his justification places him as second Adam and Messiah permanently beyond probation and in full possession of eschatological righteousness.
(Lane G. Tipton, “Union With Christ and Justification,” pages 23-49 in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphint. Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007.)
So Christ’s resurrection is His vindication, passing through God’s judgment. (For a slightly different take from a Reformed vantage, see Dennison’s “The Eschatological Aspect of Justification” in Kerux.)
In a footnote, Dr. Tipton speaks directly to our issue by comparing Jesus’ justification with our final standing before the Lord’s tribunal:
Any attempt to allow the already/not-yet of justification to introduce a synthetic element into the formulation, so that covenant faithfulness or good works provide a ground for the future (second) justification, has missed the most critical point about the believer’s justification. Just as Jesus’ resurrection places him forever beyond probation as the justified second Adam and Messiah, so also believers in union with Christ are forever beyond probation and in possession of eschatological righteousness. Nothing in the not-yet can compete with the foundational gospel truth that the believer’s present justification in Christ is just as definitive and irreversible as the justification of Jesus Christ.
(“Union With Christ and Justification,” p. 30, n. 13)
Our initial justification in union with the vindicated Christ has forever sealed our final standing. Trying to allow “covenant faithfulness or good works” to be the reason we are accepted in “final salvation”/vindication/Final Judgment is to miss the beauty of what Scripture teaches regarding justification by faith alone.
This is why, for example, Romans 8:1 insists that “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The “now” (νύν) is placed emphatically upfront to bring this eschatological truth to the fore: the final verdict of “not guilty” before the bar of the Judge has already been rendered over the repentant believer! This is the same concept earlier in Romans 5: having been justified (5:1), even now (5:9), we are therefore already declared innocent of the not yet come wrath of God in judgment. This is why the Spirit can go immediately from justification to glorification (Romans 8:30), and prove that since God has justified us, no one will condemn us on that Last Day (8:33 – 34).
So stating that “covenant faithfulness or good works” could provide a ground for a future or second justification misses the fact that the eschatological Spirit has brought forward in time the final pronouncement of the Lord on His chosen who have been declared already righteous in Christ Jesus. Instead, this “covenant faithfulness or good works” serves as “evidence” for God’s already “righteous judgment” on those who have trusted Christ, justified and vindicated until He comes (II Thessalonians 1:5, 10).
By the way, though Tipton is a contemporary scholar, this is entirely consistent with our Reformed heritage as well.
Herman Witsius (1636 – 1708) saw a connection between the justification we receive in this life and the “justification” in Final Judgment. In his magisterial Economy of the Covenants Between Man and God, he said that “the justification in the next world is not to be so very much distinguished from the justification in this world” (Economy of the Covenants III.viii.77). In considering the frailty of our evangelical obedience, Witsius maintained that good works will not be “the causes of their right to claim the reward” since that would expect perfection. Instead, these evangelical good works are “effects and signs of grace, and of union with Christ, and of a living faith, and of justification by faith, and of a right to life.” While there are differences between what believers will experience on the Last Day and what we receive by faith alone now, our justification is eschatologically connected to the “justification in the next world.”
(Witsius has been quoted by camps on both sides of this debate, and many Reformed luminaries can be “cherry picked” to support a supposed position. I don’t claim that the above lines represent Witsius more faithfully than any other; simply that, connecting our present justification with the final pronouncement the Lord will render, is present in Witsius’ thought as well.)
Francis Turretin (1623 – 1687) was another dominant Reformed theologian, coming to modern readers primarily through his Institutes of Elenctic Theology. He noted,
The sentence to be pronounced by the supreme Judge will not be so much a new justification, as the solemn and public declaration of a sentence once passed and its execution by the assignment of the life promised with respect to an innocent person from the preceding justification. Thus it is nothing else than an adjudicatory sentence of the possession of the kingdom of heaven from the right given before through justification.
(Institutes XVI.x.8 | 2.687)
Here, “right and possession” language is used of initial justification and final judgment, where our justification by faith alone is eschatologically connected to what the Lord will one day pronounce over His saints. Thus, Turretin can say that the Final Judgment is simply our justification by faith alone more “fully declared on the last day” with works “as the sign and proof of its truth.” (See this quote in its full context on the Heidelblog.)
For Reformed Christians, more important than particular Reformed voices are the creeds, confessions, and catechisms our churches have adopted. I would suggest seeing this Spirit-infused link between justification by faith alone and the eschatological Final Judgment demonstrates greater harmony with the Westminster COnfession and Catechisms, the Three Forms of Unity, and other Reformed documents, than other proposals. See especially Westminster Confession of Faith XVI.5 – 6; Belgic Art. 24.
Salvation – not just justification – may truly be said to rest on faith alone, since initial faith unites us to the vindicated Christ for our initial justification which is eschatologically connected to our final judgment. I salute Piper for urging us to consider the necessity of evangelical obedience and the holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). (In my opinion, Piper is certainly no heretic, but we are all open to reproof and correction, especially as something as technical as this discussion.)
However, the questions are 1) what does the Scriptures teach on these subjects, and 2) what kind of ministry will produce this kind of evangelical obedience in Christians? I answer firstly that Scripture does not ground the Final Judgment in evangelical obedience solely, and that any attempt to base it on “covenant faithfulness or good works to provide a ground for the future (second) justification, has missed the most critical point about the believer’s justification” (Tipton again). Instead, Scriptures connect initial justification by faith alone with final vindication through the eschatological work of the Spirit who unites us to Christ.
Secondly, a ministry that emphasizes the freedom the Christian already has with regard to the not yet judgment simply by faith in Christ will be the grounds to stir them up to greater zeal for good works. As the Belgic Confession reminds us, this true faith will “cause us to live a new life and free us from the slavery of sin. Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God… So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls ‘faith working through love,’ which moves people to do by themselves the works that God has commanded in the Word.” The freedom that the Christian has to face the Final Judgment in eager hope grants the godly zeal to run in the way of good works.
Praise the Spirit, who brings the final verdict of our gracious Father into the present age, through the work of His glorious Son!