Notes on Justification by Faith and Judgment according to Works
Prepared by Jaymark Molo (mostly adapted from Ivan Blazen)
Reading Romans 3:1-8 reveals:
God is faithful, that is, He keeps His promises to human beings, even though they have broken their promises to Him (verses 1-4). Second, there is no excuse in God’s faithfulness for human sin, no encouragement to its continuance (verses 5-8).
Paul will develop the first point in his teaching on God’s justification of the ungodly by faith, and the second point in terms of his teaching on judgment according to works.
Facets of Justification
I. Justification as a right relationship with God. In justification a person in a wrong (broken) relationship to God comes into a right relationship with Him. All the terms begin with the stem dik in Greek and, therefore, are best begun with the stem right in English. In this way the interconnection between justification and righteousness is immediately evident.
II. Justification as acquittal. A meaning of justification directly related to its forensic or juridical background is “acquittal,” the opposite being “condemnation.” This contrasting word pair is found in Deuteronomy 25:1; Proverbs 17:15; Matthew 12:37; Romans 5:16, 18; 8:33, 34; and 2 Corinthians 3:9. Thus, in justification, God saves sinners from condemnation for their sins (Rom. 8:1) by acquitting them of all charges.
III. Justification as the reckoning of righteousness. The most important passage for understanding justification is Romans 4. Here Abraham, whom Jews considered a paragon of virtue, is brought forth to illustrate what the forefather of God’s people found, and what his descendants may find as well (verses 1–5, 22–24). If the best need God’s righteousness, so do all. That Abraham was justified by his good works is denied in verse 2 by Paul’s declaration that Abraham could not boast before God. The implication is that if one cannot boast in the Creator’s presence, justification cannot be by works. Thus, verse 2 shows us what Abraham did not find. Verse 3, quoting Genesis 15:6, describes what he did find, namely a divine reckoning of righteousness to him when he believed God. The line of argument in verses 1–6 reveals three major stages: the divine promise of blessing, the human response of faith, and the divine pronouncement of righteousness. In other words, faith is declared to be a right response to God’s grace and indicative of a right relationship with Him. Righteousness, or a right standing with God, does not result from the promise or faith by itself but from the cause-effect interaction between the two. The promise elicits faith, and faith receives the promise. The argument in Romans 4:3 is that if divine righteousness is reckoned, it can never be considered as man’s achievement, but only as God’s grace. Verse 4 indicates how things operate on the human level: people work and get pay for it, not grace. Verse 5, on the other hand, indicates how things operate on the divine level: by abandoning working for righteousness in favor of trusting (having faith in) the God who justifies the ungodly, this trust or faith is reckoned as righteousness.
IV. Justification as divine forgiveness. In Romans 4:6–8 Paul comes to the heart of the matter. As he has discussed Abraham and a prominent text, Genesis 15:6, so now he discusses David and another prominent text, Psalm 32:1, 2. Since the OT stipulated that an important testimonial was to be established by at least two witnesses (Deut. 17:6), Paul presents Abraham and David as witnesses from the law and the prophets to righteousness by faith (Rom. 3:21). In fact, he uses the testimony of David to explain more fully the meaning of the reckoning of righteousness to Abraham. Here he seems to be applying Rabbi Hillel’s second rule of biblical interpretation,“equivalency of expressions,” (cf. Strack 93, 94). According to this principle, a word or phrase found in one text of Scripture could be explained by the meaning it bears in another text. Since the word “reckoned” appears not only in Genesis 15:6 but also in Psalm 32:1, 2, Paul uses the latter text from Psalms, with its threefold parallelism, to illumine the former text from Genesis. Justification comes to mean forgiveness of sin, covering of sin, or not reckoning sin to the believer (Rom. 4:7, 8). Put otherwise, guilt is gone, sin no longer appears for judgment, and all charges are dropped. That God does not reckon sin finds a meaningful echo in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was in Christ [at the cross] reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Thus, forgiveness lies at the heart of justification.
V. Justification as eschatological life and new creation. Justification also involves the gift of new life. Romans 5:18 teaches that Jesus’ act of obedience at the cross leads to “justification of life” (literal translation of “dikaiosis zoes”). The words “of life” (genitive case in Greek) may be rendered “life-giving justification” or “justification which issues in life.” In harmony with this, Romans 4:17 utilizes two great realities to explain the fullness of justification: Creation (God “calls into existence the things that do not exist”) and Resurrection (God “gives life to the dead”). In other words, justification is a new creation in which God brings life to those who are spiritually dead (cf. Eph. 2:1–5). “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). In Galatians, where justification is the main theme, Paul argues that what really counts with God is a new creation (Gal. 6:15). This coheres with Paul’s rabbinic background according to which, when a Gentile was converted to Judaism, he was considered to be a new creature through the forgiveness of all his sins. Romans 6:4 speaks of one who has been united to Christ as having newness of life (“newness of Spirit” [Rom. 7:6]), meaning the eschatological life of the age to come. This new life, made available through the Spirit, is the foundation for ethical transformation, for the life brought by the Spirit is to be conducted under the guidance of the Spirit and bearing its fruit (Gal. 5:22–25).
VI. Justification as exchange of lordships. An element without which the full implications of justification will not be seen is found in Romans 6. The occasion for the chapter was the misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone apart from the law (Rom. 3:21–4:25). His teaching had been misconceived to mean that believers could unconcernedly perform evil so that good might come (Rom. 3:8), or that they could continue in sin that grace might abound (Rom. 6:1). This was an erroneous deduction from Paul’s teaching that when the law was revealed at Sinai, far from sin being abated—the Jewish position—trespasses abounded, only to be met by the superabounding of grace (Rom. 5:20). Paul’s Jewish critics thought such a construction tantamount not only to justification of the ungodly but to the justification of ungodliness. Paul wrote Romans 6 to explain that justification did not mean this. His primary argument is that in the life of believers there has taken place a transfer or exchange of lordships. Sin used to be lord (verses 17, 20) but, as a result of baptism into Christ and His death (verses 3, 4), death to sin’s lordship has occurred and the lordship of Christ has begun. In the forensic language of Romans 8:3, Christ judicially condemned sin in the flesh; thus, sin has lost its case in court. It is thereby deprived of authority over, or custody of, the life of one joined to Christ.
It is illuminating that the Greek word employed in Romans 6:7 to state that freedom from sin’s reign has taken place is dikaioo, which is the word ordinarily meaning “to justify.” This apo word, when used in the passive voice with the preposition “from” (
(cf. Acts 13:39, where forgiveness is coordinated with being freed from). This finds its parallel in), means being freed from apo the passive of eleutheroo (to free) in combination with “from” (
can be no question that for Paul justification, in addition to forgiveness of sins, involves freedom from the old lordship of sin. When this freedom takes place, it is the root out of which the fruit of sanctification emerges. Justification is a far more powerful reality than a mere legal adjustment in the books of heaven. It is a dethroning of that illegitimate authority that prevents a sanctified life, and the establishment of that divine authority that enables it. Perhaps this is why Paul can in Romans 6:18, 22. There twice move from justification to glorification without mentioning sanctification between (Rom. 5:2; 8:30). Justification, in the full Pauline sense, implies the concept of sanctification as moral growth predicated upon the believer’s transfer to the lordship of Christ.
VII. Justification as the reality of righteousness. It is common to say that in justification believers are treated as though they were righteous, or as if they had not sinned. This language is appropriate on two grounds. First, when righteousness is defined in a moral sense as perfect obedience to God’s holy law (SC 62), justification must mean that sinners are treated as though they were righteous. And since, for Christ’s sake, they are granted life instead of death, they are being treated as if they had not sinned. Second, the language of “as if we were righteous” is appropriate in a polemical situation with the Roman Catholic view that in justification we are not declared righteous, but are actually so by virtue of an infusion of grace and righteousness into the soul. However, when righteousness or justification is looked upon in its primary relational sense of being set into a right relationship with God, with all its salvific benefits, there can be no “as if.” When God says believers are right with Him, accepted by Him, forgiven by Him, reconciled to Him, adopted by Him, and granted life by Him as our Lord, they “really are (cf. 1 John 3:2). Thus, in a relational sense, one can appropriately speak of “being made righteous,” as in the RSV translation of Romans 5:9.
Facets of Judgment
I. To judge means to justify.
According to biblical understanding, “to judge” means “to justify” which is a judgment, which breaks through to our situation, and we are justified by His grace, i.e., declared just. Judgment is justification: God as a true Judge justifies repentant sinners (Rom 3:22-26; 5:6-11), and we are cleansed and acquitted from all guilt (Ps 51:1-2; Isa 6:7; Zech 3:4).
George Ladd correctly explains: “The doctrine of justification means that God has pronounced the eschatological verdict of acquittal over the man of faith in the present, in advance of the final judgment. . . . Thus the man in Christ is actually righteous, not ethically but forensically, in terms of his relationship to God.” (George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 446.)
II. To judge means to save.
God saves believers from the second death, sin, guilt, the power of evil, and gives eternal life (John 1:12; 3:16; 10:28; Rom 6:5-9, 23; 8:1-4). King David first describes a negative aspect of divine judgment in terms of destruction and cutting off but then emphasizes judgment as salvation: “All sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off. The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble” (Ps 37:38-39).
When God sends His message of judgment to people, it is a message of grace—an opportunity to repent; see the experience of the Ninevites (Jonah 3:6-10) or Daniel’s messages to Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:27-33). God does not want people to die as informed sinners. His message has the power to change people, if they are willing to listen, obey, and repent from their arrogance, stubbornness, or indifference (Isa 55:11).
III. To judge means to deliver.
God helps us to understand the nature of God’s judgment through the Old Testament book of Judges. What was the primary function of these judges? To condemn, punish, or destroy God’s people? On the contrary, judges were sent by God to deliver them from the oppression and devastation of their enemies.
David also prays: “Judge me, O Lord!” David asks God this on three occasions (Pss 7:8; 26:1; 35:24). If judgment mainly has a negative meaning, then, of course, David would never express such a prayer. He is not begging for condemnation or punishment. He hopes for God’s deliverance from his enemies and asks God for protection from his opponents.
IV. To judge means to vindicate.
The story of Job reveals this truth. In the heavenly tribunal, Satan accused Job of impure selfish motives: “Does Job fear God for nothing” (Job 1:6, 9)? The key term in this devilish question is the word chinnam (“for nothing”). In this court setting, God is on the side of Job even though He cannot answer directly and immediately Satan’s accusation, because the Accuser can be defeated only by someone who is weaker than he is and not by God’s argumentation or power. At the end, God accomplishes moral victory when Job’s unselfish love, trust, and service are revealed. Ultimately God’s love, truth, and justice prevails (Pss 100:5; 101:1; 103:8-11; 117), and God is just while justifying sinners (Ps 51:4; Rom 3:4, 26).
V. To judge means to condemn, to punish and to destroy (secondary meaning).
We know that God is holy (Lev 11:44-45;19:2; 1 Pet 1:15-16), a consuming fire (Isa 30:27), and we are sinners (Ps 51:5; Eccl 7:20; Jer 17:9; Rom 3:23; 1 John 1:8). Consequently, we cannot possibly stand before the awesome Judge of the whole Universe (Gen 18:25; Judg 11:27; 2 Tim 4:8). The typical response is aptly described by Asaph: “Who can stand before you . . . ? From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet” (Ps 76:7b-8a; see also Judg 13:22; Isa 6:3-5). At the bottom of our negative thoughts lies the conviction of our insufficiency and sinfulness.
Texts Concerning Judgment According to Works
2 Cor. 12:10—For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Romans 14: 10, 12—But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.
Romans 2:16—In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
Other texts: 1 Corinthians 3:13; 1 Corinthians 4:5; Colossians 3:5, 6; 1 Thessalonians 4:6; Galatians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9; Ephesians 5:5, 6; Galatians 6:7, 8; Romans 8:5-13; Hebrews 2:1-3; Hebrews 10:26-31; etal.
Resolving the tension
I. Paul’s use of prepositions: Justification is through/by/from faith; judgment is according to works.
In linking justification to faith and judgment to works, Paul consistently uses “dia” or “ek” when relating faith to justification (Rom 3:22, 25; 5:1; Gal 2:16; cf. Eph 2:8; Col 2:12) and “kata” when relating works to judgment (Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 11:15; cf. Rom 2:2; 2 Tim 4:14).
Paul understands salvation to be through (dia) faith, and in accordance with (kata) a life of obedience and fruit. Faith is a means, works a manner. Justification is contingent upon faith; judgment is congruent with obedience.
II. Recognizing multiple dimensions of antithesis: the “already” and “not yet” theology of Paul—the salvation-historical view.
The essence of this view is that there is only one justification, and it accompanies the believer from the time of faith’s inception (the “already”) all the way into the final judgment, where its reality and vitality are tested and attested by its fruits (the “not yet”).
The principle is “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6, R.S.V.).
According to that plan, God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, His Son, and offered justification, a right relation with Himself, to all who would place their faith in the crucified, risen Christ. Those whom God justified through Jesus Christ He called to witness to Jesus Christ in word and deed until the consummation of all things. When the end comes, the judgment assesses and testifies to the reality of justification evidenced by the faithful witness of God’s people.
Though the blessing of acquittal in the future judgment indeed become operative even now, Scripture is clear that what God desires to see in the final judgment is justified believers who through His grace have borne fruit to His glory (verses 9-11).
The new history God gives each believer is not over when he comes to Christ and is justified; it is just begun. At the end God asks for justification with its fruit—not in the sense of the formula “Faith plus works saves,‘‘ but in the sense that justification is the source of sanctified fruit.
In the final judgment Christ as Saviour and Lord can legitimately ask of those He has justified, ‘‘Have you, in the strength of My grace, been My disciple?”
The judgment asks if this has become reality. To fail to take due account of the judgment according to works is, in a word, to discount the “not yet” element of Paul’s theology of salvation.
NOTE: The order of salvation found in Romans 6:15-23 and summarized in verse 22: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life” (R.S.V.).
III. Justification grants assurance, but judgment guards it.
If justification grants assurance, judgment guards it. It guards it from the illusion that assurance is possible without a fundamental relationship to Christ and a committed following of Christ.
As we see from Galatians 1:8, 9 and Romans 3:8, those who advocated either position—working for justification or the justified not working—were alike condemned by Paul in strong language.
Justification by faith helps to guard the judgment from the false ideas that human beings never will be able to stand in God’s judgment or that standing there self-goodness will place God’s righteousness under obligation. In other words, justification contradicts the concept that humans cannot make it in the judgment or that they make it by themselves.
On the other hand, judgment according to works guards the doctrine of the justification of the ungodly from meaning the justification of ungodliness. If there is a judgment according to works, then justification must mean that the lives of the justified are claimed by Christ and that they are called to live for Him who died for them (2 Cor. 5:14, 15).
IV. Salvation comprises both God’s gift (Christ as Savior) and His claim (Christ as Lord) upon our lives.
We must now develop an element mentioned previously. The relationship between justification and judgment can be seen better by placing it in the setting of a discussion on the relation between Christ as Saviour and Christ as Lord, between the gift of God and the claim of God.
God’s plan has run its full course when His people, the justified, stand before Him at the end of time with the fruit of their personal (ethical) and evangelistic labor in the power of the Spirit. To be without fruit is to be not a part of, but apart from, God’s redemptive process in this world. Philippians 1:5-11.
There are a number of texts that ground what believers are to do in the gift, strength, and example of what Christ has done for them. For example:
John 13:34: “Love one another. . . as I have loved you.”
Eph. 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (N.I.V.).
Eph. 4:32: “Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Rom. 12:1: “I beseech you . . . by the mercies of God [God’s sacrificial grace described in Romans 1-11], that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice” (K.J.V.).
Col. 2:6: “As you received the Lord Jesus, so walk in him.”
Gal. 5:25: “If we have gained life through the Spirit, let us live according to the Spirit.”
Rom. 14:8, 9: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
2 Cor. 5:14, 15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Rom. 14:15: “If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.”
Rom. 15:2, 3: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.'”
Phil. 2:5-11 (Christ’s humility and service) in relation to Phil. 2:1-4 (the church’s call to humility and service).
Conclusion: If Paul had been asked to illustrate in a parable his teaching on justification and judgment, he might well have chosen the type of parable represented by the story of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:23-35).
NOTE: (1) the sanctified fruit of justification must be present, but (2) justification itself must continue its function of pardon. Grace is not in contradiction with fruit, nor fruit with grace. In the judgment the two elements coexist.
“Makefriendshipwith Christ today. Put your case in the hands of the great Advocate. He will plead your cause before the Father. Though you have transgressed the law, and must plead guilty before God, Christ will present his precious blood in your behalf, and through faith and obedience, and vital union with Christ, you may stand acquitted before the Judge of all the earth, and he will be your friend when the final trump shall sound, and the scenes of earth shall be no more” (Ellen G. White, Signs of the Times, 27 July 1888).
“It was possible for Adam, before the fall, to form a righteous character by obedience to God’s law. But he failed to do this, and because of his sin our natures are fallen, and we cannot … perfectly obey the holy law … . But Christ has made a way of escape for us … . If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned” (SC 62).
“The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths cluster … . Every truth in the word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, must be studied in the light that streams from the cross of Calvary. I present before you the great, grand monument of mercy and regeneration, salvation and redemption—the Son of God uplifted on the cross” (GW 315). “Hanging upon the cross Christ was the gospel” (7-A BC 456).
“Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ ” (DA 25).
“Our sins were laid on Christ, punished in Christ, put away by Christ, in order that His righteousness might be imputed to us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (ST May 30, 1895).
“Through faith we receive the grace of God; but faith is not our Saviour. It earns nothing. It is the hand by which we lay hold upon Christ, and appropriate His merits, the remedy for sin” (DA 175).
“We look to self, as though we had power to save ourselves;; but Jesus died for us because we are helpless to do this … . At this very time He is … inviting us to come to Him in our helplessness and be saved. We dishonor Him by our unbelief. It is astonishing how we treat our very best Friend, how little confidence we repose in Him who is able to save to the uttermost, and who has given us every evidence of His great love” (1SM 351).
“We shall often have to bow down and weep at the feet of Jesus because of our shortcomings and mistakes; but we are not to be discouraged. Even if we are overcome by the enemy, we are not cast off, not forsaken and rejected of God. No; Christ is at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (SC 64).
“When the mind dwells upon self, it is turned away from Christ, the source of strength and life. Hence it is Satan’s constant effort to keep the attention diverted from the Saviour … . The pleasures of the world, life’s cares and perplexities and sorrows, the faults of others, or your own faults and imperfections—to any or all of these he will seek to divert the mind. Do not be misled by his devices … . We should not make self the center, and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved. All this turns the soul away from the Source of our strength. Commit the keeping of your soul to God, and trust in Him … . He is able to keep that which you have committed to Him” (ibid. 71, 72).
“While good works will not save even one soul, yet it is impossible for even one soul to be saved without good works” (1SM 377).
“If we consent, He will so identify Himself with our thoughts and aims, so blend our hearts and minds into conformity to His will, that when obeying Him we shall be but carrying out our own impulses. The will, refined and sanctified, will find its highest delight in doing His service.
When we know God as it is our privilege to know Him, our life will be a life of continual obedience. Through an appreciation of the character of Christ, through communion with God, sin will become hateful to us” (DA 668).
Moskala, Jiri. “The Gospel According to God’s Judgment: Judgment as Salvation.” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 22, no. 1 (2011): 28-49.
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Hasel, F. Gerhard. “The Theology of Divine Judgment in the Bible: A Study of God’s Past, Present, and Future Judgments and Their Implications for Mankind”. Unpublished article, (June 1984): 1-22.
Ortlund, Dane C. “Justified by Faith, Judged According to Works: Another Look at a Pauline Paradox.” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 52, no. 2 (June 2009): 323-39.
Blazen, Ivan T. “Justification by Faith and Judgment According to Works,” Symposium on Daniel, ed. Frank B. Hoolbrook (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Research Institute, 1986), vol. 2.
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