What will happen on Judgement Day? - Matt Olliffe

Matt Olliffe

Justification by faith and judgement according to works

What will happen for Christians beyond death? In this article we turn our minds to the judgement day, when "God judges the secrets of men by Jesus Christ", as the gospel declares (Rom 2:16). If we look to that day as Christians, we look as those clinging to Christ's cross. But what will the experience of judgement day be like for those who trust in Christ? Scripture paints two pictures.

The first is a picture of books being opened, and of the wicked and the righteous coming before God. There is an uncovering of every deed, word, motive, and thought, before the mighty judge in the presence of the saints and angels. And then we will see a separation of the righteous from the wicked, according to what they have done and not done. This is a picture of judgement according to works.

The second is a picture of God's merciful answer to the Psalmist's cry, "Enter not into judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you" (Ps 143:2). It is a picture of sinners pardoned, having been found in him, "not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ" (Phil 3:9). God indeed "made [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21). This is a picture of justification by faith.

So here is judgement according to works, and justification by faith, sitting together. But how can it be that God will conceal by forgiving something, only to reveal it at judgement day? And what will happen when we meet God face to face? Will he look at our good and bad works? Or only our good works? Or will he just see Jesus and not see our works at all?

Reconciling these two biblical views of the future has produced differing understandings of the final judgement. Let's consider four of them"”each with its own problems.

Four views of The Day

First, some people include our works in our justification. The works upon which we are judged merit or deserve eternal life. This is Roman Catholicism, and is not biblical. On this view, justification of the ungodly is no longer a scandal (as it is in Rom 4:5). No-one could ever object to this false gospel: "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" (Rom 6:1). Nor does it reckon with the fact that the works God has prepared in advance for us to walk in are the same ones that we are not saved by (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Second, some see the two doctrines speaking to different pastoral situations. Judgement according to works speaks to afflict the comforted, but justification by faith speaks to comfort the afflicted. [1]  You're feeling down, so hear justification by faith. But when you're cocky, you need judgement according to works. But this is simply expedient exegesis, changing scriptural interpretation in order to suit an audience. It does not treat Scripture properly on its own terms.

Third, some reconcile justification by faith and judgement according to works by saying that Christians will not face any judgement at all. Jesus endured God's judgement for us, so God only looks at our good works and not our bad"”or just at Jesus and not at us at all. This position is based on John 5:24: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement (krisis), but has passed from death to life". Now this is very attractive. I am not very comfortable with being judged, even though I am confident God will pardon me. But it fails because elsewhere Paul says that "we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor 5:10, my italics)"”not just the good, but also the bad. So it is better to understand John as saying that Christians are not condemned, rather than that they escape the process of judgement. Otherwise we set Scripture against Scripture.

Fourth, justification by faith and judgement according to works are reconciled by seeing two judgements for believers. Taking the lead from 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, some see a judgement of salvation in Christ by faith, and then a distinct accounting of responsibility, according to works. This is very attractive also. It is probably the closest of the popular proposals to the truth. It deals with both justification by faith and judgement by works. It reflects the distinction between justification and sanctification, so important in understanding our salvation. The problem is, however, that nowhere does Scripture speak of two judgements.

Justified and judged

Let me present what I think is a more excellent way, which maintains that we are both justified by faith, and also judged according to our works. I do so under three points.

First, a more excellent way sees works as the evidence or demonstration of faith. Faith bears fruit in good works. The tree is known by its fruit (Matt 12:33), and faith is known by its works.

Second, we know also that we offend in many things and still sin. Even our good deeds still have sin in them. So when we have done everything, we must say, "I am an unworthy servant" (Luke 17:10). To be acceptable before God's judgement seat, God must do something about our sin-tainted works. As Calvin said, "by faith alone not only we ourselves but our works as well are justified". [2]  Our works themselves need to be justified, and then God will accept them. They too need Christ's covering.

Third, there is the related question of whether our sins"”paid for and forgiven in Christ"”will be published. In my experience, many recoil in horror at this thought. Some suggest the shame of this is inconsistent with the remission of sin. However, it seems clear from passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:10 that God will judge both the believer's good and bad works. But how does God publish our sins when he is the one who has put them behind his back? Perhaps God does not publish them at all, but we do. Dabney's solution to me seems best.

But will the saints not publish their sins themselves, in their confessions? And is it not the sweetest type of spiritual joy, that which proceeds from contrition for sin? [3]

So let me suggest two illustrations which I think might cover both aspects of justification by faith and judgement by works, and suggest a third.
First, we often rightly speak of wearing Christ's robe of righteousness. Our sins are covered by Christ's righteousness. Perhaps the modern equivalent of a robe is the t-shirt. Now, we know t-shirts have different purposes. I like wearing big baggy XXXL size. I like to cover up. But you've only got to take a look down the street to see that this isn't everyone's attitude to t-shirts. Those young and muscly guys have more cause to wear the tighter shirts that show the hard-earned muscles in the right places. Is Christ's robe more like a big XXXL t-shirt, or a body shirt? Both cover up. But one covers up to conceal, the other covers up to reveal. Christ's robe is more like the body shirt. It reveals the workouts you've done in his service, or reveals the 75-pound weakling you are, or the flabby gut you've been working on.

Or to use a second illustration, we often sing, "Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee". Outside are the storms of God's anger. Inside we hide in the cleft rock. That rock is Christ and his death"”and it is right that we hide in it. But perhaps that rock, Jesus, in which we take refuge, is the hardest rock of all: a diamond. It is hard, but transparent. We are safe inside the rock, but we are seen inside the rock.

Perhaps, thirdly, both realities can be illustrated by thinking of a shopfront window. At night, you walk past the shop front window and you see only your own reflection, because the street is lit but the shops are dark. But during the day, you can see inside the shop because the shop itself is lit. So it is with justification by faith and judgement according to works. Imagine we are in the shop, and Jesus is in the street. When Jesus covers our sins, he is, as it were, turning the light off in the shop where we are, and thus only he is visible in the window, for the window reflects him. That is justification by faith. God sees Jesus instead of us. However, when the light is switched on in the shop, we are visible to him and on display. That is judgement according to works.

I hope these three illustrations help illustrate how justification by faith and judgement by works co-exist.

What will it look like?

Can we put together from the Bible a picture of the end? One that will glorify God as a just judge according to works and our justifier through faith? This is always a little bit dangerous, as the Bible doesn't provide this picture in the way we are attempting here. But something will happen on that day, so let's have a go while recognizing the risk.

On that great day, there is Christ, the man God has appointed to judge the world with justice. All of us who have persevered will be there. Picture me there, as the one to be judged. Picture yourself there too, in the stands, as part of the saved multitude, with the elect angels and other saints. You are witnesses. And I will stand before Christ Jesus. And God will judge me through his Christ. And he will open my book, before us all assembled. It will be a solemn moment. And he will judge me according to my works.

Perhaps he will invite me to speak. Or perhaps my heart will grow hot within me. I cannot but speak. With a new insight, I accuse myself: I am a sinner. Well, no news there. Jesus told me that long ago. Many people knew it from experience. But I have my particular sins to confess. He has always known them. You don't know them all, but you will, and we will see together that they are more than the hairs of my head. We together will see my sins, and Jesus will call me to give an account.

You will be witnessing my first and last perfect act of contrition. Rest assured, I will plead for mercy, for being guilty I have no other option. Perhaps with the sentiments of Anselm: "My Lord Christ, I place your death between me and your judgement, your death between me and my sins, your death between me and your anger."

And then it will be clear that God has justified the ungodly. My humbling role is to reveal and uncover my sins. My Lord's glorious role is to conceal and cover my sins. Only his scarred hand may cast them away. Only his pierced feet may tread them underfoot. And you in the stands will say, "Ain't Jesus just!"

But Jesus is not yet finished with me, for he judges according to works. And these works must be announced. For Jesus must demonstrate his justice. And the praise for works is for him alone to give. So he says, "Come, you who are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me". Secret works, sincere works, sanctified works"”the service of the saints. The works he prepared for me he parades before me. And I will say (as you will also), "Uh, I think you're talking about someone else. When did I do these things?" Perhaps because before I only saw them covered with sin. And now he has justified my works, and I don't recognize them. Or perhaps because it was not I that lived them, but the Christ in and through me that worked them. But the universe must have evidence that my faith worked, that the faith grasping Christ for justification was not without effect. And my faith's works must stand as evidence to Christ's justice. And you witnesses in the stand will agree, "Ain't Jesus just!"

But Christ is not finished with me yet. For he judges according to works. And he has promised rewards to the God-wrought works of faith: eternal life. And he will give it. Not earned, merited or deserved. God has not become my debtor. For I merited only anger, and he owes me nothing. But his rewards will spring from the deep riches of his grace. As Calvin said, the kingdom of heaven is not "a stipend to servants, but an inheritance to children". For in rewarding the works he worked through me, as Augustine said, he crowns his own gifts.

Thus, and only thus, he admits me to the great community of saints and angels. Amidst that sea of faces I see some familiar ones. They are what Paul called "my joy and my crown". There's my wife whom God entrusted to me; my children who grew in the training and instruction of the Lord; those I helped in Christ; there's that boy from youth group; from mission; from church; the person I sent up the briefest of prayers for "

This is the crown reserved not only for me, but for all who long for Christ's appearing. Beautifully proportionate to the good works God worked through the body.

What difference does this make?

First, doesn't judgement according to works render every moment of our life with eternal significance? We matter. Our decisions matter. Our throw away lines. Our thoughts and motives. They all have eternal meaning.

Second, and following, doesn't judgement according to works for the Christian provide an incentive to holy living? We must give an account. Should we not put to death hidden sins? Should we not strive to keep our hearts pure? For there will be no secret on that day.

Third, shouldn't we get used to confessing our sins? In other words, it also shows our guilt and need for forgiveness. It is good to confess our sins together when we meet. And the reality of judgement suggests that we need to get used to confessing our sins. We need to confess our particular sins to God. And when we have sinned against others and can put it right by so doing, we should confess our sins to others and apologize and put it right, as much as lies in our power. On that great day all will be revealed. Whoever conceals his sins will not prosper but whoever confesses and forsakes them finds mercy. We only need fear God, for what can man do to us?

Fourth, should we not rejoice greatly in Christ's forgiveness, in his justification of the ungodly? The glory of his covering of our sins? He took our punishment, and so we can speak of the blessing of forgiveness. Blessed is the man whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered; blessed is the one to whom the Lord will not impute sin.

Fifth, isn't God gracious! Fancy rewarding us according to the works he gives us. Is he not good and kind? He is just like a grandmother who cannot help herself and gives you money because she gave you some before. This sort of grandmother just thinks up new excuses to give presents. And here is God, giving us presents because he gave us a present before.

And lastly, what greater incentive to good works? We will be rewarded eternally, in a way continuous with and proportionate to our life of good works. Those we have ministered to are our crown. What an incentive to evangelize, to give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, knowing that our labour in the Lord is not in vain.

May we live now in the light of the events of that day.

Matt Olliffe is an Anglican minister in Sydney.




[1]  P. T. O'Brien lists some proponents of such a position in "Justification in Paul and some crucial issues in the last two decades' in D. A. Carson (ed.), Right With God, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1992, pp. 91-92.

[2]  J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill (ed.), F. L. Battles (trans.), Library of Christian Classics, vol XX, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1960, III.XVII.10 (p. 813).

[3] R. L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh/Pennsylvania, 1985, pp. 847-848.