Romans 2:13—Justified Through Our Faithfulness? (4)

In part 3 we began looking at a document, from 1978, which proposed a two-stage doctrine of justification. It recognized that there is some risk, some difficulty, in speaking of a present justification and a future justification. Nevertheless, the document contends that biblical text requires us to speak this way.

The question of the relationship, for believers, of justification already received to the final judgment, although difficult, is unavoidable; cannot be pushed aside, out of the proper concern to protect the once-for-all, definitive character of justification, by saying that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. The unavoidability of this question in the case of Paul, especially, is playing. Paul’s gospel is eschatological through and through. Justification is the verdict of the final judgment already pronounced on the believer, in view of the eschatological significance of Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. age. Ridderbos, Paul, pp. 161–166). For Paul, justification by faith is a piece of “realized eschatology,” demanding to be related in it’s organic ties to the still future eschatological aspects of his gospel.

The document contends that we cannot say that the final judgment has “nothing to do” with justification. Since it uses quotation marks we are left to assume that someone, in the course of the discussion, used this language but it rightly responds that the two are related, that justification sola gratia, sola fide, is an eschatological (final) declaration realized in time and space. The question before us is whether a doctrine of a two-stage justification preserves or jeopardizes the definitive, once-for-all character of justification.

The final judgment, with its dual outcome of eternal life or death, is a judgment according to works [Emphasis original] (Matt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:10) [emphasis original].

In 2009 Rick Phillips gave five reasons why we should not say that we are justified “according to works.”

      • Scripture teaches that justification through faith alone is not provisional in character but utterly definitive in securing God’s righteous verdict.
      • The idea of a future justification of believers suggests that Christians must stand before the Lord with respect to their sinful deeds.
      • According to the vision of final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15, it is only those outside of Christ who will be judged according to their works.
      • Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. He explains:

Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ. In chapter 1, Paul wrote of the condemnation of pagan idolaters, but in chapter 2 he addresses the religious Jew. Paul warns them against the idea that the law – the Torah – saves them, because one is saved not merely by possessing the law but by keeping it. If you are trying to be justified by the law, Paul says, then you have to do it, not merely possess it. John Calvin explains of Romans 2:13: “The sense of this verse, therefore, is that if righteousness is sought by the law, the law must be fulfilled, for the righteousness of the law consists in the perfection of works.” This is why Paul proceeds to make the point that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10), and “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The point of Romans 2:6-13 is to show those who seek to be justified by their works that they will have to keep the law perfectly, which Paul then shows they cannot hope to do. Given its clear context, Calvin comments on Romans 2:13, “Those who misinterpret this passage for the purpose of building up justification by works deserve universal contempt.”

The doctrine of judgment “according to works” does not seem to be used extensively by the Reformed Churches in their confessions. It does not occur in the Belgic Confession (1560), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dort, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), or the Westminster Standards (1648). The Scots Confession (1560) chapter 25 does use it:

Yea, the Eternal, our God, shall stretch out his hand on the dust, and the dead shall arise incorruptible, and in the very substance of the selfsame flesh which every man now bears, to receive according to their works, glory or punishment. Such as now delight in vanity, cruelty, filthiness, superstition, or idolatry, shall be condemned to the fire unquenchable, in which those who now serve the devil in all abominations shall be tormented forever, both in body and in spirit. But such as continue in well doing to the end, boldly confessing the Lord Jesus, shall receive glory, honor, and immortality, we constantly believe, to reign forever in life everlasting with Christ Jesus, to whose glorified body all his chosen shall be made like, when he shall appear again in judgment and shall render up the Kingdom to God his Father, who then shall be and ever shall remain, all in all things, God blessed forever. To whom, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, now and ever. Amen.

It is not clear that this section of the Scots Confession is teaching the same thing proposed in the (1978) document since the confession does not distinguish between two stages of justification nor does it equate the judgment according to works to justification.

The document continues:

In the case of believers, the final judgment (justification) does not involve a different principle than justification by faith, as if the sinner is first justified by his faith in the righteousness of Christ and then, at the final judgment on the basis of his works. Such a construction would bring Paul into contradiction with himself and destroy the assurance ministered by his doctrine of justification by faith. Rather, from beginning to end (final judgment) the ground of acceptance with God and his justifying judgment is the finished righteousness of Christ.

This passage is interesting because it addresses one of the concerns animating this series on Romans 2:13. It’s interesting that the document recognizes the possibility that the reader might reach this conclusion. Has the document pushed a boulder down the hill—in other words, is there a good, logical reason to prevent the reader from drawing the conclusion the document hopes to avoid?

In the case of believers, the final judgment according to works is the culmination of the justification by works of which James speaks. “Works” in this instance is an abbreviation for “faith working by love”; works are the criterion or fruit (manifestation) of the faith which all along, from beginning to end (final judgment), rest in Christ and his imputed righteousness. In a word, for the believer the final judgment according to work is the consummation of justification by faith.

Since the document speaks of the judgment as the “culmination” of justification it is difficult to see how justification, in this life, really is once-for-all and final. Does this way of thinking and speaking really accord with Paul’s language: “having therefore been justified by faith, we have peace with God”? (Rom 5:1) Scripture does not say “Since justification has been inaugurated will be consummated in the judgment according to works, we have peace with God.” To read Paul this way would turn his intent on its head. His intent is for the believer to know, with a “certain knowledge and hearty trust” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 21) that he is now presently, irrevocably accepted by God for Christ’s sake alone and this not “of works” or “according to works” but “of faith.” This is why Paul says, in Romans 8:1

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Again, Scripture does not say that, though there is now no condemnation but there remains a future and final adjudication. The catechism picks up on this teaching:

Q. 58. What comfort takest thou from the article of “life everlasting”?

A. That since I now feel in my heart the beginning of eternal joy, after this life, I shall inherit perfect salvation, which “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man” to conceive, and that to praise God therein for ever.

Q. 59. But what does it profit thee now that thou believest all this?

A. That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.

Q. 60. How are thou righteous before God?

A. Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ; even so, as if I never had had, nor committed any sin: yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me; inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.

When the catechism thinks about the future, even the judgment, it does not envision a second justification nor a second stage of justification. Question 52 assumes that we are already justified.

Q. 52. What comfort is it to thee that “Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead”?

A. That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all his chosen ones to himself, into heavenly joys and glory.

For believers the judgment is not a new adjudication, a second justification but a blessing and a vindication of the justification received by grace alone, through faith alone.

The document takes a step in this direction:

In so far as the final judgment may be viewed, in the case of believers, as a justification, the difference between it and the justification that takes place when the sinner is united to Christ may be expressed at the lead of 2 Corinthians 5:7, by the distinction between justification by faith and justification by sight (cf. WSC, 38: “openly acknowledged and acquitted”), or perhaps between justification by faith and justification in the (resurrected) body (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10).

Yet the document ignores the fact that the divines who framed the standards used different language and categories precisely to distinguish between justification and vindication—”openly acknowledged and acquitted.” What has already been declared, namely the justification of sinners, is recognized. We should not accept the document’s facile equation of an ostensible future justification with the vindication of believers.

The document wants to include our future, final justification “according to works” in the gospel.

The inclusion of the final judgment according to works for believers as an integral element of the Gospel, among other things, serves as a reminder that justification by faith is not only something that has happened in the past experience of the believer but is a present, ongoing concern (cf. The title of Calvin’s Institutes, 3:14). Most assuredly, the removal of condemnation, the invitation of Christ righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, all of which take place at the moment the sinner is first united to Christ by faith, are once-for-all and your reversible, and initiate the state of justification from which believers can never fall (W CF, 11:5). Any presentation of the Gospel or formulation of the doctrine of justification that obscures or denies this is simply unfaithful to Scripture. But at the same time it must also be kept clear that this irrevocable justification is received by faith with a view to it’s persevering to the end…. As true faith, wrought and sustained by the sovereign power of God, it is bound to persevere; but it must in fact persevere, of faith which, as it continues to rest in Christ and receive everything from him, works by love.

Justification is not merely initiated. No, it is declared. Justification has been accomplished and applied. We should not accept that way of speaking about justification.

If we simply allow the judgment to be what it is: acknowledgment of what God has already declared and what he has wrought in them as fruit and evidence, we have resolved the matter

To connect justification and perseverance in this way is not to introduce a note of fear or uncertainty into the gospel or confound the entire graciousness of justification with an element of legalism. Rather it is to make intelligible to the congregation its existence between justification and final judgment, as the people who serve the living and true God as they wait for his son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead for their justification, Jesus, who delivers them from the coming wrath (1 Thess. 1:9,10; Rom. 4:25).

The document does not want to introduce fear and uncertainty but has it succeeded? The document seems dissatisfied with the historic Reformed approach of Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude (the three parts of the Heidelberg Catechism) and the gospel mystery of sanctification graciously, gradually wrought within justified believers united to Christ. It begs leave to connect our perseverance to a putative future justification. This is a new thing. The medieval and later the Tridentine Roman communion sought to induce believers to greater sanctity through a two-stage doctrine of justification: an initial justification in baptism and a final justification through sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace).

The document wants to avoid this outcome but there are too many similarities between the medieval and Roman schemes to the scheme proposed here to ignore.

Belgic Confession art. 24 makes clear that we believe that believers will be sanctified, they will produce fruit, they will do good works in light of Christ’s work for them and in union with him as he works in them.

In the ordinary course of things believers will do good works, as they should, as they must, as befits those who have received such free favor from God, in Christ. This is the “way of salvation,” i.e., the ordinary process by which the Spirit works salvation (definitive justification and progressive sanctification). These good works are evidence and fruit of the Spirit’s work. The ground of our one justification is the righteousness of Christ imputed. The only instrument of our justification and salvation is faith alone. We do not advance our understanding of Scripture or our confession of faith by re-defining justification or by tying it to sanctification and works,

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  1. I have a couple of questions that I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts on:

    1) How do you handle 2 Cor 5:10 and Rev 22:10 which speak of a recompense according to works?

    2) Do you view saving faith as inevitably enduring to the end, as per Matt 10:22, Col 1:23, Heb 3:6, Heb 3:14?

    • Rob,

      I agree with Calvin’s comments on this verse:

      10. We must be manifested. Though this is common to all, yet all without distinction do not raise their views in such a way as to consider every moment, that they must appear before the judgment-seat of Christ. But while Paul, from a holy desire of acting aright, constantly sister [suspended] himself before the bar of Christ, he had it in view to reprove indirectly those ambitious teachers, who reckoned it enough to have the plaudits of their fellow-men. or when he says, that no one can escape, he seems in a manner to summon them to that heavenly tribunal. Farther, though the word translated to be manifested might be rendered to appear, yet Paul had, in my opinion, something farther in view — that we shall then come forth to the light, while for the present many are concealed, as it were, in the darkness. For then the books, which are now shut, will be opened. (Daniel 7:10.)

      That every one may give account. As the passage relates to the recompensing of deeds, we must notice briefly, that, as evil deeds are punished by God, so also good deeds are rewarded, but for a different reason; for evil deeds are requited with the punishment that they deserve, but God in rewarding good deeds does not look to merit or worthiness. For no work is so full and complete in all its parts as to be deservedly well- pleasing to him, and farther, there is no one whose works are in themselves well-pleasing to God, unless he render satisfaction to the whole law. Now no one is found to be thus perfect. Hence the only resource is in his accepting us through unmerited goodness, and justifying us, by not imputing to us our sins. After he has received us into favor, he receives our works also by a gracious acceptance. It is on this that the reward hinges. There is, therefore, no inconsistency in saying, that he rewards good works, provided we understand that mankind, nevertheless, obtain eternal life gratuitously. On this point I have expressed myself more fully in the preceding Epistle, and my Institutes will furnish a full discussion of it. When he says in the body, I understand him to mean, not merely outward actions, but all the deeds that are done in this corporeal life.

      Paul is not teaching a second, future justification on the ground of or through the instrument of works. Calvin is right when he says that φανερωθῆναι refers to the disclosure of what we were and did in this life. We have the Spirit now as a downpayment (ἀρραβῶνα) an eschatological guarantee of what has been promised to believers in Christ. That promise does not end at death. Nevertheless, at the judgment there will be disclosure of what the reality was in this life. Notice how Paul applies this truth in vv.11ff. He is clearly referring to the so-called, self-described “super apostles” and contrasting his theology of the cross to the theology of glory. Paul is ready to give account to the chief shepherd. Implicitly he suggests that the super apostles are not.

      Did you mean to write Rev 22:10? There will be a recompense but believers shall stand before God on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. Full stop. See the chapter on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ in CJPM (also available in iTunes).

      2. Yes, I’m an Augustinian, a Reformed minister. I subscribe the Canons of Dort. In the 5th head of doctrine we confess the perseverance of the saints.

      Fifth Head of Doctrine: THE PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS

      Article 1
      Those whom God, according to His purpose, calls to the communion of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, He also delivers from the dominion and slavery of sin,1 though in this life He does not deliver them altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh.2

      1 Jn 8:34-36; Rom 6:17; 2 Rom 7:21-24, 8:17-25

      Article 2
      Hence spring forth the daily sins of infirmity,1 and blemishes cleave even to the best works of the saints.2 These are to them a perpetual reason to humiliate themselves before God and to flee for refuge to Christ crucified; to mortify the flesh3 more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety;4 and to press forward to the goal of perfection,5 until at length, delivered from this body of death, they shall reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.6

      1 1Jn 1:8; 2 HC 62, 114; 3 Col 3:5; 4 1 Tim 4:7; 5 Php 3:12, 14; 6 Rev 5:6, 10

      Article 3
      By reason of these remains of indwelling sin,1 and also because the temptations of the world and of Satan,2 those who are converted could not persevere in that grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful,3 who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves4 them therein, even to the end.5

      1 Rom 7:20; 2 Eph 6:12, 16; 3 Cor 10:13; 4 Jn 10:28-30; Php 1:6; 1 Pt 1:5; Jude 24 5 1 Pt 1:9

      Article 4
      Although the weakness of the flesh cannot prevail against the power of God,1 who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace, yet converts are not always so influenced and moved by God that they cannot depart in some particular instances from the guidance of divine grace, and be seduced by the lusts of the flesh and obey them. Wherefore they must continually watch and pray,2 lest they should be led into temptation.3 Which when they do not, they may be not only be carried away by the flesh, the world, and Satan4 into great and heinous sins; but they are sometimes drawn into these evils by the righteous permission of God. This, the lamentable fall of David,5 Peter,6 and other saints described in Holy Scripture, demonstrates.

      1 Eph 1:19; 2 1 Thes 5:6, 17; 3 Mt 26:41; 4 HC 127; 5 2 Sam 11; 6 Mt 26

      Article 5
      By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God,1 incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit,2 interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences,3 and sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favor, until, when they change their course by serious repentance,4 the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.5

      1 2 Sam 12; 2 Eph 4:30; 3 Mt 26:69-75; 4 Ps 32:3-5, Ps 51 5 Num 6:25; Jn 21:15-19

      Article 6
      But God,1 who is rich in mercy,2 according to His unchangeable purpose of election,3 does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls;4 nor does He allow them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption5 and forfeit the state of justification,6 or to commit the sin unto death7 or against the Holy Spirit;8 nor does He permit them to be totally deserted and plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.9

      1 Eph 2:4; 2 Eph 2:4; 3 Rom 9:11; Eph 1:11; 4 Ps 51:10-13; 5 Gal 4:5; 6 Rom 5:1, 8:1; 7 1 J 5:16-18; 8 Mt 12:31-32; 9 1 Pt 1:1-5

      Article 7
      For in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration1 from perishing or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit He certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins,2 that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator,3 may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.4

      1 1 Pt 1:23; 1 Jn 3:9; 2 Ps 32:5; 2 Cor 7:10; 3 Ps 51:19; 4 Php 2:12

      Article 8
      Thus it is not in consequence of their own merits or strength, but of God’s free mercy, that they neither totally fall from faith and grace nor continue and perish finally in their backslidings;1 which, with respect to themselves is not only possible, but would undoubtedly happen; but with respect to God, it is utterly impossible, since His counsel cannot be changed1 nor His promise fail; neither can the call according to His purpose be revoked,2 nor the merit, intercession,3 and preservation of Christ4 be rendered ineffectual, nor the sealing of the Holy Spirit5 be frustrated or obliterated.

      1 Ps 32: 6-7, 10; 2 Ps 33:11; Rom 9:11; Heb 6:17; 3 Rom 8:28, 30; 4 Lk 22:32; Rom 8:34; 5 Jn 10:28; 6 Eph 1:13

      Article 9
      Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the Church,1 and that they have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.2

      1 Heb 10:19-23; HC 54; 2 Rom 8:31-39; 2 Tim 4:8, 18

      Article 10
      This assurance, however, is not produced by any peculiar revelation contrary to or independent of the Word of God, but springs from faith in God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God;1 and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience2 and to perform good works. And if the elect of God were deprived of this solid comfort that they shall finally obtain the victory,3 and of this infallible pledge of eternal glory, they would be of all men the most miserable.4

      1 Rom 8:16-17; 1 Jn 3:1-2; 2 Acts 24:16; 3 Rom 8:37; 4 1 Cor 15:19

      Article 11
      The Scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptations they do not always feel this full assurance of faith and certainty of persevering. But God, who is the Father of all consolation,1 does not suffer them to be tempted above that they are able, but will with the temptation make also the way of escape, that they may be able to endure it,2 and by the Holy Spirit again inspires them with the comfortable assurance of persevering.3

      1 2 Cor 1:3; 2 1 Co 10:13; 3 Rom 7-8

      Article 12
      This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary it is the real source of humility,1 filial reverence,2 true piety,3 patience in every tribulation,4 fervent prayers,5 constancy in suffering6 and in confessing the truth,7 and of solid rejoicing in God;8 so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works,9 as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.10

      1 Rom 12:16; 2 Ps 89:7, 114:7; Hab 2:20; Heb 12:28-29; 3 Ps 56:12-13; Ps 116:12; 4 Rom 12:12; 5 Rom 12:11; Php 4:6; 6 Acts 14:22; 2 Tim 2:3; 7 1 Tim 6:11-14; 8 Rom 12:12; Php 4:4; 9 Rom 12:1; Titus 2:11-14; 1 Jn 3:3; 10 Eph 5:8-18

      Article 13
      Neither does renewed confidence of persevering produce licentiousness or a disregard of piety in those who are recovered from backsliding; but it renders them much more careful and concerned to continue in the ways of the Lord,1 which He has ordained that they who walk therein2 may keep the assurance of persevering; lest, on account of their abuse of His fatherly kindness, God should turn away His gracious countenance from them3 (which is to the godly dearer than life,4 and the withdrawal of which is more bitter than death) and they in consequence thereof should fall into more grievous torments of conscience.

      1 Ps 51:12-19; 2 Cor 7:10; 2 Eph 2:10; 3 Isa 64:7; 4 Ps 63:3; Jer 33:5

      Article 14
      And as it has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word,1 by meditation thereon,2 and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof,3 and by the use of the sacraments.4

      1 Dt 6:20-25; Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 4:13; 2 Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2, 37:31, 119:11; 3 2 Tim 3:16-17; 4 Lk 22:14-20; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 10:16-17, 11:23-26

      Article 15
      The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and the certainty thereof, which God has most abundantly revealed in His Word, for the glory of His Name and the consolation of pious souls, and which He impresses upon the hearts of the believers. Satan abhors it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocritical abuse it, and the heretics oppose it. But the bride of Christ1 has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure; and God, against whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail, will dispose her so to continue to the end. Now to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.2

      See also these:

    • Thanks for taking time to reply to my questions. Sorry about the typo, I actually meant Rev 22:12.

  2. This section, a few verses later, in Romans 2 comes to mind…

    21 you, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one shall not steal, do you steal?
    22 You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?
    23 You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God?


    3:19… so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God;
    20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

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