Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment

Contributors: Robert N. Wilkin, Thomas R. Schreiner, James D. G. Dunn, and Michael P. Barber. Alan P. Stanley, general editor. Stanley N. Gundry, Counterpoints series editor. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. 234 pages.


What will be the basis of my entrance into heaven when I stand before Jesus on judgment day? What role will my works play? Do I have to stay faithful to the end? How assured of my salvation can I be if I don’t know if I’ll persevere to the end?

This book is a must read for anyone who wants to be abreast of the present debate over works, faith, and assurance of salvation. It reflects the developments over the past twenty years of the Lordship/Free Grace Salvation debate which began between Charles Hodge and Lewis Sperry Chafer in the 1920’s and continued between John MacArthur and Zane Hodges (now deceased) in recent years. Michael Barber’s essay is especially helpful for Protestants who want to understand the Catholic view on the relationship between faith and works as they relate to justification and eternal life.

Wilkin (Free Grace view) represents the view that no works will determine one’s destiny in eternity, but rather one’s rewards. Schreiner (Reformed Calvinist) argues that works are a necessary fruit of faith, which if absent, proves faith was not present, and so will determine one’s eternal destiny at the final judgment. Dunn (Arminian) considers works necessary for final justification, seeing Paul through the lens of first century Judaism’s covenant nomism (the new perspective on Paul as promoted by N. T. Wright). Barber explains the Catholic view that salvation is by faith in Christ who empowers the believer to do works that merit salvation.

The book was especially helpful for understanding the issues in the debate and the challenge before evangelicalism with regard to the gospel of salvation. Though all four views agree that initial justification is by grace through faith alone—Ephesians 2:8-9 was quoted by all—they are very different understandings of the relationship of works following initial justification to final salvation, whether one “goes to heaven” or not.

All four contributors tended toward a dogmatic hermeneutic in that they used verses, sometimes out of context, to define or defend their position. They all failed to address key passages that weakened their arguments. This has characterized much of theological debate in the past centuries and so is not surprising, not just on this topic, but on others a well. I was disappointed in both Wilkins and Schreiner in that both tended to force passages through their theological grids. Still, they are helpfully clear about the differences between their views. Additionally, in their defense, space was limited and all four clearly defined their views, both in their contributions and their responses to the other contributors.

It should be noted that the three views that require good works to be present for one to receive eternal life at the final judgment are Amillennial views with a single judgment, the Great White Throne, where everyone must appear. Wilkin alone has two judgments, one for the Saints at the Bema Seat of Christ prior to His millennial reign and one for unbelievers at the Great White Throne Judgment following the Millennial Kingdom of Christ.


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One Response to Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment

  1. Steffan says:

    Very interesting and helpful! I’ve been thinking about this and considering various views on it more frequently the last 8 months.

    I tend toward the free grace view currently.

    I think that holding the necessity of work to prove one’s faith (as in Schreigner) is an inaccurate exegesis of James 2. The examples given in James 2 were one time things – Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac and Rahab letting the spies in.

    In John 6:28-29 Jesus is asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
    and he answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

    The work is believing and I think this is why Paul says it is from “faith to faith” and then in Hebrews Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. As for working out our salvation, we work out (by faith) what God has already worked in us. But it’s by faith, being transformed by the renewal of our minds as we look to the unseen rather than the seen, by faith rather than sight.

    The work is believing, but as my friend Lance has said, “Humans are primarily concerned with behavior and secondarily concerned with faith. God is primarily concerned with faith and secondarily concerned with behavior.” Because obedience is a fruit not a root (if we love him we obey his commands and we love him because he first loved us etc. etc.). I think the views that are uncomfortable with grace (and salvation perhaps) being free may have their concerns backward and don’t understand, as it says in Titus 2:12, grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness and live soberly, righteously and godly in the present age.

    As D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said in his Romans commentary,
    “There is no greater test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. If my preaching and presentation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel…There is this kind of dangerous element about the true presentation of the doctrine of salvation.”

    I’m less interested in how different views see different passages but more in trying to understand why (motive) they see those passages differently. And I think sometimes it is a misunderstanding of grace’s power to cover the Spirit’s work in our lives and as Lloyd-Jones says, “the dangerous element to the true doctrine of salvation.”

    I’m currently in between several views on the differences between the bema and the great white throne judgment. But I hold to a high view of Christ’s sacrifice and at the very least believe that believers (those who are in Christ) will not be punished. What may be “burned up” is the works we did in the flesh which weren’t built on the foundation (Christ). And what we may be rewarded for (if we are rewarded for or what might be celebrated if we are rewarded for anything regarding works) is the works we did in the Spirit because they were built on the foundation.

    So there’s a twenty-one year old theologian’s perspective.

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