While I was doing my PhD dissertation on Thomas Goodwin I kept a blog to throw out ideas and thoughts about my research. I remember once writing about Goodwin’s doctrine of “judgment according to works” and not long after a URC minister– a friend of mine –emailed me to tell me that he had been contacted by a Seminary Prof to watch out for me because of FV-leanings. At the time, I did not even know what the FV was. I just thought they were guys who loved paedocommunion and dressed in crazy gowns to show their liturgical pride.
But the more I actually read the Early Modern Reformed Orthodox the more I realized that what was passing for Reformed theology in America was, in fact, a bastardization of Reformed orthodoxy. Slogans, scare-words (“Sounds FV”), and the like were used, but very few people wanted to actually engage the sources. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard: “We can’t talk that way now because of…. Shepherd.” “This will confuse the sheep.”
Strangely, I thought the Reformed orthodox gave answers to thorny questions that clarified, not confused. All of their distinctions helped me. I came to realize that the Bible said things that seemed to be flatly denied by people who were more scared of the FV than they were confident in dealing with the plain teachings of the Scriptures. We should not be content with this arrangement.
Differing Senses of “Justification”
For example, consider the teaching of a future judgment according to works. How can we deny (at least, practically speaking by not actually speaking ever about it) this reality? See:
2 Cor. 5:10– For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Matt. 16:27– For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
Jn. 5:28-29– Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
Gal. 6:7-9– Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Rev. 20:13; 22:12– And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.; Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.
The question arises, then, how do we maintain the teaching of the passages above (we could also add the ecumenical creeds, especially the Athanasian Creed) with the equally clear teaching that justification is received by faith alone?
We do not hold to two justifications of the same sort, separated only by time and our own progress in holiness. That is Papist. Rather, we hold to one justification by faith alone. But we must also grapple with the nature of true, saving faith, and the not too infrequent conditional language of the New Testament (see WCF 13.1, citing Heb. 12:14; 2 Cor. 7:1). In addition, we should note the various legitimate distinctions the Reformed scholastics and Puritans made regarding justification.
In relation to faith, Owen says: “For there is a faith whereby we are justified, which he who has shall be assuredly saved, which purifies the heart and works by love. And there is a faith or believing, which does nothing of all this; which [he] who has, and has no more, is not justified, nor can be saved” (see WCF 11.2).
As to justification, the Reformed scholastics note that it has both an “authoritative” aspect and a “declarative” (or “demonstrative”) aspect. Thomas Goodwin points out that “the one [i.e., authoritative] is the justification of men’s persons coram Deo, before God, as they appear before him nakedly, and have to do with him alone for the right to salvation; and so they are justified by faith without works” (Rom. 4:2-5) (see Works, 7:181ff.).
But there is a demonstrative aspect to our justification. God will, on the Day of Judgment, judge men and “put a difference between man and man, and that upon this account, that the one were true believers when he justified them; the other were unsound, even in their very acts of faith” (Goodwin) (see Acts 8:13). God will therefore make evident, for all to see, the difference between those whom he has truly justified and those who have been left under wrath, even though they may have “professed” faith. Matthew 25:31-46 is instructive on this point.
Returning to the “right” versus “possession” distinction– which, quite frankly, I hadn’t heard many talk about until years ago when I and a few others started writing on this distinction on blogs– Goodwin, who has affirmed that the right to salvation as received by faith alone, also posits: God will not “put the possession of salvation upon that private act of his own, without having anything else to show for it.” This language is remarkably similar to Petrus van Mastricht: “God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”
Goodwin is making an argument for God’s own justification of himself on the Day of Judgment. This fact seems to be forgotten when people try to quickly dismiss the propriety of speaking about a judgment according to works.
The Pastoral Use of Good Works
“How do we give the poor sheep assurance on the day of judgment?”, says the “Pastoral pastor”. That’s an interesting question. I’ve said more times than I can personally remember: “trust in Christ and you will be saved. Only Christ’s righteousness will be able to withstand the severity of God’s judgment.” But, that doesn’t mean I have nothing to say about our works, since the Bible has a lot to say about our works at the final judgment.
God justifies apart from works, but he also will “go demonstratively to work” and clearly distinguish between a true believer versus a spurious believer. God will “justify his own acts of justification.” Or, to put the matter another way, God will justify the faith of the believer who has been justified – the judgment will prove we had a lively faith that worked through love. God is going to vindicate his people.
The contrast between Paul and James is then brought into clearer view: “In a word, Abraham’s person, considered singly and alone, yes, as ungodly, is the object of Paul’s justification without works, Rom. 4:3-5. But Abraham, as professing himself to have such a true justifying faith, and to have been justified thereupon, and claiming right to salvation by it, Abraham, as such, is to be justified by works” (Goodwin).
Goodwin speaks about what sense “a man may be said to be judged by his works at the latter day.” All those judged will either be justified or condemned. He says:
“So there is no more danger to say, a man at the latter day shall be justified by his works, as evidences of his state and faith, than to say he shall be judged according thereto.”
He essentially argues that we will be justified by works, but only demonstratively as God justifies his own act of justification in each believer. After all, Christ speaks of a (demonstrative) justification according to works in Matthew 12:36-37, “…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Goodwin adds: “neither is it anywhere said, that God will judge men according to their faith only.”
As Calvin says, justification “by faith alone” is ambiguous; the sense of “alone” has to be understood adverbially, not adjectively (see Richard Gaffin’s explanation here). Goodwin puts it this way, “God will say, I am to judge thee so as every one shall be able to judge my sentence righteous together with me: 1 Cor. 4:5, the whole world may know that he justified one that had true faith indeed.” The final judgment is as much about the vindication of the triune God as it is about true believers having their lives vindicated.
The result of this, for Goodwin, is that “Paul’s judging according to works, and James his justification by works, are all one, and are alike consistent with Paul’s justification by faith only. For in the same epistle where he argues so strongly for justification by faith without works, as Rom. 3-4, he in chapter 2, also declares, that ‘he will judge every man according to his works.’“
Most of the Early Modern Reformed did not view Romans 2:7-11 as hypothetical, contrary to what some in the Reformed camp today have suggested. I’ve located about 50 examples of classically Reformed theologians taking Romans 2:7-11 as not hypothetical.
Should this cause people to despair regarding the future judgment? Only if one is a bona fide hypocrite. Christ will rightfully condemn the hypocrites in the church (Matt. 25:41-46). They are marked out as those who did not do good works. They are those who neglect the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23).
Here is the good news for those who have a true, lively faith: the resurrection will precede the judgment (Larger Catechism, 88; 2 Cor. 5:10). Based on 1 John 3:2, we shall see Christ and be immediately transformed by the sight (beatific vision) of him. We shall appear, then, in a manner of speaking, as already justified at the judgment. Remember, when we first believed, we received the “right to life.” This is the glory of justification (Rom. 5:1; 8:1). Nothing can separate us from God’s love, especially at the judgment.
We do not need to fear the final judgment if we are children of God. But, as children of God, glorified in the presence of Christ, we “must [nevertheless] all appear before the judgment 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). And, yes, there will be those in the church who will not do so well at the final judgment because their faith was dead (i.e., did not produce fruit, Jn. 15:2-5, 10, 16).
A Fully Trinitarian Judgment
One final thought. It occurs to me that some speak of the final judgment in a sub-trinitarian way. It is exclusively about declarative justification for some. Now, of course, declarative justification gives us the right to life. Only the imputed righteousness of Christ can withstand the severity of God’s judgment. But, demonstrative justification, as I have highlighted above, is the Father’s approval of the Spirit’s work – that is, the Spirit of Christ – in his people because of our union with the Savior.
The Father who gave two gifts to us, the Son and the Spirit, will look upon us as justified in Christ and sanctified in Christ by the Spirit; and he will be well pleased with his work. He will accept us for Christ’s sake and reward and vindicate us because of Christ’s Spirit, who has enabled us to do good works, which were prepared in advance for us to do (Eph. 2:10).
So, it seems to me, we need to do a better job– at least, from what I’ve been able to read –of describing the final judgment in explicitly trinitarian terms. To that end, I believe the account above aims to do just that.
If there is a better way to bridge together the freeness of justification by faith, the conditional language of Scripture (Rom. 8:13), and the fact that Christians will be judged according to what they have done in the body (2 Cor. 5:10), I’d be very interested in such an account. But what I’ve described above does have a sound pedigree in the Reformed tradition. Saying, “Sounds FV” is intellectual and spiritual laziness, and using scare-tactics to redact legitimate aspects of the Reformed tradition is entirely inappropriate. Some might even say unjust.
As John Piper would no doubt have us conclude, brothers, don’t waste this controversy. This is a chance to overcome lazy gatekeeping and theological guilt-by-association. It’s a chance to return to our own tradition on this topic, and to see how it helps us fully embrace all of God’s Word without fear.
Portions of this post originally appeared in an earlier post by Mark Jones hosted by Reformation 21. He has been given permission to reprint and reuse this material.~ ed.