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Judgment According to Works– Reformed Style

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.

By Mark Jones

The Rev. Dr. Mark Jones (PhD, Leiden Universiteit) has been the Minister at Faith Vancouver since 2007. He is also Research Associate in the Faculty of Theology at University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa. Dr. Jones is the author of several books, including Knowing Christ, God Is, Living For God (2020 Crossway).

8 replies on “Judgment According to Works– Reformed Style”

I think I finally get it. I’ve been struggling for weeks to get what John Piper is saying. I would say the key
here for me is that it is the Spirit that supplies the works and obedience. If I am truly justified (by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness), the Spirit WILL produce the required works and obedience in me and what God supplies through the Spirit He acccepts as sufficient. Assurance then is still there. I’m not hanging out there on my own to get it done. That was the issue for me.

Rick, glad to hear. I know people have read comments before by those who were a little confused by Piper, and they have written publicly to me about this. So I am thankful to see this. It isn’t about “will we do enough” but God’s promise that he will do the work in us because he has, through Jesus, done the work for us. I have only had my assurance enhanced by this doctrine because I know God will vindicate himself at the judgment, which means he does not want me to fail, but instead wants me to bring glory to Jesus. I feel bad for those who can’t see the glory in this doctrine the way it has been described by our Early Modern forefathers.

Thanks Mark,
I have been following this conversation closely on online and have been reading posts from you, Dr. Clark, Steven Wedgeworth, Brad Mason, Christopher Gordon and many more. It’s funny because I have a hard time seeing any difference between all of you on the final judgement except in the terminology. I do believe that the words “final salvation”, “double justification”, and “final justification” are very confusing. Dr. Clark uses the term vindication when talking of the final judgement for believers and I see you also used this in this post here. Thus seems very helpful and shows that we are not being justified before God by our works but in front of men. I believe Piper’s words were very confusing and that many in the reformed works did the right thing to call him out on it. You did the same thing when You believed Tullian was speaking in confusing terms. Instead of a debate I would really like to see you and Dr. Clark have a private sit down where you both could engage in a helpful conversation. I respect both of you brothers and would like to see this disagreement put to rest.

Well done! Thanks for this. This reminds me of Jn. 15:2, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.”

Hi Ps. Mark,

Thanks for the post. This doctrine is sadly unclear in most circles. As I was reading this post, I wondered if perhaps the doctrine of rewards would be helpful in illuminating what this final judgment of works would entail.

Yes, we are justified by faith alone. And yes, works give evidence for the genuineness of our faith. But more than that, as Edwards says, “Christ will reward all according to their works.” (What is less clear is whether these rewards will mean different degrees of glory in heaven, as Edwards states in The Portion of the Righteous.)

I think in the face of the overwhelming biblical logic of Dr. Jones some would attemptto put a fig leaf of justification (wink) upon the opprobrium heaped upon Dr. Piper, claiming he “dangerously” or “confusingly” etc. used terms. Piper, in other words, made the mistake of not clearly showing how this adds to an individual Christian’s reason to relax, be assured.

I’m not buying it.

Piper does not put the matter any more starkly than Scripture tends to on these matters as pointed out in this very article, and carefully explained good orthodox biblical positions in both
a) his recent for-popular-consumption articles and
b) long record of careful support of justification by faith-alone (against those like N.T. Wright who would weaken some of its biblical supports.

Don’t fool yourself that there is no space between more rationalist views of “faith” such as some lean towards in a Gordon Clarkian sense, or substantively and historically between Dr. Jones and Dr. Clark have between them, that simply sitting down with a good cup of tea could broach while nodding approvingly toward one another about those lowbrow Baptists that would dare (rightfully) shake the (unwarranted) assurance of many in our padded Presbyterian pews speaking. This dealing with unwarranted assurance is the real pragmatic/practical reason I intuit for all the squealing, for Piper’s intentionally wanting to set forth vividly as a needed tonic, and the practical theological reason indeed we should not “waste the controversy.”

While Dr. Jones admirably in the interest of being “winsome” and the peace of the church may state in the comments here that clarity on this doctrine can actually increase assurance, for those more Laodicean-like churches and individuals packing many of our pews, shouting this doctrine from the rooftops as starkly as Scripture about the NECESSITY of accompanying good works to prove a real justification may be a needed awakening, and a needed corrective for the deafening silence in most good Reformed pulpits about this necessity of works considering the bible’s stark reminders and persistent WARNINGS in NT gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic.

Thank you Dr. Jones for your clarity on this debate. I agree that many Reformed Theologians, Goodwin, Calvin, etc. wrote of a double justification. However, to avoid confusion the wording was changed in Reformed Theology to “vindication” in the final salvation much as James 2 uses justification. I think that they were correct in that many Reformed are having issues with the terminology used by Piper. I agree, that Piper could have been more clear, but I agree with you that these differences can be reconciled by reading the Reformers and Puritans. I have no problem with the distinction between “right” and “possession” of salvation. I think that the confusion is that some of the Reformed are having with Piper is that he is putting a “condition” of sanctification on final salvation. Philip Comer writes, “Adding the phrase final salvation to the equation doesn’t actually add anything to salvation, it only cancels out initial part of it—and this by definition.” https://www.heartandmouth.o
This to me is a narrow view of salvation. The scriptures also speak of a broader view of salvation, we have been saved in justification, we are being saved in sanctification and will one day be saved in our glorification.

Michael Horton uses the same language in his book Introduction to Covenant Theology, “The New Testament lays before us the vast array of conditions for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor, are part of that holiness without which no one shall see the Lord. (Heb 12:14). Such holiness is not simply definitive – that is, it belongs not only to our justification, which is an imputed rather than imparted righteousness, but to our sanctification, that inner renewal of the Spirit. Jesus made it clear that the sheep will be distinguished from the goats in the last day by the marks of their professions (Matthew 24)” p182. However, Horton makes the proper distinction between justification and sanctification. He writes, “yet none of this belongs to either the grounds or means of our justification.” To say that there are conditions to salvation is not saying that one is denying justification by faith alone. “Conditions” are not “instruments.” One must be careful to make the proper distinctions between justification and sanctification without separating them. Is Piper’s view of justification a two stage justification, one of faith alone and then one of works? Or is he using the terminology of final salvation in the same way as Horton and other Reformed Theologians when they write of our “vindication” in the last judgement?

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