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James Dunn and Michael Barber on "The Role of Works at the Final Judgment

Categories Theology


A new "4 Views" book, The Role of Works at the Final Judgment, desires to help Christian practitioners in all forms navigate one of the most contentious questions in church history: What role do works play at final judgment for believers?

We are engaging this question by letting the four contributors make their case and respond to one another. Last week we let Robert Wilkin and Thomas Schreiner speak. This week we let James Dunn and Michael Barber. It's a lengthy engagement, but I think you'll be happy you stuck with it!

So how do they answer the question, "What role do works play at final judgment for believers?"

Dunn Says, "Justification by Faith and Judgment According to Works is no Problem for Paul, Why is it for Us?"

Dunn wonders "how to reconcile Paul's talk of judgment by faith and not by works and his teaching that judgment will be according to works." (121) How are we to reconcile the assurance held out in Rom. 8:31-39 with the sobering warnings of 2 Cor. 5:10? In order to get there, Dunn spends 15 of his 22 pages laying the foundation to his answer. Let's take a look.

Dunn begins his argument with a close look at what he calls Paul's two justifications, or perhaps two features of justification. According to Dunn, Paul draws the metaphor of justification primarily from law-court imagery, a metaphor that contains two features: that God justified the ungodly; and the not-guilty verdict of justification can be pronounced right now to those who accept and believe in Jesus. (122)

A key question for Dunn regarding these two features is this: "Does the beginning guarantee the completion?" This question is important for Dunn because for Paul salvation is a process, the term is used to speak of the end result of this process. Dunn explains that Paul speaks of a "beginning" and a "completing" of the Christian life. (125) Which means that the beginning does not guarantee the end.

"Paul regarded the possibility of apostasy as a real danger for his converts" Dunn argues. (126) Drawing on the work of E.P. Sanders and his "covenental nomism," Dunn says that Paul saw the salvation that his gospel promised to be conditional to some degree; it was dependent upon his convert's "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5) Which means that Paul laid the responsibility for final justification on his converts using language that's far more synergistic than monergistic. (132)

One of the primary areas of Paul's letters in which Dunn claims victory is his ethical teaching. "Paul's ethical teaching consistently assumes that his readers were responsible people, who should be making effort—enabled by God's Spirit, of course—but nevertheless having the responsibilty to walk by the Spirit..." (134) Which is why Dunn believes Paul's teachings on the nature of judgement and the role of works is clear: "Christians will not escape judgment. And the judgment will be 'according to works." (136 )

His argument extends beyond Paul, too, saying that we can "hardly escape notice that there is teaching in the Gospels to the effect that final judgment will be 'according to works,'" citing Jesus' warning teachings in Jn. 5:28-29, Matt. 7:21-23, Matt. 12:33-37, and Mark 13:13. Dunn also engages the warnings of Hebrews 6:4-8, noting the conditionality about our relationship to Christ. (139)

In the end, Dunn again asks, How can we hold together Paul's "justification by faith and not by works" with "judgment according to works"? (140) Yes, we can maintain any good the believer does is by God's grace; we can affirm the believer is wholly dependent on that grace; we can say we can only boast in God's glory and grace, and not in ourselves. (140) But along with those affirmations we must also maintain that believers must become better people and walk with the Spirit; they will bear responsibility before God for their doing; Christians will be judged according to their works. (141)

For Wilkin the bottom line is this: "despite Dunn's appeal to God's gracious enablement of the believer that makes perseverence possible, Dunn cannot conceive of the fact that once a person believes in the Lord Jesus, he 'has everlasting life, shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.'" Instead Wilkin insists that the very thing Dunn can't conceive "is the essence of the Lord's teaching on the new birth. If the issue is eschatological salvation, the Baptists have it right: once saved, always saved." (147)

Schreiner appreciates Dunn's affirmation of both salvation by grace and the necessity of works, agreeing that good works are necessary for eternal life and final justification. But while he appreciates Dunn's attempt at keeping the tension, he notes that Dunn breaks it as well. He notes that while some texts promise believers will never fall away and others warn believers of that very thing, Dunn "commits himself to one side of the tension...saying that the warnings are meaningless if believer's can't fall away." (149) Schreiner wishes Dunn would see them as complementary. He also bemoans Dunn's apparent misunderstanding of the Reformed view of monergism.

Barber disagrees with Dunn that the two aspects of Paul's teaching regarding the role of works are hopelessly at odds. Instead, Barber says his approach "compliments Dunn's exegesis and avoids the pitfalls he speaks about." (155) With regards to Phil. 2:12-13, for instance, Barber transcends Dunn's frustration with the monergism and synergism dispute by suggesting that Paul's view of grace is "energism"—believers have the capacity to work out their salvation because they have been "energized" by God's grace. (157) So while Dunn tries to stradle the tension between grace and works, Barber rises above both by claiming that God's operative power of saving grace produces saving works.

Barber Says, "Christian Works are Meritorious at Judgment, Union with Christ is by Grace."

In his essay, Barber highlights an important aspect of Catholic teaching that often gets overlooked: the unlimited power of God's grace, a power that is able to render our works meritorious. 

Key to Barber's argument is the belief that salvation is more than a moment in time; it involves a process, it is a past, present, and future reality. (163) Barber emphasizes throughout that "Salvation is a moment and a process of maturing in sonship." (183) It isn't merely a "past event" as many Christians maintain. It is "experienced in the here and now" and also occurs in the future, which is why "the language of salvation is linked to God's judgment and Christ's second coming." (164)

Furthermore, Barber argues that in order to understand how works function at the final judgment, it is necessary to understand the nature of salvation itself, particularly what "contributes" to salvation.

Barber reminds us that at the center of NT soteriology is christology: "salvation comes in Christ...He is the standard of salvation." (164, 165) Moreover, it is more than being saved from something; it is being saved for something. "Salvation is nothing less than union with the triune God in Christ," which is the result of God's grace. (165) Here Barber corrects popular Protestant misconceptions (and "crass mischaracterization") by insisting that "Catholic teaching rejects works-righteousness...[It] has always insisted we are saved by grace." (166)

But while Catholics affirm that salvation is the result of God's free gift, they also recognize there are passages in Scripture that describe good works as a criterion for final salvation. In fact, Barber suggests that works will be the "essential criterion" (emph. original) of judgment. Citing Matt. 25:34-46, he says, "Those welcomed into the kingdom are those who have performed works of mercy. Those who have not performed such works 'go away into eternal punishment.' It is the presence or absence of works that determines one's future destiny." (168)

While some Christians insist there is a distinction in such passages between salvation and works, Barber argues that "the idea of 'rewards' is synonymous with entering the kingdom of heaven...The imagery of reward therefore is best viewed as pertaining to salvation itself." (168) And that's because, as Barber maintains, "commercial language permiates the New Testament." (171)

Though popular translations have bled such language from modern Bibles, sin as "debt" and salvation resulting from good works as "reward," "reimbursment," and "wage" pervade the original language. He points to Matt. 20:1-16 where "salvation is given as a 'wage.'" (175) Likewise Matt. 16:27 employs economic imagery. Such imagery in Matthew broadly describing salvation as wage/reward is "overwhelming." (176)

The end result is the belief that believers are required to work, but not in a way that earns salvation nor in a way that is merely dependant upon human gumption. Because "if faith is the result of God's action within us, the same is true of works." (179) Which brings us to the crux of the matter and Barber's argument:

  1. salvation is first by God's grace and not by works
  2. one receives Christ not because one has performed good works
  3. once one has become united with Christ, one is capable of doing what was previously impossible, mainly performing the required good works, being perfect
  4. works performed by those in union with Christ have meritorious value, because through Christ's own meritorious capacity believers are able to merit salvation in him

In the end, Barber believes "Salvation is a moment and a process of maturing sonship." (183) While we are initially saved by grace and not through our own doing, "God's grace in the believer allows him or her to do the impossible: perform works meritorious of salvation. And it is by these works that the believer is truly saved..." (183) Which means "At the final judgment, good works play a role in our salvation, but only because they are the result of God's work within us." (184)

Wilkin's main issue is Barber's invocation of "pure grace" that enables believers to perform the necessary, meritorious works that lead to final salvation. Because "Even with empowerment, works are not automatic. Believers must work hard their entire lives if they wish to stay saved and finally merrit salvation." (185) Rather than pure grace being the power from God we need to save ourselves by perseverance in faithful works, Wilkin insists that it is "being given the free gift of everlasting life and eternal security, without ever having to fear coming under God's eternal judgment, simply by believing in Jesus' promise." (190) 

Schreiner takes issue with Barber's insistence that works "provide merit or are a basis of our salvation in anyway." (191-192) His problem with Barber's use of merit is largely with his exegesis. As Schreiner says, "The fundamental problem with Barber's essay surfaces with the word and connotation of the term merit..." (192) He does grant that perhaps the disagreement is one of semantics, saying that both Protestants and Catholics believe works are necessary for eternal life. The difference, then, hinges on one's theological view of justification, which is why Schreiner ultimately parts with Barber.

While Dunn found himself "warming" to Barber's Catholic perspective because of its ecumenicism and biblicism, he does have concerns. He cautions Barber on blending passages from different authors, because it doesn't take into account the distinct emphases of the authors and documents. Dunn argues that faith is not the same as faithfulness, saying true faith expresses itself in faithfulness but isn't conflated with it.  He gets nervous when Barber says that faith is an act performed by the beliver, saying instead that saving faith is in essence a "reception" of saving grace. Finally, Dunn is also nervous about Barber's comments about baptism, saying that failing to mention faith in relation to it runs the risk of distorting the true nature of faith.


Again, I realize this engagement was lengthy, but it only scratches the surface! There is an important, spirited debated encased within this crucial book, one that you'd be wise to take notice of and engage in yourself, because the people God has entrusted to you—in the classroom, in the pew, on the streets—certainly are.

What say you? How have you reconciled what we find in Scripture regarding the dynamic of the faith-works tension?


Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (ThM) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at

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