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Robert Wilkin and Thomas Schreiner on "The Role of Works at the Final Judgment"

Categories Theology

Role of worksA new "4 Views" book, The Role of Works at the Final Judgment, is hoping 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? Last week I introduced us to this new book by outlining Alan P. Stanley's (volume editor) introduction to it.

While it's a topic that's been discussed hard in journals and conferences, it's also a crucial conversation for the pew. Stanley quotes a former student-turned-pastor to stress this point: "This is not just a scholarly get this wrong is serious."

In order to help us engage this question, I want to engage the four contributors by letting them make their case. We'll engage Robert Wilkin and Thomas Schreiner this week, leaving James Dunn and Michael Barber to next.

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

Wilkin Says, "Judgement of Works for Christians is for Rewards, not Salvation"

The first response to our question comes from Robert Wilkin, an appropriate respondent considering he's part of a newer movement within evangelicalism called the free grace movement. For Wilkin that Christians are called to persevere is not in dispute. What is is what is at stake.

While "many people teach that what is at stake is eternal salvation," (25) says Wilkin, "We find no evidence from Jesus declaring that a believer must persevere to retain eternal life or show evidence for it." (27) In John's gospel, for instance, Wilkin insists that in John 3:16 we find "'whoever believes in Him,' not 'whoever perseveres in Him'" receives eternal life. "[Jesus] promises external security the moment one believes…No perseverance required." (27)

Regarding actual judgment, Wilkin insists that "believers and unbelievers will appear at separate judgments," the Judgement Seat of Christ and the Great White Throne Judgment. According to Wilkin, "At the first judgment believers are judged according to their works to determine their reward. At the second judgment unbelievers are judged according to their works to determine their degree of eternal torment." (31) It seems as though Wilkins's pre-millenial presuppositions influence his readings here and elsewhere (e.g. Matthew 24 and 25), which others note in their response.

Curiously, while he engages one perseverance passage in Hebrews 10:36—in addition to Paul's exhortations in 1 Cor. 9:27 and Col. 1:21-23—he neglects the crucial warning passage about falling away in Hebrews 5:11-6:12. Here, Wilkin says "the promise" refers not to final salvation but "to being Christ's partners in the life to come...Only beleivers who persevere will be partners with Christ." (44)

In the end, Wilkin believes that "If we believe the promise of everlasting life, then we are assured; it's that simple. We do no look to our works for assurance." (50)

Much of Schrenier's disagreement stems from how Wilkin's essay is inextricably tied with a certain kind of dispensational theology. His theological method is a weakness, because "If his kind of dispensationalism collapses, so does Wilkin's interpretation." (52) Likewise, Wilkin "forces every text to fit his [dispensational] paradigm," which is "artificial and strained" in several readings. (53, 52) While Schreiner appreciates Wilkin's ultimate goal—"to protect the purity of the gospel so that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and in Christ alone"—he says his exegesis of key texts "that demand good works for final salvation is forced and unconvincing." (56)

Dunn wastes no time in getting at his points of disagreement, saying Wilkin's argument "is an extreme case where the perspicacity of Scripture hangs on a particular interpretation of two verses being allowed to determine that many other verses should be interpreted in a way that seems to run counter to their most obvious sense." (57) Those two verses are Jn. 5:25 and Rev. 20:11-15, which Dunn calls a "canon within a canon." (57) His point is that how Wilkin reads the teachings of Jesus and Paul are driven by narrow readings of this two-verse canon; such "special pleading…is never going to prove satisfactory" says Dunn. (62)

Finally, Barber finds Wilkin's interpretation of various biblical texts unconvincing in 4 areas: 1) "the dichotomy he seems to assume exists between God's gift of grace and the believer's response to it;" 2) his assumption that salvation in the NT isn't described metaphorically (i.e. "reward" or "prize") as something to attain; 3) he holds that perseverance is not necessary for salvation, ignoring that it is spoken of as past, present, and future realities in Scripture; 4) Barber challenges the notion that the knowledge of one's salvation is the object of our faith, a conclusion one could draw from Wilkin's thesis.

Schreiner Says, "Judgement of Works for Christians is for Confirmation, not Justification"

At the center of Schreiner's discourse is justification, particularly it's differentiation from salvation. For Schreiner, justification is "being acquitted before the diving judge;" it means that people are "declared to be 'not guilty' before God;" it is "an eschatological reality." Salvation, on the other hand, has its focus on "being rescued from God's wrath or punishment on the last day." Likewise, justification is a soteriological term, thus "both address the question of the human being's standing before God on judgment…" (71-72)

In short, for Schreiner Paul and James and other NT writings argue that "works are necessary for justification, but they should not be considered the basis or foundation of justification. Instead, they constitute the necessary evidence or fruit of that justification." (73) Works do not obtain justification or salvation, but they are necessary for both.

His reading of Paul confirms this, particularly his reading of "works of the law." For Schreiner "Galatians clearly teaches that human works cannot justify. Righteousness comes by faith instead of by the law…Romans flies in the same orbit as Galatians." (74, 75) And yet, Galatians also makes it clear that works are necessary for eternal life. Those works are not "produced by the virtue of human beings" before salvation, they are "accomplished by the Holy Spirit." Which means that "those who don't sow to the Spirit will not experience eternal life." (83)

While some might worry "that the necessity of good works for final salvation denies the grace of the gospel," Schreiner cautions us "that we are not more Pauline than Paul! Paul didn't think his words [regarding works] contradicted the gospel of grace (see Titus 2:11-12)." (85) We shouldn't either.

Regarding James, Schreiner believes that "James clearly teaches that good works are necessary for justification." Yet we can overemphasize this necessity—"good works must be present, but they must not be confused with perfection"—as well as underemphasize it—saying "'justify' and 'save' do not refer to salvation." (87, 88)

In the end, Schreiner believes that both Paul and James emphasize both themes—that "works can't gain salvation and yet they are necessary for salvation." (96) Salvation and justification are through faith alone, "but such faith is living and vital and always produces works." (98)

Wilkin believes Schreiner's thesis collapses under the weight of three contradictions: 1) Schreiner has Paul and James teaching forensics justification before God both by faith apart from works and by works; 2) Schreiner insists that Paul and James teach that works are necessary for eternal salvation, yet what that really means is they are only evidence for eternal salvation; and 3) while insisting works are necessary to evidence salvation, Schreiner says those works are imperfect and deserve God's condemnation. In the end Wilkin believes Schreiner's paradigm makes the Bible seem "hopelessly confused." (99-101)

While Dunn says Schreiner's essay is "something of a breath of fresh air," he does have some questions. First, should we give more weight to the contexts of Paul's letters? For instance, "Should we abstract Galatians wholly from its context…and universalize it to every and any context?" (105-106) Second, should we expect Paul to have fully reconciled the tension between faith and works? Perhaps more clearly, "should we allow that Paul might well have stressed different emphases in different situations, without necessarily having worked out fully how the different emphases can best be correlated?" (106) Third, are certain texts being squeezed into an interpretive grid? For instance, Dunn wonders if Schreiner broadens out the reference to works "too quickly from 'works of the law' in the case of Abraham (Rom. 4:2)." (107) Pastorally, Dunn believes Schreiner's emphasis that the final verdict of justification is secure contradicts Paul's warnings and exhortations against putting one's final salvation in jeopardy. (109) 

Again, Barber brings up the rear response, saying "that different understandings of the nature of justification and salvation lead us to part ways when it comes to the precise role of works." (111) First, Barber insists that it's important to recognize the multiple metaphors the NT uses to speak of salvation. Second, Barber argues that while Schreiners defines justification as "acquittal," it is more than that; God the judge "actually makes the wicked righteous," rather than merely declaring them so. (112-113) And where Schreiner says James means that "saving faith" justifies and is accompanied by good works, Barber argues that "The works themselves have justifying value for James;" the point of Jas. 2:25 is "the instrumentality of the works, not simply faith." (116)


As long is it was, this overview only scratches the surface! As you can see there is a spirited debated encased within this important 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. Next week we'll pick up the discussion with Dunn and Barber.

In the meantime 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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