Justification Now and in the Future
Beside the justification in this present time, is there also a justification in the future?
The apostle Paul writes, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). This corresponds to other Bible passages that speak of salvation as a reality in the present.
One of the essential differences with the Jewish thinking of those days is that the apostle is able to write, “We have been justified”. Jewish theologians were of the opinion that only at the end times would God pronounce a verdict. His ruling could turn out to be either favourable or unfavourable. People were not sure how things would finish. There were also voices among the Jews who hoped for God’s forgiveness and mercy in the future, and not only on one’s personal merits. “Whatever more we could add to this, the fundamental difference is that Paul focuses the attention of man, who knows himself to be a sinner, not only to the possibility of forgiveness and of the fact that mercy will play a role in the coming judgment, but that the verdict itself is already an accomplished fact, and that the proclamation of the gospel serves as a power of God for any who believe.” Ref?
Then what about the words of Paul where he directs us to the seriousness of God’s judgment that is yet to come? Our righteousness and acquittal appear to still be in the future. We read in the same letter where Paul speaks of being justified through faith: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). From the context it becomes clear that this is not just a “logic futurum”, but also a real future time. It is about the judgment at the end. Not far removed from Paul’s words about justification we find another expression: “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). In this context we can also mention Galatians 5:5 “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” P.A.van Stempvoort notes here: “The justification through faith is a prelude of what is to follow.”
It is especially on account of this that we are faced with a problem, as if both with Paul as well in other NT writings there is mention of a judgment according to works. Let us face this problem.
Jesus says, “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” (Matt. 16:27). Paul writes, “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” (2 Cor. 5:10). This idea returns in the last book of the Bible: “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Rev. 22:12, see Rev. 20:12).
These biblical data lead us to the conclusion that the NT proclaims the message of justification by grace alone, without any works of the law, while at the same time it proclaims that the believers will be judged according to their works. Does that not sound like a contradiction?
Several attempts have been made to combine these matters as harmoniously as possible. W. Joest gave us an overview.
In the first place there is the theory of the supplementary judgment. In this case, the decision about salvation has definitely been made in the justification. Yet God will also judge the fruits of faith in the final judgment. It does not change anything in terms of the final decision, but based on this further decision of God he now adds a greater or smaller merit for our works. This theory bases itself on 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. The future verdict will make public how each one has built in faith on the foundation of Christ.
In the second place the theory of the double justification deserves our attention. Through justification God grants his communion to the believer. He does so by forgiving all their sins unconditionally. Man can know himself to be on the way of salvation. But in the final judgment God will judge the fruit of faith, he will judge according to the works of the believer. With this “justification” it will depend how far he has progressed in the way of salvation and whether he has reached the end goal or not.
In the third place we have the theory that faith will lead to justification, based on love. This idea may be expected from Roman Catholics, yet it is also found with many Protestants. F. Büschel remarks that the reformed assertion that only faith justifies, but that this faith is never alone, does not completely represent Paul’s vision on faith and works or on faith and love. The last justification of the very audacious doctrine of justification through faith lies in this, that a justifying faith renews man in service to God.
Then there is also the notion that justification through faith in the present, and justification on the basis of works in the future, can be made compatible by pointing to the undeserved character of the merit that will be received.
Joest himself is of the opinion that there are elements of truth that can be discovered in various remarks and considerations, but that none of these theories provide the key that will fit both locks.
The Last Judgment as Completion and Disclosure
The Bible provides no ground for the doctrine of a twofold justification. We would be ignoring the significance of the justification if we would regard it as a provisional acquittal—one that would still need ratification later — as if it is a tacit assumption of the justification, one in which we pursue with our good works what God in his grace had started already, and which will then be merited in the final judgment!
On the other hand we would impair the seriousness of the final judgment if we were to deduce from the justification, as an act of God in time, that it would no longer serve any purpose. We are reminded of it each time there is a baptism in the congregation, when we pray that at the last day he or she may appear without terror before the judgment seat of Christ.
Precisely in the times in which we live, of which it needs to be said that more than ever before, a large portion of mankind has isolated itself from the eschatological horizon, it is necessary to show with P. Brunner that we will only know the comfort and the power of the message of justification when the question about our eternal destiny, which will definitely be decided in the final judgment, has become here and now the most important question of our life.
The last judgment brings full disclosure and completion of God’s work in time. God’s judgment is righteous and merciful. God has given the Son of Man the authority to execute judgment (John 5:27). And because of Christ’s resurrection the justification of his people is guaranteed (see Rom. 4:24, 25).
Somewhere Paul comments that it is not important to him how people evaluate him. Human opinion can often be superficial and incorrect, unloving or presumptuous. Someone like Paul is not justified either through his own judgment. But the Lord knows everyone unto the depths of their heart. The apostle writes, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:5).
Does our life respond to God’s intentions? He asks this question not only at the end, but already now. Indeed, it is all about the right relationship to him. Therefore it is key that there is faith in Christ. Faith cannot remain hidden. It will be confessed before God and the people.
Jesus says, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32, 33). “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). The crown of righteousness is laid up and will be awarded by God to all who have loved his appearing. But those who do not know God and those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus will be punished (2 Tim. 4:8; 2 Thess. 1:8). Faith in God’s grace and confidence in one’s own works are opposed to each other. Works, accomplished to earn God’s favour, are not good works. They are “works of the law”. But faith and works as fruit of faith belong together in a life with God. Then faith and works are working together in cohesion, as “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6), or as “work of faith and labour of love” (1 Thess. 1:3). Those can be acts of love of which the believer is not even aware that they are good works!
Faith comes to expression in our works. As proof of the real faith they cannot be missing.
The response that man gives to the gospel, his acceptance or rejection of God’s grace, his “yes” or his “no” to Christ, become evident in his entire life. Therefore also the reward according to the works is in complete accord with the decisive importance of faith.
But the idea that our works earn us merit is entirely in contravention with the gospel of justification by grace alone.
In this connection, Article 24 of the Belgic Confession represents profoundly the conflict with Rome. We do good works but not for merit, for what merit could we earn? Rather we are indebted to God for the good works that we do, and not as if he is indebted to us. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Works are good and pleasing to God when they arise from the good root of faith, which are then sanctified by God’s grace. When God merits good works, he crowns his gifts by his grace. The Heidelberg Catechism uses different words to say the same thing:
Even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin. God promises to reward them in this life and the next; but this reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace (LD 24).
In this connection we are also reminded of a quote from Calvin that justification of our works is decided unjustly on the grounds of our merits. “The kingdom of heaven is not the hire of servants, but the inheritance of sons” (see Eph. 1:18).e There will be no impropriety in considering the holiness of life as the way… which gives access to the glory of the heavenly kingdom; but a way by which God conducts his elect to the manifestation of that kingdom.e Scripture forbids us to glory in works, because they are the gratuitous gifts of God...they please merely by God’s pardon” (Institutes, III, 18, 2-5).
Bavinck wrote, “Which child of God, faced before God’s judgment seat, would dare to speak about any thought of merit that would actually be deserved? It is however quite a different matter when God from his side presents before their eyes the salvation and glory which he will give to his children under the image of a reward and compensation. This he does throughout Scripture. He does so to spur on his children, who as such are heirs already, and to encourage and comfort them.”
G. deRu contends that Jesus’ speaking of the “reward” can never be meant as God’s compensation toward man, but only as an expression of sovereign grace, as proof of pure and undeserved goodness. In Jesus’ teaching it is not about merit, but about service, about a surprising “meriting” of the goodness of the Lord, who wants to see his servants living out of joy, having healed their brokenness, having filled their emptiness with divine fullness of life.
Some reformed theologians do not accept that there will be a differentiation in glory later on, while others are convinced of it. With Bavinck we could say that while the salvation is the same for everyone, there will be a difference in radiance and glory. He references Daniel 12:3 and 1 Corinthians 15:41. “God crowns his own work not only in the gift of eternal life for all who believe, but also in the distribution of various measures of glory to those who have produced good works through faith.”
But this does not imply that this crowning or reward is proportional to the good works, let alone that with A. Kuyper we would think of extra rewards for some of God’s children.
When Paul, with a view to the final judgment, writes that God will save those who have now been justified by Christ’s blood from the wrath of God, and that many will be made righteous through Christ’s obedience (Rom. 5:9, 19), then this is a future aspect of salvation. But at the same time it is more.
It shows the immense reality that God’s judgment will come over our life. For him it is a matter of complete severity. “In time we find the accent of eternity” (A.A. van Ruler).
All people are called to account and judged according to the light they have received. Those who by God’s grace were brought to faith in Christ, how did they live? Was their life fruitful for God’s kingdom? Who should not acknowledge his guilt and shortcomings?
And yet there can be mention of the confidence that we may have for the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:17). Indeed, we eagerly await through faith the righteousness for which we hope (Gal. 5:5). It is a firm expectation and a hope that will not leave us ashamed. Justified through faith, we have peace with God and we await the glory of God. The latter is sometimes called the “eschatological dimension of our justification”.
There is a joyful certainty in Paul’s witness, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). How is that possible?
The Judge is no one other than the Saviour of sinners, who has undergone the judgment for them. Though innocent, he was condemned to death to free us from God’s severe judgment that would be pronounced over us. The Heidelberg Catechism can therefore speak of the comfort of the return of Christ to judge the living and the dead (LD 19). In the Genevan Catechism Calvin asks the question: “Do we not need to dread this judgment?” and the answer is, “By no means. For we shall stand then before the tribunal of the Judge, who is also our Advocate; and who will receive us into his confidence and charge.”
The fact that Christ has saved us from God’s severe judgment by bearing our punishment does not mean that the character of the judgment has changed for everyone such that no one needs to fear it, as a certain “new proclamation” would want us to believe. However, the believer may say, “I expect Christ as Judge from heaven; him who has first stood before God’s judgment in my place, and who has taken away my curse.”
The words of W. Kremer are worthy of our consideration: “Precisely in light of the justice, the verdict and the judgment the gospel reaches its full meaning. The gospel is a gospel in the atmosphere of right and justice. Therefore the coming judgment needs to be even more of an incentive to take our refuge with God. For those who fear the Lord there is rich comfort in the judgment. Grace will be proven to exceed the justly deserved verdict.”
When the Bible calls God the righteous Judge, we should not be thinking only of his righteous judgment before which we all will have to bow. His office as Judge, and his judging, also implies that he does justice to the people and that he straightens things out. When he reveals his justice it is not only a binding judgment but also a liberating salvation. “The Lord executes justice for the oppressed, and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps. 146:7-9).
Is it not true that we see so little of this in the world, with its ins and outs? In this world injustice has an enormous force, and justice appears to lose out to an ever increasing kind of lawlessness.
And yet it will not remain like this forever. God will make his justice triumph everywhere. The believers may look forward to this in anticipation (see Rev. 6:9-11). The kingdom of peace and justice is coming! “According to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). God’s saving justice will shine in all its glory.
The judgment will also bring purification and separation. All who have put their expectation in Christ, against all visual appearances, will in this judgment be proven right for all eternity. This does not mean that also those will be proven right for all eternity “who without knowledge of the Lord who makes all things right have yet become followers of his mercy”. Such cannot be deduced from Matthew 25:31-46, although this is often appealed to as if the gospel shows some type of an anonymous Christianity.
It concerns here the acts of mercy toward the persecuted church of Christ, as H. Berkhof remarks. The “least brothers” of the King are not the poor and oppressed in general. In the gospel of Matthew the “righteous” (Matt. 25:46) are not all the people who have treated their fellow human beings well, but those who stand in a right relationship to God, which becomes evident in doing the will of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 7:21). What is said to them (Matt. 25:34-40) is to them a complete surprise. Their humility and amazement becomes clear in everything. They have not kept records of how much they have done for others, and do not even think about it anymore. It is totally insignificant when it is compared to what the Lord has done for them. Also in the final judgment there is the rule of justification: through grace alone!
Life is not full of anxiety for him who believes in God. Yes, it does remain serious. Both sides of the final judgment come to the fore in the final article of the Belgic Confession. All people will appear personally before the great Judge. “The thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to the wicked and evildoers but it is a great joy and comfort to the righteous and elect. For then their full redemption will be completed and they will receive the fruits of their labour and of the trouble they have suffered. Their innocence will be known to all and they will see the terrible vengeance God will bring upon the wicked who persecuted, oppressed, and tormented them in this world” (Article 37).
The believers and the elect will be crowned with glory and honour. “The Son of God will acknowledge their cause — at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil authorities — will be recognized as the cause of the Son of God. As a gracious reward, the Lord will grant them to possess glory such as the heart of man could never conceive. Therefore we look forward to that great day with a great longing to enjoy to the full the promises of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”