Before we begin, let us pray…
Living God, help us to hear your holy Word with open hearts so that we may truly understand; and, understanding, that we may believe; and, believing, that we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
We continue with our topic regarding the Judgment Throne of God. So our text from Revelation 20:11-15 mentions judgment according to works. What does it mean? If salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone then why is there still judgment by works at the end? What is the role of good works in salvation? Is there a reward in heaven?
Let us continue our study about this matter.
Judged by Works and Saved by Grace
We know for sure that God will judge the work of believers at the end. Aside from the verse we read from Revelation 20, Psalm 62, and Ecclesiastes 12, we can added to them Matthew 16 and 2 Corinthians 5. They clearly speak about the judgment for believers.
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 – Matthew 16:27
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 Corinthians 5:10
Both Jesus and Paul affirms the judgment of God not only against the wicked but also for believers. Again even with the Old Testament prophet, they have foretold this event:
“I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” – Jeremiah 17:10
When will this occur? It is reasonable to believe that this occurs at the same with the Judgment Day set in Revelation 20. Apostle Paul and Prophet Daniel wrote:
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; – Romans 14:10-12
At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. – Daniel 12:1-2
So again, it is reasonable to say that the judgment against the wicked and for the believers. And what is the basis of this judgment? It is works. All of us who are under of the Covenant of Works with Adam will face the judgment of God based on the performance of our personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience.
There is no other condition where God accepts anyone in his presence in heaven except for righteousness based on works. At this point, it is the same between elect and reprobates. But the key difference between them is the accomplishment and application of another kind of righteousness. And that is based not on works but of faith. It is a righteousness accomplished by another. And when compared to the righteousness required by the covenant law, this righteousness is received by faith alone as the accomplished and applied righteousness of Christ. This is the ground and basis specifically of justification, and even broadly of salvation. It is the foundation that supports of whole structure of the covenant that is of grace.
So when the mention of the book of life pertains to those whom God saves. They are judged by works but saved by grace. Christ earned heaven for them. The passive and active obedience of Christ has been imputed to them. Therefore our acceptance in heaven is solely based on the righteousness of Christ and none of our works. Strictly speaking we did not merit heaven for ourselves. It is granted for us by grace.
Now God’s grace is exceedingly bountiful. Our union with Christ through faith comes with the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. Our complete redemption delivers us not only from the guilty of sin but also from its pollution. Christ’s atoning work is the ground for our complete forgiveness of our sins and at the same time affords us the ability and power to mortify it. Faith apprehends Christ and through it comes the double benefit of justification and sanctification. So justification is made manifest and followed by good works and these works wrought in us by Spirit receives a reward in heaven solely by grace.
What makes good works good?
HC Q#91: What are good works?
Answer: Those only which proceed from true faith, and are done according to the Law of God, unto His glory; and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men
So as a good tree bears good fruit, only true faith bears good work. It means only believers, the elect are given the capability to offer his work for the glory of God. It comes from the enabling power of the Holy Spirit which makes the believer to desire God’s law and obey them for his glory. So the proper place of good works is tied with the response of gratitude a believer gives to God’s justifying and sanctifying grace. It comes out as the necessary fruit and response to God’s grace.
And yet important to also understand that these works are imperfect in this life. Ursinus in his commentary wrote:
The works of the saints are not perfectly good or pure in this life:
1. Because even those who are regenerated do many things which are evil, which are sins in themselves, on account of which they are guilty in the sight of God, and deserve to be cast into everlasting punishment. Thus, Peter denied Christ thrice; David committed adultery, slew Uriah, attempted to conceal his wickedness, numbered the children of Israel, &c. The law now declares, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” (Deut. 27:26.).
2. Because they omit doing many good things which they ought to do according to the law.
3. Because the good works which they perform are not so perfectly good and pure as the law requires; for they are always marred with defects, and polluted with sins. The perfect righteousness which the law requires is wanting, even in the best works of the saints. The reason of this is easily understood, inasmuch as faith, regeneration, and the love of God and our neighbor, from which good works proceed, continue imperfect in us in this life.
But it pleases God to reward them not based on merit but purely solely by his grace, These works are clothed by the perfect righteousness of Christ. Ursinus further commented:
“Yet they (good works) are, nevertheless, acceptable to God in Christ the Mediator, through faith, or on account of the merit and satisfaction of Christ imputed unto us by faith, and on account of his intercession with the Father in our behalf.”…”It was only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that Abel’s works were accepted as righteous.”
Calvin also commented:
When a reward is promised to good works, their merit is not contrasted with the justification which is freely bestowed on us through faith; nor is it pointed out as the cause of our salvation, but is only held out to excite believers to aim at doing what is right, by assuring them that their labor will not be lost. There is a perfect agreement, therefore, between these two statements, that we are justified freely, (Romans 3:24,) because we are received into God’s favor without any merit; and yet that God, of his own good pleasure, bestows on our works a reward which we did not deserve.
There are two other reformed theologians I would like to quote first from Geerhardus Vos and another from Charles Hodge. Both are 19th century scholars compared to Ursinus who belongs to the 15th century so we can sense the consistency of this doctrine from then until now.
Salvation will be perfect for all, but nonetheless not entirely the same for all. This is certain: the difference will not possibly provide any occasion for unhappiness. Accordingly, for believers works are a criterion for the glory to be received. But this is a reward out of grace (Rom 11:35; 1 Cor 4:7; John 3:27). And the bestowing of salvation, as such, will take place solely on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ received by faith.Geerhardus Vos
…Although Protestants deny the merit of good works, and teach that salvation is entirely gratuitous, that the remission of sins, adoption into the family of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit are granted to the believer, as well as admission into heaven, solely on the ground of the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ; they nevertheless teach that God does reward his people for their works. Having graciously promised for Christ’s sake to overlook the imperfection of their best services, they have the assurance founded on that promise that he who gives to a disciple even a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, shall in no wise lose his reward. The Scriptures also teach that the happiness or blessedness of believers in a future life will be greater or less in proportion to their devotion to the service of Christ in this life. Those who love little, do little; and those who do little, enjoy less. What a man sows that shall he also reap. As the rewards of heaven are given on the ground of the merits of Christ, and as He has a right to do what He will with his own, there would be no injustice were the thief saved on the cross as highly exalted as the Apostle Paul. But the general drift of Scripture is in favor of the doctrine that a man shall reap what he sows; that God will reward every one according to, although not on account of his works.(Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, pages 244-5)
So in sum, we are saved by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. But the faith that saves is never alone. It is evidenced by good works wrought in us by the Holy Spirit to follow God’s law which is the primary expression of our gratitude toward God. In the end, God is glorified and he rewards his elect accordingly by his grace.
Again, Ursinus clarifies:
HC Q#87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?
Answer: By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.
ZCRC(Imus), we are judged by works and saved by grace and God’s work in redemption earned heaven for us and rewards our good works as an exceeding expressions of his grace. All these are for God’s glory and for the enjoyment of God in eternity. Amen.