This is the fourth in a series on New Perspectives on Paul, especially from a paper by N.T. Wright outlining five crucial points for Paul that have been newly understood with the advancement of our knowledge about Second Temple Judaism. We have already discussed two of the five points: (1) the gospel is not how to be saved but the message that Yeshua is Messiah and Lord and (2) the righteousness of God is God’s plan of saving and pardoning according to covenant mercy and does not mean that God imputes his own righteousness into believers (righteousness from God). Now in this fourth installment, I will take on the controversial teaching of Paul that our judgment will be according to works
For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.
Who said that? Was it some Roman Catholic opponent of Martin Luther? Was it Pelagius? No, it was Paul. It is Romans 2:6-7.
But wait a minute. I thought the whole point of Paul’s gospel was that it has nothing to do with works: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28).
For centuries we understood very little about who Paul’s opponents were. It seemed to Augustine that Paul’s opponents were Pelagians, followers of a man named Pelagius. Pelagius did not believe people to be depraved. He believed it entirely possible to live choose good or evil without divine aid. Yeshua came, he said, to set the example for moral living. God saves those who live lives of pure goodness. That is, we are saved by our works. Thus, Paul’s Jewish opponents were, according to centuries of Christian thought, like Pelagius. They believed they kept the Torah perfectly and God saved them because they were not sinners.
Along came Luther and the Reformation. Luther’s opponents practiced a strange form of Pelagianism. The church sold salvation for a donation to build a cathedral. The church had stored up the good works of saints and of Christ and for money, the church could grant you enough of that stored up goodness to get into heaven more quickly from purgatory. Weird, I know. So, Luther imagined Paul’s Jewish opponents in this way and the Reformation set out against Catholic indulgences and championed salvation by faith alone.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot right about Augustine and Luther. They simply did not have access to good information about Second Temple Judaism. That information has become available more and more over the last fifty years.
It turns out, as E.P. Sanders and many others have shown, that the Jews in Paul’s time were not anything like Pelagius or the medieval Catholic church. They did not believe they earned salvation by doing enough good to merit entrance into the kingdom. They believed that God had saved Israel as a people and that the Torah gave identity markers so that an individual could belong to Israel: circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. By keeping these, they were maintaining their membership in a people already saved. Theologians call this covenantal nomism.
So, Paul’s entire system of thought and what he means by works has been called into question. Apparently Paul was not talking about doing good deeds to merit salvation. He was refuting the idea that Jews are saved by belonging to Israel and maintaining the identity markers. He was refuting the idea that Gentiles were excluded because they did not have these identity markers. Salvation is not by works (Jewish identity markers) but by faith for Jew and Gentile alike.
However, works are still very important. We will be judged according to what we do. For the Spirit-filled believer, our works are sourced in God working in us. Yet we still have a part in that, for we can resist God or cooperate with him. The Spirit enables but we choose and we execute. It is God’s power working in us so that we can work for him and for others.
Here is how N.T. Wright so ably puts it:
The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation. In this way, Romans 8.1–17 provides the real answer to Romans 2.1–16. Why is there now ‘no condemnation’? Because, on the one hand, God has condemned sin in the flesh of Christ (let no-one say, as some have done, that this theme is absent in my work; it was and remains central in my thinking and my spirituality); and, on the other hand, because the Spirit is at work to do, within believers, what the Law could not do – ultimately, to give life, but a life that begins in the present with the putting to death of the deeds of the body and the obedient submission to the leading of the Spirit.
We are saved by faith to be judged by works. This is a death-knell to ideas of easy-believism and salvation by profession. The real believers are growing in righteousness through the Spirit. There is no biblical concept that a person can profess faith, live an unchanged life, and make it through the final judgment. By the way, I remember reading quotations in one of John MacArthur’s books (The Gospel According to Jesus, I think), and the Reformers would agree that those truly saved will grow into good works.
The thing is, when we understand properly that final judgment is according to works, it shakes off the easy Christian malaise and we find our spirits urged toward growth and goodness. Christianity is often accused of being too easy, of being a religion that requires nothing and allows godless people to believe and be saved without any change in character. Millions attend church and live lives of apathetic indecency thinking they are safe. Yet the Judge will not be so easily swayed when lazy believers try to quote Paul back to him! Neither will Paul stand in their defense.