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Imputation and Judgment on the Basis of Works

This started as a comment on a recent post at Word and Spirit, but was getting too long so I made it a separate post. In his post, Mark Heath discusses Romans 2:6-10 and justification. The basic problem is that if we are justified by faith, how can we be judged on the basis of works?

I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately as I've been reading Gorman's Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I think that for those of us (I include myself tentatively - Gorman's book has shaken me on this issue a bit but I'll hold off on commenting on his views until I publish my book review) who hold to a doctrine of imputation that the problem is exacerbated. If the righteousness we possess is Christ's righteousness imputed to us, then judgment on the basis of works seems to be non-sense. However, it's something that the Bible clearly affirms.

How do we go forward? One suggestion that Heath draws attention to in this Romans passage is that Paul could be speaking hypothetically. You could have eternal life if you lived perfectly, but no one does. While it may make sense within the flow of Romans, I think that too many other passages in the Bible (in Paul and outside of Paul) refer to judgment on the basis of works for that argument to hold at a biblical theological level.

Next Heath offers Schreiner's view for evaluation, that these verses are referring to Christians keeping the Law by the power of the Spirit. I think that there is a lot of merit to this view. Passages like this require us to see a strong transformative element in the righteousness of God that we receive when we are justified.

My question then is, does this work with the doctrine of imputation or are they irreconcilable? Even if we receive the ability to do works by grace, I still think that there stands strong tension with the idea that we only stand before God on the basis of Christ's righteousness. Doesn't some righteousness of our own seem to be required, even if its a righteousness that we cannot produce without the righteousness of God given to us? I would appreciate some input, as this is something I am currently wrestling with.


  1. hi Marcus, have been enjoying following your blog since I discovered your commentary reviews a while ago.

    It's an issue I have been mulling over some time too. Here's a few, very brief thoughts about how I hold this in tension:

    1. I think there is a very clear strand of teaching (including in Paul) that suggests that Christians will be subject to a judgment according to works.
    2. At that judgment, no accusation against us will stand, since we have been forgiven (justified)
    3. At that judgment, good works we have done (through the empowering of the Spirit), will serve as evidence of the reality of our salvation
    4. There will be reward based on works, and not all believers will experience the same measure of reward (strongly taught by Jesus, hinted at also by Paul)

    I guess where it gets controversial, is not whether our sin is 'imputed' to Jesus, or reckoned to him, but when we start saying that Jesus' active righteousness is reckoned to us. The way this is formulated by some people makes our personal conduct seem like a complete irrelevancy. (i.e. God is unaware of anything I do or don't do, because he *only* looks at Jesus).

  2. Thanks for your response, Mark. You lay the issue out very helpfully here. I think you hit the nail on the head with the point of controversy for which I see multiple possibilities. The one you mention seems to be the popular one amongst American reformed Evangelical theologians. I think I agree with you on each of your four points, but can you give a little clarification on point 3?

    Do you mean that good works serve as evidence of faith and nothing more than that (still leaving the grounds of our justification on the basis of faith - our receiving of the work of Christ), thus works show the reality of our faith? Are you expanding faith to include faithfulness? Something different?

  3. Yes, your first guess was right. I am still persuaded by the reformed view that the grounds for our justification is faith alone. Hence, the thief on the cross, who had no works to show, was still able to be saved. I would say though that the NT assumes a very strong law of cause and effect - those who have been born again *will* bear fruit. Hope that makes sense!

  4. Thanks Mark, I guessed that that was probably your position, but I was curious to see if you held to the latter, as I think it's an interesting (though probably incorrect) option.


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