Judgment according to Works in Romans

How must we understand what Paul writes in his letter about judgment according to work? How can we relate that to his message of justification by faith and not by the works of the law? In the last century several monographs were devoted to this subject. In the former century in New Testament scholarship a view on Paul was developed which came be called the new perspective.

According to the adherents of the new perspective the message of justification of Paul is not a soteriological message, but a message that rejects ethnic exclusivity. It makes clear that with the coming of Jesus Christ a new era in salvation-history has came. The identity markers of new covenant community are not circumcision, purity rules, the Sabbath and so one, but faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. When the new perspective on Paul is right, the classical Protestant view of justification by faith is actually a grotesque misunderstanding of what Paul really meant.

Now the problem with the new perspective is not so much in what it states but in what in denies or at least does not express explicitly enough. There are very important indications that Paul’s message of justification of justification is first of a soteriological message and has background the inability of man to do the law of God. I point in this context only to Romans 1:18-3:20. These chapters also show us very clearly that we cannot restrict the work of the law to the so-called boundary or identity makers.

According to the adherents of new perspective justification by faith has to with the entering into or belonging to the new covenant community. In the final judgment new obedience will be the criteria. So man’s final salvation is based on the new obedience. But is this really what Paul meant? I am sure that his not the cause. Can the relationship between justification by faith and judgment according to works explained in another way?

A positive answer is given in a very relevant monograph written by Kevin W. McFadden, assistant professor of New Testament at Cairn University. This monograph is a revision of his dissertation which he completed at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under direction of Tom Schreiner and with guidance of Mark A. Seifrid. McFadden restricts himself to Paul’s most important letter, the letter to Romans. I deem it an advantage that his study is not too elaborate. The concise character increases its clearness.

In Judgment according to Works in Romans McFadden examines each passage in Romans in which the judgment according to works plays a prominent role, namely Romans 1:18-32; 2:1-29; 3:1-20 and 14:1-23. McFadden argues that Paul in Romans 1:18-3:20 God will repay Jews and Gentiles according to their works and that both stand guilty and condemned before God. Paul uses the theme of judgment according to works to make this universal accusation.

McFadden makes clear that at the one side Romans 14:1-23 is similar to the description of the final judgment in Romans 1:18-3:20, but that at the other side in this passage the judgment functions as an exhortation to Christians rather than as an accusation against the world. In distinction to Romans 1:18-3:20 doing the law is not seen as the standard in final judgment. The final standing of a Christian is grounded in the saving work of Christ.

McFadden says that we must start in Paul with the thought of judgment according to works. Only when we realize that we can understand what Paul writes about justification by faith. Justification by faith must be seen in the context of the final judgment. It is first of all a soteriological category.

The revelation of God’s righteousness in Christ is an alternative and saving approach to justification in the final judgment. The judgment according to works can only lead to damnation. The gospel of God’s righteousness in Christ goes not from solution to plight as E.P. Sanders argued in Paul and Palestinian Judaism but from the plight of God´s deserved wrath to just.

Rom 3:25-26 teaches that in the cross of Christ God demonstrated his righteousness because he had passed over previous sins in his forbearance. In one sense for the believer the final judgment has already happened. However, the cross does not replace the final judgment but it does guarantee the verdict of the final judgment.

The ground both for present and final justification is for Paul the saving work of Christ. The believer knows that his justification is based on what Christ did for him. He died for him, was resurrected for him and prays for him. So it is both a judgment that can be said according to works and according to faith because the believer is seen by God as he is in Christ. Although McFadden uses not this expression: we can say that Christ fulfilled the demands of the law for the believer.

Now the great question remains: how can we make sense of what Paul writes in Romans 2 about judgment according to works with the sketched view on justification by faith and the meaning of cross of Christ? Since the beginning of Christian commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans the second chapter has raised exegetical and theological questions.

Three explanations have been given during the centuries. Since the former century Paul has been accused of inconsistency. This is the view both of E.P. Sanders, whose work Paul and Palestinian Judaism was a catalyst of the new perspective on Paul, and of the Finish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen.

Now, even apart from one’s view on Scripture, inconsistency is a very unsatisfactory explanation, unless an author gives clear indications that he writes in a carelessly way. But incoherence is just for that reason, as McFadden rightly states, very unlike in Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter is characterized by the majesty of its arguments.

A second explanation is that Paul speaks of positive recompense in Romans 2 only as a hypothetical possibility. This vies goes back to the commentaries of Melanchton and Calvin. The category of the doers of the law in Romans 2 is an empty set, because no one can keep the law perfectly.

Many commentators until now have followed Calvin and Melanchton. Almost all these commentators argue that, unlike justification in Romans 2:13, the positive recompense in Romans 2:7 and 10 is fulfilled by Christian obedience, although both Hans Lierzmann and Douglas Moo argue that also in vv. 7 and 10 positive recompense is an empty set.

Third, many argue that Romans 2 describes Gentile Christians who fulfill the law by the Spirit. McFadden does not mention him, but this view was defended by Augustine. Herman Ridderbos and Tom Schreiner see Christian obedience in Romans 2:25-29, but argue that in Romans 2:14-15 Paul is speaking of the occasional obedience of unbelieving Gentiles.

Several scholars combine the hypothetical and Gentile Christian view of Romans 2. John Murray, for example, makes a strong argument for the Gentile Christian view of Romans 2:6-11 and endorses the hypothetical view of Romans 2:13. Actually this agrees with the position of Calvin and Melanchton. McFadden shared this view originally and I myself am at least still inclined to it. We must say that both the hypothetical and Gentile Christian view has its own difficulties.

I fully agree with McFadden that the hypothetical view cannot account for the flow of though in Romans 2:25-29. It cannot be denied that Paul in Romans 2:28-29 refers to the promise of the Spirit associated with justification by faith. I also share McFadden view that this is run makes it likely that Paul views Christian obedience to be that with in some sense receives positive recompense in the final judgment with regard to Romans 2:7 and 10.

I am less sure than he that this is also true for Romans 2:13. He thinks that when Paul speaks about the possibility that in the final judgment the thoughts of the Gentiles will excuse them this is a subtle hint to the category of Christian Gentiles. I don not think that it is necessary, as McFadden argues, that when we allow the possibility of positive recompense by (Gentile) Christian obedience this must be also true for Romans 2:13, but let each judge for himself.

I again fully agree with McFadden that Paul’s argument in Romans 2 is not contradictory but complex. In Romans 2 Paul speaks both about obedience required by the law and obedience enabled by the Spirit. These themes he unfolds more fully later in his letter.

McFadden conclusion is that the classical Protestant position that good works are not the ground of justification in the final judgment but nevertheless are an evidence of it is correct. I would add to what McFadden that Paul when speaking about the law in relation to Christian obedience he does not speak about doing the law but fulfilling the law by the Spirit (Romans 8:4) and that when Paul speaks of good works he does not mention the law (Romans 13:3; see also Ephesians 2:10; 1 Timothy 2:10; 5:10, 25; 6:18; Titus 2:7).

I consider the monograph of McFadden an excellent study that can help to see that the classic Protestant view on both justification by faith and judgment according to works is exegetically well founded.

Kevin W. McFadden, Judgment according to Works in Romans: The Meaning and Function of Divine Judgment in Paul’s Most Important Letter (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), paperback 196 p., price $59,– (ISBN 9781451465679).

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