Bible & Theology

If We Are Saved by Faith, Why Are We Judged by Works?

Paul writes that on the day of God’s righteous judgment, “He will render to each one according to his works” (Romans 2:6). Paul also insists that “by grace you have been saved through faith…not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). If we are not saved on the basis of works, why would God judge us according to works? Keep that question in the background as we paint a few pictures in the foreground.

Loving and Doing

Some of you know my wife, Lexi. Does Lexi want me to love her or just do things for her? If you know Lexi at all, you know that she wants me to love her. Most wives would agree that love is what they are after. When I do things for Lexi, they mean nothing to her unless she can see my love reflected in them. Love is the heart of the matter.

In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye asks his wife Golde if she loves him. Their marriage was arranged and they lived in a culture which did not say the words, “I love you,” yet after twenty-five years of doing, Tevye seeks assurance about Golde’s love:

[Tevye:] Golde… Do you love me? …

[Golde:] Do I love you? For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes, Cooked your meals, cleaned your house, Given you children, milked the cow. …

[Tevye:] I know… But do you love me?

[Golde:] Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him, Fought him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?

[Tevye:] Then you love me?

[Golde:] I suppose I do.

[Tevye:] And I suppose I love you too.

Tevye understands that loving is not exactly the same as doing. Golde understands that the two are inseparable. What a balanced tension!

My love for my wife and my works for my wife agree.

If Lexi was sitting at a dinner table at a women’s retreat with a group of other wives, and they asked her, “Does Johnathan love you?” what would you expect her to say? If these wives were about to judge whether or not I really love my wife, how would you expect Lexi to defend me?

She might say something like this: “Yes! He helps me out around the house. He brings me toast. He fills up my water. He opens doors for me.” And all the ladies would say, “Aww…he really does love you.” (Maybe not in so many words.)

Are my works and my love the same thing? No. Am I married to Lexi on the basis of my works? No. But when it comes time for me to be judged on my love, it’s judgment according to works. The word “according” literally means, “in a manner agreeing with.” My love for Lexi and my works for Lexi agree. When Lexi needs to point to my love (intangible) she points to my works (tangible).

The Purpose of the Judgment

The judgment is a time when God needs to point. Salvation is not determined on the judgment day. Our name is written in the Lamb’s book of life the moment we are saved. In one sense, the judgment day could be skipped altogether and the eternal outcome would be the same. The purpose of the judgment is not to determine destinies, but to show that God is just in saving some and condemning others.

God points to the fruit of our saving faith as corroborating evidence.

When we stand before the judgment seat, God will point to the righteous and say, “This is a good tree. Look at its good fruit. It is right that this tree should enter into eternal life.” Then, he will point to the wicked and say, “This is a corrupt tree. Look at its rotten fruit. It is right that this tree should be burned with everlasting fire.” The judgment is according to works: the judge’s ruling was decided during the life of the person; at the judgment, the sentence is publicly declared and always agrees with the evidence.

This is certainly not the same as saying that the judgment is on the basis of works. There is a foundational question that remains unanswered: what causes a tree to bear good or bad fruit? Answer: the good root of belief or the bad root of unbelief. If you have faith in the Son, the Spirit lives within you and bears fruit. If you reject God, the flesh reigns and bears the rotten fruit of sin. The works of the flesh are evident (Galatians 5:19). The moment we have faith in the Son, we are saved on the basis of faith alone. But when it comes time to be judged, God points to the fruit of that saving faith as corroborating evidence.

While we are saved by faith alone, it is not a faith which remains alone. I married Lexi on the basis of love, but it was not a love that remained alone. If we reflected on our first year of marriage and neither of us had served or sacrificed for the other, it would be safe to say that we didn’t really love each other. True love always manifests itself in action. Jesus asked Simon Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter insisted, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” But Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). Peter was right—the Lord knew that Peter loved him and because of his loving faith, Peter was saved. But at the judgment, what will the Lord say about Peter? “He fed my sheep!”

An Illustration

When we define Biblical faith, our definition must be the kind of definition that necessarily implies a life of works. Biblical faith is by its very nature something that produces holiness.  Consider this illustration: A man named Jason is working in an office on the top story of a twenty-one story building. He receives a call that the building is on fire and the elevator is broken. The fire will reach his office in exactly five minutes. The caller says that he is in a helicopter, and he will pick Jason up in exactly 4 minutes and 45 seconds. Jason has two choices: (1) place his faith in the caller, and go to the roof of the building or (2) choose not to trust the caller and attempt to find his own way out of the building.

Faith is the big question here. It’s all about whether or not the caller can be trusted. Should Jason trust the caller’s word or should he trust his own wisdom? There are just two options: Faith or self-reliance. If he chooses faith, he is required to take his hands off. At that point, there’s nothing he can do about his destiny. He would be casting himself desperately upon the pilot’s mercy as his only hope. His whole life would be in the hands of the one who made the promise. If he chooses self-reliance, at least Jason has some control! But what Jason doesn’t realize is that the fire is so fierce, taking the stairwell is certain doom. What will Jason choose?

Fast forward 48 hours. The helicopter pilot is sitting in front of a panel of reporters. One reporter asks, “During the fire, I overheard a call you made to a man named Jason who was trapped on the twenty-first story of the office building. You told him you would rescue him just in time. What happened to Jason? Did he trust you?

What will the helicopter pilot say? How will Jason be judged? How will everyone know whether or not Jason had faith in the pilot? The pilot will say, “Yes…because, when I arrived at the office building, Jason was standing on the roof.” He went to the roof! Jason’s life was spared on the basis of his faith, but it was in agreement with his works.

Evidence of Living Faith

Faith alone is what God is after, just as Lexi is after love alone. But faith and love always express themselves. When it comes time to be judged—whether it’s at the dinner table at the women’s retreat or at the great white throne judgment—we must have works to back up our faith. Our walk must back up our talk, not because we are saved by our works, but because the lack of works is certain evidence that our faith is dead.

The purpose of the judgment is not to determine destinies, but to show that God is just in saving some and condemning others.

James makes the same point in his epistle. He says, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” What good is it if Jason says to the helicopter pilot, “I trust you! I believe you!” but then doesn’t go to the roof? No good at all. His faith is dead—and pretty soon he will be dead too.

We are not dealing with a helicopter pilot. We are dealing with the God of heaven and earth who cannot lie. His words are perfect. His promises are ultimately trustworthy. He proved that He was our only hope of escape when He sent His Son to die on the cross then confirmed His message with the miracle of the resurrection. To take one’s eternal salvation into one’s own hands by an act of defiant self-reliance is an egregious sin.

Let’s not be the kind of tree who disappoints the picker with its barrenness. Let’s be the kind of tree whose boughs bend from the weight of its luscious fruit. In other words, let’s test our roots! “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5). After all, we will be judged according to our works!