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Judgment According to Deeds

Ephesians 2:8
Q: How do you reconcile the teaching on salvation by grace through faith alone with the passages that seem to indicate judgment based on good vs. bad deeds? Is this a contradiction?

A: Various attempts have been made on this blog to address similar questions. A look at the Judgment Seat of Christ examined some of these passages that the Questioner is referring to. We landed on the conclusion that salvation is a free gift of God. By grace through faith alone. The judgment on deeds is for reward and loss of reward in heaven. Not a judgment for salvation. A judgment on how well we stewarded the grace of God in our time on earth.

The link between faith and deeds is real in the Scriptures. Deeds are (at least in part) a good test of whether or not you are actually a Christian. However, there is a unique aspect of this discussion that is being brought up in the above question. It has not really been dealt with previously. It led me to examine a passage that, on the surface, seems to teach something different than what has been concluded previously.

"Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." (John 5:28-29, NASB)

These words of Jesus, recorded in John 5:28-29 (see also Matthew 25:31-46), seem to indicate that the judgment for salvation (not stewardship and not rewards) is based on the doing of good and/or the doing of evil.

So. Is this a contradiction? Does this mean we should throw out our previous conclusions and begin working for our salvation?

No.

Well then, are we going to do some interpretive gymnastics to try and explain away the fact that Jesus meant something different than what He said?

No. We're not going to do that either.

Illumination
Jesus' teaching illuminates a broader theme in the Scriptures that means exactly what it says. It is still easily misunderstood. Because we have redefined the terms. We then bring our new meaning to the text. But to understand what Jesus is saying, we must base our understanding on the meaning He intends.

Before proceeding any further, I need to make a disclaimer: I am about to make a case that people are judged based on their works for salvation.

Before you burn me at the stake as a heretic or send the Elders an email asking them to remove me, understand that this is exactly what Jesus said in John 5:28-29. If you stick with me until the end of this post, you should see that everything Jesus said is perfectly in line with the understanding that salvation is a gift of God received by the individual by grace through faith, and is still not of works lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). I know that sounds contradictory now. But it isn't.

A huge lie has abounded since the beginning of the Church. It has endured to the present age. It is found in the preaching and teaching of moralism instead of the gospel. It's presented as genuine. But it's a counterfeit. It is dangerous and insidious because moralism can be preached very easily from the Bible. Even worse, moralism has pervaded much of our language, thinking, and culture. To the point that genuine biblical counsel on what is "good" and what is "bad" is completely ignored. Often because of ignorance and biblical illiteracy.

Here's an illustration. It should demonstrate the vast difference between biblical Christianity and the false teaching of moralism. Let's say that before going to work one morning I give my son the following instructions:

"Son, before I return home, I would like for you to clean your room."

Upon returning home, I ask my son, "How was your day?" He responds with the following:

"Dad, I had a great day today! I cleaned the playroom, my sisters' room, the baby's room, and your room. I swept the floors, took out the garbage, cleaned the cat litter and even washed all the clothes. After that I folded them and put them away for everyone in the house. I did all my homework, I read my Bible for two hours, and raked the neighbors leaves for them! After that, I balanced your checkbook and then I made dinner! During all of that, I never once argued with my siblings or complained to mommy. I didn't hit anybody, I didn't spit on the floor, and I didn't run in the house or jump on the furniture. Like I said, today was a great day!"

Moralism Vs. Biblical Christianity
Viewed through the lens of moralism, I have the best son in the world. But viewed through the lens of biblical Christianity, I have one question for my son that needs to be asked:

"Did you clean your room?"

You'll notice that the list of "good things" performed and the list of "evil things" avoided has one conspicuously absent item. It's the one thing I actually asked him to do. Moralism would say this is a "good" child. The reality is that this paints the picture of a disobedient and rebellious child.

The failure to do the one thing that was specifically directed taints everything else. All that the lists of good deeds done and bad deeds avoided really are trying to do is to hide the rebellious nature of the child's day. Regardless of what anyone else might think, the father knows that his son disobeyed and walked in rebellion all day long.

Only if we understand the difference between moralism and the biblical ideal of obedience to the Father, can we then understand what Jesus was teaching in John 5:28-29. Consider these words from Jesus:

"Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.' Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell-- and great was its fall." (Matthew 7:21-27, NASB, underline added)

"For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:50, NASB)

Jesus said to them, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work." (John 4:34, NASB)

The fallen nature of humanity is inherited from our rebellious ancestor, Adam. It has been passed to every generation. In Adam, all have been sold into bondage to rebellion against the King of the universe. This rebellion infects every action. This is why God looks upon His creation and makes the following judgments.

Prior to flooding the world: Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, NASB)

After the flood, God promised to withhold His wrath despite the following reality: The LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, "I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man's heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done." (Genesis 8:21, NASB)

God once judged His creation for their rebellion because according to His standard every intent of the human heart is only evil all the time (compare Genesis 6:5 in the NIV). This is why the prophet Isaiah could write the following:

For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
(Isaiah 64:6, NASB)


The imagery that the prophet appeals to is often lost on the modern reader. We do not encounter those who are "unclean" in this same sense. According to the Mosaic law, a person could become unclean for various reasons (e.g. touching a corpse). When the person was unclean, their "uncleanness" could be transferred to others (e.g. Haggai 2:11-14). The state of being unclean is infectious. It taints everything it comes into contact with. Therefore, Isaiah is teaching (just like Haggai in Haggai 2:14) that our rebellious nature, inherited from Adam, infects all of our deeds. It renders even the best moral acts (according to human judgment) as filthy, unclean rags before a holy and righteous God.

Danger! Warning! Death!
This is the poverty of moralism. To tell someone who is unclean that they can perform "righteous acts" is a serious error. They cannot. Their very nature as a rebel makes it impossible for anything they do to be considered "good" in the sight of God.

David wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:10-12):

The fool has said in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men To see if there are any who understand, Who seek after God. They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; There is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3, NASB)

Similarly, the author of Hebrews stated clearly: And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6, NASB)

What does this all mean? It means that unless a person is born-again they cannot do anything "good" in the sight of God. Not. One. Thing. It makes no difference how other human beings judge our deeds. Apart from Christ we can do nothing "good." That was what Jesus taught.

"I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned." (John 15:5-6, NASB)

And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone." (Mark 10:18 and Luke 18:19, NASB)

The Scriptures teach that because of the rebellion of humanity, no one is capable of doing anything good in the sight of God. The best examples we can point to - e.g. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, or the Buddha - are all completely unrighteous in the sight of God outside of Christ. Not "mostly good but still falling short." Completely unrighteous. This is not how most people (even professing Christians) think or view the world. But it is the picture the Bible presents.

If we view the world differently, we will misunderstand Jesus' claim in John 5.

Moralism is deadly. You cannot tell an unclean person that they can do "good." Their very nature as unclean spoils everything they think, touch, and do.

And this is also why the good news of the gospel is so good. Jesus is able to make the unclean clean!

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. (Hebrews 9:13-15, NASB)

This is the heart of Jesus' lesson on the tree and its fruit. Bad trees cannot produce anything other than bad fruit. In order to make good fruit, you must first make the tree good. Jesus said, "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit" (Matthew 12:33, NASB).

Apply this teaching to human nature. Now we can understand why we must be born-again. Our nature must be transformed from "corrupt" before anything good can be produced by us. This isn't a work we can do. It is something only God can do.

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22, NASB)

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, NASB)

Salvation from sin must be entirely based upon the free grace of God. Nothing we could ever do in our corrupt nature would be able to earn salvation. Nothing we could do would ever be able to transform our corrupted nature.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NASB)

And look at what we've been saved to do according to the very next verse:

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10, NASB)

Interesting.

God has transformed our nature (2 Corinthians 5:17). Saved us by His own power and mercy (Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5-7). Adopted us into His family as His children so we are no longer children of the devil (Galatians 3:26; 1 John 3:10). As God's kids, He has specifically prepared good works in advance for each of us to do (Ephesians 2:10). This brings us back to the illustration above and the difference between moralism and biblical Christianity.

Our Father has given us specific things to do. He expects us to do them! What He doesn't want us to do is live disobedient and rebellious lives while covering our rebellion with "moralism."

Put another way, nothing is inherently "good" on its own aside from obeying the will of the Father. Reading my Bible can be disobedience if He has prepared in advance that I speak the truth in love to my neighbor instead. This is why the New Testament so emphasizes walking with the Holy Spirit instead of moralism. Yet, pulpits across this nation seem to emphasize moralism over walking with the Spirit.

So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Romans 8:12-14, NASB)

Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:24-25, NASB)

Let's bring this all together. Now we can make sense of what Jesus said in John 5:28-29. The common idea that some day our works will be judged on some cosmic scale, and those whose "good deeds" outweigh their "bad deeds" will go to heaven, and the rest will go to hell are completely wrong. Woefully inadequate. Look very carefully at what Jesus said:

"Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." (John 5:28-29, NASB)

His description says nothing of one type of deed outweighing the other. Instead, those who did good deeds will go to the resurrection of life. Those who did evil deeds will go to a resurrection of judgment. Outside of Christ, not a single person will have even one good deed on their record! No matter how virtuous or "good" we may judge someone to be, unless they have been born-again they are incapable of producing any good fruit. Their fallen nature taints every single thing they think, say, and do. Remember God's description of humanity from Genesis 6:5: every intent of the heart is only evil all the time.

New Nature
Those who have been transformed and renewed by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit are called to walk in good deeds prepared in advance for them to do. Each time we obey God rather than our flesh, our new nature actually produces genuinely "good fruit"! This does not mean that our works result in our salvation. Instead it is our salvation that results in genuine good works. When the judgment comes, those who have done "good deeds" (even one!) will go to the resurrection of life. To the praise and glory of God. He's the one who transformed us.

The freedom we have as children of God allows for moments of obedience and disobedience to God's will for us as His children (Romans 6:12-14). When we abide in Christ and obey Him, we produce genuinely good fruit. This will endure for eternal life. When we disobey, He disciplines us as sons and daughters in order to bring about the fruit of righteousness in our lives (Hebrews 12:4-11).

With this understanding we can see that the teaching of Scripture is unified and not at all contradictory. The Apostle Paul gives us a beautiful picture which should drive home the importance of our stewardship of the grace of God in this life:

According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, NASB)

The foundation of Christ is first necessary (salvation by grace through faith alone). Upon this foundation, we build with works that will endure (through obeying our Father) through judgment and ones that will not (when we disobey our Father). Yet, the person themselves will be saved because even one good work is enough for salvation.
Therefore they said to Him, "What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent."
(John 6:28-29, NASB)

Believe in Jesus. Turn to Him and be saved all you ends of the earth (Isaiah 45:22)!

Knowing this is true, hear the word of the Lord all you, His children:

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, "YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY." If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:14-19, NASB)

Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:4-6, NASB)

For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light. For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:9-14, NASB)

Amen.

Comments

P. Scott said…
Very good... this helps explain why James' divinely inspired statement that "just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead" - James 2:26, see also 2:17. This doesn't contradict salvation by faith... it supports it. So does your answer, thanks again!
zappyquilter said…
Wow, face palm and mind blown!

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