At long last, we have reached the final “view” in the book Four Views of the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Zondervan, 2013). So far we have looked at views from Robert Wilkin, Tom Schreiner, and James D.G. Dunn. The last “view” is the Catholic one, represented well by Michael Barber. His view is this: “Our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ by grace.”
Barber knows well that most Protestants don’t really know much about Catholic theology, and often operate out of stereotypes and numerous assumptions and misunderstands (throwing around the language of “works-righteousness” too casually). So he wisely begins with a quotation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that focuses on the grace of God:
The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting use to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace. (see p. 161; italics Barber)
With that statement as the focal point, Barber commences his essay. Here are some highlights
- Regarding the nature of salvation itself, Barber points out how it is a process, like a race, or better yet a “growing up” into maturity. In that sense “grace” and “work” are not such strange bedfellows.
- Following from the above point, in agreement with Dunn (and Schreiner), Barber urges us to see that salvation is not just rescue and freedom from something (sin, debt, hell, etc…), but also salvation for something – “union with the triune God in Christ” (p. 165).
- Works will be judged, and that is okay in light of the presence of Christ’s transformative and graceful presence and power within us through the Spirit! Looking at Matt 25, Barber argues that works seem to be a focus in judgment. One could think it is merely evidence of faith. But he thinks there is a better way to look at it:
[J]ust because the works of mercy performed by the righteous are likely the result of their embrace of the gospel, to conclude that such actions are therefore not the criterion for salvation at the final judgment would be to go beyond the text…[I]f Jesus wanted to say that the actual works of mercy shown to his disciples were truly in and of themselves a criterion for entering the kingdom, it is hard to see how the passage would look much different. (p. 169)
- Barber gives attention to wage, income, and debt language in Matthew (with a hat tip to the work of Nathan Eubank). Barber says, “Given that sins were understood in terms of debts, it is not surprising to find a corollary: good deeds were viewed as ‘reimbursement’” (p. 172). Looking at the parables of the talents, for example, he argues (with Eubank) that “heavenly wages go beyond what workers earn by strict dessert, but it is equally clear that this generosity is a generous wage for work done than an unmerited gift’” (quoting Eubank; Barber pg. 176).
- Barber gives brief attention to the idea of “faith” – “even Protestants must affirm that to receive salvation one must do something–one must believe” (p. 178)
-The works of the believers is the work of Christ in us – “works performed by those in union with Christ have meritorious value. Why? Because they are the result of Christ’s work” (p. 180). I love how Barber reflects on the Christology here: “If the Catholic view is wrong, it is ultimately so because it gives God too much credit” (180).
Wilkin wonders how the works will be judged. He rightly wants to know more about this process.
Schreiner agrees with the spirit of what Barber says, but feels uncomfortable with the focus on the word “merit”
Dunn finds the most agreement with Barber, but challenges Barber’s use of “faith” language: (1) collapsing the ideas of “faith” and “faithfulness” (Dunn prefers to see it as “trust,” not “fidelity”); (2) arguing that “faith” is a “work.”
At the end of the book, editor Alan Stanley offers a nice retrospect where he summarizes each view.
Wilkin: “Black and White” - believers won’t be at the final judgment.
Schreiner: “A Coherent Blend” - At the final judgment works demonstrate who are saved.
Dunn: “We Simply Don’t Have All the Pieces”: Salvation at the final judgment will depend, to some extent, on works.
Barber: “A More Sophisticated Approach”: At the final judgment works will merit salvation.
Stanley hastens to point out that, despite disagreements between contributors, each essayist was working closely with Scripture and each perspective is driven by a desire to take the authority of Scripture seriously.
This is a very insightful book – it was especially helpful for me to see how Catholic theology approaches this issue.