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Does Paul Believe in Judgment by Works?

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Some readers wonder if I am inconsistent in what I am saying about Paul (in the “Rereading Paul” series). On the one hand, I have said that Romans 2:6-11 is not what Paul believes. He does not believe in judgment by desert (“you get what you deserve”). Romans 2:6-11 says God will reward goodness with eternal life and badness with wrath and fury. I claim, along with Douglas Campbell, that these words do not represent Paul’s belief but rather, a rebuttal to the beliefs of a certain Jewish teacher. He rebuts the teacher by pressing his claims to their ultimate and showing them to have an absurd result.

If this Jewish teacher is correct, Paul’s unseen opponent in the diatribe of Romans 1-4, then people just need to be good to find eternal life. Neither Torah-based Judaism nor the Yeshua-movement can agree that accomplishment earns eternal life. That view does no justice to Torah or Messiah.

But there are other passages where Paul describes a future judgment. And it seems to be based on good and evil. Paul says this in passages where he is not arguing with an unseen opponent. The words and beliefs in these other places seem to be Paul’s. So does Paul believe in judgment by desert or not?

2 Corinthians 5:10 says “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” How can I reconcile on the one hand “Romans 2:6-11 is not what Paul thinks” with 2 Corinthians 5:10?

The simple answer is this: the entire cosmos, including us, will go through a judgment of good and evil. But the judgment of God will not be proportional, as Campbell puts it (page 92, The Deliverance of God). It will not be strictly according to “what we deserve.” It will be heavily weighted in the direction of grace and mercy.

God is eliminating evil. This is because evil is a terrible thing. When we finally live in the absence of it, we will at last understand how the tiniest bits of selfishness, acquisitive greed, the will to dominate others, rivalry, bitterness, and a thousand other evils have poisoned our lives.

God does not act ruthlessly. Smiting for the sake of proving himself superior is not his way. He acts redemptively. He purges to make something beautiful.

“We must all appear before Messiah’s throne of judgment,” says 2 Corinthians 5:10. The one on this throne made his opinion known about sin and evil. He is the one who said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” Whose judgment would you desire to be under? There is a belief about judgment common in religious communities which is very anti-Messiah, very smug and arrogant. Do not confuse religious pomposity with Yeshua’s love.

“That each one may receive,” says Paul. Who is the “each one” he has in mind in 2 Corinthians 5? Is he talking about the “unbelievers” and hoping they will “get what they deserve”? Not at all. The chapter is about the suffering and humiliation experience by believers. He is encouraging the faithful who feel threatened by the forces around them. Future hope seems to far off. How valuable is this hope?

“That each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil,” Paul concludes. Some reading this are pretty sure they know how the “what is due” part works.

Justification theory says “if you assent to the doctrines of Christianity you are due for salvation but if you don’t assent to the doctrines of Christianity you are due for a torturous eternity.”

That is a misreading of Paul.

Paul’s view would look more like this: “if you have come to the place where you let God enlighten you by means of his Messiah, then you will be ready for reward at Messiah’s throne but those who would try and bring evil into God’s country will be judged.” How will they be judged? I think their chance for redemption is not over at that point. You may disagree. Some think they will be annihilated, having come to a certain point of no return and not yet having opened their souls to the light of God and Messiah. I don’t see any reason why God would be in a rush or fail to give his children more time.

But 2 Corinthians 5:10 does not answer such questions. It’s purpose is to encourage Messiah-followers who feel marginalized. It is not a text intended to scare bad people into becoming good people.

So, Romans 2:6-11 is not exactly what Paul believes. And 2 Corinthians 5:10, which is something Paul believes, does not contradict that assertion. Judgment is not strictly according to what we deserve. Judgment is according to redemption, judged on a scale of grace. God doesn’t base judgment on either doctrinal correctness or moral accomplishment.

But we are on a journey. Some discover light sooner than others. When we do discover that light, purging begins. Evil diminishes until it is entirely gone. This transformation pleases God and he delights to reward his children. But God will not allow evil to pass into his place. So those who are not ready will be judged in some way. We need not assume their chance for redemption is over, just that they are judged not yet ready to enter.

Why is Romans 2:6-11 wrong but 2 Corinthians 5:10 right? They come from different places. The former says, “You get what you deserve.” The latter says, “At a certain time you will be rewarded or judged based on how you’ve learned and been transformed.” There may be some overlap between the ideas, but they are not the same. The former is accomplishment. The latter is transformation by a higher power.

5 Comments

  1. I was reading Ezekiel chapters 16-24 last night. I don’t think it can be denied that God’s punishment (aka: wrath) is retributive and commensurate with Israel’s “evil deeds”. However God’s retributive justice has the ultimate aim of RESTORATION, not only for Israel but also for the world.
    This passage stood out to me in particular [emphasis and paraphrase in brackets, mine]:

    Eze 16:59-63 NET:
    “‘For this is what the sovereign LORD says: I will deal with you ACCORDING TO WHAT YOU HAVE DONE when you despised your oath by breaking [the Sinai] covenant. 60 Yet I will remember the [Sinai] covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an [ever-] lasting [New/renewed?] covenant with you. 61 Then you will remember your conduct, and be ashamed when you RECEIVE your older and younger sisters [Sodom, Samaria, and the nations]. I will give them to you as daughters, but not on account of [i.e. apart from the Sinai] covenant with you. 62 [In addition] I will establish my [New] covenant with you [which INCLUDES your “daughters”, aka: the gentile nations], and then you will know that I am the LORD. 63 Then you will remember, be ashamed, and remain silent when **I** MAKE ATONEMENT for all you have done, declares the sovereign LORD.'”

    There’s a lot packed into this passage possibly including Messiah’s atonement (vs 63). And I realize my paraphrase may be taking liberties that can be contested. However the take away is that God’s punishment/wrath ultimately produces RESTORATION. Through punishment, “atonement” is made (verse 63).

    Whether there is a one to one correspondence between the way in which God judges Israel and one’s individual eternity is the question. If there is a correspondence then it would seem that there would need to be some sort of “reparative purgatory” that occurs after one’s physical death (between the “first” and “second” death where the 1st= bodily death and the 2nd= soulish death.See Rev 20:6,12,15). (The parallel would be Israel’s “purgatory”/punishment in diaspora with the “purging” result being Israel’s restoration.)

    However whether or not a “reparative purgatory” occurring after one’s physical death would necessarily “rehabilitate” every single human being is also up for question. One thing God cannot force upon us is the desire to freely/willingly love and serve Him. That’s entirely within our own prerogative and God cannot/will not violate our individual free agency as beings created in His image. God will do everthing within His power to woo us to Him (this includes righteous judgment/punishment). But the ball is ultimately in our court. It is for this reason I am not a Universalist (though neither do I agree with the other extreme).

  2. Thanks for the post, this was helpful.

    Been meditating on how the blessings and curses sections of Deuteronomy is immediately followed by chapter 30 which contains the prophecy/promise of repentance and circumcision of the heart, seemingly indicating that the curses were not just meant to be purely for retributive justice as Justification theory would teach, but instead for pedagogical/fatherly disciplinary purposes that would lead to their repentance and restoration.

  3. Hi Derek! Thank you for your post as it is interesting! A friend has turned me on to you as this is not the first one I’ve read. There are a couple of ideas here that stick out Colin my mind a bit as odd claims. The main one being about Paul’s claim that God rewards the good and punishes the bad. You’ve mentioned that you agree with Campbell that Paul is rebutting another voice because if you take this to its logical conclusion then it is an absurd conclusion (I think this is referred to as a reductio absurdum). What I don’t see is absurd about this. It seems to me that if you don’t hold to this then the idea of the Christian god is absurd. For example, how can God be just if he does not reward the good and punish the evil or bad, your thoughts? In other words, how is justice served if this does not happen? Of course Paul believes that no one is good including himself, which he talks about in Romans 2. Now for all those who are covered by the blood of Christ, aren’t we not only seen as clean, but also able to do good works through the power of the holy spirit working within us? If so, this seems to make sense of how God can reward the good and punish the bad without calling it salvation by works. After all we are only saved through Christ and can also only do the good works through the spirit of God within us. Therefore our Salvation has nothing to do with this, and I don’t see any contradiction where God rewards the good and punishes evil. Feel free to correct me where I am if here.

    1. Joel,

      Great hearing from you. I only have a quick minute to answer. The absurd thing is the idea that God gives us what we deserve. There is truth to “good is rewarded” and “evil is punished,” but it takes a lot of further comment to explain. Why does God punish evil? Is it vengeance? Or is it redemption and purging? Also, what does “reward good” mean? And how does reward and punishment of good and evil coincide with the other notion: that God offers a way of redemption? Redemption is helping those who’ve done evil regain their worth.

      So you see, it’s more complicated that “God rewards good and punishes evil.” It certainly can’t be “we get what we deserve.”

      Paul’s belief is spelled out in Romans 5 and Romans 8. See how different the answers are there from Romans 2.

      1. Well written response Derek as always and thank you for taking the time to write it. I think you may have missed my point a bit. How is God a perfectly just God unless He gives us exactly what we deserve? That is what you call absurd in your response, but it seems to me that the inverse of that is the absurdity. If God is perfectly just, which I imagine we both believe He is, would it be just to not punish the evil we do with the exact punishment it deserves? If God does anything less, then by definition it would be unjust. Now we as believers are the exception to this, as we are the ones who don’t get what we deserve because we’ve been redeemed as you mentioned through faith. I think this fits perfectly with Romans 2, because as it starts it is being directed to the unrepentant (or unbelievers) who will get what they deserve or justice. The rest of 2 shows that no one deserves reward, not even the best Jew, which goes to solidify the need for a redeemer which is expanded upon and supported by Romans 3. In this context, Romans 2 is not talking about salvation by works as is the topic of your post.Forgive me if I’m being a bit bold here as you have much better credentials than I do and you are the teacher, but I’m just having difficulty with this as there doesn’t seem to me that there is a need to make the distinctions being made. In love and respect- Joel

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