Five Arguments Against Future Justification According to Works

The classic Reformed teaching is right in describing justification through faith alone as final and full justification, now, in the end, and forever.

Believers will not stand for judgment on the basis of their own works. Even while acknowledging that our sins have already been judged at the cross, some will argue that we must still be justified by our good works. Their key passage is Romans 2:6-13, where Paul speaks of “the doers of the law” being justified (2:13). Reformed theology has classically regarded this passage as describing how religious people hope to be justified apart from Christ.  


N. T. Wright’s book, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, does not introduce his teaching of “future justification according to works,” as the teaching is usually expressed. Rather, this doctrine that has long been present in his writing is here declared plainly and directly. We can summarize Wright’s teaching on future justification in 3 points:

Point #1:  Present justification does not precisely equal future justification. Wright points to the final judgment of God as the eschatological terminus of justification, which is only anticipated in present justification. (This itself is not a controversial statement.) The question is the relationship of present justification to future justification. Are the two essentially the same, as classic Reformed theology puts it, so that final vindication merely republishes present justification through faith alone? Wright argues that while present justification anticipates future justification, the two are not essentially the same, as follows.

Point #2:  Whereas present justification is according to faith, future justification is according to works. Wright bases his position in large part on Romans chapter 2. Classic Reformed theology has seen Romans 2 as Paul’s condemnation of Jewish attempts at law-righteousness. Contrary to this opinion, Wright and others see here a positive teaching of justification:”it is… the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom. 2:13). Wright describes this verse as setting forth the true way of justification, commenting, “Justification, at the last, will be on the basis of performance.” [1] Here, Wright says, Paul plainly affirms a final justification according to works. Whereas classic Reformed theology sees justification based on faith alone, to which works are a necessary attestation, Wright reverses this, seeing final justification as based on good works, to which faith was a pledge and anticipation.  Justification through faith places us on a path that is marked by good works, which good works serve as the basis for our final justification.

Wright had previously stated this doctrine clearly enough. In his Romans commentary, he says: “Present justification declares, on the basis of faith, what future justification will affirm publicly… on the basis of the entire life.” [2] In the end, justification comes not through faith receiving Christ’s imputed righteousness, but by “the Spirit-led life,” [3] since future justification is “on the basis of the entire life” [4] and its performance of good works.

Whatever doubt there may have been about Wright’s view of future justification, this book is abundantly clear: in the end, believers face a “judgment according to works.” [5] To his credit, Wright asserts that those who are presently justified through faith alone may be confident of their final justification by works, since true faith always does works. Moreover, Wright does not say that we merit salvation by works. Nonetheless, his view of final justification requires us to present to God a life of good works, on the basis of which we can finally be justified.

Point #3:  Justification does not rely solely on Christ’s death and resurrection for us, but also on the Holy Spirit’s transformative work in us.

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