If we are saved by grace and forgiven of all our sins (Eph. 1:7; 2:8-10; Titus 3:5 and elsewhere), then why are we judged by our works? It is true that every Christian will be judged for what they have done in the body, both good and bad. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad,” (2 Cor. 5:10). The bad we have done will be exposed, but the point is not to embarrass us, but to show the glory of Jesus Christ because we are forgiven all our sins. Every last one of them. Isn't that encouraging? In this we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2).
Still, we read texts about a judgment according to works in places like Matthew 16:27, John 5:28-29, Romans 14:11, 1 Cor 3:3, and 2 Cor 2:10 and scratch our heads, wondering how or why we will stand before the Lord in judgment if all our sins are forgiven? Isn't the overwhelming message of the New Testament that we are justified (forgiven), not according to works, but by God's grace? Yes, it is. Here is just one text that supports the claim: “[God] saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,” (2 Tim. 1:19). That's why my pastor said this morning at Bible study: “It's like the Lord says, 'Ok. All of your sins are forgiven. Now: let's evaluate i.e. judge your life!'” It's confusing and it seems contradictory: why, if I am forgiven by grace, would the Lord judge me according to my deeds? Nevertheless, Paul promises us in Romans 14:10-12, “For we will all stand before the judgment of God. For it is written, 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.' So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Before we try to make sense of this apparent contradiction that has great potential to vex the soul and cause the sickness of worry, let's take a look at this theme in the broader context of Scripture. The final judgment should actually encourage us! We'll see how. This theme is found throughout the Old and New Testaments. Here are a few examples: Proverbs 24:12: “...And will he not render to man according to his work?” Ezekiel 20:11: “I gave them my statutes and informed them of my ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live.” The prophet repeats the same phrase in verse 13 where the Lord retells the history of Israel coming out of Egypt by God's grace and mighty hand, “if a man observes them (God's laws) he will live.” It's as if to say, “Don't miss the point, boys.”
And that's just what we don't want to do. We want the Scripture to make sense. Continuing with the theme of a judgment according to deeds, in Romans 14:11, Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23, and earlier in his letter to the Roman Christians (2:6) he quotes Psalm 62:12 saying, “God will render to each man according to his deeds.” Jesus quotes the very same Psalm in Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and will then repay every man according to his deeds.” This theme is found in Psalm 28:4-5: “Requite them [the wicked] according to their work and according to the deeds of their hands; repay them their recompense. Because they do not regard the works of the Lord, nor the deeds of his hands, he will tear them down and not build them up.” It is also in Jeremiah 17:10 “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” See also Jeremiah 21:14; 32:19 and elsewhere.
The Lord judges his people. And the message of Jesus and the Apostles is that there is a final judgment (see Acts 24:15,25;17:31, for example). But the Lord is also gracious and kind, and longs to forgive people. We see this in Ezekiel 20, where the Lord promises to bring Israel back into the promised land after their exile—the recompense for idol worship, child sacrifice—yes, child sacrifice (Ez. 20:31), profaning the Sabbath, and disobeying the law of God.
The Lord Jesus offers the same promise of a judgment according to works in the aforementioned John 5:28-29: Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice [the Son of Man's], and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” Romans 8:13 and Galatians 6:8 both speak of those who sow to the flesh and reap corruption and death, while those who by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh have eternal life as their reward.
The good we do is our “own” righteousness. I'll explain why “own” is in quotes. Hear David though: “The Lord judges the peoples; vindicate me O Lord, according to my righteousness and my integrity that is in me,” (Psalm 7:8; for similar statements, see 2 Sam. 22:21,25; Psalm 18:20,24). Yet, the righteousness and good works are not our own, but they are the result of the regenerating, sanctifying, grace of the Holy Spirit working in us. Hence they are not our own but they are our “own.” “Own” is in quotes because it needs qualification: the good deeds we do are really truly done by us, for we are not automatons, but they are done only because of the grace of God and the work of the Spirit in us (Romans 2:29, 8:1-17). Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” (John 3:8). This is why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me,” (Galatians 2:20). And again, this is why Paul labors in Romans 3-4 to declare the gift of the grace of God in the “righteousness of faith” (4:13), and the faith of Abraham which was “credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). David had the same faith, as both David and Abraham had a living, active faith in the Lord God, and this is why Paul, in Romans 4, a chapter so well-known for Abraham's faith, also speaks of David who rejoices in the blessedness of being forgiven of all sin and for being in a state of affairs with the Lord where he “will not take into account” a man's sin (4:8).
This is why we can say that the good works of righteousness are our “own”, but only by means of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, of which Paul lays out clearly in Titus 3:5 “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to his mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life,” (Titus 3:5-7). David, Jesus and Paul are not in contradiction with one another. Rather, David knows that in his covenant relationship with God, which is wrought by grace alone, he does works of righteousness, because of which the gracious Lord rewards him. You see how gracious God is? And we will stand to give an account of what we have done, both good and bad.
But if God won't take into account our sin (Romans 4:8), why will he judge us for whatever we do in the body, whether good or bad?
First, understand that the good we do is not merit, but it is done only by the grace of the Holy Spirit, through faith in Jesus Christ, having its genesis in the love of the Father. We must rid ourselves of the idea of merit, or the “weighing of scales” when we think of the final judgment of God, for our justification with God is a present state of affairs where we enjoy the verdict of forgiveness and acquittal, but the final judgment is not yet: will have the final declaration on judgment day. This is why David, Jesus and Paul speak of a judgment according to deeds. The deeds we do are done in the Spirit (Romans 2:29), and our praise is from God—yes, Romans 2:29 says the one who is circumcised in the heart by the Spirit receives “praise from God.” You see how gracious God is?
Those good deeds are spoken of in Romans 2:6-7: “[God] will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.” “God will judge the secrets of men,” Paul says, “according to my gospel,” and this will be done “through Jesus Christ,” (2:16).
The future judgment is still future: we will be judged. We are now in a state of justification (Romans 5:2) as we stand in the grace of God, and we “exult in the hope of the glory of God,” (5:2). This is the future judgment, when Jesus Christ will receive glory for forgiving our bad deeds (our sins) and blessing our good deeds as counting them righteous and therefore counting us as righteous because of those good deeds—deeds done in our bodies of which are still tainted with sin. You see how good and gracious God is? God will forgive our sins in a final acquittal and he will overlook the sin-stained good deeds that we do, as they are by no means perfect, though our good deeds can only be counted as righteous before the tribunal of God if they are done in the Spirit, and we receive the Spirit by turning to God in entrusting repentance and having faith in Jesus Christ as Lord over us for the forgiveness of sins and the right to eternal life.
The good we do is good works, even though they are tainted with sin, but they are considered righteous, as we are considered righteous, because the sin that is present in them is forgiven. It is like God will see our good deeds and see his original creation: holy and happy people living in loving union and communion with one another and with God, the way he created Adam and his wife. The judgment is not about the reward of possessions or gifts or status or mansions or anything like that. Rather, the reward we get is eternal life (Gal. 6:8). Our acquittal will be based upon the life we live in the body, whether good or bad; but, the good we do is only by faith in Jesus Christ, and the good we do is real and it is good works, and these works are works that we really do, but not of ourselves, but by the grace of Christ in us. As Paul says, I live, yet not I, but Christ living in me.
The judgment of God should encourage us: Paul says, after promising that those who sow to the flesh will die, but those who sow to the Spirit will reap eternal life, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” (Galatians 6:9-10).