Will We Be Judged by Works or Not?
If we are saved by grace through faith apart from our works (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:28) then what is the point of Judgment Day? Scripture tells us that on that day we will give an account for every thing we’ve ever done, even every careless word spoken (Matt. 12:36; Rom. 14:12). There are passages that seem to contradict salvation by grace. They seem to suggest we will ultimately be judged by our works. For example, 2 Corinthians 5:10 says “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” Also consider Romans 2:6-8 which says, “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” So is the Bible contradicting itself? Which is it? Are we ultimately to be judged on our works or on our faith in Christ?
This is understandably confusing if you only look at these few verses pitted against one another. But when you examine the entirety of the New Testament’s teaching on the subject the picture becomes much more clear. For instance, James 2:24 sheds light on why works are so crucial for judging whether or not a person is saved. James says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Notice how he begins with “You see…” James is saying that the way we can see (with our eyes) whether or not someone has true faith is through their visible works. True faith expresses itself in works. A lack of outward, visible works would be evidence of a lack of true faith in Christ. So on Judgment Day God will be able to point to someone’s works and give clear evidence to all (to others, even to Satan) that this person truly had faith.
Revelation 20 also sheds light on this apparent contradiction. There we read, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done… And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:12, 15) Notice the difference between the books (plural) and the other book (singular) which is the book of life. The dead are judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books (plural). But this record is not what determines who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. For that God turns to another book (singular), the book of life. Those who put their faith in Christ have their name written in the book of life (Phil 4:3; Rev. 3:5; Rev. 13:8; Rev. 17:8).
Okay, but if faith in Christ is what determines who is saved, why are we still to be judged by our deeds recorded in these books? Well, there are numerous places throughout the New Testament that suggest there will be degrees of punishment in hell, and degrees of reward in heaven. One such place is 1 Corinthians 3:14-15, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Notice how Paul talks not only of a reward for those whose work survives, but also of those who are saved who do not receive the same reward. If there are indeed degrees of reward in heaven it would make perfect sense, on Judgment Day, for there to be a judgment process according to our deeds, but for the ultimate pronouncement of where we will spend eternity to come based on the presence or lack of faith in Christ. (For Scriptures which reference degrees of punishment in hell see Matt. 10:15; Matt. 11:22-24; Luke 10:12-14)