Judged According to their Works

After the first sin on earth and prior to the new covenant, the only possibility for a mortal to attain eternal life was to be perfectly obedient to the law. Then, ultimately on Judgment Day such an individual would be found justified by the law and admitted into eternal life in the kingdom of Heaven. On Judgment Day people will be judged according to their works. However, mortals have not been capable of achieving complete personal worthiness, and with the new covenant made possible by the atonement of Jesus, a way has been provided to receive eternal life as a gift. One may accept that gift in complete faith to the Lord and thus become a child of God. In so doing, an individual is released from the judgment of Judgment Day. That is, one is release from being judged according to his works because Jesus has paid his debt: "The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment." (2 Peter 2:9) The law has not been compromised for that individual. It has been satisfied, and the law remains in effect. Those individuals who reject the Lordís gift of grace will still be judged according to their works on Judgment Day, and they will stand before the throne of judgment entirely on their own sins and merits, without the atoning grace of God. So the Bible abounds with statements that people will be judged according to their works. This was true before the new covenant, and remains true during the new covenant.

In this brief essay, one of the many references of judgment according to works is reviewed. The example is found in the 5th chapter of the gospel of John. Two of the verses in John 5 when taken out of context may leave the impression that Jesus taught about salvation for the physically dead and attainment of eternal life through personal worthiness. In John 5:25 He said, "when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live." And in John 5:29 He said, "those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment." Without attention to context, verse 29 may also appear to refer to the first and second resurrections with corresponding participation based on personal deeds. However, careful study of these verses reveals that the two topics that He is actually addressing are salvation by grace and Judgment Day respectively. The following interpretative analysis is based on previously reviewed principles in the essay on Heaven and Hell. So if you havenít read that essay, you should read it now and then return to this essay after that one.

In verses 24-26, Jesus explains that people who come to faith in Him through hearing his gospel will be saved from spiritual death.  I'm using the NASB translation here because of the criticality of some of the individual words in this analysis:

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; (John 5:24-26 NASB)

He begins the first topic with the statement, "he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment." This opening sentence indicates that He is addressing salvation by grace through faith, not judgment based on deeds. In the second part of the sentence, he clarifies that by "death" He is referring to spiritual death when He states that by accepting grace through faith, a person "has passed out of death into life." In other words, those who are spiritually dead through sin will be made spiritually alive by faith through grace.  On this topic, the apostle Paul wrote, "When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins." (Col 2:13) A person does not cross over from physical death to resurrection by faith. That is accomplished by resurrection, and everyone will be resurrected, with or without faith. Thus, "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God" refers to those who are spiritually dead, not those who are physically dead, and the first topic is on salvation by grace.

This interpretation is confirmed by his choice of verb tense in his statement, "an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God." In other words, Jesus states that the time that the dead would hear the voice of the Son of God is now and continuing into the future. And now meant when he was speaking, not after his death on the cross. In other words, Jesus was explaining that people were hearing the words of the Son of God as they were hearing his words, and people would continue to hear his words through the written Word. He could not possibly have been talking about teaching the departed spirits of the physically dead in prison in this passage because his mission was on the earth at that time that He was speaking.  Again paying careful attention to tense, He states that as soon as someone becomes a faithful believer, he "has passed out of death into life."  In other words, that person has immediately become alive.  This is not a case of waiting for a resurrection, but becoming spiritually alive through faith in Christ.

He then transitions to the second topic, which is judgment. We can see that this is a fundamental change in topics because in the previous section He said that a faithful person "does not come into judgment" whereas the following section is entirely on the topic of judgment:

And He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (John 5:27-30 NASB)

He is referring to a single resurrection here because he states for both the righteous and the unrighteous together, "an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will Ö come forth." This does not refer to multiple times. It is a single hour, a single time, a single resurrection. An hour may refer to a period of time, but it is a continuous period of time, not two separate periods. "in the tombs" refers to the location of their bodies. The only resurrection at which all who are still in their tombs will come forth is the second resurrection. During the first resurrection only those who are children of God will arise. Therefore this can only refer to the second resurrection, the resurrection on Judgment Day, when people will be judged according to their deeds.

Although those who are righteous would be justified by this judgment, other scriptures inform us that no one will be sufficiently righteous to be justified for eternal life by his own works:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Rom 3:23)

Clearly no one is justified before God by the law. (Gal 3:11)

So, why does He say that "those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life" when we know ahead of time that no one will meet this criterion on Judgment Day?

  1. Judgment is necessary on Judgment Day to meet the requirements of justice, and Godís justice is perfect. Therefore no one will be condemned to hell without fair judgment.
  2. In order for justice to be satisfied there must be a clear criterion for success. It would be unfair to judge and condemn people if there were no definition for being justified under the law.
  3. People will always have free will. Therefore it is possible for an individual to use his freewill to choose to be perfect and thus justified by the law on Judgment Day. After all, Jesus has done it. But from prophecy we know that no one else will.

© 2004 William C. Hamer