A. What we are trying to do here is own up to the teaching of Romans 5:1, for example, that teaches that we are already justified before God. God does not wait to the end of our lives in order to declare us righteous. In fact, we would not be able to have the assurance and freedom in order to live out the radical demands of Christ unless we could be confident that because of our faith we already stand righteous before him.
Nevertheless, we must also own up to the fact that our final salvation is made contingent upon the subsequent obedience which comes from faith. The way these two truths fit together is that we are justified on the basis of our first act of faith because God sees in it (like he can see the tree in an acorn) the embryo of a life of faith. This is why those who do not lead a life of faith with its inevitable obedience simply bear witness to the fact that their first act of faith was not genuine.
The textual support for this is that Romans 4:3 cites Genesis 15:6 as the point where Abraham was justified by God. This is a reference to an act of faith early in Abraham's career. Romans 4:l9-22, however, refers to an experience of Abraham many years later (when he was 100 years old, see Genesis 2l:5,l2) and says that because of the faith of this experience Abraham was reckoned righteous. In other words, it seems that the faith which justified Abraham is not merely his first act of faith but the faith which gave rise to acts of obedience later in his life. (The same thing could be shown from James 2:2l-24 in its reference to a still later act in Abraham's life, namely, the offering of his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22.) The way we put together these crucial threads of Biblical truth is by saying that we are indeed justified on the basis of our first act of faith but not without reference to all the subsequent acts of faith which give rise to the obedience that God demands.
B. When we stand before Christ as Judge we will be judged according to our deeds in this life. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Co. 5:10)." This is not an isolated teaching in the New Testament. Jesus said in Matthew 16:27, "The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and will then recompense every person according to his deeds." And in the very last chapter of the Bible Jesus said, "Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every person according to what he has done" (Rev. 22:12). In other words the way you live is not unimportant.
Now the more difficult question: why is it important? Why are the deeds done in the body the evidence in this courtroom? Is the aim of this judgment to declare who is lost and who is saved, according to the works done in the body? Or is the aim of this judgment to declare the measure of your reward in the age to come according to the works done in the body? I think the answer of the New Testament is both. Our deeds will reveal who enters the age to come, and our deeds will reveal the measure of our reward in the age to come . . .
C. And we now discover that this declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit – that is, it occurs on the basis of ‘works’ in Paul’s redefined sense. And, near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the ‘call’ of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead. This is the point about justification by faith – to revert to the familiar terminology: it is the anticipation in the present of the verdict which will be reaffirmed in the future. Justification is not ‘how someone becomes a Christian’. It is God’s declaration about the person who has just become a Christian. And, just as the final declaration will consist, not of words so much as of an event, namely, the resurrection of the person concerned into a glorious body like that of the risen Jesus, so the present declaration consists, not so much of words, though words there may be, but of an event, the event in which one dies with the Messiah and rises to new life with him, anticipating that final resurrection.
D. [Justification] is similar to the case of a sick man who believes the doctor who promises him a sure recovery and in the meantime obeys the doctor's order in the hope of the promised recovery [from his sinful tendencies] and abstains from those things which have been forbidden him [by the doctor], so that he may in no way hinder the promised return to health or increase his sickness until the doctor can fulfill his promise to him. Now is this sick man well' The fact is that he is both sick and well. He is sick in fact but he is well [regarded as righteous] because of the sure promise of the doctor, whom he trusts and who has reckoned him as already cured, because he is sure that he will cure him . . . . In the same way Christ, our Samaritan, has brought His half-dead man into the inn to be cared for, and He has begun to heal him, having promised him the most complete cure unto eternal life, and He does not impute his sins, that is, his wicked desires, unto death, but in the meantime in the hope of the promised recovery He prohibits him from doing or omitting things by which his cure might be impeded . . . . Now is he perfectly righteous' No, for he is at the same time both a sinner and a righteous man; a sinner in fact, but a righteous man by the sure imputation and promise of God that He will continue to deliver him from sin until he has completely cured him. And he is entirely healthy in hope [in spe], but in fact [in rei] still a sinner . . . . But now if this sick man should like his sickness and refuse every cure for his disease, will he not die' Certainly, for thus it is with those who follow their lusts in this world.