Case from Dripping Springs, TX asks: “What does it mean that teachers will be ‘judged with greater strictness’ (James 3:1)? When you say that teachers ‘will be held more responsible than others for teaching what is fully biblical’ (John Piper), what does that really mean in light of the fact that the believer is justified by faith alone? Another way to ask it is, ‘What will be the ramifications for the Christian teacher who accidentally preaches some falsehood?’”
Well, let’s get the text in front of us. James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach” — and then the ESV translates — “will be judged with greater strictness.” Literally it is knowing that we will receive the greater judgment. Evidently the implication is if you teach and you stumble because the next word says we all stumble in many ways. If you stumble in teaching either in some unholy way, you use language that is an unholy way or you teach some error, then the judgment is going to be stricter for you. Now what is going on there?
How Judgement Works
First, knowing what to do makes one accountable to do it. Paul says in Romans 1:20, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” The principle is that you would have an excuse at the judgment day if the invisible attributes of God compelling you to worship were not known by you. So, the principle behind the judgment is: You will be judged because you knew what you should do. And the assumption is teachers, by teaching, are claiming to know what they ought to do and, therefore, they have greater judgment if they fall short.
“Justification by faith alone and judgment according to works are not contradictory.”
Second, knowing more makes one more accountable. The failure to speak wisely when we know more will receive a greater judgment. For example, in Luke 12:47–48 the servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will receives a severe beating, and the one who did not know but did what deserved a beating receives a light beating. And the principle comes in Luke 12:48b: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
Behind this statement about teachers being judged with greater judgment is that they know more. I am thinking of myself here. I probably study the Bible more than any of my people. So, I am being given much. I know much. I feel much, and I am responsible to say much. And, therefore, the likelihood that I will not live up to this much or teach faithfully this much is very great and, therefore, my judgment will be greater. That is principle number two.
Now applied to teaching, explicitly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:12, “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones" — that is building on the foundation of Christ with good teaching, or he might build with — “wood, hay, straw — each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 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.”
Teachers can build with wood, hay, and stubble. Teachers can build with silver, gold, and precious stone. The one will be burned up, and the other will be preserved for his reward. And the more you know, the more you will be held accountable. And the more you blow it, given that knowledge, the more you will suffer loss.
How Works Fit into Judgement
Now those are the principles. What this person seems to be asking is: “Ok, I hear you saying that, but I thought we were justified by faith apart from works. You seem to be saying that judgment is according to some kind of works.”
The answer to that is that justification by faith alone and judgment according to works are not contradictory. They are both taught in the New Testament. Justification on the basis of faith alone means that we trust Christ alone, and God views us in our union with Christ through faith as having Christ’s perfect righteousness and, thus, accepts us into his just and holy favor. We are — according to Ephesians 2:8–10 — saved for good works. The function of those good works is not to earn our acceptance or our eternal life, but to demonstrate our acceptance, our newness, our faith, and our life that we have within us.
One of the best illustrations that I have seen in the Bible to help me distinguish between how works show that we are justified vs producing justification is the time when the two prostitutes came with the living baby to Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16–28. Both of them said, “This is my baby.” “We both had a baby,” one of them goes on to explain, “And she killed my baby, and then she stole my baby. I want my baby back!” And Solomon doesn’t know which is the true mother here. And so he comes up with this wise statement. He says, “Ok, let’s cut the baby in half and each of you can have half the baby.” And the true mother says, “Don’t kill the baby. She can have the baby.” And the other mother says, “That is fine.” And Solomon says, “Ok. Now we know who the mother is.”
“The function of good works is not to earn our acceptance, but to demonstrate our faith.”
Now when that woman said, “Don’t kill the baby,” that didn’t make her the mother. It just showed she was the mother. That is the difference between a work revealing our new birth and our justification and a work causing our justification. She didn’t become the mother by saying, “This is my baby.” She just proved she was the mother by saying, “This is my baby.”
We have to go to the New Testament and let the judgment according to works stand. Romans 14:12 says, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:10 states, “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.” Or Ephesians 6:8 which says, “Knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.”
There is a correlation between the rewards that we will have in the age to come and the fruit of our faith here called good deeds. And that doesn’t mean that our justification or our acceptance is based upon our works. It simply means that these works are displaying our trust in God for our justification, and as displays, they are fitting us to have greater or lesser joy in the presence of God forever.