One of the questions raised about death is whether Christians face a divine judgment and if so why and what kind. It is a good question because on the one hand we believe that our acceptance with God is based on free grace purchased by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ and that this acceptance is attained through faith not earned through meritorious works. But on the other hand the New Testament frequently teaches that believers will be judged by God along with all men and that both our eternal life and our varied rewards will be “according to works.”
For example, Romans 2:6-8 says, “God will render to every man 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 factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
This passage teaches that eternal life will be “according to works.” But this does not mean that it will be earned by works. In Romans 6:23 Paul says, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Eternal life is not earned. It is free. “By grace are you saved through faith. And this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not of works lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith receives eternal life freely as a gift. There is no way it can be earned as a wage through works.
But eternal life is rendered according to our works. This is made plain not only in Romans 2:6-8 but also in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:6,21; Ephesians 5:5; James 2:14-26; Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 7:24-27; Luke 10:25-28 and many other places that teach the necessity of obedience in the life of faith and in the inheritance of eternal life.
So we must learn to make the biblical distinction between earning eternal life on the basis of works, (which the Bible does not teach!) and receiving eternal life according to works (which the Bible does teach!). Believers in Christ will stand before the judgment seat of God and will be accepted into eternal life on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus. But our free acceptance by grace through faith will be according to works.
“According to works” means God will take the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and the “good deeds” by which we let the light of our faith shine (Matthew 5:16), and he will accept them as corroborating evidence of our faith. His sentence of acquittal will not be because we are not guilty. It will be because Christ bore our guilt. The place of our works at the judgment is to serve as corroborating evidence that we did indeed put our trust in Christ. Therefore when we are acquitted and welcomed into the kingdom it will not be earned by works but it will be according to works. There will be an “accord” or an agreement between our salvation and our works.
It is another question now how our relative levels of faithfulness affect our levels of reward in the kingdom. This is what the Parable of the Talents is about. More on that at another time.