The question of how a person's judgment "according to works" is to be reconciled with the evangelical doctrine of justifiacation by faith can be discussed only from this point of view. This question has occupied many simple and also many learned Christians. Justification is acquittal by God, and this fact is accepted by faith. This acquittal remits all sin. It sanctifies; it removes the conflict between God and us. If we are justified, we are justified completely and not merely in one segment of our life. And how could it be different in the last Judgment, since also this judgment is executed by "God in Christ"? However, numerous statements in the New Testament seem to contradict that. Jesus Himself stated that the final Judgment will be decreed in accord with one's words and works, that He Himself will separate mankind on the basis of the performance or nonperformance of good works. In line with that, also the First Letter of John assigns eternal significance to doing the will of God and to the committing of sin. Indeed, also St. Paul, the great teacherof the doctrine of justification, speaks of a judgment that depends on works, both in a good and in a bad sense... Does all of this have merely a dialectical--in this instance, rhetorical--meaning, as Albrecht Ritschl opined? Are these "Jewish remnants" which cannot be reconciled with the "Christian concept of God"? Or conversely, does not the evangelical doctrine of justification founder on this fact, as the Romanists maintain?
This seeming contradiction stems from an incorrect conception of justification. It fails to realize that justification, understood forensically in the sense of the New Testament, is a real judgment of God. By it justice is meted out to each individual. It really treats every personas a sinner. It compels him to stand mutely before the Judge. His sin is unsparingly uncovered. His sin is not ignored, but it is remitted. It is not the sin that is justified but the sinner, that is, when he is ready to submit completely to the judgment of God. The sinner is declared righteous; but sin is never declared to be righteousness. For that very reason we must formulate differently the question of how judment "according to works" relates to justification by faith. It must read: Why should justification be different in the last Judgment? For here "the secrets of men," "the things now hidden in darkness," "the purposes of the heart" are disclosed (Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 4:5). The difference between this and the judicial act of justification, which is passed on us during our earthly life, consists only in the fact that now there is absolutely no longer any escape from the final disclosure of all secrets, and that we can no longer decide whether or not we want to declare ourselves guilty.
This final and complete disclosure of sin is punishment. It brings home to man his lifelong opposition to God and thus also his remoteness from God and from the life of God. What other punishment could we imagine to equal this? The seriousness of this judment inheres in the fact that it is God's judgment, that it reveals the true relationship of man to his Judge, and that it at the same time executes this judgment. Just as sin is not an objective defect but personal opposition to God, thus the penalty too is not an objective misfortune but the painful experience of personal remoteness from Him. Together with the discolsure of all sin, this remoteness too becomes an element in the judgment. It is in keeping with these terms that every person receives his measure of punishment.
Self-evidently something corresponding to this applies also to the works which "are done in God." These are the works which Christ's disciples perform, works which also Christ perfoms as He fulfills the will of the Father, indeed works which the Father dwelling in Christ Himself performs (John 14:10). The disciples deal with each other as Chrsit deals with them (John 13:15). These are the works of love. By these works, by this proof of love, Christ's disciples shall be known to all men (John 13:35). This thought, which finds a number of parallels also in Paul's writings, in reality expresses nothing other than Christ's announcement in the Gospel of Matthew, namely, that He will separate mankind at the end of time on the basis of the performance or the non-performance of works of love (25:31 ff.). This pericope in Matthew can be isolated just as little as can the corresponding passages in the Fourth Gospel that we have considererd. Further, the Gospel of Matthew is aware that the personal decision of man for or against Christ constitutes the criterion for the final separation (10:32). The judgment pericope warns against an eudaemonic, happiness-producing morality whose purpose is to bring pleasure to the doer. Works of genuine love are performed exclusively for the sake of others. Paul declares that love does not seek its own. It would destroy itself if it were to perform good works for the purpose of its own bliss. Genuine love can thrive only when man breaks out of his self-centered position in life. Love is the criterion of the transformed life, and thus it is the proof that God abides in us and we in Him (1. John 4:13). It bears its own reward because it springs from the fact that "He first loved us." Also in the last Judgment it can find no greater reward than is there revealed and put on record forever.
But neither the preserved records of sins and of good works nor the corresponding punishment or reward executed on them can form the basis for the final separation of all men. This results, as already stated, from a judicial sentence which is a divine act of absolute freedom, as all acts of God are. It is inconceivable that God might act under the constraint of deeds performed by man in one way or another during his earthly life. On the other hand, God's freedom is never tyrannical arbitrariness either. In the side of His personality, (or being), turned toward us, His free act manifests iself by the fact that He can pardon us despite His wrath over sin. He gives expression to this freedom inasmuch as the judgment takes place "before the judgment seat of Christ."
We can conceive of that only as we conceive of justification. Man is summoned before God's judment; there he stands mute. All he can do is to listen. The decisive question during his earthly life is whether he listens or whether he closes his ears. Readiness to listen is readiness to die--readiness to hear the condemning sentence. We cannot face the last Judgment with a different attitude.
However, this attitude alone does not yet constitute our justification. If we are justified "by faith," we are not justified because of the subjective attitude of faith but because of the objective content of faith, that is, because this faith is faith in Christ. The fact that we must appear before the judgment seat of Christ in the last Judgment tells us that the final decision rests with Him who is the content of our faith--with the Christ in whom we believe--because He is our righteousness. But it also tells us that the final decision rests with Him who cannot pardon him who refuses to lend an ear to His Word. But in the last Judgment even the most obstinate ear will be opened, not to give man a chance to reconsider his decision but to shut the door to that possibility forever.