Why Does New Covenant Scripture Sometimes Judge By Works?

The following has been adapted from a recent email exchange.


I have been concerned about Revelation 20:12. I’m puzzled why this scripture mentions that the dead would be judged according to their works–since we are saved by grace (Eph 2:4-9).

The scripture says: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in those books….and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”

I thought I had an easy answer in that those who were judged were non-Christians. The only way God would judge them was according to their works since they didn’t have the spirit of God. There would be Gandhi types and Hitler/Stalin types. God was going to judge them on what they did with what they knew.

What puzzles me is why there would be any of those people who might be written in the book of life since those people would have been resurrected in the the first resurrection at the return of Christ. The only thing I can think of is that there will be people who live their lives as physical humans after the return of Christ, and who will die, and then be resurrected at the last resurrection to life or the lake of fire.
Any thoughts?

Hello my friend,
Remember Jesus words to the Pharisees: “Which is easier to say, ‘Be healed’, or “Your sins are forgiven’?” His point was that the two are not exclusive. So I believe is the case with Rev 20:12.

The dynamic within salvation of justification and sanctification presents a similar dissonance for many. At its core, justification is the work of Jesus upon the Cross. There is absolutely no effort or works on our part for God to declare salvation upon a person. However, that is not the full story.

God thereafter requires (for most people, those given time to live beyond a death-bed type conversion, for which justification is all that is necessary) that a person produce fruit through submission to the “work” of the Spirit. That partnership, among other things, is how Christians are held responsible for their choices.

Therefore, which is easier for God to say, “Welcome, the blood of my son is upon you”, or “Welcome, the fruit of your life proves that the blood of my son remains upon you”?

This judgment is identical to that presented by Jesus in his parable about separating the sheep from the goats. It is done according to their works, but those works are only the “display”, the “fruit”, the “proof”, the “evidence” confirming the declaration of justification by God through faith in Christ. Those works never earn salvation.

As Paul stated, they “prove your repentance by your deeds”, and “all this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God”.

Also, this dynamic is something Jesus applied to himself as well (for what entails a legitimate belief in him): see Jn 14:11 and note the allowance for belief based upon the word of God, or if not that, then upon the works themselves. When consistent, they reveal the same thing; but the works can never replace the declaration, only confirm or deny it.

As far as names in the divine books of heaven, compare this Revelation passage with that in Mal 3:16-17. The names were recorded and declared saved according to how they “honored his name” (aka “works”).

The Revelation passage is not some new group that is judged differently. It simply follows the principle that you can judge a tree by its fruit, a well by its water, a land by its greenery, and a person by his developed character of Christ (which is only ever possible if justified by grace).

Hope that helps.

In Him, Kevin Graham

Thanks for your insights.  That reference in Malachi is especially helpful.

But one question you didn’t answer.  All Christians will have been transformed into immortal beings at the return of Christ (I Cor. 15).  Who, then are these people who will be judged in Revelation 20:12?  Are they humans, like Israel (Ezekiel 37) who were resurrected to life during the Millennium and then died again?

Hello again,
Scripture doesn’t give much detail on this event to help define what is meant here in Revelation, but there are a few clues.

It is in the context of the millennium (20:2). It appears to be at the end of the millennium and after Satan is again let loose to deceive. The fact of Christians being glorified does not preclude the continued existence of people who “survive” the tribulation and still exist, but who somehow are unable to enjoy the millennium. V.7 speaks of nations existing that rebel against God, which cannot be glorified Christians and thus must entail either continuing generations of people alive through the tribulation, or something else that Scripture doesn’t detail.

This then leads into what is called the Great White Throne Judgment (GWTJ). This resurrection is, as you understand, after the glorification of the “firstfruits” (Christians who are justified in Christ in this pre-2nd-Advent of Christ).

This idea of firstfruits implies a later harvest, just as Pentecost is called the Feast of Firstfruits, and the fall festival of Tabernacles is about the “rest of the harvest”. We are today the evidence of the Spirit’s calling on Pentecost. The fall harvest festival has yet to be initiated. I believe the GWTJ is that harvest.

The details of how it will work are sketchy. It seems by this verse and some in Isaiah to imply an instant judgment, but there may be an allowance for time to demonstrate one’s choice here. In other words, the names in the books are not yet written and may begin after the start of that resurrection when “a child dies a hundred years.”

Again, there is not a lot of biblical data to sufficiently confirm all this, but that doesn’t mean Scripture is silent on it either.

This view comes from consideration of how the concept of firstfruits is presented in the Bible. Also, it develops from the belief that no one can come to God until he draws them. Scripture tells us that many are spiritually blinded at this time, some because of willful rebellion which will result in hell, some because God has not chosen to open their spiritual eyes yet.

It is that latter group that I believe will be given a chance to have their names recorded in “the books” spoken of in Rev 20:12. This group may involve those who have remained dead (during the Millennium) prior to the 2nd Advent return of Christ and/or those who live after the tribulation but are not glorified as Christians at the 2nd Advent.

This fits with the prophesies that Christians today are a household of priests and chosen members of the spiritual Levites, who are being prepared to minister to people other than themselves, people who are loved by God but who were not chosen to be priests in his Temple. See also Rev 14:5-6.

If you want more support for this interpretation of firstfruits, there is more detail in the book Wineskins. As far as the concept of how deeds apply in working out our salvation, that issue is directly addressed in the book Claiming Christ.

Hope that helps. Thanks for showing discernment in asking.

In Him, Kevin Graham

Do you accept that “works” do not save us, but they do have a part to play in revealing our claimed identity in Christ?

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1 Response to Why Does New Covenant Scripture Sometimes Judge By Works?

  1. grahamAlive says:

    [The following comments come from a similar discussion on the biblical role of works and are included here to help provide additional insight into this controversial subject. The original context raised the issue of theologians who subordinate Hebrews, 1 John, and Revelation as less reliable books of Scripture because of their apparent emphasis on the role of “works” in salvation.]

    This raises the question as to why the latter books of Scripture seem to put a greater emphasis on those works than the early writings. I would suggest that there is no change of doctrine here, only a recognition of the need for spiritual maturity. Those who have been given “talent” are required to produce evidence of that gift. Those who refuse to mature with the evidence of fruitfulness and instead bury their gift, will find that gift taken away from them and the proof given for their rebellion and lack of faith will be the clear absence of fruitful works.

    In this way, works are the result of God’s saving grace in a believer who is maturing in the Spirit. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to point toward the works as the “evidential reason” for sheep going to the right hand and the goats being separated to the left and not the “substantive reason” which will always be faith in Christ through his grace.

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