No More Judgment After the Resurrection For the Justified Elect
Paul on Justification and the Final Judgment
J. V. Fesko
In recent years there has been much controversy surrounding the exact
relationship between justification by faith alone and the final judgment. While it is certainly important to establish Paul’s understanding of the law, it seems that few take into account the nature of the final judgment itself. There appears to be an
unchecked assumption regarding the final judgment, namely that the
parousia, resurrection, and final judgment are separate events.
The final judgment is not a separate event on the last day but is part of the single organic event of parousia-resurrection-final judgment. The final judgment is the resurrection.
We see the paradigmatic nature of the resurrection of Christ when Paul calls him “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; cf. Rev. 1:5). Christ is, of course, the firstborn of many brothers (Rom. 8:29). The connection between the resurrection of Christ and the church is especially evident when Paul calls Christ “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20b).
What often receives little attention regarding the resurrection of Christ is its declarative or forensic character. The first place we see the forensic emerge in connection with the resurrection of Christ is in the opening verses of Paul’s epistle to Rome: “Concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom.1:3-4).
Historically, Reformed interpreters have explained these verses in terms of Christ’s ontological constitution: that Christ was descended from David according to the flesh refers to his humanity, and that he was raised from the dead refers to and is evidence of his deity. But Vos concludes, and rightly so, that, “The resurrection is to Paul
the beginning of a new status of sonship: hence as Jesus derived His
sonship, kata sarka, from the seed of David, He can be said to have derived His divine-sonship-in-power from the resurrection.”
The resurrection is not simply an event but is invested with forensic
significance. We find confirmation of this conclusion in Paul’s first
epistle to Timothy when he writes: “He was manifested in the flesh,
justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16).
In Rom. 4:25 Paul states that Christ was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Recall that Paul has elsewhere stated that, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). In other words, if Christ remains dead in the tomb, then the powers of sin and death have not been conquered.
Vos explains: “Christ’s resurrection was the de facto declaration of God in regard to his being just. His quickening bears in itself the testimony of his justification.” Once again we see the declarative, connected to the resurrection of Christ.
In Romans 8:23 we read that we, “Who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Here Paul explicitly relates the forensic category of adoption to the redemption of the body, or the resurrection from the dead (cf. Luke 20:35).
Believers have the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” which is essentially synonymous with the word arrabōn, which Paul uses to describe the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as guarantee or pledge of the believer’s future resurrection (2 Cor. 5:5; Eph. 1:4). Romans 8:23 means that we will be declared sons of God by the resurrection of our bodies, when what is sown perishable is raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:42-44).
Just as Christ was declared to be the son
of God by his resurrection, those who are in Christ will likewise be
declared to be sons of God. When we consider that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), then those who are raised from the dead are
righteous in the sight of God.
“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked” (2 Cor. 5:2-3). Paul does not want to be naked on the day of judgment; to be naked is to be in the state of shame and guilt. The resurrection of the believer, then, is a de facto declaration of righteousness because death has no claim upon those who are righteous (1 Cor. 15:55-57).
In the resurrection there is already wrapped up a judging-process, at least for believers: the raising act in their case, together with the attending change, plainly involves a pronouncement of vindication. The resurrection does more than prepare its object for undergoing the judgment.
The resurrection of the church is not the anticipation of the issue of
judgment, but is de jure the final judgment. As Herman Bavinck writes, “The resurrection of the dead in general, therefore, is primarily a judicial act of God.”
The resurrection is not the penultimate event prior to the final
judgment; the resurrection is the final judgment.
We must correlate the resurrection with the fact that those who place
their faith in Christ have already been raised and seated with him in the heavenly places (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6). Were a person guilty of sin and worthy of condemnation, he would neither be raised with Christ nor seated with him in the heavenly places. We have been raised, of course, according to our inner man. Our outer man is wasting away and awaits the redemption of the body, the resurrection (2 Cor. 4:16-5:5). The resurrection of believers, then, is the visible manifestation of those who are already raised with Christ.
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). The revelation of the sons of God occurs, not after the final judgment, but at the resurrection (Rom. 8:23).
The resurrection transformation of believers is something that occurs in an instant: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, andthe dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). Those who are in Christ are immediately transformed and receive their glorified bodies.
“But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:1b-2).The resurrection is a judgment unto itself, in that as the earth yields up the dead there is already a known separation between the righteous and the condemned.
It is not, resurrection → judgment → glorification but rather
even before the resurrection the status of those who rise from the dead is already known. Once again resurrection is coterminous with glorification for some whereas judgment is coeval with resurrection for others. We find this same pattern in Christ’s teaching on the resurrection: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29; cf. Luke 14:14).
Not only have the blessings of the age to come been revealed but so have the curses. Paul echoes the teaching of Christ when he notes that the propagation of the gospel has a twofold effect: salvation and judgment (2 Cor. 2:16-17). “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).
Jesus already says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out”(John 12:31). “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
The resurrection is not the penultimate step before the final
judgment but instead is the final judgment in that it visibly reveals what has come with the first advent of Christ: the righteous are instantaneously clothed in immortality, they receive a glorified body, and the wicked are raised but are naked, they are not glorified. God need not utter a word; the condemned status of the wicked is immediately evident as is the justified status of the righteous.
The resurrection transformation is only for those who are in Christ. The condemned are also raised but are not transformed. Given the immediacy of the transformation of the righteous and the non-transformation of the wicked, the resurrection is the final
judgment in that it reveals what has already occurred. The final judgment, therefore, is not a separate event following the
resurrection but rather an aspect of one event of final judgment.
The elect have already passed through the final judgment in the
crucifixion of Christ. Vos writes, “the Apostle made
the act of justification to all intents, so far as the believer is
concerned, a last judgment anticipated.”
Some argue that if there is an “already” of justification, it must
be the verdict in the present, but there must also be a “not yet” of
justification, which entails some sort of judgment either on the basis of or according to works.
On the final day, the verdict that is passed in secret in the
present, is revealed through the resurrection of the outer man. The
resurrection reveals who is righteous. On the final day, when Christ
returns, the righteous are immediately transformed. Without God
uttering a single syllable, the righteous will be able to look around them and know immediately who has been declared righteous and who is wicked. There is no future aspect of justification but rather only the revelation of the verdict through the resurrection.
The justification is “already,” and what remains “not yet” is the revelation of the verdict that has already been passed on the basis of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. By maintaining the all-important connection between justification and resurrection, we preserve the good news that believers are raised, not because of their own works, but solely because of the works of Christ.