Both Christians and non-Christians are often confused by the biblical teaching about the relationship between salvation by faith and judgment according to works. People struggle to understand the plan of salvation when they learn that God saves those who put their faith in Jesus apart from what they’ve done and that God expects them to keep His commandments. They wonder, how can both be true? And if they are both true, how can these ideas be integrated into a coherent understanding?
They can both be true. Paul teaches that justification and salvation are by faith apart from works (Romans 3:20–22; 4:1–4; Ephesians 2:8). He also teaches that the judgment is according to works (Romans 2:6) and that the doers of the law are the ones who will be justified (Romans 2:13). Passionately, Paul teaches that salvation is by faith in Jesus apart from works and that there is a judgment according to works.
How can these ideas, which appear mutually exclusive, be harmonized? The solution can be found in a single word—direction. The judgment evaluates the direction of one’s life. In the judgment, God doesn’t weigh the good and the bad, and if the good outweighs the bad then you are saved, and if the bad outweighs the good then you are lost. Likewise, God isn’t looking to exclude you over the occasional misdeed and won’t include you because of the occasional good deed. The general direction determines the outcome in the judgment.
Paul lays out the two possible directions for a life. The goodness of God can lead to repentance, and hardness of heart can keep us from repentance (Romans 2:4, 5). Jesus’ death for our sins is the ultimate revelation of the love and goodness of God (Romans 5:6–8). When we believe the love and goodness of God revealed in the death of Christ, it leads to repentance. Repentance is making a U-turn from self-seeking and hardness of heart to God-seeking and tenderhearted trust in God. When we come to believe in the goodness of God revealed in Christ, we change direction.
In the judgment, God doesn’t look to see if we’ve made it far enough down the path of moral development to earn our place in heaven. He doesn’t look at how far down the wrong way we’ve gone. He looks to see if we’ve changed direction. Faith in Jesus alone changes the direction we are going. Our works won’t save us in the judgment, but they will undoubtedly give evidence that through Christ, we’ve made a U-turn and changed direction (Romans 5:4–11).