Historic Protestantism has always taught that the Bible teaches that justification is by faith alone. The Doctrine of justification by faith alone is clearly taught in Romans 3:28 28 “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” However, there has been in recent years some Protestants that reject the doctrine of justification by faith alone on the basis of a future justification based on works. This rejection of justification by faith alone can be explicit or implicit depending on who you are reading. This tendency to reject sola fide on the basis of a future justification by works is primarily held by those who are proponents of the Federal Visionists movement. To give a concrete example: Rich Lusk is a Federal Visionists proponent and he says the following from his blog here http://www.hornes.org/theologia/rich-lusk/future-justification-to-the-doers-of-the-law concerning future justification:
“The initial clothing in white is received by faith alone. This is the beginning of Joshua’s justification. But if Joshua is to remain justified — that is, if the garments he has received are not to become re-soiled with his iniquity — he must be faithful. Thus, initial justification is by faith alone; subsequent justifications include obedience.”
And again Rich Lusk says:
“Again, we find the Bible teaching that future justification is according to works. Final justification is to the (faithful) doers of the law (Rom. 2:1ff) and by those good works which make faith complete (Jas. 2:14ff). Justification will not be fully realized until the resurrection.”
In these two quotations we see an explicit denial of the traditional doctrine of justification by faith alone. Therefore, because of the seriousness of this issue in even Protestant circles now. I believe it is important that we look at the biblical texts that are often used to support future justification by works. It is my position that the Bible does not teach a future justification by works. I shall deal with the Bible passages that are appealed to support a future justification by works and I shall demonstrate that none of these passages in fact teach this doctrine that is incompatible with sola fide.
The first text I will look at is Romans 2:6-8 which reads “ 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” Paul is teaching in Romans 2:6-8 that the only way for us to obtain eternal life is by works. Protestants do not actually disagree with this nor is this principle incompatible with justification by faith. This is because in the doctrine of justification by faith we are legally imputed Christ's perfect work by faith alone (Rom. 4:5; 5:19). So we will go to heaven by this works principle. However, this is not our works but Christ's works which are legally imputed to our account (Rom. 5:19). Therefore, this text does not disprove justification by faith alone, but it rather this proves the principle behind justification by faith which is this: that in order to obtain eternal salvation one needs to have fulfilled a works principle.
Romans 2 contains another passage that is used to attempt to support a future justification by works, this is in Romans 2:13 which reads “13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” This is an additional passage that expresses the principle in Romans 2:6-8. The principle is this: In order to be righteous one needs to do the Law of God perfectly. This is what Jesus did for us and it is imputed to us by faith alone in Christ Jesus (Rom. 4:5; 5:19). Contextually, this is the most plausible understanding of this text because Paul in Romans 3:9-20 teaches that in light of human sin no one can be justified by works because everyone has failed to follow the law. So if we were to take this passage in the way that some Federal Visionists do then we would end up contradicting Paul's thought in the larger context of Romans; the Federal Visionist interpretation of this text contradicts Paul's thought on the lack of ability of humans to follow God's Law and on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The best explanation of these two texts in Romans 2 is to understand them as a principle that is behind justification by faith alone.
2 Corinthians 5:10
Another text that is mistakenly used to support a future justification by works is 2 Corinthians 5:10 which reads 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” The best way to understand this passage is that it is referring to God's perfect standard of Justice for goodness or good deeds done in the body. The only way we are going to get to heaven is if we are good in our bodies, but we have all failed to do this. So the only option for a sinful person is to have faith in Jesus, so that his goodness is legally imputed to us by faith alone.
Now we are going to moving from Paul's Epistles to the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 7:21-23 is one of many sections in Matthew that has been mistakenly thought to be teaching a future justification by works, it reads “21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23 Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” This verse is compatible with justification by faith alone and it actually teaches against a future justification by works. These people are condemned by God because they are appealing to their good works so that God will let them into heaven. God's response is that what they are doing is against his “will” and that he never knew them. What is God's “will” for sinners so that they can enter into heaven? God's prescribed “will” for sinners is that they are to have faith in Christ so that they can enter heaven. So far from contradicting justification by faith this verse is compatible with it and it teaches against a future justification by works.
Another passage that is used in Matthew to support a future justification by works is Matthew 12:36-37 which reads “36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned." The context here is that Jesus is condemning the self-righteous Pharisees. The way Jesus is condemning them is by holding before them a perfect standard of speech which they have failed. The principle behind these passages is the same sort of principle we have seen in the previous passages we have looked at. This principle is that God requires perfect obedience and in this case Jesus is emphasizing perfect obedience in speech. The only person who had perfect speech was Jesus Christ himself and we receive all of his righteousness by faith alone.
The last passage we will look at is Matthew 25:31-46 and it reads “31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' 40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' 41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' 44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' 45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' 46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." These passages are not teaching that one is justified by these good deeds, but rather Jesus is pointing out their good works to demonstrate to them that they have been justified by faith alone. The final judgment has an element which is demonstrative. In other words, on the final day of judgment God will speak of your good works to show that you were imputed Christ righteousness when you had faith in Christ. God will give you evidence that you are believer and he will give others evidence that they are unbelievers. This is what Matthew 25 is teaching.
We have seen no good reason to believe in a future justification by works. This view is incompatible with what Paul teaches on justification by faith alone and it is also incompatible with the Gospel of Grace. When we as believers die we should not fear a future judgment by works because we will be judged by Christ's perfect works. Therefore, on that glorious day God will say to us “well done good and faithful servant, enter into the Joy of your Master”. The only reason why God will say this is because of Jesus, who was a good and faithful servant in our place.