What We Believe

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. Most who attempt to solve this puzzle do so through a well-worn path: Paul's understanding of the law. 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. Given this presupposition, it is only natural that interpreters would examine the final judgment in isolation from the other events of the last day.

It is the thesis of this essay, however, that the way to find the relationship between justification and the final judgment lies not only in Paul's understanding of the law but also in the nature of the final judgment itself. More specifically, this essay will argue that 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. In other words, the final judgment is the resurrection. I will support this thesis by: (1) exploration of the significance of Christ's resurrection, noting its paradigmatic and forensic nature; (2) exploration of the resurrection of the church, or those who are in Christ, noting its forensic nature; (3) confirmation of the resurrection-final judgment as one event in connection with the resurrection of the inner and outer man; and (4) exploration of the relationship between justification and the resurrection-final judgment, looking at the crucifixion and how justification relates to the already-not-yet.

The Resurrection of Christ

Paradigmatic for the Church

Whenever one considers the resurrection, it is important to begin first with the resurrection of Christ, as it is paradigmatic for believers. 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). That Christ is the firstfruits, imagery based in the Old Testament feast of weeks (Lev. 23:9-22), means that his resurrection is: (1) prior in temporality; (2) a representation of the same quality or character; and (3) a promise or pledge of more of the same kind to come.[2] In this regard, Geerhardus Vos notes that "the resurrection of Christ is prophetic of that of all believers."[3] Given, then, the paradigmatic role of Christ's resurrection, we must explore the nature of his resurrection to understand the nature of our resurrection.

Resurrection as Forensic Declaration: Righteousness and Sonship

What often receives little attention regarding the resurrection of Christ is its declarative or forensic character. Many see the resurrection as an important event, the physical raising of Christ from the bonds of death. Yet, they fail to recognize the forensic and judicial significance of Christ's resurrection. 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. Charles Hodge (1797-1878), for example, argues that when Christ was "declared to be the Son of God" that "Son of God is not a title of office, but of nature, and therefore Christ cannot be said to have been constituted the Son of God." He goes on to state, "when Christ is said to be constituted the Son of God, we are not to understand that he became or was made Son, but was, in the view of men, thus determined."[4] This is essentially the view of John Calvin (1509-64) and is also vigorously defended by B. B. Warfield (1851-1921).[5]

Vos has offered a different and more convincing exegesis of Rom. 1:3-4. Vos takes into account the sarx-pneuma antithesis as representative terms of the two major epochs in redemptive history, the two-age structure dominated by Adam and Christ (1 Cor. 15:45; Rom. 5:12-21).[6] Vos notes the parallel structure of Rom. 1:3-4:



κατὰ σάρκα
kata sarka
(according to the flesh)

κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιωσύνης
kata pneuma hagiōsynēs
(according to the Spirit of holiness)

ἐκ σπέρματος Δαυὶδ
ek spermatos Dauid
(from the seed of David)

ἐξ ἀναστάσεως νεκρῶν
ex anastaseōs nekrōn
(by [his] resurrection from the dead)

Vos explains that by "the twofold kata the mode of each state of existence is contrasted, by the twofold ek, the origin of each. Thus the existence kata sarka originated 'from the seed of David,' the existence kata pneuma originated 'out of the resurrection from the dead.'" Based upon this exegesis 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."[7]

In other words, the resurrection of Christ is not merely the acknowledgement of the divinity of Christ, but rather the inauguration of the eschatological creation as well as the declaration of Christ's sonship, the royal enthronement of the Messiah (cf. Ps. 2:7). This means that 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; modified ESV). Though Paul does not specifically mention the resurrection, when we compare this verse with Rom. 1:3-4, we see that the resurrection is in view, especially with Paul's reference to Christ being "justified" (ἐδικαιώθη, edikaiōthē) in the Spirit. Hence we may say that Christ's resurrection constituted not merely his conquest of death but also his justification, the declaration that he was God's son as well as that he was righteous. The forensic element is also present in another text that deals with the resurrection of Christ.

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 and Christ's crucifixion was legitimate, for the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).[8] Concerning Christ's resurrection, therefore, 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."[9] Once again we see the declarative, or forensic, connected to the resurrection of Christ. In fact, given Paul's statements in Rom. 1:3-4, 4:25, and 1 Tim. 3:16, we may say that the resurrection of Christ is not only the laying of the cornerstone of the eschatological creation but at the same time the declaration of Christ's righteousness and sonship. We must keep this dual-forensic aspect of Christ's resurrection in the foreground as we move forward to consider the resurrection of the church, as Christ's resurrection is paradigmatic for the church.

The Resurrection of the Church


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).[10] It is also important that we note that 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. Vos notes that, " 'Adoption' is by parentage a forensic concept; yet it fulfills itself in the bodily transforming change of the resurrection."[11] The forensic element of righteousness is also connected to both Christ's and the believer's resurrection.


When we consider that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), then those who are raised from the dead are quite obviously innocent of sin—they are righteous in the sight of God. One place where the righteousness-resurrection link surfaces is when Paul compares the resurrection to being clothed: "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 akin to putting on clothing so that one is not found naked on the day of judgment. So, then, just like Christ, the believer's resurrection is his de facto declaration of righteousness because death has no claim upon those who are righteous (1 Cor. 15:55-57).


When we consider the evidence, we are irresistibly led to the conclusion that the resurrection is not simply raising people from death but rather is an event wrapped in forensic significance: for those who are in Christ the resurrection is the declaration of their sonship and righteousness just as it was for Christ. This is not a unique conclusion. Vos has previously stated:

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; it sets in motion and to a certain extent anticipates the issue of judgment for the Christian. And it were not incorrect to offset this by saying that the judgment places the seal on what the believer has received in the resurrection.[12]

Yet we might go one step further than Vos in this regard by concluding that the resurrection of the church is not the anticipation of the issue of judgment, or the de facto declaration of judgment, but is de jure the final judgment. As Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) writes, "The resurrection of the dead in general, therefore, is primarily a judicial act of God."[13] Stated simply, the resurrection is not the penultimate event prior to the final judgment; the resurrection is the final judgment. This proposition might cause some to recoil at first, as many conceive of the resurrection and final judgment as separate events, especially those coming from a premillennial (dispensational or historic) background. Yet, an exploration of the various Pauline texts concerning the nature of the last day will confirm the conclusion that the resurrection and the final judgment are one in the same.

Confirmation of the Resurrection-Final Judgment Thesis

There is confirmation of the thesis that the resurrection and final judgment are one and the same event when we consider: (1) being raised with Christ according to the inner and outer man; (2) the immediacy of the transformation of the body; and (3) the extent of the resurrection.

Being Raised with Christ: Inner and Outer Man

We must first 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). In other words, through the believer's mystical union with Christ, he is already ruling over the creation with him. 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 simply the visible manifestation or revelation of those who are already raised with Christ. The resurrection is the raising of the outer man of those who have already been raised according to their inner man. To this end Paul writes: "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). What about the immediacy of the resurrection?

Immediacy of the Resurrection Transformation

The apostle Paul is quite clear that 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, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:52). The immediacy of the resurrection transformation is in contrast to at least one idea that was extant in first-century Jewish literature. In the Syriac apocalypse of Baruch (ca. AD 100), there is the pattern of resurrection → judgment → glorification. In other words, the resurrection of the dead involves no transformation of the righteous. Rather, the dead are raised in exactly the same state as they died. It is only after the final judgment that the righteous are transformed (see 2 Bar. 50:2-51:3). The pattern is clear, glorification occurs after the final judgment according to this opinion. Yet, Paul clearly states that those who are in Christ are immediately transformed and receive their glorified bodies. What about the extent of the resurrection?

The Extent of the Resurrection

The extent of the resurrection is another element that confirms its final judgment status. We see in several places in Scripture that the resurrection is for both the people of God and those outside the covenant. We read, for example, in the prophet Daniel: "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). It appears from this statement that 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 wicked.[14] It is not, as we saw above, 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). There is, prior to the resurrection, knowledge of the final outcome of history. This knowledge, however, is not simply one rooted in the decree of election but rather in inaugurated eschatology.

It is true, God has foreknowledge of who will be raised to life and death based upon his sovereign decree of election (Eph. 1:11-12; Rom. 9:1-24). Yet at the same time when we consider the two-age structure of redemptive history and that the eschatological age has begun, we must recognize that 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). If the gospel is the in-breaking of the eschatological blessings of the age to come for those who believe, then for those who refuse to believe the gospel there is the in-breaking of the eschatological wrath of God: "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).[15] Based upon the in-breaking of the eschaton with the first advent of Christ, Jesus can say: "Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out" (John 12:31).[16]

Paul also attests to the revelation of God's eschatological wrath in the present when he writes: "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). Given the in-breaking of the eschaton, 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.


If believers are already raised with Christ according to their inner man, then they simply await the resurrection of their outer man. The resurrection transformation of the body is immediate, as Paul says it takes place in the twinkling of an eye. This immediacy therefore precludes a commonly assumed pattern of resurrection → final judgment → glorification but instead demands that we recognize that resurrection and glorification are simultaneous events. The resurrection transformation, however, is only for those who are in Christ. The wicked 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 with the beginning of the eschaton in Christ's first advent, the redemption of those who are in Christ and the condemnation of those who refuse to believe.

The final judgment, therefore, is not a separate event following the resurrection but rather an aspect of the one organic event of resurrection-final judgment. This conclusion is not unique as others have argued that the events of the last day are one. Berkhof states, "All the great Confessions of the Church represent the general resurrection as simultaneous with the second coming of Christ, the final judgment and the end of the world."[17] Similarly, Hodge writes, "the general resurrection, the second advent, and the last judgment, are contemporaneous events."[18] Likewise Bavinck observes that, "The resurrection and the last judgment are intimately associated as in a single act."[19] Given these conclusions, we may now proceed to explore the relationship between the resurrection-final judgment and the doctrine of justification.

Resurrection-Final Judgment and Justification

As we take the gathered data on the nature of the resurrection-final judgment and correlate it to the doctrine of justification, a clear picture emerges, one that is not encumbered by unnecessary tensions created by some formulations. We must consider two things, namely the crucifixion of Christ and the already-not-yet, as we briefly formulate the relationship between the resurrection-final judgment and justification.

First, one must recognize that the crucifixion of Christ is an eschatological event, in that Jesus did not merely suffer for the sins of his people, though he certainly did that. Rather, Christ drank the cup of the Father's eschatological wrath on behalf of his bride, the church. The wrath of the final judgment that is due to the believer is poured out in the present upon Christ in his crucifixion. In this regard, then, we can say that believers have already passed through the final judgment in the crucifixion of Christ. Vos takes the next step and explains the connection between the crucifixion and justification when he writes, "the Apostle made the act of justification to all intents, so far as the believer is concerned, a last judgment anticipated."[20] Therefore the believer's declaration of righteousness in the present has eschatological significance, as it brings the verdict of the final judgment into the present.

This brings us to the second point, namely relating justification to the already-not-yet. There are both conservative and liberal theologians who straddle justification over the already-not-yet structure of redemptive history. 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. N. T. Wright argues that there is a present and a future justification, and that the future justification is on the basis of the good works of the believer.[21] Herman Ridderbos (1909-2007), on the other hand, argues that the final judgment is not on the basis of good works but merely according to them, and that the good works are merely evidential of a faith that trusts and rests in the completed work of Christ.[22] Ridderbos's formula is to be preferred over Wright's, as Ridderbos preserves the solus Christus in justification as Paul does. Nevertheless, it seems that both Wright and Ridderbos fail to consider fully the resurrection in this equation.

Only those who are justified are raised according to their inner man. On the final day, the eschatological 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. Again, 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. Or, we may say that 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, which the believer possesses by faith alone.


Current explanations of the relationship between justification and the final judgment fall short because they fail to account for the judicial nature of the resurrection. They fail to see the paradigmatic nature of Christ's resurrection and recognize that as Christ was justified in his resurrection, so too the believer will be justified in his own resurrection. By maintaining the all-important connection between justification and resurrection, we preserve the sola gratia, solus Christus, and sola fide of justification, as believers are raised, not because of their own works, but solely because of the works of Christ. The sole sufficiency of Christ in justification is guarded because the Spirit raises dead men, those who can do nothing. As the inner man was raised, so too is the outer man. In this regard, then, with the apostle Paul not only must we look to the crucified Christ in our justification, but even more so to the resurrected and justified Messiah.


[1] This is material taken from a chapter by John Fesko in The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, soon to be published by P & R Publishers.

[2] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1224.

[3] Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory, rev. ed. (1922; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), 167.

[4] Charles Hodge, Romans (1835, rev. ed. 1864; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), 19.

[5] See John Calvin, Romans and Thessalonians, Calvin's New Testament Commentaries, trans. Ross Mackenzie, ed. David W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 16-17; B. B. Warfield, "The Christ That Paul Preached," in The Works of B. B. Warfield, vol. 2, ed. Ethelbert D. Warfield, et al. (1929; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 235-54; cf. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (1978; Philipsburg: P&R, 1987), 100.

[6] Geerhardus Vos, "The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of the Spirit," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Philipsburg: P&R, 1980), 104.

[7] Vos, "Eschatological Aspect," 104; see also Gaffin, Resurrection, 98-112; John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 10.

[8] Gaffin, Resurrection, 116; G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, trans. Cornelius Lambregtse (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 190.

[9] Geerhardus Vos, Pauline Eschatology (1930; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 151; similarly Murray, Romans, 156-57.

[10] Murray, Romans, 308; Vos, "Eschatological Aspect," 104, n. 24.

[11] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 152.

[12] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 261.

[13] Herman Bavinck, The Last Things, trans. John Vriend, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 133.

[14] Similarly C. D. Elledge, "Resurrection of the Dead: Exploring Our Earliest Evidence Today," in Resurrection: The Origin and Future of a Biblical Doctrine, ed. James H. Charlesworth, et al (London: T & T Clark, 2006), 28.

[15] See D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 207; Herman N. Ridderbos, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 139-40; see also Bavinck, Last Things, 138.

[16] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 597; Ridderbos, John, 437-39; Carson, John, 442-43.

[17] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1939; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 720-21.

[18] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3 (1873; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 847.

[19] Bavinck, Last Things, 132.

[20] Vos, Pauline Eschatology, 55.

[21] N. T. Wright, Romans, New Interpreters Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005), 580.

[22] Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (1975; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 179-80.

John V. Fesko is the pastor of Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Woodstock, Georgia. Ordained Servant, October 2007.

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Ordained Servant: October 2007

Locating the Doctrine of Justification

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The Atonement

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The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ

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