It is certain that on the Last Day we will be judged on what we have done. “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12 ESV; see also Matt. 25:35).
It is certain that our salvation depends not upon our keeping the Law, but upon the grace of God who gives us faith (Eph 2:8-10). Salvation cannot be earned or merited. Salvation–having eternal life in the Body of Christ is something outside of us that must be granted to us. Christ came to make the dead live, after all, and the dead cannot make themselves alive. Salvation is a gift.
So how do we reconcile these two views which appear to contradict one another? The one is the image of being judged, of being weighed, while the other shows that we never deserve it based on our own works or abilities.
They are not contradictory. Faith is a gift, but it must show fruit. Making alive is the work of Christ, but alive people do living things, not things of death. As James says, “Faith without works is dead.” (Jam. 2:26)
This may be one of the greatest differences between Protestants and the Orthodox and Catholics. Protestants tend to ignore the judgment seat of Christ that weighs our works. When they think of the Last Judgment at all, they think of forensic justification, that our deeds will not be counted at all, that Christ will recognize Himself in us, as it were, and the subject of what we actually did in this life will never be mentioned.
It seems to me that Catholic and Orthodox Christians alike focus on Christ as our Judge. He says He is, after all (Matt. 25:31ff). And they recognize that He will judge our actions. When they consider their spiritual lives, they think of that Judgment seat of Christ. They think of their souls being laid open before Him. This vision alone should preserve all people from any sense of works-righteousness. This thought alone should keep every one of us from ever trusting in our own good works or holiness. Thinking of every thought, word and deed open and visible to our God, what could we possibly hope in besides the mercy of God?
Notice, I did not write that the leading Protestant views and the Catholic views (as I understand it) are incompatible. Both things are true. God does remove our sins as far as the east from the west. (Psa. 103:12) But He does “come to judge the living and the dead” and the works we have done. Both of these views must be kept together. Faith is not faith if it does not repent of our wicked deeds and strive to please God. Judgment will be…harsh…if we trust that we are basically good folks and trust in our niceness and generosity instead of throwing ourselves on the undeserved mercy of God.
Our Christian life, however empowered by the Holy Spirit, is not on autopilot. Christ commands that we be active in this life of the fruits of repentance, by taking up our cross, by seeking the kingdom, by hearing the word of God and doing it. The violent (that is, the forceful) bear it away. (Matt. 11:12)