First, the author plainly expresses his thesis.
My thesis is that in the letters of Paul and in much of the literature of Judaism from the Greek and Early Roman periods, a post-mortem or Last Judgment of God determines an individual's eternal destiny. Moreover, both corpora agree that an individual's behavior is rewarded with eternal life, bad behavior with damnation. Paul agrees with a significant number of his Jewish contemporaries on the subject. This book also examines the notion of divine recompense within the framework of God's grace and mercy as understood in early post-biblical Jewish texts and in Paul's letters. God's grace and mercy may be present throughout a person's life, working on his or her behalf; but one's deeds determine approbation at the final judgment. On this subject, I find no difference between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries (p. 15).
By the time one reads the first two chapters one gains considerable insight into the trajectory of thought that VanLandingham will have when he discusses the apostle Paul's letters in chapters 3 & 4. The author projects his observations and conclusions the following way.
In early post-biclical Judaism, it is axiomatic that God renders judgment to each according to his or her deeds. Likewise, in this chapter, I argue that Paul believes that dees not only affect one's eternal destiny, but form the ultimate criterion for determining one's eternal destiny at the Last Judgment. The specific deeds proscribed, permitted, or even required may differ, as they do, for example, in the Qumran texts and Sirach; but the idea remains the same: obedience matters to God and forms the basis for final acceptance with God, despite disagreements over what exactly God requires. Regardless of one's divine requital, whether eternal life or damnation, one's behavior determines the outcome (p. 175).
Of course, once cannot make any arguments about judgment by deeds in Paul without considering and ultimately reconciling them with the notion of "justification by faith." Since Martin Luther, the Pauline doctrine of "justification by faith" has had a direct bearing on the interpretation of the Last Judgment in Paul. . . . Widespread, though not unanimous, support persists for the view that justification refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment that is pronounced proleptically at the time of faith in Christ. Such an understanding cannot be sustained if at the Last Judgment God recompenses each one's eternal destiny according to behavior. In the pursuit of this overall thesis, a number of sub-arguments are necessary for correcting certain readings of Paul that force judgment passages to conform with the doctrine of justification by faith. The notion of justification by faith must be understood in light of the judgment passages (pp. 175-176).
- One of Paul's primary concerns for his converts pertains to their moral state, particularly at the time of the judgment. Paul endeavors to make the Gentiles acceptable to God, in part by bringing their behavior into conformity with what God requires. What is at issue "before God" at the judgment is one's moral state--in the end one's moral state makes one "acceptable" to God.
- Justice at the Last Judgment is retributive and, consequentially, eternal life and damnation are given respectively to those who are deserving. Eternal destiny is the primary issue at the Last Judgment. One's eternal destiny has not been determined beforehand, such as at the time of faith in Christ. Specifically, if justification by faith refers to an acquittal at the Last Judgment, which one receives proleptically at the time of faith in Christ, then one should expect some hint of this idea in the Pauline judgment passages. This idea, however, remains absent in those very judgment passages where this notion of justification by faith should have some imprint (based on the forensic interpretation of the dikai- group of terms).
- The Last Judgment includes a possibility that God might reject believers on the basis of their moral failure. Paul does not state directly, or even imply that one cannot forfeit "salvation" regardless of one's behavior.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul presents the solution to the problem besetting human existence. Indeed, the solution lies within the message of his gospel that God has sent his son Jesus, who in turn "gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age" ([Galatians] 1:4). The problem this solution addresses is less easy to identify, but apparently it either refers to "the present evil age" in which both Jews and Gentiles find themselves enslaved to malevolent, personal forces (4:3, 8-9) or refers to "our sins," which notes the process by which humanity is enslaved to these malevolent, personal forces. Both were perceived as major problems in the ancient world. Portions of the Hebrew Bible and a great number of post-biblical Jewish texts indicate that sin is endemic to Jews and Gentiles alike. . . . A thread runs through the Hebrew Bible--especially in Leviticus and Deateronomy, the historical books, and the Prophets--and in post-bibilical texts--many of the apocalypses, but also texts such as the Psalms of Solomon, Judith, Tobit, 2 Maccabees, Baruch, and Josephus--that state that foreign hegemony results from the presence of national sin and God's punishment of Israel. Paul lived in such a time (p. 206).
Paul certainly believed that a connection existed between sin and these sinister, cosmic forces, a point central in understanding Paul's soteriology, that is, how one will escape God's coming wrath and live eternally. Paul says that Jesus gave himself up for our sins, that is, he sacrificed himself in order that . . . he might set us free or rescue us from the present evil age (1:4). By expiating a person's sins, the power that demonic forces have over that person is broken. Of course, an individual appropriates this forgiveness by faith (2:16), but as a result the believer is "made righteous" in the sense that the person no longer bears the guilt, stain, and akaqarsia of personal sins. The believer, now purified and fit for God's presence (cf. 1 Cor 3:17b; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:14-7:1), receives the Spirit of God/Jesus ([Gal] 3:2, 14; cf. 2:20 and Rom 8:2-4). In turn, the Spirit of God/Jesus inspires the believer so that he or she now has the ability to produce the obedience that leads to eternal life (6:8-9; cf. Rom 8:4-13) (p. 207).
Accordingly, God rectifies this situation [of human sinfulness and inability to obey God's requirements] by making it possible through Jesus' sacrificial death for humans to possess the Spirit that catalyzes the obedience necessary for divine approval. Why it takes Jesus' sacficial death so that humans possess the divine Spirit remains unclear (p. 210).
Being a recipient of God's kindness does not indicate whether one will be spared at the judgment: but how one responds to this kindness, which has repentance as its goal, provides evidence. Even the participant in God's covenant is not guaranteed deliverance at the judgment. God's kindness is available only before the judgment and is presently active in order to make a favorable judment possible. A favorable outcome at the judment, then, depends on whether one obeyed the covenant stipulations, not on God's kindness or mercy at that time; otherwise the judgment would not be impatial (p. 218).
(Note: Some are embracing VanLandingham's thesis. See here, for example.)