One of the more frequent points of discussion on this blog is the futurity of justification. For entries that touch upon this, click here.
The issue that troubles many when some of us make the claim that justification is fundamentally eschatological is an instinctive sense. They instinctively sense that justification would then be earned. I think that the principal reason for this is that they assume that eschatological judgment implies a system of works righteousness. This is so, I think, because they think that if there is an aspect of justification that awaits the Last Day, this necessarily corresponds to their view of the relationship between work and wages or salary.
Now, it is true, and even biblically reasoned, "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Rom. 4:1-8). This, however, is not the only biblical perspective upon the relationship between labor and wages. Jesus develops his Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard upon hours of labor and wages given.
"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
"About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went.
"He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, 'Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?'
"'Because no one has hired us,' they answered. "He said to them, 'You also go and work in my vineyard.'
"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'
"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'
"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'
"So the last will be first, and the first will be last" (Matt. 20:1-16).
Clearly, Jesus' parable is not teaching that eternal life is earned by working for it. Instead, even though he develops his parable around laborers who work in a vineyard, a key point of the parable is that all the laborers receive the same wage at the end of the day. The wage is not earned but given. Also, the wage is not proportioned per hours worked, for those who began to work at the last hour received the same wage as those who began at the first hour. In fact, to make this point, Jesus structures his parable so that when the landowner gives out the wages, he begins by giving wages to those who came to work in the last hour, and the amount he gives is the very amount that he had agreed to give those who came to work early in the morning, a denarius. What is Jesus teaching with this parable? He is teaching that the reward, namely eternal life, will be received by each one that he calls, whether he calls them early or late. Eternal life is the reward he gives not based in our labors nor proportionately to our labors, for Jesus is teaching us to regard eternal life as a prospective gift or reward of incentive, not as retrospective wages earned or merited.
Thus, there is not just one biblical use of the economic imagery, of the laborer and wages. Jesus' Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard enables us to view justification in the Last Day not as retrospective wages earned but as a prospective incentive for persevering faithfulness. Is this not what Paul means when he says, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified" (Rom. 2:13; see my exposition of the passage here and here)? Paul is not suggesting that being declared righteous in the Day of Judgment will be wages paid proportional to one's working.
It seems to me that this is the way we need to be able to explain passages such as Romans 2:13 or Matthew 12:36-37. In this passage, without dispute, Jesus speaks of the day of judgment that is yet to come when he speaks of being justified.
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
The pecuniary imagery that fits Jesus' words concerning justification in the day of judgment is not the imagery Paul employs in Romans 4:1-8 but the imagery Jesus employs in Matthew 20:1-16 where he develops the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.
Afterthought: If we speak of the imagery and not the thing imaged in Jesus' parable, does not the perspective also transform our view of our work and salary? How much more superior and rewarding is it to regard our salaries as prospective incentives for work to be accomplished rather than as wages earned retrospectively for work finished.