We live in a culture in which people fear death. Unfortunately, even many people who believe in heaven are confused about it. Contrary to popular opinion, we can never be “good enough” to earn our place there. Fortunately, it’s not about what we do at all. It’s about what Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection. As I point out in this sermon, however, that doesn’t mean that we believers escape God’s judgment.
What does final judgment mean for us Christians, and why is it necessary? Can we still be confident that we’ll be saved even in the face of this judgment?
Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 5:6-21
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
My favorite thing to listen to on the radio is a public-radio show called This American Life. Each week, the show has a theme, and it usually features a few real-life stories about that theme involving ordinary Americans. A few weeks ago, there was an episode whose theme was “Fear of Sleep,” and it featured stories from people who were afraid of going to sleep—for various reasons. Bedbugs. Scary movies that kept them awake. Sleepwalking. What I found most interesting, however, was a story featuring people who were afraid of sleep because… Well, it reminded them of death. It reminded them that one day, they were going to die, and there was nothing they could do about it.
One person said:
It’s like you understand that you’re mortal. Your life is going to be over at some point. You’re fighting like the worst enemy in the world as you lie there in bed, rolling around in your sheet covers—in your blankets. And you’re rolling around there, trying to fight death. And there’s no way you can win.
I would love to share the good news of Jesus Christ with that person.
Throughout this “All Things New” sermon series, we’ve been focusing on things that are new and different in our lives as a result of our faith in Christ: a new birth, a new heart, a new mind, a new family, a new direction. Today, as we reach the end of this series, I’ve saved the best for last: Through Christ’s death and his resurrection, God defeated death. Those of us who place our faith in Jesus get to share in this victory that he won for us. Along with the apostle Paul, we can say with confidence that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And I believe that because of Christ’s victory over death, we can find the courage to face any fear.
If only more people knew what God accomplished for us, they wouldn’t be so afraid of dying.
I was watching a rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond recently. The subject of death came up. The Barone family, in case you don’t know, are regular churchgoers. Raymond said something about how great it is that one day he’ll be able to see all of his family again after death—in heaven. And Robert, his brother, said, “Well, everyone except for… you know,” and he motioned over to their grumpy father, Frank. The audience laughed. The implication of the joke was that Frank had obviously not been a good enough person to “make it” into heaven… Because, you know, going to heaven is all about being “good enough” to make it in.
Don’t you know that there are so many people in our world—including, I’m afraid, some people in this church—who imagine that their hope for getting into heaven rests on whether or not they’re “good enough”? Seriously, I’ve visited church members in hospital rooms over the years who confess to me that they’ve never really been that into church; it’s not their thing; but they believe in God. And they tell me, “I’ve tried to live right and be a good person.” And I’m thinking, “How good do you think you have to be in order to be good enough for a perfect, eternal, and holy God? Does God grade on a curve? Do you think that maybe you’ll get into heaven so long as you haven’t murdered anyone or committed some other terrible crime? Is that good enough? Are you comparing yourself to others and thinking, well, I’m above average?” I don’t say that to people in hospital rooms, of course. But I do try to find some tactful way of saying, “You know, you can never be good enough to make it into heaven, and if you’re counting on being good enough, you’re in trouble.”
Back in the 16th century, a young German monk named Martin Luther wondered if he was good enough. “How can I know that I’m saved?” he asked. And the answer that the medieval church gave him was, “As long as you’re doing your best, then that’s a sign that you’re saved.” But this answer didn’t satisfy Luther. “How can I know I’m doing my best? Even if I’m trying to do my best, chances are I can still do better.” So Luther opened his Bible again, and re-read Paul’s letters, including today’s scripture, and realized: It’s not about doing our best, it’s about God doing his best, which he did by sending his Son Jesus into the world.
What does today’s scripture tell us? “We are convinced that one has died for all… In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them… For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” See, I don’t want any of us to fall into that trap of thinking that we have to be “good enough” to make it into heaven. Just put that thought out of your mind! There’s no “good enough” with God! There is not a single person who has ever lived who was good enough, except for one: Jesus Christ. He was good enough for us, on our behalf. So we don’t have to worry. We don’t have to be afraid. Jesus paid our way, by taking upon himself all the sins of the world, including yours and mine, and nailing them to the cross, condemning our sins in his own flesh, dying for us the death that we deserved to die. Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done. It’s nothing compared to the blood of Jesus. Think of the thing that you’re most ashamed of. It’s nothing compared to the blood of Jesus. Think of the thing that you feel most guilty about. It’s nothing compared to the blood of Jesus. Your sins are not powerful enough to undo the good work of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.
Once, when I was 11 years old one of Dad’s friends got us into a suite with box seats to watch a Braves game at the old Fulton County stadium. And it was awesome. We were treated like royalty. Someone kept coming in and bringing us all the free hot dogs and Cracker Jacks and Cokes and peanuts and popcorn and cotton candy that we could possibly want. Chief Nokahoma even came to visit us! It was awesome! I’m sure these seats were outrageously expensive and we could never afford them on our own, but—again, Dad’s friend was paying for them. I remember feeling afraid of walking outside of the suite to use the restroom across the hall. If I left the suite, I imagined that a security guard would stop me in the hall and keep me from going back inside. Because anyone could look at me and know that I didn’t belong here—my last name’s not Rockefeller, after all. That’s how I felt anyway. But I decided if anyone asked me what I was doing here, I could point to my Dad’s friend and say, “I’m with him. He paid my way!”
If you’re already a Christian, and you still worry about whether or not you’ll make it into heaven, just imagine being in eternity and pointing to Jesus to say, “I’m with him! He paid my way!”
But please don’t miss something else Paul says in this text. Even though our sins are forgiven because of Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we still face judgment. Paul says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Does that make sense? How is it possible that we can be saved by grace, not works, and God will forgive our sins, yet we still have to face judgment for the things we do? Isn’t that a contradiction?
Not at all… I’m thinking of my friend Keith, for instance. He was my best friend in the ’90’s. We hung out all the time. We went to concerts and football games frequently. Eight years ago, when I decided to change careers and go into ministry, we were selling our house, packing up our furniture, and downsizing our lives dramatically so we could afford seminary. So we needed to get rid of a lot of stuff. Keith, meanwhile, had recently gotten married, and his wife had two children from a previous marriage. He could use some of our stuff—including some nice furniture. So he bought it. Not long after we moved, it was as if Keith dropped off the face of the earth. I never heard from him and a couple of years later I found out he was moving his family to Seattle. Even today, except for an occasional Facebook post, I never hear from him. And I’m like, What happened? We were best friends. It didn’t make sense to me.
Lisa and I were talking about it one day. She reminded me, “You know, Keith never paid us for that furniture. He owed us a thousand bucks, and he never paid us.” And I’m like, Oh, yeah, I had forgotten all about that!” And Lisa said, “But maybe he hasn’tforgotten. Maybe he’s ashamed and embarrassed, and he doesn’t want to face us. Maybe he feels guilty. Maybe he thinks we’re mad about it.” So this debt has come between us. The debt is forgiven as far as I’m concerned. I’d rather have his friendship than his money!
The problem is on Keith’s end. It’s easy for Keith to be a Facebook friend from the other side of the country. I hardly ever hear from him. But suppose he moved back here to the Atlanta area. Suppose he moved next door to me. Suppose he moved into my house, and I saw him day in and day out. If we wanted to have a healthy relationship, we would have to deal with this problem that has harmed our relationship. Keith would have to acknowledge it and own up to it, even if I didn’t make him pay me back.
Maybe this analogy isn’t perfect but it gets to the heart of what it means for us Christians to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. If we’re going to live in God’s kingdom on the other side of death and resurrection in a perfect relationship with God, we have to deal with all the hidden, unconfessed sin that stands between us. It’s not a question of whether or not the Lord will forgive us. He will and he has—but acknowledging our sin by standing in judgment before Christ, however painful, is necessary for us to find healing and wholeness. We are held accountable for the way we live our lives. We don’t simply get off scot-free. It’s not as if sin is a big problem before we become Christians and then, after then, it’s no big deal.
But please don’t for a moment be confused: Even though we Christians face judgment, and even though it might be painful to face the truth about our sins, that doesn’t mean that our salvation is at risk. Again, our admission into heaven has been fully paid for by the blood of Christ. Nothing changes that. In Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthian church, he describes this judgment and says that the work that each of us does in our lives will be tested by the refining fire of God’s judgment. Whatever isn’t of God will be burned away. Paul writes, “If anyone’s work goes up in flames, they’ll lose it. However, they themselves will be saved as if they had gone through fire.” That’s the worst-case scenario, but notice: we will still be saved.
We are recipients of such amazing grace! Can you believe it?
Have you heard this song on Christian radio by the group Mikeschair called “Someone Worth Dying For”? The refrain says, “I wanna believe, Jesus, help me believe/ That I am someone worth dying for.” I like that sentiment, but it’s actually truer and deeper and more profound than the singer realizes. After all, brave and heroic firefighters gave their lives in the Twin Towers on 9/11 to save the lives of civilians trapped in the towers. Brave and heroic passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 gave their lives to save the lives of people in the Capitol where the hijacked plane was bound. Brave and heroic soldiers gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day to save the world from the evil of Nazism. In each case, human beings decided that other human beings’ lives were worth dying for.
The gospel is so much more than that. God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, decided that our human lives are worth dying for—God’s life in exchange for human life, eternal for time-bound, infinite for finite. Through his death on the cross, God the Son paid a high price for our redemption. It turns out that we are infinitely valuable to God because it cost God his life. You are infinitely valuable to God. I am infinitely valuable. Can you imagine? The Creator of the universe looked at you and me and looked at the cross and thought, “Totally worth it! Totally worth it in order that this person whom I love would be with me in heaven, forever.” What amazing love God has for you and me! If that doesn’t change our lives and change the way we see ourselves and others, I don’t know what will!
God of grace, teach us to see ourselves and everyone else the way you see us: as people whose infinite worth was established by the blood of your Son Jesus; as people for whom you were willing to die. Amen.