The tricky doctrine of final judgment for believers

Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, I preached briefly about a tricky doctrine: final judgment. Not final judgment for unbelievers, but for believers. As Paul makes clear in yesterday’s text, 2 Corinthians 5:6-21, “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.” He also discusses this issue in Romans 14:10-12 and 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.

Despite these scriptures (and others, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46), which describe universal judgment based on works, I never gave final judgment for Christians serious thought—at least before seminary. If we’re saved by grace, not by works, and we can’t earn salvation, a judgment based on works didn’t make sense to me. Maybe I thought judgment would be something of a formality: I would be taken before the throne of Christ, only to have Jesus tell me, “Because you believe in me, we can skip this. You’re in. You’re O.K.”

That seems silly in retrospect, I know. Among other things, how could God be perfectly just if he simply ignored the sins of believers? In the interest of judgment, don’t we need to be held accountable for what do in this life? Someone might push back: “Yes, but didn’t Jesus die for our sins so that we believers don’t have to be judged?”

No. He died for our sins so that we could avoid the punishment that our sins otherwise deserve: which is eternal separation from God in hell. Finding forgiveness for our sins, as we will surely do through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, doesn’t preclude the necessity of judgment. To illustrate this, I talked in my sermon about an old friend who owed me money and moved to the West Coast without paying it back. I’m happy to forgive him the debt (I’d much rather have his friendship than his money!), but if we’re ever going to have a healthy relationship again, we need to talk about the harm that he caused—even though the debt is canceled.

My friend needs to face this kind of “judgment” for his own good, if not mine. I imagine that he feels deeply embarrassed and ashamed about it. I don’t want him to feel that way anymore.

Here’s a more powerful illustration: To the surprise of many pessimists in the world, South Africa moved peacefully from its evil apartheid system of racial separation to a full-fledged democracy in large part because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the brainchild of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other Christian thinkers. Every person in South Africa, white or black, who committed human rights violations under apartheid could find full amnesty for their crimes on one condition: they come to court and confess to them.

To me, that’s a beautiful and deeply Christian way of dealing with injustice. I believe that the judgment that we face as believers is like that.

A friend of mine in the congregation was relieved that I preached this message. He grew up in a church tradition that taught final judgment very differently. He said that his pastors always said that we can’t know for sure until final judgment whether we “made it” into heaven or not. Only then would we find out whether we truly had saving faith. Prior to that time, we live very fearfully, I suppose.

Needless to say, I thoroughly reject that interpretation of final judgment—as would the apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 3, he uses the metaphor of a refining fire, which tests the life’s work of a believer. It’s possible, Paul says, for a believer’s entire work to go up in flames, but all is not lost: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15). For a believer, isn’t this the worst-case scenario? He will still be saved.

Final judgment for believers as I’ve described also avoids the oft-stated problem of “cheap grace.” I get what Bonhoeffer meant in using that phrase, but every recipient of God’s amazing grace will still have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ. And I imagine that if we Christians have received God’s grace too cheaply, then final judgment will be very painful to us—even if, on the other side of this judgment, we will still find heaven.

What do you think? Do you think about final judgment for believers in these terms, or do you have another way of understanding it?

One thought on “The tricky doctrine of final judgment for believers”

  1. Brent, as I see the “Final Judgment” issue, all the references (Sheep & Goats, Judgment Seat of Christ, Great White Throne, Daniel’s vision) are to the same event. All people, saints and “lost,” will at once appear before God, and the books will be opened, and everyone will be judged by what is in the books for the things done in the body, whether good or bad. Then, those who are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be cast into the Lake of Fire, where Satan will be cast, and those written in that Book will enter into the eternal state of Heaven. Everyone will “suffer loss” for the deeds which are wrong and rewarded for the deeds which are right and good. For the lost, the good things will result in some amelioration of the painfulness of their eternal state in the flames, and the bad for greater torment. For the saints, we will “suffer loss” for the things done wrong, and obtain rewards for the things done right (as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 3). I don’t know exactly what type of things the “rewards” will be, though I expect it may be in part some level of greater “appreciation” of Heaven (like, to use a VERY rough analogy, someone having 20/20 vision at the Grand Canyon and someone having 20/200–same great place, but one can appreciate it all the more).

    As far as living in fear of not being written in the Book, this is a little tricky, in my view. On the one hand, the Spirit bears witness with our spirit whether we are sons or not. (Perhaps that confidence level may be diminished somewhat as we “quench” the Spirit through disobedience.) Nonetheless, Paul also says to test ourselves, whether we are in the faith or not. And we have Jesus’s somewhat terrifying statement in the Sermon on the Mount that many will say, “Lord, Lord, …” and He will say, “I never knew you.” Regardless, however, I don’t believe salvation, or in general confidence in salvation, is based on some “level” of good works–faith and repentance are what are necessary to “enter in.” But how do we know we have “faith”? James says, “faith without works is dead.” What I personally believe about faith (my own view merely) is that a Christian does something (or at least is willing to do something) he never would do without his confidence in God (such as Abraham offering Isaac or Rahab hiding the spies, James’s two examples). And I believe this results in the Spirit giving confidence. What might such an “act of faith” be? I don’t know of any specific one for any particular person, but I think, for example, of Zacchaeus versus the “rich young ruler.” Anyway, those are my thoughts or “understanding” on this difficult subject.

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