“The Judgment of the Just”
2 Corinthians 5:6-15
May 4, 2003
Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Now Paul is discussing his ministry in these verses and, last week, we considered, in our treatment of 5:1-10, the confidence with which he faces the troubles of his life, knowing as he does the certainty of his ultimate vindication. Death has no terrors for him. It will usher him into Christ’s presence and even if for some time he must live unnaturally, as a soul without a body, he will still be at home with the Lord and have the resurrection yet to look forward to. This is his motive, the certainty that his faithfulness to Christ will not go unrewarded.
But, at the end of that section, in v. 10, he dropped a bombshell. Everyone, including every Christian, must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of his life, his words and deeds and that, according to that judgment, each will receive what is due to him. Now, clearly, Paul thinks this is of a piece with what he has already said. It is a matter of working here in the confidence that one’s faithfulness will not go unnoticed and unrewarded. There is another side to that confidence of course. Paul was nothing if he was not a realist. Just as there is another side to death, a darker side, that he admitted and faced, so there is another side to the prospect of the Christian facing the judgment day.
v.11 Paul is well aware of the natural and entirely proper concern that will animate a person who realizes that he must give an account of everything that he has done and failed to do. For a gospel minister, as Paul himself, it makes him determined to discharge his ministry as faithfully as he can. And, so motivated to discharge his duty faithfully, Paul is willing to put his sincerity and his faithfulness to the test of both God’s judgment and that of the Corinthians themselves. He trusts that they know him well enough not to believe what the false teachers are saying. They know how faithfully he served the gospel among them.
v.12 The false teachers will take what he just said as boasting, but what he intends is to give his children in the faith the confidence to speak up on his behalf, as they know they should.
v.13 What Paul means by saying “If we are out of our mind…” has long been debated. It could mean that that is what the false teachers were saying, as Festus said to Paul (“Your great learning has driven you mad.”). And Paul would be saying that what they take to be my insanity is only my devotion to the Lord. Or, he could be referring to experiences of ecstasy, such as when speaking in tongues, in which case Paul is simply saying that no matter what his state of mind, he has been right-minded.
v.15 The motivation for life for a Christian is the love of Christ. We will pick up with these last two verses next Lord’s Day morning.
Virtually every Christian at one time or another has found it jarring that Paul, of all people, should have taught that Christians will be judged according to their works on the day of judgment. And it has seemed jarring to them for at least two separate reasons. First, it can easily seem to be an idea that is in conflict with his doctrine of justification by faith. Has not Paul taught that the righteousness with which we will stand in the Last Judgment is not our own very imperfect righteousness but Christ’s perfect righteousness and has he not said that no condemnation remains for the man or woman who is in Christ Jesus and that we are saved by faith and not by our works?
Well, to be sure, he taught all of those things and most emphatically. But, he also taught and not here only but in a number of places in his letters, that the lives of Christians will be evaluated in the judgment and that they will be rewarded according to the fruitfulness of their lives, according to the measure of their obedience, the purity of their motives, and the faithfulness of their service.
The second reason Christians are startled by Paul’s teaching here in v. 10 is that it seems to them, in some way, to take back with the left hand what Paul has just given us with the right. He has set before us a view of death that is honest and realistic but at bottom profoundly attractive. To be absent from the body has its drawbacks, but, at the last, it is to be present with the Lord and that is better by far than life in this world. But, now, the future darkens as we must face the fact that a reckoning must still be given of our lives and, in Paul’s own words, as a result of that reckoning each believer will receive “what is due him.” Few believers find it easy to look as positively on that prospect as Paul seems to here.
Most believers, understandably, think about all of this as Chrysostom preached about it in one of his great sermons.
“Let us then imagine Christ’s judgment-seat to be present now and reckon each one of us with his own conscience, and account the Judge to be already present, and everything to be revealed and brought forth. For we must not merely stand, but also be manifested. Do you not blush? Are you not dismayed.”
Well, if we are to understand Paul rightly here and respond to his teaching faithfully, there are a number of things that must be said in explanation of the prospect of our final judgment according to our works.
1. The first thing to be said, to be sure, is that this is unmistakably Paul’s doctrine. Though Christian teachers have often sought to avoid that conclusion and interpret this statement in other ways, Paul is unequivocal and not only here.
In Romans 14:12, again writing to a Christian congregation, Paul says that “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” In Ephesians 6:8 the apostle commends a life of love and duty to both masters and servants because, he says, “you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does…” In Philippians 4:17 Paul urges faithful and generous living upon his readers because, he says, “I am looking for what may be credited to your account.”
Then we read in Revelation 14:13 that our “deeds will follow” us to heaven and, in 20:12 that the dead will be “judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Ministers and elders, in particular, shudder to hear that, to a special degree, as we read in Hebrews 13:17, they will have to give an account. And there are many other texts like these that teach us to live our lives and do our work, in Milton’s phrase, “as in our great Taskmaster’s eye.” Like it or not, that Christians must face the judgment of their lives is everywhere the teaching of the Bible.
2. The second thing we need to say about this judgment according to our works is that this prospect in no way sets aside Paul’s doctrine of free and perfect justification by the righteousness of Jesus Christ received by faith alone.
The Apostle is not here suggesting that this impartial tribunal will result in the punishment of our sins. He is certainly not saying that a real believer might come to Christ’s court and be condemned after all. He teaches throughout his letters and here in 2 Corinthians that the believer is justified from everything (Acts 13:39) and that there is no condemnation for the one who is in Christ. And the rest of the Bible confirms this: as John tells us in his fifth chapter, those who believe in Jesus will not come into judgment, by which he means they will not be condemned (5:24). This is the exact burden of the gospel; we sinners can, in Christ, be made righteous before God and certain of standing in his judgment. Rather Paul’s meaning is of a different kind. And he has set out that meaning already, very clearly, in 1 Cor. 3:10-15.
There he said that every believer is building on the one foundation that has been laid, viz. Jesus Christ. On that foundation the believer stands entirely secure. But, he must take heed how he builds on that foundation for his work of building will be made manifest on the Day, that is, the day of judgment, the day of Christ’s tribunal. The Christians whose work survives that test will receive a reward, whereas he or she whose work is burned up will suffer loss, “but he himself will be saved.”
In other words, the declaration of Christ’s judgment seat is not the ultimate sentence of salvation or damnation, but an evaluation of the lives of Christ’s people, the redeemed by his blood, who will receive greater or lesser reward according to the faithfulness with which they lived for him in this world. The rewards vary in proportion to the spiritual diligence of each individual Christian. It is the measure of that reward that will be determined at the judgment seat of Christ.
3. The third thing to be said about this judgment of believers in the Great Day, however, is that it is of a piece with and part of that same judgment by which the wicked are condemned and the righteous are vindicated and justified. Again and again Paul and other biblical writers speak with straightforward candor of the fact that, as Paul says in Roman 2:6, “God will give to each person according to what he has done,” or, as Jesus said, “those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned,” and, in another place, “by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
The fact is, for Paul true faith always works through love. True faith is a working faith. It produces things in life, good and holy things: obedience, love, service. The works of a believer’s life are its demonstration and proof. Faith becomes known as true faith by what it produces in a life. [Ridderbos, Paul, 179-180] If the basis of our acquittal in the judgment of God is the perfect righteousness of Christ received by faith, the proof of the reality of our faith is the works of our lives. For those works too are part of our salvation, they come from Christ, they rise out of faith. It is the unity of divine grace, of faith, and of good works, that lies behind the idea that we shall be judged by our works on the Great Day! No real Christian will come to the judgment day with no works proving his or her faith, for those works are as surely a result of God’s grace in us as the faith by which we are united to Christ’s righteousness.
4. The fourth thing to be said about Christians facing the judgment of the Lord on the last day is that this reality, however hard it may be for Christians to get used to it, fits entirely with reality as that is revealed and explained to us in the Word of God. There is nothing alien here, nothing out of agreement with what we know about God or the world or ourselves or salvation. There are different ranks and distinctions made between angels, why not between men? God gives very different gifts and rewards to his children in this world, why not in the world to come? There are certainly different degrees of punishment visited upon the unbelieving, why not different degrees of reward among the devout? Indeed, is this not precisely what we would expect of the Lord, the righteous judge. His judgment would be perfect, impartial, and exact. Those who did more would certainly be rewarded in greater measure. Some unbelievers will be beaten with many stripes and some with few because God is a righteous judge, and some believers will rule over ten cities and some over five for the very same reason.
5. Then, there is this final point to make. Christians should not look at this judgment only in a fearful way and consider it only as likely to expose their failures of thought, word, and deed. Paul didn’t. Remember, Paul was a man very conscious of his sins, of his continuing sinfulness, and of his failures of thought, word, and deed. He confesses his continuing struggle with sin as a Christian in his letters and especially in Romans 7. But, he also did not slander the grace of God in him by supposing that his sinfulness meant that he never did a holy thing, never served God in some useful and proper way, never loved and obeyed as a Christian should. It is clear in these verses that Paul expects that judgment to find good in him and not only evil, to find works to reward and not only that living and serving that will not stand the test. Christians who have cut their teeth on total depravity and justification by faith alone often have difficulty really believing that there is much of anything good in themselves, everything is tainted by sin and so unworthy. What, they, they ask, would God find to reward in my life? But this is not a biblical mind about the Christian life. It is a half-truth, not the whole truth.
Rabbi Duncan, the Scottish Presbyterian of uncanny insight, once said “I have never done a sinless action during the seventy years [of my life]. I don’t say but by God’s grace there may have been some holy action done, but never a sinless action.” [Just a Talker, 166] Well, Paul would have agreed with that; he would have said he had never done anything in all his life that was not tainted by sin in motive or manner, even the very best things. But that did not mean he had not, by God’s grace, done things that would bring God’s reward in the day of Christ’s judgment. He who said of himself that he was a wretched man, a bondslave of sin, constantly doing what he shouldn’t and failing to do what he should, nevertheless also said, “I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith…” Both statements were true and both should be made and can be made by any real Christian.
Rabbi Duncan himself often struggled with a too pessimistic view of his own life. He was given to depression and melancholy; a glass half-empty fellow at least some of the time. Near the end of his life he said to a friend,
“[Someone said to David Dickson [ — Dickson was a famous 17th century Scottish divine — ] when he was on his deathbed, ‘What are you doing, brother.’ [Dickson] replied, ‘I am taking all my bad deeds and all my good deeds and throwing them into one bundle, and fleeing from both to Christ.’ ‘But the difference with me [said Duncan] is this – I have been casting about, and I cannot find any good deeds to put into the bundle.’” [Brown, Life of Duncan, 501]
Well, we don’t blame Duncan for that piece of Christian rhetoric. As a way of saying that we are counting on Christ’s righteousness and not our own, we can understand and agree with what he was saying. But, the fact is, there are good works in a believers life, many of them, there were in Duncan’s life as a great many people he helped would have gladly attested. To say there are no good deeds is to slander God’s grace and the Holy Spirit in us! And those works will not be forgotten and will not go unrewarded. The Lord, the righteous judge, who is our heavenly Father, will see to it. You know how proud you are of the achievements of your children and how determined you are that those achievements be recognized and rewarded. Well, so our Father in heaven.
So, we must very surely think carefully and rightly about this judgment seat of Christ, but we must then, still more, face the prospect as the reality that it is and will be.
What that prospect made of Paul, as he himself says, was a very serious man. Anyone who takes to heart the Word of God, really believes it, feels its force in the mind will be a serious person. He will not for that reason not be a cheerful and happy person, but there will be this seriousness about him, this gravity, this sense of the terrible importance of daily life. Because much is required of those who have been given much, the thought of Christ’s judgment seat must have a particular solemnity for a Christian. There certainly was such a solemnity in Paul.
He believed in the greater importance of his life, that measure of its importance that could not be seen in this world. As John Flavel, the Puritan, put it: “Our actions, physically considered, are transient, but morally considered they are permanent.” What you think, what you say or do not say, what you do or do not do, these things do not matter only for time, they matter for eternity. They will be remembered and evaluated and judged. And then they will determine at the tribunal of Jesus Christ precisely what is due you for the endless ages to come. Anyone who believes that, really believes, will be serious about his life and about living his life according to the will of God and for the sake of Jesus Christ. All the reasons why one might prefer to sin rather than to obey, or to serve oneself instead of Christ simply vanish, disintegrate before the sight of yourself, next to appear before the judgment seat of Christ. If you know that day is coming, as Paul did, as every Christian should, doing God’s will, no matter the difficulty, is all that is left to you, all that you desire.
You will become like Jerome, the church father, who said, “Whether I eat or drink, or whatever I do, I think I still hear the sound of these words in my ear: ‘Arise you dead, and come to judgment.’”
Paul certainly thought that way. The prospect of appearing before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of his life — to have his life examined and measured — was a major force in his daily living. He knew that a judgment that considered the faithfulness of a Christian’s life did not in any way contradict the gospel of free grace and justification by faith alone, however much it might produce a certain tension with it. He knew that God, being infinitely holy, would take seriously the lives his children lived in the world, and, being infinitely just, would make the appropriate distinctions between them in his judgment. Paul knew this and it galvanized him to action. It set him to the most careful stewardship of his days and nights. It made him a faithful worker in the kingdom of God and evangelist of the lost. It made him patient in bearing his afflictions and generous in the consideration of his neighbor. It made him faithful in every Christian duty and quick to repent of his sins. And, if we are wise, this same expectation of our own coming appearance before the judgment seat of Christ will have us up and doing the same for the kingdom’s sake just as it did the great Apostle to the Gentiles. This is not moralism; this is simply the plain, honest, logic of the teaching of the Bible.
I believe as well that my life will be judged and my place in heaven determined – what that means I do not claim to know, that it is so, I cannot doubt – by the measure of faithfulness that I have shown him while he gave me to live in this world. And I have no difficulty believing that both things are true. I am a sinner and I know I cannot save myself or even contribute to my salvation if salvation requires that I meet the standards of a God as holy as I know God to be. But I am also a Christian and I know that my heavenly Father takes with full seriousness how I live my life and that his perfect justice makes it inevitable that he would note and reward a greater or lesser faithfulness.
And I can see very clearly how the two of these doctrines together make for a Christian life such as I want with all my heart to live — perfect humility before God and man in the awareness of my terrible need, my utter hopelessness in myself, and the immensity of my debt to the grace of God and, at the same time, perfect zeal in the performance of my duty as a servant of God, in the demonstration of my love as his child, and in my obedience to his law as his subject.
Thursday morning I was doing my son’s paper route while he was on choir tour. It was early, of course. Still dark. And as I walked toward a house to toss a paper on the porch, I saw the end of what must have been a long chase as two dogs brought down a cat from the railing of the porch next door. They dragged it onto the lawn, the cat struggling, the dogs at its throat. I yelled and ran at them and the dogs scattered, but it was too late. The cat lay on the grass moaning and then fell silent. No one saw, no one heard. Someone’s much loved pet met its end suddenly, violently, and all alone. But, of course. God saw. As our Savior said, “not one sparrow falls from a tree apart from the will of your heavenly father.” That is obviously one way to think about the judgment seat of Christ. And it cannot help but solemnize us. He knows! He knows everything. He knows everything that happens, even in the dark, even when you are alone! He knows our thoughts as well as our deeds, what we have not done as well as all that we have. It is, this is the Bible’s figure of speech, all written down in a book and that book will someday be opened and read. There will be no posing, no representing of yourselves at that tribunal. The facts will be out in the open, the good and the bad. The bad will be burned up and there will be no reward for it at all.
But, that is not the only way to think of this moment of all moments in human history and in the history of your own life, when you finally appear, yourself, before the judgment seat of Christ. What you have done well, what you have become as a follower of Christ, what you have faithfully performed in the service of the Lord, all of that will be brought into the open as well. Every tear shed for sin, every struggle to bring your attitudes into conformity to the love of Christ, every struggle with impurity, every accusation you ever brought against yourself for your pride or your self-love, or your indifference to others, every longing to be holy inside and out for Christ’s sake, every loving impulse toward him, every word spoken on his behalf, every deed done simply because you knew it was his will, every sin you forgave from your heart, every effort you ever made to keep his commandments and to honor his name, every kindness shown to others because you knew it was right and would please the Lord. Every prayer, every word of witness, every true motion of your heart in worship, every moment of serious attention you paid to the Bible as the Word of God, every sincere confession of sin you ever made to God, every turning away from yourself to Christ and Christ alone as your hope of everlasting life. All of this too, much of it the secret and sometimes most painful part of your life, all of that too will be brought into the open. And God will approve it and reward it.
Is it true that there are both of these motives set before us here? The fear of exposure and the expectation of reward? Well, yes; and how utterly and honestly that is life as we have come to know it. And how wonderfully those two motives conspire to help us become more and more what we ought to be and want to be for our Savior’s sake. Perhaps, honestly, I would rather there be no such judgment. That we all be the same in heaven, all of us who have believed in Jesus Christ. But, not if the price is that I live less a life than Christ deserves from me. And, after all, it matters not what I think or want. There will be such a judgment, and we must live now reckoning with that fact. And we will not be the worse for it, but much, much the better.