STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 15
October 19, 2003
“The Last Judgment”
In Christian theology and spiritual writing “The Four Last Things” is a characteristic title for the subjects of Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. Those are the four last things. However death is really not in quite the same class as the other three. Death may be the last thing for us in this world but it occurs all the time and has from the beginning of time. It is a regular, even daily feature of life in this world and in the kingdom and church of God. It does not happen only at the end of the age. There was a funeral in this church this afternoon. Death is an immensely important subject in its own right, of course, and the Bible teaches us a great deal about death and about how to prepare for it and what to expect when we die. The significance of the Lord Jesus and believing in him is often cast in terms of the difference it makes at death. There is a separation made between men at death, there are the beginnings of heaven and hell upon death, depending upon one’s relation to Christ. There is what Christian theology calls “the intermediate state,” that period between the death of a believer and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the resurrection. But I’m going to pass over those subjects entirely to deal with those matters that belong properly to biblical eschatology, to the Bible’s account of the history of the kingdom of God and its consummation at the end of the world and what will then transpire.
So we come first to the Last Judgment, the second of the Four Last Things. There is a judgment of God that is executed in this world, of course. There is a sense in which even the final judgment reaches back into the personal history of human beings in this world. In John 3:18 we read:
“He who believes in [Christ] is not condemned [or judged]; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
And all along the way of human life, God imposes punishments and rewards upon those who do evil and those who do good. This is true of believers and unbelievers alike. “The way of the transgressor is hard” in many ways; and in many ways “in keeping the commandments of God there is great reward.” However, the Bible bears its own witness to the fact that these temporal judgments are incomplete and insufficient. For example, the man in Psalm 73 is troubled at first by the fact that the wicked often seem to be enjoying more prosperity in this world than the righteous. But, then he remembers what he had forgotten. “Then I discerned their end” or “Then I understood their final destiny.” The fact of the coming judgment, the final reckoning, should profoundly alter one’s perception of what is really happening in this world. The wicked may seem to prosper in this life, but as Bernard of Clairvaux so memorably put it, “There is no greater misery than false joys” and as Bunyan put it, “One hour in hell will burn up all the pleasures the wicked may have enjoyed in this world.” And, so it is that the Bible unmistakably also teaches that there will be a final reckoning, a final judgment into which every human life will be brought and at the bar of which every human life will be measured and assigned its proper place in the world to come. As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:10:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Or as Peter writes in 2 Pet. 3:7:
“…the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of
judgment and destruction of ungodly men.”
Or as the Lord himself declares in Matt. 25:31-33:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”
And, once more, at the very end of the Bible in Rev. 20:12:
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.”
And there are many other like statements in the Bible.
Now, it is obvious that we should not think of this last judgment as a means of determining whether people are saved or lost. Clearly that is known long before mankind is brought into judgment. The Seventh Day Adventists, for example, teach that at the end of every person’s life there will be an “investigative judgment” of his life and that judgment will determine whether the person is saved or lost. [Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 253] But the Bible teaches nothing of the kind. Believers in Christ are, throughout the Bible, assured of their salvation already in this world. “There is, therefore, no condemnation to the one who is in Christ Jesus.” “I know my sheep,” Jesus said, “and they hear my voice and follow me. No one can snatch them out of my hand.” “Our citizenship is in heaven.” “We have been placed in the heavenly places with Christ.” “We see and greet the heavenly country from afar.” “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” And a great many texts of that type. And, conversely, those who do not believe, the Bible says in many different ways, “are condemned already.”
So the purpose of the Last Judgment is not to find out, to investigate whether a person is to be saved or lost. It has other purposes.
1. First, the Last Judgment serves to vindicate the honor and glory of God in the judgments he has already made of people and their lives. The wicked world refuses to acknowledge God’s moral rule or its own great moral defect and all of this will be published to the winds on the Great Day.
As Jude has it: “…the Lord is coming…to judge everyone and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done…and of all the harsh words they have spoken against him.”
Up until the time of the Judgment, the destinies of men have been hidden. The power of the gospel to save men and give them eternal life has been seen only by some, not by all. What is true goodness and what is evil continues to be debated in the world, no matter that God has spoken. Well, the Last Judgment will settle all debate and vindicate God’s Word and law and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The fact that it is said everywhere in the NT that Jesus himself will be the Judge of all men, is the grand demonstration of this purpose of the Last Judgment. Everyone will know that he is the Redeemer, the King of Kings, God the Son. There will be no doubt then that he is everything Christians have believed him to be and said he is. Everyone will know that as one is related to him so his or her eternal destiny. Everyone will see in a moment what has always been true but what so many would not believe.
2. Second, this Last Judgment will reveal the degree of reward or of punishment which each one will receive within his or her respective class, the saved or the lost. Since, as the Bible often says everyone will come into judgment, believers and unbelievers alike, and everyone will receive what is due him for the deeds done in the body whether good or evil, the Last Judgment is the means of settling accounts and assigning punishment and reward. It is well to remember, at this point, that angels will also be judged in that Day, both good and bad angels. (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6)
There are, as you know, many Christians who have resisted this understanding of the Last Judgment. They have argued that since Christians are judged on the Last Day according to Christ’s righteousness and not their own, their own works, good or bad, are immaterial and will not come up for consideration. This is not, however, what the Bible teaches.
a. First, there are a great many texts that say simply that everyone will be judged on the Last Day and that they will be judged according to what they did when they lived in the world. We have already read some of those texts, there are many others.
1. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome in Rom. 14:12: “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
2. The last verse of Ecclesiastes, 12:14 reads: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
3. Jesus said in Matt. 12:36-37: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” And there are a number of other statements like those.
b. Second, church leaders are promised an accounting at the judgment and rewards or losses according to the faithfulness of their ministry. In other words, there are specific instances of a reckoning of believing lives according to what they have done in the Bible.
1. In Hebrews 13:17 elders are said to be men “who must give an account.”
2. In 1 Cor. 3:12-15 we have the idea of the judgment of Christian men presented in unmistakable clarity. “If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. [In context “the Day” is the day of Christ’s coming and the Last Judgment.] It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
c. Third, the notion of reward or rank among the redeemed or greater or lesser punishment among the lost is part of the Bible’s doctrine of God’s just judgment.
1. The Lord tells the parable of the talents in Matt. 25:14-30 and of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27. These are passages devoted to the Second Coming and our preparation for it, and in those similar parables men are rewarded in greater or lesser amounts depending upon the faithfulness and fruitfulness of their service. Interestingly the reward for faithfulness is more responsibility rather than simply a greater wealth or pleasure.
2. As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says, “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.” God never calls his children to service without promising to recognize their faithfulness and reward it.
3. Contrarily, sin is punished precisely as well. As we read in Luke 12:47-48 those who sin more egregiously, those who sin against light and privilege, are to be punished more severely than those whose guilt was less because they knew less and sinned against less light. Some are beaten with many blows and some with but few.
d. Fourth, there are ranks and statuses among the angels, so clearly there is nothing of an American democratic egalitarianism in the kingdom of God. God does not have a problem with diversity within unity, or with superiority and inferiority even among those who are his children and upon whom he has lavished the gift of eternal life. The divine judgment is a perfect judgment and God does care about how we live our lives. We know that some real Christians are more faithful than others, more devout, more pure, more loving, more humble, or obedient. Why should we suppose that, as important as those obligations and virtues are in the Bible, they should not be recognized and rewarded in the Last Judgment? And, similarly, why would we not suppose that God, the perfect judge, would be unwilling to punish two men with the same punishment when their guilt was of differing degrees? There is nothing in the Bible, nothing, to suggest that in a perfect world all Christians would occupy the same rank or have the same authority or exercise the same responsibility. It isn’t so in the church now and won’t be in heaven.
You who are parents know that your children are not the same. You love them all, more than life itself, and there is no question of their place either in your affections or in the family, but some are harder workers, some are more troublesome to you, some are more rebellious than others. They may grow out of that and even may change places in your moral judgment when they grow older, but you have no doubt that there are such differences. Well, why should we suppose that it would be different with God our Father?
e. Fifth, it can trouble Christian people to think that their sins will be brought up again and made manifest in the judgment, but, without a doubt, the Bible says they will. “…that each may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad,” Paul says in speaking about the Last Judgment. Even our sins must be reckoned with if the judgment of our lives is to be true and just and our sins must be made manifest if Christ’s glory as our Redeemer is to be revealed in all its wonder to the entire world and race of men. The grandest purpose of salvation is the praise of the glory of God’s grace and how can that be seen without the revelation of our guilt and our ill desert that he has covered with his blood and righteousness. What is more, human life is organic and interrelated. The sins of Christians are interwoven with the sins of unbelievers. The latter could not be revealed without the revelation of the former. As the Scripture says, “there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed” (Luke 12:2). But it will be as forgiven sins that our sins will be revealed and brought into God’s judgment. None of this teaching about the Last Judgment can be thought to set aside the perfect justification of those who have trusted in Jesus Christ.
3. The third and last purpose of the Last Judgment is the actual execution of God’s final judgment of a human life. That is, there is an end to what one has done and said, a final reckoning, and thereafter one will live forever in the place God has assigned to him, whether in the new earth or in that place of separation from God. It is not the case that things can always be changed that there is always a tomorrow to mend what was done today. There comes a point when the outcome is fixed and made permanent and that point is the Last Judgment.
We could say more about this Last Judgment. The Bible tells us more about it. But that is enough for tonight. We have the main point before us: that there is such a final judgment and that all men, including ourselves, will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, have to give an account of our lives, hear the record of our deeds both good and bad, and receive the recompense.
Now, it is perfectly clear that the Bible expects Christians to respond to this promise of a Last Judgment in two different ways.
1. First, we should welcome the prospect. Strange as it may seem, appalling as that prospect may seem to us, conscious as we are of our sins and our failures, our faith in Christ requires us to welcome the coming of the Day of the Lord. We want to see him and his rule vindicated; we want to see those who have trusted in him and served him be acquitted and their faithfulness rewarded. We want to see the enemies of God discomfited. You cannot pray maranatha, you cannot hope for the Second Coming, without praying for and hoping for the Last Judgment, which is the immediate consequence of the Second Coming. It is mere sentimentality to hope for Christ’s return but not to want him to do what he will do, what he has promised to do, when he returns. And since there can be no entrance into heaven and bliss without the Judgment, we must look for and long for the Last Judgment.
The Heidelberg Catechism asks this question: “How does Christ’s return ‘to judge the living and the dead’ comfort you?” And the answer comes:
“In all my distress and persecution I turn my eyes to the heavens and confidently
await as judge the very One who has already stood trial in my place before God
and so has removed the whole curse from me. All his enemies and mine he will
condemn to everlasting punishment: but me and all his chosen ones he will take
along with him into the joy and the glory of heaven.”
Is that not what the Bible everywhere teaches. The Last Judgment is the doorway to everlasting joy! No wonder we should welcome it. We have nothing to fear from it and much, much to gain.
What a scene that will be! Those of you who have been in the Sistine chapel and seen Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” perhaps remember the impact of that painting: the wailing of the lost, the dawning of doom on the faces of those who thought better of their prospects. It seems far away from the busy pace of our life, and the pleasure of this world, and the easy mixture of Christians and non-Christians in both the world and the church. But our Savior warned us of that coming day, over and again, in the most solemn tones possible. And what do you suppose will you think and will you feel when you realize that you are among the sheep, that you will go to Christ’s right hand and not his left. What joy and gratitude and love will fill your heart then; what excitement at what is to come next.
2. But, in the second place, as we look forward to the Last Day and to the world of joy that lies beyond it, and the declaration of our justification in Christ that we will hear in it, we are also solemnized by the thought that we must give an account of our lives, even our Christian lives.
If we are honest with ourselves we know how good it is for us to be made to reckon with the prospect of this judgment and to be reminded every day that our lives will be brought into judgment and that we will receive what is due us for what was done in the body whether good or evil. Connecting behavior with consequences is a very large part of wisdom. We strive to make this connection in the hearts and minds of our children. But we need to have that same connection reinforced all through our lives. We are always acting as if our behavior was evanescent, as if it disappeared as soon as the word was spoken or the deed done, or not done as the case may be. We resent it when others remember our false and bad deeds. But as John Flavel, the English Puritan wrote,
“Our actions physically considered are transient, but morally considered they are
permanent.” [Works, I, 306]
Horatius Bonar has a verse to the same effect:
Fill up each hour with what will last,
Buy up the moments as they go;
The life above, when this is past,
Is the ripe fruit of life below.
Negatively, this means that we may be sure that all our sins will find us out eventually. Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed. And positively it means that all our acts of loyalty to the Lord, however unnoticed, however even mental and hidden within ourselves, will be made manifest at the end – the entire record of our lives.
This should solemnize us and make us very unwilling to sin – knowing that every sin will be discovered and have some eventual consequence, even if the sin is forgiven by God through Christ – and should make us determined to live our lives in obedience to God in the knowledge that every part and piece of that obedience will one day have its reward.
It was these inescapable implications of the Last Judgment that led Jerome the church father to say, “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.’” I am so grateful for the revelation for the last judgment. I know I need it. I wish I remembered it and expected it every hour of every day. I wish the sight of it was persistently fixed in my mind’s eye.
Tell me that you and I would not lead far better lives, that there would be less sin and self in them and more righteousness and Christ in them if only we had the active prospect of the Last Judgment always in our mind’s eye. As you know, the most commonly repeated objection to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith is that it undermines good works and righteous living. If all our sins are forgiven in Christ and we are counted as righteous as he was righteous because his righteousness is imputed to us or reckoned as ours – and that is the Protestant doctrine –, what need is there for us to labor to be good, holy, pure, and loving?
There are a number of answers to that objection – Paul had to answer it in regard to his own teaching about justification which seems to indicate that any true biblical teaching will be objected to on these grounds – but one answer is provided here, in the Bible’s doctrine of the Last Judgment. Our works are not insignificant. They may have nothing to do with how we are made righteous before God, but they most certainly are considered in the judgment of God and determine our place and the measure of our reward in the heavenly kingdom.
We cannot deny the reality of this reward for faithfulness. The Bible is explicit. And we should not care to deny it. Of course it matters deeply to God how his children live their lives and being the just and faithful Father he is, he will reward his children accordingly. At the same time, we do not forget that without Christ we can do nothing, that when we have done all that is required of us we are still unprofitable servants for we have only done our duty, and that his rewards far exceed our deservings, for even our best works have sin mixed in and through them. As Augustine said long ago, when God rewards the faithfulness of his people he is only crowning his own gifts. And when, in the Lord’s parable, for ten minas the faithful servant is rewarded with responsibility for ten cities, we know that grace is at work here more than a simple calculation of desert. A city for a mina, — a mina was worth about 100 drachmas, or three months wages for a laborer – a city for a mina! A mina wasn’t enough to buy a peasant’s hut, but here it brings a city for the one who uses it faithfully. This is reward, but it is the reward of grace!
Hugh Latimer, the great 16th century English Reformer and martyr was brought to trial before several bishops. Three times a week they would call him into this great room and asked complicated questions of theology. The hope was to trip him up, to get him to say something for which he and his teaching might be condemned. But one time he was brought into the room he noticed some changes. Before there had always been a fire in the huge fireplace. But now there was a great tapestry hanging over the fire place and covering the space where the fire would have been. What is more, the table where Latimer always sat had now been placed near to the fireplace. Finally, when asked his first question he was told to speak up as there were some of the bishops who were hard of hearing. He had never been told to speak up before. All of this aroused Latimer’s suspicions and then he heard a pen scratching paper behind the tapestry. His answers were being taken down, supposedly without his knowledge, so that they could be studied for possible errors later. But Latimer had figured out the strategy and was far more careful than he might otherwise have been in giving answers that would stand up to scrutiny.
Well, brothers and sisters, there is a book being written of our lives, yours and mine. A pen is scratching away all the while – what we think, say and do, what we fail to think, to say and do – but never a moment goes by without an entry being made in that book. How careful ought we then to be! If, by the ear of faith, we can hear that pen moving over the paper, or if by the eye of faith we can see ourselves coming up to the great throne of the Lord Christ to give an account of our lives, to see our own book be opened, and our deeds revealed, how much it must help us to live each day as we are going to want to have lived when that moment arrives and we are next in line to stand before our Redeemer whom it was our duty, but also our privilege to serve. Then what will we think of how we lived our lives? How will we regret what we did for a moment’s pleasure but what remains forever in the moral judgment of our lives?
I want to remember the Last Judgment every hour of every day that I live in this world. Every hour of every day! By faith I want to see it and hear it.
“I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled
from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.” (Rev. 21:12)
“Behold I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” (Rev. 22:12)
Time’s a wasting, brothers and sisters, time to empty your book of what you will not want to be there and to fill it with what you will. The Lord has told you what is to come.