In this short series of sermons on the judgments of the Lord we have so far said that it is a subject needing attention in our time because it is not receiving the attention it deserves, certainly nothing like the attention it receives in Holy Scripture. Then last time we observed that God’s judgment, according both to the Bible and the observation of life, is already with us. As Paul says in Romans 1 the wrath of God is already being revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. It is not only an article of the Christian faith, it is a fact of life and the judgment visited upon men in this life and the judgment that comes at the end of history are related to one another. The latter is the consummation and completion of the former.
Tonight I want to consider the question: are Christians themselves subject to this judgment? At the last judgment will you and I have to answer for our sins? Will we receive a reward in keeping with the measure of our obedience? Will we be judged according to our works? Or, to put it bluntly, do we Christians have something to fear as well as something to look forward to at the judgment seat of Christ? It is a question that has been answered very differently by Christians through the ages.
There have been those who have hotly denied that Christians have anything to do with the Last Judgment apart perhaps from hearing in that formal way that their sins have been forgiven and that they are accounted righteous by God because of what Jesus Christ has done for them. In this view the Last Judgment for Christians will be nothing more than their public and final vindication! “O Happy Day!” And it is not difficult for us to understand why Christians should think this. Doesn’t Paul say, “There is, therefore, no condemnation for the man who is in Christ Jesus”? Didn’t the Lord himself say, in John 5:24:
“Truly, truly I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
And doesn’t John speak of the confidence that Christians should have in the Day of Judgment (1 John 4:17)?
“God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment…”
That doesn’t sound very much as if Christians have something to worry about in the prospect of the Last Judgment. Indeed, the consistent note sounded by Holy Scripture in respect to the believer’s anticipation of the Lord’s return and the Last Judgment is confidence, even eager anticipation. “Maranatha,” O Lord, come!” In the Bible the Last Judgment is the final victory of the Lord over all his and our enemies. It is something to look forward to.
There are only a few Reformed theologians through the ages whose opinion has carried more weight than Francis Turretin, the 17th century Swiss theologian whose Institutes were for several centuries the standard theological textbook in Reformed seminaries in Europe and North America. According to Turretin, while a Christian’s good works will be surveyed and rewarded at the Last Judgment, his or her sins will not be a subject of evaluation. Turretin argues this way. Our moral failures will not be canvassed or assessed at the Last Judgment
- Because our Judge has already satisfied his justice in respect to those sins in the work of his Son, Jesus Christ.
- Because the NT mentions believers’ good works being a matter of consideration at the Last Judgment, but not their sins.
- Because God, being merciful, would not want to recall our sins or require us to recall them.
- And because if our sins were to be made known it would lead to disgrace and to confusion among the saints, the very things from which the Lord is said to have set them free.
Those are not inconsiderable arguments. But I’m quite sure that Turretin’s opinion is not correct in one respect and that for a number of reasons, reasons that explain why most Reformed theologians through the centuries have not agreed with him on this point.
But before I list those reasons, let’s be honest with ourselves. We all want Turretin to be right, don’t we? I wish he were; I confess it openly. It troubles us, it worries us, honestly it discourages me to think that my moral failures in this life – of which there have been so many and of which I am so ashamed – would be brought up again in the Last Judgment and that in some way I would have to answer for them. What is more, I agree with almost everything Turretin said in making his case. He is obviously incorrect in one point, as we shall see, but surely he is right in the rest. God is a merciful God. The great reality is that our sins have been swept away by the death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. There is no more condemnation for the man or woman who is in Christ Jesus! Our sins have been separated from us as far as the east is from the west. They have been buried in the deepest sea; they have been cast behind God’s back; they have been trampled under his feet; and God has said that he remembers them no more. Why then would they have to be dredged up again at the Last Judgment? When we forgive someone his or her sins – our children for example – we know very well that we are now on our mettle not to keep bringing them up as if we had not forgiven them. God’s grace is such that it wipes the slate clean. That is what is so wonderful, so liberating about the gospel! The mercies of the Lord, new every morning. Honestly, the fact that I must face the Last Judgment and give an account of my life, is not a truth I find easy to accept.
But, then, knowing the teaching of the Bible as I do, I could almost guarantee that, all of that emphatic teaching notwithstanding, there would be teaching in the Bible that we would find difficult to reconcile with that wonderful news. The Bible, as we have learned through the years, is chock full of jarring juxtapositions of truth, startling incongruities or paradoxes. Indeed, hardly any of its teaching lacks this characteristic, what we have come to call its dialectical nature, by which we mean the juxtaposition of truths not easily reconciled to one another, the teaching of two related truths, both valid but not easily resolved into a neat harmony of truth. Indeed, as Simone Weil, the French Jewish Christian convert and philosopher, once put it in regard to any truth, I think we may say about biblical truth, viz: “As soon as one has arrived at any position, try to find in what sense the contrary is true.” [Waiting for God, 31]
So while we are absolutely right to read the Bible as teaching us that the Last Judgment will be our vindication and that we will stand acquitted in that judgment because we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we must also attend to what it teaches us, and not infrequently, about the examination of our lives in that judgment and the difference that will be made by how we served or failed to serve the Lord Jesus during the years of our Christian lives. For the fact is, the reason most Christian theologians have taught that Christians, you and I, must face the Last Judgment, to be evaluated as to our obedience and disobedience, is because it is so clearly the teaching of the Word of God.
And so it was the conviction of the church fathers. Jerome said, “Whether I eat or drink or whatever I do, I think I still hear the sounds of these words in my ear: ‘Arise you dead and come to judgment.’” But it was likewise the conviction of the Puritans. Here is John Flavel. “Our actions, physically considered, are transient, but morally considered they are permanent.” [Works, I, 306] And so one of the greatest of modern theologians, the Dutchman Herman Bavinck.
“Scripture does indeed say that all human beings without distinction, hence also believers, must appear before the judgment seat of Christ. But it also attests that those who believe in him are not condemned and do not come into judgment, for they already have eternal life…” [iv, 701]
“Although salvation is granted to all believers, there will be differences in glory among them, depending on their works. In Scripture, therefore, both in the New and in the Old Testament, there is a close connection between sanctification and glorification. What is sown here is harvested in eternity.” [Reformed Dogmatics, iv, 236]
To be sure, Turretin himself admits that point, though he wants only the positive to be considered, not the negative. So what does the Bible actually say about this; about Christians having to face the Judgment and being rewarded according to the measure of their obedience and the faithfulness of their service? Well more than you might think!
As we began tonight I read a typical statement on this theme by the Apostle Paul. Here in 2 Cor. 5:10 Paul asserts several things:
- Given the fact that he was writing to Christians, to those he identified as “the church” and “the saints” at the beginning of the letter, his words “we must all appear…” obviously means that “we Christians” must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
- Whatever else may be true of the verdict of that judgment – and obviously it will vindicate our faith in Christ and the righteousness that we have in him – our behavior will be examined and we will be rewarded accordingly. It is difficult to imagine a clearer statement of the point than, “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body…” Our lives here in this world will make a difference to our lives in the world to come. The outcome of our lives will not be exactly the same, even though we all have the same righteousness of Jesus Christ.
- Against Turretin’s argument that only the believers’ good works will come into examination, not his or her sins, Paul says explicitly, “whether good or evil.”
- And, finally, the prospect of this judgment and its consequences in the world to come are obviously in Paul’s mind a motive for holy living. It could hardly be such a motive if how we lived our lives, how faithfully or unfaithfully we served the Lord, how readily we obeyed or disobeyed his commandments had no bearing on our eternal standing. How could it be a motivation for us now if it didn’t matter at the end?
What obviously makes this testimony so impressive is that it comes from the pen of the champion of justification by faith alone. It is Paul, as you know, who more categorically and comprehensively than any other biblical writer rejects every appeal to human works or human merit. Only by the grace of God, only by the sacrifice of Christ, only by the reckoning of his righteousness to us who have no righteousness of our own, can sinners be put right with God. That is Paul from beginning to end. And yet here he says in words too clear and straightforward to misunderstand that we will be judged according to our works. And it is hardly only here. Even in the midst of his great polemic against justification by works in Romans 2 and 3 we find this:
“He will render to each one according to his works…”
Now, in that place, he is not specifically talking about how Christians will be judged as Christians at the judgment seat of Christ, but still, even in the heat of his battle for free grace and justification by faith alone, Paul does not hesitate to remind us that our lives will be examined in the great assize and God’s judgment of them will consider what we have done and how we have done it.
More striking still, because very clearly addressing a Christian audience, Paul writes to motivate the believers in Galatia to good works and says:
“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked: for whatever one sows, that he will also reap.” [6:7-8]
In Romans 14:10-12, again in a passage where he is motivating Christians to live worthy of the gospel, he writes:
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…. So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Again, in making a similar appeal to believers, Paul writes in Ephesians 6:8:
“… [be] servants of God from the heart…knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.”
Paul makes the same point to the Colossian believers, if anything, more strongly:
“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance of your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.”
And so 1 Cor. 4:5:
“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”
What can giving an account to God for our lives or having the purposes and the inclinations of our hearts disclosed or receiving our commendation from God possibly mean if there is no consequence – reward or the diminishment of reward – for our behavior? We can hardly say that this witness to our lives being evaluated and being rewarded in varying measure is somehow an unimportant element in Paul’s theology, or one that can be understood in some more innocuous way. It is woven into the warp and woof of the teaching of the great Apostle; it comes up again and again. It cannot be denied that our works, that the way we live our Christian lives, plays a role in the final drama of God’s judgment. [Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, 105] And it is hardly only Paul who sets our sights on an accounting to be made of our lives at the Last Judgment. Here is Peter in his First Letter (1:17):
“And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile…
And here is the Lord Jesus and John in Revelation, also speaking to Christians (2:23; 20:12):
“I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.”
Indeed, such an understanding of God as judge and of human judgment is not original to the New Testament,; we find it already in the Old Testament. We have the famous statement as the end of Psalm 62 (vv. 11-12):
“One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done.”
Or this in Ecclesiastes (12:14):
“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
And we have the same in Jeremiah (32:19):
“…O great and mighty God, whose name is the Lord of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the children of man, rewarding each one according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.”
No wonder then that we should find the same in the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself:
“For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.” [Matt. 16:27]
Are you beginning to appreciate how often the Bible teaches that we, among all men, will be judged according to our works? But such general statements are just the beginning of the Bible’s witness to the judgment of the lives of Christians on the last day.
The Bible makes clear that believers will be granted reward in different measures in the Last Judgment. That is, if some are given a greater reward than others, it is impossible to deny that the judgment of our lives on the great day has this purpose: not only to separate believers in Jesus from unbelievers, but to discriminate between believers in accordance to their obedience and faithfulness to God in this world. The judgment of works has sometimes been taken to mean only that the lives of Christians, as they are examined in the judgment, will serve to prove that they were followers of Christ. That is true and the Bible says that. But there is more to this judgment of our works than simply the demonstration of our faith. For Christians are rewarded differently according to their works.
This idea of varying measures of reward in the world to come is so commonplace in biblical teaching that we find it in the obiter dicta of biblical writers, that is, in comments they make by the by about something else. Here, for example, is the Lord himself in Matthew 18:4:
“Truly I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Or think of the Lord, the master in his parable, saying to the workers in his vineyard that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. [Matt. 20:16] You see the point. There can only be a greatest in the kingdom of heaven or a first if there are those in that kingdom who stand lower than he or she or come second or third. When the Lord closes his beatitudes, his description of the truly righteous man or woman with the words, “for great is your reward in heaven,” is he not connecting a greater holiness of life with a greater reward in the world to come? Indeed, the Bible makes this point so often that it has rarely been denied in Christian teaching. It may have been largely ignored, and most of us will confess that this is not a subject that we heard much about growing up as Christians in the church. It was ignored but it wasn’t denied. And no wonder. Even in the world of righteous angels not all are the same. There are archangels and there are more ordinary angels. Little as we know about their lives, we are told that some occupy higher positions than others.
The principle is fundamental to God’s perfectly righteous judgment: that is, it is judgment in accordance with the facts. That is why Paul can say to Christians, as he does in 2 Cor. 9:6: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” And this is why we read in Revelation that their works follow the saints to heaven. [14:13]
Famously in his parable of the ten minas the Lord speaks of those who, in reward for their faithful service, will be granted rule over ten cities and those who will be granted rule over five cities. Again the Lord’s judgment is exact and perfectly just, even the judgment that he exercises over lives of those who are his people by faith in Christ. His judgment discriminates between the saved and the lost, but it also discriminates within those two classes of people. I’m going to consider that in regard to the lost next time and, I think, it is a very important point often overlooked in our thinking about damnation and hell.
But there is still more. We also have more negative assessments of this judicial discrimination between believers. We have statements such as those of James (3:1) – ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” – and of the author of Hebrews (13:17) – “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.”
But we also have Paul’s dramatic account in 1 Cor. 3 of the differing fates on the Day of Judgment of two gospel workers, different, Paul says, because “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it…and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” In the one case – the case of the man who has built well on the foundation of Jesus Christ – he will receive a reward. In the other, a man who built poorly, his work will be burned up. “…he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” That text, among many others, seems to me clearly to refute Turretin’s idea that only a Christian’s good works, only his moral successes not his or her failures, will be brought up in the Last Judgment.
Add all of this up and what we get is this: the difference between Abraham and Lot, for example, will still be visible in some way in heaven! And so far as we know it will be visible forever. The Lord wasn’t kidding when he exhorted us to “store up our treasure in heaven.”
Surely we understand that. Our God is a perfect judge. Of course he will consider the differences between his children in respect to their loyalty, their obedience, and their service and reward them accordingly. It is what righteous judges do!
Now, let’s be clear. None of this can be taken to diminish the Bible’s consistent witness to the vindication of God’s people on the Day of Judgment. The first thing that happens on the Last Day is that the righteous will be separated from the wicked. After all, those who believe in Jesus Christ are said in the Bible already to have eternal life, already to have passed over from death to life. Believers who have died are already with Christ in heaven and clothed in white garments. Indeed, we are taught in the New Testament that the saints will actually have some role in the judgment of the world and of the angels. And, of course, as we said at the outset, there is no more condemnation for the man or woman in Christ Jesus and his or her sins have been separated from him or from her as far as the east is from the west. Whatever distinctions might be made between believers because of the way each lived his or her Christian life in this world, they all receive the same eternal life, the same perfection of soul and body, the same heavenly Jerusalem, the same glory of God, the same life lived in fellowship with God, and the same world of joy.
To reconcile these two biblical emphases – our perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ and the judgment and reward of our lives according to our works here – is not easy. We can understand well enough that God can make distinctions between unbelievers and distinctions also between believers and we can understand why he might do so. But in our own hearts, it is hard to hold to the two thoughts together at the same time. Are we to rejoice at the prospect of the Last Judgment or are we to fear it. And, the fact is, the Bible says we are to do both! We find it very easy to understand how the gospel should be the standard in the Last Judgment: those who believe in Jesus Christ acquitted and those who do not condemned. But it is harder for us to accept that the gospel is not the only standard of judgment.
But then we know this is right. We know that those who have proved themselves most faithful should have a greater reward. We know that those who have looked faithful on the outside but whose hearts and lives were secretly much less than they appeared to be, should not get credit for a faithfulness they did not actually practice. Hence the Bible’s considerable attention to the fact that the thoughts and intents of the heart and that the secrets of our lives will be revealed. Just as in the case of unbelievers, we understand why God would not hold them to account for revelation they never received, in the same way we understand why God would care how faithfully, how sacrificially, how humbly, how lovingly his children served him in the world and would judge them according to how well they were taught to understand their duty, their obligation to the Lord Jesus Christ. [Cf. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, iv, 700] If God makes such a precise distinction between unbelievers – a point I want to emphasize next time – surely he will make distinctions between believers for the same reasons. I think most of us, however this may pain us in some ways, realize that even if we struggle to want this to be so – this distinction between believers in heaven – we ought to want it to be so, because it is right.
How this happens and what this means, I do not presume to know because the Bible never explains this. It never describes just what will happen individual by individual at the Last Judgment. It never comments on how both the separation between believers and unbelievers in the first place and this discrimination between them in their respective classes in the second will be made at the judgment seat of Christ. It shows us nothing and certainly never describes the effect of such distinctions between believers when we are all together in heaven. If there is greater and lesser misery among the damned, can it be that there is greater and lesser happiness among the saved? I do not know. I do know that even the least happiness must be very great in heaven. Like so much else about the world to come, the Bible paints in a very broad brush and gives us virtually no detail. As one great theologian admits, “It is not easy to gain a clear picture of that judgment.” [Bavinck, iv, 701]
Clearly our works that are evaluated at the judgment do not earn us anything in the sense that God is bound to reward us because we have merited such reward. They are the works of God’s grace in us. They are the good works that God ordained beforehand that we should walk in them, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. If the Lord rewards our good works he is, as Augustine put it, “crowning his own gifts.” The Heidelberg Catechism poses the question (no. 63): “How can you say that the good we do doesn’t earn anything when God promises to reward it in this life and the next?” And gives this answer: “This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.” After all, even if we were to have done everything that a Christian might ever do for the Lord, we still could only say of ourselves that we are unprofitable servants, for we have done nothing more than we ought to have done.” [Luke 17:10] All claims to reward – and “reward” is the word the Bible usually uses – can only be made on the basis of God’s grace and fatherly love for his children.
Faith and works are mutually exclusive, opposite and warring principles, only when one views works as the ground of or reason for our acceptance with God and of the forgiveness of our sins. It is works in that sense that Paul says can have nothing to do with our justification. We do not achieve our salvation, it is a gift of God from beginning to end. The idea of the judgment of our works at the last day, therefore, has nothing to do with self-sufficiency or pride in accomplishment. But we have been saved to work and good works – what we call sanctification – are obviously as much a part of God’s gift of salvation as is the forgiveness of sins. If God should grant that gift of holiness in greater measure to some than to others, that is his right. He is God! We are not now talking about how a sinner is saved; we are talking about how the lives of saved sinners are evaluated in the judgment of God! “Sola fide [justification by faith alone] does not make your daily life [or mine] unimportant.” [Berkouwer, Faith and Justification, 108] And, equally, it must be true that any Christian work that the Lord will reward must be a work done in faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please him” and “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Or, as Calvin put it, the kingdom of heaven is not a “stipend to servants, but an inheritance to children.” [III, xviii, 2]
So why are we taught this truth, that frankly most of us find unwelcome (much as I struggle not to, I find it unwelcome)? Why do we still have to face the music in regard to the Christian lives we have lived in this world? I’m sure there are those listening to me now who wish I had found something else to talk about this evening. But the Bible talks about this judgment of our lives a lot! Why?
Well, in almost every instance, the point is to motivate us. It is to encourage certain kinds of behavior and to discourage others. “Let few be teachers for theirs is the stricter judgment is a statement meant to make teachers serious about their responsibility before God.” That a person’s works may be burned up though he or she saved, is a fact designed to make ministers, parents, and all responsible for the spiritual life of others shudder with a sense of responsibility. This teaching that Christians must face the judgment of their lives is everywhere in the Bible a “goad to piety.” [Kuyper, E Voto Dordraceno, ii, 377] Again and again the Scripture’s aim is explicit: it is to strengthen us to love and good deeds with the promise of reward and to caution us against making peace with our sins by forcing us to face the fact that the day will come when, even as Christians, we will have to answer for what we did and did not do. The Scripture is candid and very human about this. The text we read at the outset from 2 Cor. 5, this description of our eventual accountability for the lives we live as followers of Jesus Christ, is immediately followed by the words:
“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.”
Peter, as we already noted, likewise spoke of living our lives in fear knowing that the Father “judges impartially according to each one’s deeds.” But so on the other side is a statement such as those who sow generously will reap generously or the Lord’s to the faithful servant, you shall be in charge of ten cities. It is only to treat human beings as human beings made in the image of God that the Bible takes their lives and conduct so seriously and attaches such lasting significance to them.
Look, the Christian life is the most difficult thing in the world: truly to love God in thought, word, and deed, to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves and to do that with hearts as unreliable and as selfish as ours! Who can do this? We need all the motivation we can get. And the Bible gives us a basket of motivations. Love for God himself, devotion to him, and gratitude to God for his saving love are, of course, first and foremost among the motivations of the Christian life, but among others are these: the promise of reward and the threat of loss.
Surely the thought of our works being burned up and lost ought to solemnize any Christian and make him or her much more careful to live in obedience to the commandments of God, all the more when the works that are burned up, in the context of 1 Cor. 3, are other people. But equally the promise of reward is everywhere in the Bible’s teaching of the Christian life: the reward of heaven itself but also the greater reward due the faithful man or woman for the life he or she has lived for Christ. I know that I often find myself praying and hoping that the Lord will reward someone, one of you, for the good works that you have done. There is something very right about that. Of course we should want someone who has done us a great kindness to be rewarded for it by the Lord. We don’t feel we can properly reward them, but the Lord can! They may not have thought of any reward themselves, but isn’t it right for us to wish for it and pray for it? And if for others, why not for ourselves as well?
I would be a poor minister if I did not prepare you for this; if I didn’t take the plain-speaking of the Bible and encourage you to consider it carefully and take it to heart and practice it in your lives. I would have failed you if any of you were to think on the Judgment Day, “No one told me that I would have to give an account of my life.” You shall. As the Lord Jesus put it on one occasion:
“For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”
This truth is to be for us both a stimulant and a warning, an encouragement and a deterrent. It has sometimes been thought that it is selfish to act in hope of reward, that truly spiritual people do what is right without any regard to self-interest. Similarly it has been thought that obedience motivated by fear is unworthy of the name. Abraham Kuyper called such people “too spiritual people,” and called them back to obedience to the Word of God which, of course, knows better what they really need to live rightly and well in this world. [In Berkouwer, 118] True faith works through love, indeed; but it also works for a reward and minds the lasting consequences of bad behavior. That isn’t selfishness it is wise and responsible self-interest; the sort of self-interest we practice and the Bible teaches us to practice on virtually its every page. Why is anyone saved? Why does anyone follow the Lord Jesus Christ? Augustine says, “Finally because he wants to be happy.” That’s self-interest and the Bible is appealing to it.
There is such a diversity among the people of God on this earth: some Christians are more serious than others, some real Christians are much harder at work than others, some serious Christians have gone much than others in the life of faith and godliness, and somehow there will be a diversity among Christians in heaven as well. That diversity will somehow manifest the wisdom and goodness of God, as it does now in this life. In that happy fellowship everyone will find his or her rightful place. And, I suspect, just as Peter, James, and John formed the Lord’s inner circle among his disciples, there will be those nearer and further from him in the heavenly kingdom. We will confess the wisdom of this and the goodness of this, even the justice of this, even if we are among those further from him, as I expect to be and, as I suspect, you expect to be. In his Paradiso, Dante meets the nun Piccarda on his passage through heaven, who inhabits the lowest level of heaven but with perfect contentment. She had broken a vow, but she was a follower of Jesus Christ and found herself in the heavenly country, but at the lowest level. He reflects:
…it was clear to me that everywhere
in heaven is Paradise, though the high God
does not rain down his grace on all souls there equally…
That is hard for Americans to hear! Shouldn’t God treat everyone the same? Like so much about the world to come, this too is shrouded in mystery. But the Bible speaks of this discrimination between Christians so clearly and so frequently, you and I would be fools not to heed what it says.
So in regard both to the reward of heaven and eternal life itself on the one hand, and in regard to that reward that will be granted to us according to the measure of our faithfulness to God, here is Christina Rossetti:
“True, all our life long we shall be bound to refrain our soul, and keep it low; but what then? For the books we now refrain to read we shall one day be endowed with wisdom and knowledge. For the music we will not listen to we shall join in the song of the redeemed. For the pictures from which we turn we shall gaze unabashed on the beatific vision. For the companionship we shun we shall be welcomed into angelic society and the communion of triumphant saints. For the amusements we avoid we shall keep the supreme jubilee. For all the pleasures we miss we shall abide, and forever more abide, in the rapture of heaven.”