Good news about the judgment
Just as a believer may be rejoicing in his freedom to worship God without fear, his eye may fall on this passage in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For if we wilfully persist in sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins remains: only a terrifying expectation of judgement and a fierce fire which will consume God’s enemies” (Hebrews 10:26, 27, neb).
As he reflects on the forbidding import of these words, the believer may pause to remind himself of the encouragement in the Epistle of John that the man who has accepted the truth can look forward to the day of judgment unafraid (1 John 4:16–19). With this reassurance he is ready to read further in the passage from Hebrews.
“If a man disregards the Law of Moses, he is put to death without pity on the evidence of two or three witnesses. Think how much more severe a penalty that man will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was consecrated, and affronted God’s gracious Spirit! For we know who it is that has said, ‘Justice is mine; I will repay’; and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:28–31, neb).
It seems apparent from these verses that the terrors of judgment are reserved for the sinner—particularly the one who chooses to persist in his sinning after knowing the truth. But we have all sinned, and we continue to come short of God’s ideal (see Romans 3:23). Is there any good news about the judgment?
In the first place, it helps to look at the Biblical description of sin. The same apostle who speaks of approaching the judgment without fear defines sin as “the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, kjv). A more precise translation of John’s Greek would be the one word lawlessness. As the Revised Standard Version puts it, “Every one who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”
Sin is not so much a failure to live up to this or that specified duty. It is rather a spirit of lawlessness, an attitude of rebelliousness, an unwillingness to listen to God or to heed his instructions.
But is it not true that in the day of judgment our behavior will be examined and will be measured by God’s law? After reviewing the many wasted years of his life, Solomon came to this conclusion: “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” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, 14).
John was shown the scene of the judgment. “Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 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” (Revelation 20:11, 12).
Paul reminded believers that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God…. So each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10–12). And in the Epistle to the Hebrews we are advised not to forget that “there is nothing that can be hid from God; everything in all creation is exposed and lies open before his eyes. And it is to him that we must all give an account of ourselves” (Hebrews 4:13, gnt).
How much does God expect of us? Who will be judged safe to admit to his kingdom? James replies, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (James 2:12). As the Good News Translation puts it, “Speak and act as people who will be judged by the law that sets us free.”
This liberating law is clearly identified in James’ Epistle. “You will be doing the right thing if you obey the law of the Kingdom, which is found in the scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ But if you treat people according to their outward appearance, you are guilty of sin, and the Law condemns you as a lawbreaker. Whoever breaks one commandment is guilty of breaking them all. For the same one who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not commit murder.’ Even if you do not commit adultery, you have become a lawbreaker if you commit murder” (verses 8–11, gnt).
This royal law of liberty is quite clearly the same law given to Israel amid the thunder and lightning of Mount Sinai. Sometimes it is suggested that the law of love is first found in the New Testament. But Moses taught the people, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with
all your might,” and “You shall not hate your brother in your heart,… but you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:17, 18). Moses went even further: “Do not mistreat foreigners who are living in your land. Treat them as you would a fellow Israelite, and love them as you love yourselves” (verses 33, 34, gnt).
When a lawyer asked Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the law?” the Lord simply quoted the teachings of Moses (Matthew 22:34–40). Paul understood the Decalogue in the same way. After listing several of the Ten Commandments, he summarized by saying that “he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8, 10).
Then, to help us understand the meaning of real love, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient; love is kind and envies no one. Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude; never selfish, not quick to take offence. Love keeps no score of wrongs; does not gloat over other men’s sins, but delights in the truth. There is nothing love cannot face; there is no limit to its faith, its hope, and its endurance” (verses 4–7, neb).
How the translators of the New Testament have searched for the best way to express the meaning of Paul’s Greek words in this famous passage! Here is Phillips’ version: “This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience—it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.
“Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it shares the joy of those who live by the truth.
“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love never fails.”
Imagine living in a society where the life of every citizen can be described by the Ten Commandments and 1 Corinthians 13! No one ever kills or hates or lies or steals; no one even wants to hurt anyone else. All regard each other with unfeigned love, trust, and respect. There is no need for prisons, no police on every corner. Our wives and daughters can walk the streets alone at any hour. Everyone is perfectly safe and free.
This is why God’s law is called the royal law of liberty. God is not asking us to do anything that is not for our best good. He values nothing higher than our freedom. Think of the price he has paid to give us back our freedom once again! But there can be no freedom without order and self-discipline, mutual love and complete trustworthiness.
Sin is rebellious rejection of God’s law. Sin is hating, lying, stealing, cheating. Sin is arrogant insistence on having one’s own way. Sin is stubborn unwillingness to listen to the healing words of our Creator. Sin, in its essence, is a spirit of lawlessness.
The only way God could admit rebels to his kingdom would be to turn heaven into a prison, to keep sinners in solitary confinement, lest they hurt and destroy each other. But we can trust God never to give up freedom. In his Son he gave his life to keep the universe free. He has no plans to become a prison warden. He has promised his loyal people a universe free from sin, a home of unthreatened safety and peace. We can trust him to insist forever on obedience to the royal law of liberty. This will not deprive us of our freedom. It guarantees our freedom for all eternity.
God can admit to his kingdom only people who can be trusted with all the privileges of freedom. This is why the plan of salvation offers more than just forgiveness. Heaven is not to be peopled with pardoned criminals but transformed saints. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be converted, to have such a change of heart and life that it would seem as if he had been born all over again (see John 3:1–10).
Jesus explained that this marvelous experience of healing is the work of the Holy Spirit, the Teacher of love and truth. And John describes how we may tell if the healing has begun: “No one born of God commits sin” (1 John 3:9). Or more precisely from the Greek: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (niv). Phillips translates it: “The man who is really God’s son does not practise sin.” As John says in verse 6, “The man who lives ‘in Christ’ does not habitually sin” (Phillips).
Sin is lawlessness, rebelliousness. To continue in a state of habitual lawlessness means that one is still resisting the truth, still unwilling to trust and let God heal. But in the person who has been reborn, faith has taken the place of rebelliousness, there is love instead of lawlessness, there is a longing to be completely healed.
John explains further that we can “know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers” (1 John 3:14, niv). One of the first symptoms of the healing of salvation is a new regard and love for our fellowmen. Without this love we have reason to question the genuineness of our conversion—in spite of our profession of faith in God. “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).
My mother used to quote this verse when we children were all still at home. Since I was the oldest of four brothers, it seemed that she was usually directing these words at me. The logic always seemed inescapable.
This change that takes place in the believer is such a crucial turning point in his life that Jesus said it should be celebrated and confirmed by an appropriate ceremony. He instructed that his followers should be baptized. In fact, he made this part of his Great Commission to take the gospel to all the world (Matthew 28:19).
Paul offers his understanding of the meaning of this dramatic ceremony (see Romans 6:1–11). Baptism, he explained, represents the burial of old habits of sin, the end of rebellious lack of faith, the recognition that it cost the death of the Son of God to do away with sin. Then, just as Christ rose from the grave and returned to his Father, so the Christian rises from the water of baptism to a new way of life.
The first Christians symbolized this experience by being immersed beneath the water. Through the years other methods have been widely adopted as more convenient. It is significant to note this observation in the margin of the 1956 Catholic translation of the New Testament by Kleist and Lilly. The reference is to Paul’s explanation of baptism in Romans 6:3: “St. Paul alludes to the manner in which Baptism was ordinarily conferred in the primitive Church, by immersion. The descent into the water is suggestive of the descent of the body into the grave, and the ascent is suggestive of a resurrection to a new life.”
What about the believer who carelessly falls into sin, who in unguarded moments reveals some of the same old traits he so much deplored on the occasion of his baptism? Does this mean he has never been converted?
John answered this when he wrote to struggling beginners, “I write these things to you, my children, to help you to avoid sin. But if a man should sin, remember that our advocate before the Father is Jesus Christ and he is just, the one who made personal atonement for our sins” (1 John 2:1, 2, Phillips).
Even Moses, the one who talked to God face-to-face lost his temper in sinful pride just a few steps from the Promised Land. But Moses was no faithless rebel. He was one of the best friends God ever had on this sinful earth. How Moses repented of what he had done! Just when God wished to reveal himself to his grumbling people as the gracious provider of all their needs—in spite of all their ungrateful complaints—Moses by his anger misrepresented God as unforgiving and severe.
And God said to Moses, “Because… you were unfaithful to me in the presence of the people of Israel…[and] you dishonored me in the presence of the people,… you will not enter the land that I am giving the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:51, 52, gnt).
God could not take lightly so hurtful a sin. Misrepresenting the truth about God is the most damaging of all sins. But how God comforted and honored his repentant friend! He took Moses into his confidence more than ever before as they talked together about future plans. The Bible says that God himself finally buried his old friend (Deuteronomy 34:6), then soon came back to take him up to heaven (Jude 9). Years later, when Jesus was here on his lonely mission, God asked Moses, his trusted friend, to come down and give encouragement to his Son! (See Matthew 17:1–8.)
This is the God we face in the judgment. By his side stands the One who was so gracious to Peter, Mary, and Simon, and even to Judas. John calls him our “advocate with the Father” (1 John 2:1). Paul describes him as interceding in our behalf (Romans 8:34; see also Hebrews 7:25).
But Jesus told his disciples there was no need for him to plead with the Father to be generous with his children. “I do not promise to intercede with the Father for you, for the Father loves you himself” (John 16: 26, 27, Goodspeed). Would Jesus be pleading with the Holy Spirit? Paul describes the third person of the Godhead as joining with the Father and the Son in working on our behalf: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
The Good News is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all on our side in the judgment. As they are one with each other, so they are one with all loyal believers in meeting the accusations of our common enemy (see John 17:20–23).
For we have an enemy in the judgment. John calls him “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night” (Revelation 12:10, niv). Just as Satan accused God before the heavenly council, so he accuses God’s people now. He accused Job before the heavenly council (Job 1:8–11) and Joshua, the high priest, in the presence of the Lord (Zechariah 3:1, 2).
Satan knows all the sins he has tempted us to commit, and he can present these before the angels as evidence that we are not fit to be saved. If he is to be destroyed, he argues, justice demands that sinners should perish too.
Who would defend us against such charges? When Satan accused God, he was forced to lie. When he recounts our sins, he is telling the truth.
Paul answers this question in his letter to Rome: “If God is for us, who can be against us? Will not he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, with that gift give us everything? Who can bring any accusation against those whom God has chosen? God pronounces them upright; who can condemn them? Christ Jesus who died, or rather who was raised from the dead, is at God’s right hand, and actually pleads for us” (Romans 8:31–34, Goodspeed).
God pronounced Job a “perfect and upright” man, not because he had lived a sinless life, but because of his trust and faith. Satan was permitted to test Job to the limit, but Job could still cry in faith, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15, kjv). God had predicted in the hearing of the heavenly council that Job would never let him down, and Job honored the confidence God placed in him.
What God is looking for is faith. Were we to be judged, as Satan insists, on the record of our sinful lives, not one person on this planet could pass the test. God is not concerned, however, with our sinful past but with the kind of people we are now.
Have we been won back to trust him? Are we willing to listen and accept his forgiveness? Do we trust him enough to allow him to heal us? Have we, like David, welcomed the Holy Spirit to create new hearts and right spirits within us? Could we be trusted with the privileges of freedom and eternal life?
Has all rebelliousness gone, and has love taken its place? As more light has come, do we always say yes to the truth? For we have much yet to learn about our Infinite God. We may know as little theology as the thief on the cross; but if we love, admire, and trust in Christ as he did that crucifixion day, we are safe to admit to the kingdom (see Luke 23:39–43). Like Mary, it will be our greatest delight to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear him tell us more about the Father.
The people Christ cannot defend in the judgment are those whose lives are still accurately described by the records of their sinful past. There has been no real change. They prefer darkness to light, Satan’s lies to the truth. They have rejected the Good News. Their rebelliousness has not been healed.
Jesus explained to Nicodemus that there is nothing arbitrary about the judgment. All depends upon how each person chooses to respond to the truth. God longs to save each of his children, but the decision to trust him is ours.
“‘God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life. It was not to judge the world that God sent his Son into the world, but that through him the world might be saved.
“‘The man who puts his faith in him does not come under judgement; but the unbeliever has already been judged in that he has not given his allegiance to God’s only Son. Here lies the test: the light has come into the world, but men preferred darkness to light because their deeds were evil. Bad men all hate the light and avoid it, for fear their practices should be shown up. The honest man comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that God is in all he does’“ (John 3:16–21, neb).
Later Jesus explained still further to his disciples that the question in the judgment is whether or not we have chosen to trust in God: “‘When a man believes in me, he believes in him who sent me rather than in me; seeing me, he sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that no one who has faith in me should remain in darkness. But if anyone hears my words and pays no regard to them, I am not his judge; I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the man who rejects me and does not accept my words; the word that I spoke will be his judge on the last day’” (John 12:44–48, neb).
When the judgment is finished, God turns sorrowfully away from those who still reject him as untrustworthy. Preferring to stay in darkness, they have lost the power of sight. More revelation, more persuasion, more discipline—nothing would be of any use. This is the meaning of that warning in Hebrews 10:26, 27: “If we purposely go on sinning after the truth has been made known to us,… all that is left is to wait in fear for the coming Judgment and the fierce fire which will destroy those who oppose God!” (gnt). Over such confirmed rebels the Father cries out as he did in the days of Hosea, “Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn…. Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone” (Hosea 4:16, 17).
If this were an arbitrary, legalistic decision, lost sinners might hope to “make a deal” with God, to “plea bargain” with the Lord. Jesus predicted that some will arise in the resurrection of the wicked and be dismayed to find they are not among the saved. They plead with the Savior, “Lord, Lord, open up for us. Did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty works in your name? Think of all the tithe we have paid, all the offerings we have given—enough to buy many tickets to the kingdom!”
But the Lord sadly replies, “I know what you have done. But you did it all for the wrong reason. You served me only because you feared me as arbitrary, unforgiving, and severe. Go away! I never knew you. We never were really friends” (see Matthew 7:21–23; 25:11, 12). And genuine friendship is the essential quality God desires in our relationship with him.
More than twenty-five hundred years ago the prophet Daniel was given a vision of the judgment in heaven, and he wrote out this vivid description:
As I looked,
thrones were placed
and one that was ancient of days took his seat;
his raiment was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and came forth from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion
which sball not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
—Daniel 7:9, 10, 13, 14.
This awesome description would be terrifying if we did not know the Good News. Jesus is there, his human form reminding onlookers of what he has done to silence Satan’s charges and win us sinners back to faith. And as we look at the Father seated there in his terrible majesty, there rings in our ears those wonderful words of our Lord: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father. There is no need for me to plead with him for you, for the Father loves you just as I do myself.”
We can trust God to be our friend in the judgment. As our Father he is jealous for our reputation. We need not fear those records of our sins. He would gladly dismiss them as irrelevant and out of date. All he asks of us is faith—that we love and trust him enough to let him forgive us, and heal us, and give us eternal life.