For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:31
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. 2 Corinthians 5:10
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. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:12-15
He will come again to judge the living and the dead. The Apostles’ Creed
One of issues about which Christians like to argue is the basis of God’s judgment at the end of the age. One aspect frequently missing from this discussion is the act of judging itself. A computer can make make decisions based on an algorithm; it takes a judge to render judgment. Justice is not arbitrary, but neither is it merely mechanical. It takes an honest, wise and compassionate judge to decide how to apply the criteria of judgment in order to achieve something approaching justice.
The one who judges the world is worthy of our trust. He is wise and upright and gracious in character. We can confidently entrust our fate and the future of the world into his hands. This affirmation is the basis of everything else that we say about God’s judgment.
To hear some speak, you might think that God is more of a ticket taker than a judge. When I show up at the gate, someone will make sure that I have I have the right credentials. Have I made a decision to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior? Have I confessed him as Lord in public? Have I had a great faith experience in which I felt myself born again? Have I been baptized? Am I in good standing with the church? Different Christians see the credentials and how one obtains them differently, but the end result is similar. What God is looking for is my ticket.
It does not take a judge, however, simply to check credentials. When I drive on to my military base every morning, I am admitted because I have a valid identification card issued by the proper authority. If anyone has any doubt about my credentials, there are electronic methods to check the validity of the card and biological methods to verify my identity. I either have the proper credentials to grant me access or I don’t. The character of the card checker is not terribly relevant. No judgment is required.
The ticket checker version of judgment easily leads to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. Cheap grace is the justification of the sin without justification of the sinner. To me, the New Testament is very consistent. Salvation by grace through faith is not an excuse for continuing in sin. Even those who have united themselves to Christ can rebel against him, ignore him, and violate his loving intention for creation so that they ultimately fall under his judgment. The old fashioned word for this is “backsliding.”
When you go to the fair, however, some rides don’t just require a ticket. There’s a sign on the wall that says, “You must be this tall to ride.” There is a standard against which the prospective rider must be measured. Most of the New Testament suggests that the eternal judge will look for something beyond possession of the right ticket or identification card.
If those who are told that the ticket alone suffices risk falling into laziness or presumptuousness, those who are told that they have to measure up risk falling into fear or legalism. Who can measure up to God’s standard? Maybe the standard is perfection. Maybe the standard is something less. No matter. Who, with confidence, can say that they’ve met God’s expectations?
You must be this tall to ride. I can indeed look back and see how God has changed me during a lifetime of Christian living. As the cliché goes, “I’m not what I should be, but thank God, I’m not what I used to be.” I’m taller now. I’m different, and that is God’s doing. But, the taller I grow the farther I see. The more mature I become, the more fully I understand. The gap between the top of my head and the sign on the wall appears even greater than I imagined. The more I grow and mature as a Christian, the more I see how I still need to grow. How will I ever rise to meet the standard?
What I do with the life God gave me matters. Even if I have a ticket to the kingdom – through my decision to believe in Jesus or through a powerful experience of the Holy Spirit or through God’s gift in baptism – I can effectively tear up the ticket or toss it in the trash by how I live. I don’t have a ticket to heaven that works regardless of what I do with God’s gift of salvation, but neither do I see myself as having grown to the acceptable height, so that I now meet the standard.
Grace that changes nothing or an impossible legal standard? How shall we resolve this impasse? If I shift my emphasis from the judgment to the judge, however, I find that I am not boxed in by a logical dilemma.
For Christians, grace is not an abstract principal. It is a description of God’s character as revealed in his actions.
He called Abraham, promised to bless him and to bless the world through him. He delivered his people from bondage through Moses, gave the Torah and brought his people into the Promised Land. He anointed David as king and promised his messiah. He spoke words of judgment and hope through the prophets. He judged his people by surrendering them to their enemies, and he saved his people by delivering them from their enemies. He did all of this even though his people ignored him and rebelled against him time and time again.
When the time was right, he sent Jesus who died and rose again to open the way into the kingdom for all who put their faith in him. In the sacraments of baptism and communion, he unites us to Christ and his saving acts in history. He seeks even those who are far away from him, and he is merciful to the penitent.
I don’t have access credentials. What I have is a savior who gave his life for me, and an advocate who shares his life with me.
God is gracious, but he is also upright. He is holy. I can think of no better word than “holiness” to describe what I mean. For the same reason that I feel shame when I am in the presence of a truly generous or compassionate person, I shrink from the holy presence of God. God’s goodness unmasks my own unrighteousness. As a cancer shrinks and dies when subjected to radiation, so my sinful self can only shrink and die in the presence of his holiness.
My sinful self cannot endure, not only because it is incompatible with God’s holiness, but because it is incompatible with what God desires for his creation: a pleasant and peaceful kingdom that is good for all of its citizens. In his love, God cannot allow sin to contaminate the age to come. There will be parts of me that have to die: the me that rebels against God and hurts my neighbor, the me that is blind to the truth of God, the me that is entwined with the fallen principalities and powers of this age.
God made me a new creation in the Sprit, but he also condemned the hopelessly corrupted me to death. I live, as it were, with two natures, the new and the old, hopelessly entangled until the Day of Judgment.
On that day, when I stand before him, I can expect him to be true to his character. He will judge mercifully in accordance with the kindness he has shown us in Jesus Christ.
When I stand before him, I can also expect him to judge justly, for his sake and the sake of all who belong to his eternal kingdom.
When I stand before him, I will plead nothing but the blood of Christ. Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling.
And when I stand before him, I will know that he has provided all that I need. He has given me his Holy Spirit, united me to his Christ and made me a part of his church. He has invested everything in my salvation. And he will bring what he started in me to its completion.
I trust the judge. My confidence is not in a principal or a doctrine of judgment, but in the one who will judge the living and the dead.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
And the peoples in his faithfulness. Psalm 96:13