I suspect many Christians are confused about Final Judgment: They think that they won’t have to face it because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross. But the Bible is clear: when Christ returns at the end of the age, we will all be resurrected and face judgment. How does this doctrine square with our belief that we’re saved by grace through faith, and not by works? How will our judgment be different from non-believers? This sermon answers these questions.
Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:17-19
Sometimes I think that the world of social media—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—exists to judge us. Seriously. We compare ourselves to our friends and, worse, our “frenemies,” and we feel judged by them. Someone has a wedding anniversary, and they post this mushy, gushy statement about how wonderful their wife or husband is, and we feel judged: “What am I doing wrong in my marriage?” Someone posts some amazing accomplishment of one of their kids, and we think: “I have obviously failed as a parent, because my kids can’t do that!” Someone posts vacation pictures from some exotic paradise, and we think, “Where did they get the money to go there? What am I doing wrong?”
We don’t like being judged… I don’t like being judged. Every once in a while, my wife, Lisa, will say to me—perfectly innocently—“Oh, by the way, Mom and Dad are dropping by in a little while,” and I’ll be like, “What? Why didn’t you warn me? I’ve got to cut the grass! Clean up the yard! Blow off the walkway!” Why? Because I don’t want to be judged—especially by my father-in-law! Because if the yard is unkempt, that’s a direct reflection on me!
We don’t like being judged. We’re afraid of being judged—at least by other human beings. But here’s my question: Are we more afraid of being judged by people than we are by God? Why aren’t we more afraid of being judged by God?
Because make no mistake: Peter is clear in today’s scripture that we will all be judged by God. He writes, “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.” Earlier in the letter, remember, Peter has referred to us Christians as exiles. Why? Because this world in which we live is not our home. We’re not supposed to feel at home here—because our ultimate home is with God, in heaven. Regardless, Peter says that we’re going to be judged according to our works.
Peter is referring to what will happen to everyone at the end of human history, when Christ returns. When everyone who ever lived will be resurrected in order to face Final Judgment. When we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
Now, when I read a passage like this, I immediately want to find wiggle room. Hmm… How can I interpret this passage so that it’s not saying what it clearly seems to be saying. Honestly. I want to do that. Because, as I said, I don’t like to be judged. But finding wiggle room is perhaps easier to do if it’s just one isolated verse we have to deal with. But in this case it isn’t. Judgment Day for everyone is a theme throughout both Old and New Testaments.
You don’t believe me? Psalm 62:12: “For you [God] will render to a man according to his work.” Job 34:11: “For according to the work of a man he [God] will repay him.” Proverbs 24:12: “Will [God] not repay man according to his work?” Or how about the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of Man”—that is, Jesus—“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.” Or the words of Paul in Romans 2:6-8: “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Finally, the words of Jesus in Revelation 22:12: “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.”
I suspect more than a few of us who have accepted Christ as our personal Savior and Lord thought that we were off the hook when it came to Final Judgment. Yet isn’t it clear from these scriptures and others that we’re not? Everyone will face God’s judgment—and afterwards, either heaven or hell.
Years ago, a former megachurch pastor named Rob Bell had a bestselling, and very controversial book called Love Wins. And in it, he questioned the traditional Christian belief in hell and final judgment. Despite what scripture clearly said, he couldn’t wrap his head around the idea that God would judge people and send them to hell. And in the book he asked an intentionally provocative question, “If people are going to be judged and sent to hell based on whether or not they’ve accepted Christ as their Savior, then wouldn’t it be unfair for God to do that for people who’ve never even heard of Jesus?”
Sounds good, right? Speaking for myself, I grew up in the buckle of the Bible Belt of the southern United States, as did many of you. Of course, we’ve had every opportunity to hear and respond to the Good News of Jesus Christ. What about people living in Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu cultures? What about children who grew up in our culture but whose parents weren’t believers or never went to church? Even if these people have heard of Jesus, they likely haven’t had nearly the same opportunities to hear and respond to the gospel that we have.
So Rob Bell asked, “Since it would be unfair for God to judge people who’ve never heard of Jesus, and we know God is fair. That being said, wouldn’t it better for us Christians not to tell anyone about Jesus. Because we don’t want to risk their rejecting the gospel and going to hell for eternity. Sharing the good news with them can suddenly seem like bad news.”
I admit that there’s a devilish kind of logic to Rob Bell’s questions. But not so fast!
Where does it say in the scripture I read a moment ago that we’ll be judged based on whether or not we’ve accepted Christ as our Savior and Lord? Nowhere. We’ll all be judged, scripture says, “according to our works.” In fact, as Paul says in Romans 2:1, whether we’ve heard the gospel of Jesus Christ or not, we are “without excuse.” “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”
Francis Schaeffer, a 20th-century evangelical theologian, explained the meaning of this verse with the following thought experiment: Suppose every baby is born with a tape recorder around his or her neck.” And throughout your life, that tape recorder turns on every time you pass judgment on someone else: “That person is such a gossip!” “That person is such a liar!” “That person is so lazy!” You get the idea. That tape recorder would be turning on often enough if it just recorded the judgmental things you said. But suppose it also recorded your judgmental thoughts.
Now suppose on Judgment Day you say, “God, it’s not fair for you to judge me. I didn’t know about Christ. No one taught me the truths of scripture. I never read the Sermon on the Mount.”
Then God speaks. “Very well. Then let me judge you by your own standards.” And then God pushes the button on the recorder, and the person hears thousands upon thousands of moral judgments. When the tape ends, God says, “This will be the basis of my judgment: how well have you kept the moral standards you proved that you understood by constantly applying them to those around you.”
Who can say that isn’t fair—when we consider how badly we’ve failed to measure up to our own standards of righteousness, much less God’s standards? Jesus makes this same point in the Sermon on the Mount: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
So regardless what Rob Bell says, no one can say that Final Judgment won’t be fair. It’s perfectly fair. And that’s why it should scare us!
O.K., you might say, “I get that non-Christians will face judgment, but what about us Christians? Scripture tells us over and over again that we can’t be saved on the basis of works. That God’s Law can only condemn us. That we must be saved by grace alone through faith alone. In Ephesians 2:8-9, for example, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” So if salvation isn’t the result of works, how can we be judged “according to works”? Is that a contradiction?
No… But I need to unpack this, so bear with me for a moment.
Jesus tells us again and again that the things we do—our works—are based on what’s in our hearts. In fact, it’s clear from the Sermon on the Mount and the rest of his teaching that Jesus is far more concerned about the motives behind our thoughts, words, and deeds than what we actually do. This is why he teaches us difficult things like, looking at someone with lust is spiritual adultery. Or that verbally abusing someone is on the same moral trajectory as murder: because the same impulse in our hearts gives rise to one as to the other. A tiny matchstick can light a cigarette or start a forest fire; but the same flame destroys both.
What we do, Jesus tells us, is less important than what’s in our hearts. But what we do can provide evidence for what’s in our hearts. This is what the Bible means when it says that Final Judgment is according to works, rather than “on the basis of works.” God’s judgment is on the basis of what’s in our hearts as demonstrated by our works.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes this point when he says, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” God will not judge us based on whether we’ve produced fruit, period. The Pharisees produced plenty of fruit—they gave alms to the poor; they tithed; they were scrupulous about worshiping God and obeying the letter of God’s law. But Jesus said that their fruit was bad because it sprang from a “diseased tree.” What the Pharisees needed—what we all need—is for Someone—and there’s only one person who can do it—Someone to heal the spiritual disease in our hearts, to transform us from “diseased trees” into “healthy trees.” Then we will naturally produce good fruit. According to Jesus, there’s no other kind of fruit that a healthy tree is able to produce but good fruit.
[Thief on the cross…]
Pastor John Piper shares a helpful illustration. He asked his 10-year-old son one time, “Are you my son because you look like me, and talk like me, and act a lot like me?” And of course the answer is no. Watch Saturday Night Live. There are comedians who make a living impersonating other people—and they’re very good at it. No, the fact that Piper’s son looks and talks and acts like his father doesn’t make him his son; he’s his son because he was born into Piper’s family. The fact that he looks and talks and acts like his dad gives evidence of that fact.
And how are we “born into God’s family”? By grace through faith.
If we are truly Christians, therefore, we will have good works to show for ourselves on Judgment Day, and we will be rewarded by God for them. We won’t all receive the same reward; our reward will depend on our faithfulness. But if we are Christians, we don’t need to worry about not having any good works to show for ourselves. How do I know? Because Peter has spent the first 16 verses of this first chapter giving us reasons for feeling secure in our faith, for feeling confident in our faith—not on the basis of what we’ve done but what God has done for us in Christ. God has foreknown us; God has called us; God has given us new birth; God has given us an inheritance, and he’s guarding it for us in heaven—and he’s protecting us so that we’ll be able to receive it one day. It wouldn’t make sense for Peter to turn around now and say, “But you better worry about what God is going to do to you on Judgment Day! You better worry about whether or not you’ll be saved.”
And yet, he says, there is a kind of “fear” that we’re supposed to have. What does that mean?
There’s a great public radio show and podcast called This American Life. And last week’s episode featured a story about a British man in 2012, whose brother and sister-in-law were kidnapped at sea by Somali pirates—yes, pirates are still out there, in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of this lawless country. And in this episode you hear this British man on the phone, negotiating with these pirates: If he pays them a couple thousand dollars for ransom, they’ll set his loved ones free. So he raises the money and makes arrangements to drop it off at a Somali airport. And he does drop off the money, just like he said he would. But even after doing giving them the money, the pirates don’t live up to their word—and they demand even more ransom money. Another four or five anguishing months pass before the pirates finally release his brother and sister-in-law.
Now… how should these two former hostages feel about their brother or brother-in-law after all he endured, after the steep price that he paid, to secure their release? They should feel eternally grateful. Of course. For the rest of their lives, this brother will have a special place in their hearts, and their love for him and gratitude toward him will be reflected in their actions toward him the rest of their lives. Right?
But suppose, after everything the brother did to ransom them, it turned out the couple were working in league with the pirates—conspiring with them—to deceive their brother, so that after the pirates got the money, they gave a portion of it to these two so-called “hostages,” who took the money, and moved to a tropical island, and never saw their brother again. That would be unthinkable—to live as if their brother’s costly sacrifice for them meant nothing at all. It would be incomprehensible.
And yet… Consider the costly sacrifice that God made to ransom us from our sins, from Satan, and from an eternity in hell. God didn’t pay for our ransom with gold or silver; that wouldn’t be nearly enough. He paid for it with the precious blood of his Son Jesus. In other words, it cost God everything. He paid an infinite price to save you… and me.
How then shall we live? How are we living? Do our lives reflect our gratitude for what God has done to ransom us? If not, why not?
Peter isn’t telling us Christians to be afraid that we’ll lose our salvation on Judgment Day. The ransom was paid, after all. Is God going to pay an infinite amount and not actually take possession of the thing that he paid for? Hardly!
No… Peter is telling us to be afraid that we’ll inadvertently treat God like the costly sacrifice he made for our ransom will mean nothing at all—or at least very little. That we’ll treat our salvation like it’s a light thing—a small thing, a trivial thing—rather than the greatest gift that has ever been given to us.
I grew up in a church tradition that emphasized the power of testimony. We would often hear testimonies about people’s conversion experiences at Sunday night church, on youth retreats, on youth camps… And often these would be very dramatic. The person would tell us how Christ rescued them from certain death or destruction—often because of drug addiction or alcoholism or their experience with the occult.
And I used to hear those testimonies and thought, “I’m just a normal Christian with a normal conversion. Nothing dramatic happened.” And maybe you’ve thought that, too, if you’ve heard these stories. And if we’re honest, we might feel a little envy toward those people with dramatic testimonies. Because unlike us, we think, they would never take for granted what God has done to rescue them. And we know ourselves, and we know our hearts, and we know that we take it for granted so often.
My prayer is that we can take these words to heart and remember that the infinite price that our Lord Jesus paid to rescue the most self-destructive sinner from their sins—to save them, to give them eternal life—is the exact same infinite price that he paid to rescue each and every one of us.
O God, help us live our lives accordingly. Forgive us for the many ways we have failed to do that. Amen.
1. This is a paraphrase. I no longer have the book in my library.
2. Romans 2:1 NIV
3. Matthew 7:2 NIV
4. “616: I Am Not a Pirate,” This American Life, thisamericanlife.org. Accessed 13 May 2017.