Final Judgment

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Which brings us to our second question: On what basis will the final judgment be made? What are the real issues of life? Paul sums it up in Romans 2:6, "God will render to every man according to his deeds." Verses 9 and 10 are more precise about what sort of deeds: "There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil ... but glory and honor and peace to every one who does good." The real issue of life is not one's race or job or status or salary or looks or religious form. The real issue is whether one does good or does evil.

But wait a minute. Is that the way Christianity talks? What about the promise: "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved"? What about grace and mercy and the justification of the ungodly? Didn't Paul say in Titus 3:5 "God saved us not on the basis of works done by us in righteousness, but he saved us according to His mercy through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit"? And in Ephesians 2:8, "By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." How can it be that we are saved by grace, through faith, not by deeds, and yet will be judged according to our deeds in the final judgment?

Some people solve this apparent contradiction by saying that Romans 2 describes a judgment that God's people have no part in. It is only for the unbelieving. I think that solution is contrary to Paul's intention and to the teaching of Jesus. Paul said, "God will render to everyone according to his deeds," not just unbelievers. It is sunshine clear that Paul believes there is a lifestyle that excludes one from the Kingdom of God and therefore Christians do not have it. For example in Galatians 5:19-21 he warns Christians against the deeds of the flesh like strife, jealousy, dispute, factiousness, envy, drunkenness, etc., because "those who practice such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God" (Likewise 1 Corinthians 6:9,10; Ephesians 5:5). Final judgment will accord with our deeds.

And Jesus Himself was even stronger in stressing that you cannot finally pass muster at the judgment day if your life has not been changed in keeping with His commandments. For example, Matthew 6:14,15: "If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." Or consider the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Matthew 7:24-27. "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like one whose house won't be washed away in the flood. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a person whose house collapses in the deluge." This is a picture of judgment and the issue is, Have we done Jesus' words?

Let's take one more example from Jesus because this one gives the clue to our problem how we can be saved by grace through faith and yet final judgment still be according to works. In Matthew 12:34-37 Jesus says to the Pharisees,

You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil speak what is good? For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks; the good man out of his good treasure brings forth what is good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth what is evil. And I say to you that for every careless word that men speak, they shall render an account in the day of judgment. For by your words you shall be justified and by your words you shall be condemned.

Here is the crucial clue: on judgment day we will be judged according to our deeds, including the acts of our tongue, because deeds are the infallible sign of what fills the heart. "From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks." You can judge a tree by its fruit and you can judge a heart by its deed. The issue is not really, Are we saved by faith in Christ or by good deeds? The issue is, On the judgment day how will God make manifest that His judgment is just? And the answer is, He will certify to the world that we have saving faith by calling our deeds to attest to its reality.

In the courtroom of the Kingdom of God all the world will be assembled before the righteous judge and all will be guilty of a [capital] offense. Yet some will be acquitted and others condemned. The deepest reason for the separation is that one group has been forgiven because of their identification with Christ through faith, the other group has not. But what Paul is teaching in Romans 2:7-10 is that in that courtroom a witness will be called forth to testify to the reality of faith or its absence. And that witness is our deeds, which we can see from Romans 1:28-32 include deeds of the mind as well as the body, attitudes as well as actions.

It is by grace we are saved through faith; not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. But the heart that is full of faith will overflow in attitudes and actions very different from those which flow from unbelief. Therefore, our deeds will testify, truly to the genuineness or absence of faith, and it is not inconsistent for God to judge us according to our works. But we must understand that this judgment according to works does not mean we earn our salvation. Our deeds do not earn, they exhibit our salvation. Our deeds are not the merit of our righteousness, they are the mark of our new life in Christ. Our deeds are not sufficient to deserve God's favor, but they do demonstrate our faith. Please keep that distinction clear in your mind regarding our attitudes and actions: they do not earn, they exhibit; they do not merit, they mark; they do not deserve, they demonstrate. And therefore, "God will render to every man according to his deeds," including Christians.

Our third and final question, very briefly: What are the alternatives in judgment? Paul answers in verses 7 and 8:

To those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, God will give eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness God will give wrath and fury.

Eternal life or God's wrath and fury - these are the two alternatives. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul speaks of those who do not obey the gospel and says, "They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction." Jesus concludes the parable of the great final judgment in Matthew 25:46 with the words, "These will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life."

Hell is the most appalling reality we can imagine. No horror of suffering in history can be compared to what John calls the "lake of fire" and where Jesus said "their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:48). To go through life distrusting and disobeying the infinite God, is an infinite sin and will be punished with eternal torment.

But if hell is infinitely horrible to imagine, eternal life in the presence of Jesus is infinitely beautiful to contemplate. The happiness that the saints will have in the age to come will be more satisfying than all the moments of joy experienced by all men in all history. Has there ever been a moment when you thought you would burst because you were so happy? Multiply that a thousand times and let it increase continually for an eternity, and you may get some notion of what eternal life with Christ will mean.

I conclude with a summary of answers to our three questions.

1) All people without exception will pass through the final judgment of God.

2) The judgment will be according to their attitudes and actions which are a sure sign of the genuineness or absence of faith in Christ.

3) The fork in the road leads either to eternal life or to wrath and fury. If you haven't yet, choose life! Why would you perish? Trust in Christ and do His will. And for those who love Him already, delight yourselves in the most glorious hope you can conceive, and let everything you do flow from faith.

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By John Piper. © Desiring God Ministries.
Website: www.desiringGOD.org
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