What Should Christians Expect at the Final Judgment? Part 3


[Author’s note: this the final installment of a three part series. Here are the links to parts 1 and 2. Part 1 introduces the subject, cautioning us to listen to all that the Bible says rather than just picking the verses we’re most comfortable with. Part 2 unpacks the first answer, “We should expect to be saved, and that should make us confident.]

 

2. We should expect to be examined, and that should make us diligent.

We’re not going to be condemned, but we are going to be evaluated.

Now lest some sensitive soul read this post and forget everything I said in the previous one, don’t forget—you should expect to be saved, and that should make you confident. This isn’t about cultivating doubt. The word I’m using here is diligent, not dread. Diligence is not at odds with confidence. On the contrary, confidence is meant to inspire diligence, and diligence is meant to inspire greater confidence. It’s an upward spiral into greater and greater assurance (2 Pet. 1:5-11).

And one of the ways the Bible inspires diligence is through warnings and exhortations. Now warnings and exhortations can seem more like medicine than food. They don’t taste as good as the promises do. But they’re just as much for our good, so let us listen and try to understand what God is telling us.

So again, what should Christians expect at the final judgment? A: we should expect to be examined, and that should make us diligent.

I want us to unpack this answer under three headings, and then close with some application.

  • What’s at stake in our final examination?
  • Will there be degrees of reward?
  • Will our sins be revealed or brought up in any way?

 

What’s At Stake in our Final Examination?

Since Scripture clearly states that we’ll be judged “according to our works,” another way to ask this question would  be “How do our works function in the final judgment?” Scripture gives two answers.

First, our good works will serve as the evidence that our faith was genuine and that we really were united to Jesus Christ. Because let’s be clear, if God were to deal with us outside of Christ according to strict justice, none of us would pass the exam. No, not one.

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3 ESV)

It’s only in Christ that we can be justified—now or then, because in Christ we are clothed in his obedience and washed in his blood. That’s why the previous blog post is so important—because outside of Christ our good works would be nothing but a filthy rag, and judgment day nothing but a terror.

So step one is that good works serve as evidence for who was in Christ and who wasn’t. And it’s on that basis that the sheep are separated from the goats. Two groups. Sheep on the right, goats on the left.

The question now is, are any further distinctions going to be made within those two groups, and if so, on what basis? And here I think the answer of Scripture is yes, further distinctions will be made. The second role of works at the final judgment is to determine the degree of reward and punishment, which tips our hand on the second question:

 

Will There Be Degrees of Reward?

The Bible’s answer is yes, there will be degrees of reward among the righteous, just as there will be degrees of punishment among the wicked (for which, see Matt. 11:22, 24; Luke 12:47-48).

Consider the parable of the minas that Jesus tells in Luke 19:11-27.  A nobleman goes on a journey to a far country to receive a kingdom. But before he leaves, he calls his ten servants, gives them ten minas, and says, “Engage in business until I come.” Then when he returns, he calls the servants to account.

Clearly, the nobleman represents Jesus ascending into heaven, the servants represent his disciples, and the accounting represents the final judgment. What’s interesting is how the judgment works. One servant gets his mina taken away, and in Matthew’s version, it’s clear that this man wasn’t saved at all (Matt. 25:30). The other two servants turn out to be faithful. And how they are rewarded is what’s relevant here:

The first came before him, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ And he said to him, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ And the second came, saying, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ (Luke 19:16–19)

Notice four things:

  1. They’re both rewarded. Neither is condemned like the wicked servant.
  2. They’re not rewarded equally—one is given rule over ten cities, the other over five.
  3. They’re rewarded according to their faithfulness and diligence. “Because you have been faithful…you will have authority…” The reward corresponds with their works—the one who made more minas was entrusted with more cities.
  4. The nature of the reward is described in terms of responsibility, not just privilege. You’re responsible for ruling over cities. When other passages speak of receiving a crown, we ought to remember that a crown isn’t simply an ornament—it’s a symbol of authority and responsibility.

So this parable seems to clearly teach that within those in the kingdom, there will be differing degrees of reward that reflect differing degrees of faithfulness and diligence.

That’s our good works. But now the third and thorniest question comes: what about our bad works?

 

Will our sins be brought up or exposed at the final judgment?

This question is not as simple as it may appear. Plenty of brilliant theologians say no (e.g. Francis Turretin, John Gill, Jonathan Edwards, etc.) and plenty of others say yes (Wilhelmus a Brakel, John Newton, Louis Berkhof, etc.)

The arguments for saying no are more immediately obvious to me. They could be summarized thus: “If our sins have all been forgiven, then why would God ever bring them up again? Does not Scripture say that he has removed them as far as the east is from the west ? Thrown them into the depth of the sea? Cast them behind his back? (A: yes. See Psalm 103:12; Micah 7:19; Isa. 38:17) If so, what purpose could there be in bringing them up again? Besides, the Bible encourages us to have confidence for the day of judgment (1 John 4:17). But if our secret sins are to be revealed, how does that not cast a pall of dread over the entire second coming?”

Those (like Newton) who answer yes acknowledge the strength of these arguments, but they rightly point out that we’re dealing with the examination of the sheep here, not the separation of the goats. The question is not whether we’ll be condemned for these sins, but whether they’ll factor into our degree of reward. If  these sins are revealed, they will be revealed as forgiven sins. Moreover, certain texts of Scripture are hard to explain any other way.

In my judgment, it’s these texts that make the yes answer stronger than the no. So let’s look briefly at the main one: 1 Corinthians 3:5-15. Paul uses an analogy in which the church is like a building, while church planters like him and Apollos are like builders—who will be rewarded (or not) depending on the quality of their work.

Let’s pick up in v. 10

[10] According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. [11] For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. [12] Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—[13] each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. [14] If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. [15] If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:10 ESV)

There’s a lot here, so let’s be sure we see the basics.

Paul planted the church in Corinth. But Apollos and others are continuing the work—they’re watering it, building on the foundation that Paul had laid, which is Jesus Christ. Paul’s caution to those who come after him is “Be careful how you build on that foundation. Because how you build will determine whether or not you receive a reward. It’s possible to have the right foundation, but do a shoddy job building on it.”

How then are we going to know whether someone built well or poorly? Answer: v. 13,  “the Day will disclose it.” Which day? we might ask. While some have argued that Paul is referring to a “day of trial” (e.g. a time of persecution) during this age, it seems more likely that he has in mind the Day of Judgment. This is clearly when the reward will be given. And the fact that the fire of this day results in a decisive, secure, ultimate reward also points to the final day. 

On the Day of Judgment, then, the work will be tested by fire, and if it survives, the worker will receive a reward. But if proves to have been wood, hay, and stubble, it’ll be burned up. And notice especially what happens to the builder whose work is burned up: v. 15, “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” He’ll be saved—but he’ll suffer loss. (See also 1 Thess. 2:19-3:5 for a similar concern on Paul’s part.)

So as we look at 1 Cor. 3:10-15, at least three things seem unavoidable.

  1. This passage makes a clear distinction between salvation and additional rewards. Paul says of this person, “He himself will be saved,” but he will “suffer loss.” He will lose his reward, but not his salvation.
  2. This passage implies that there will be degrees of reward on that day. Some will receive a reward, while others will suffer loss but still be saved. 
  3. This passage indicates that the final examination will reveal some uncomfortable truths, even for those who are saved. That’s why I think this passage is relevant to the question, “Will any of our sins be revealed  at the final judgment?”

Because even if these aren’t sins that are being revealed, they’re clearly failures—things that cause you to suffer loss—certainly not things that you’re proud of. It’s true this passage is mainly about gospel ministers. But even if we limit this scenario strictly to ministers, we’re still faced with the fact that there are at least some true Christians for whom the final judgment will not be entirely positive.

And that’s really what troubles us, isn’t it? The thought that the judgment might be unpleasant even if we survive with our souls intact. Will our secret sins be exposed? Will we be shamed before the entire universe? Must we all enter eternal life with trembling hands and tear-stained faces?

Can we not just forget these difficult questions and simply affirm that our sins are forgiven?

 

The Good of this Teaching

In all honesty, part of me hopes that I’m wrong and Turretin and Edwards are right. I realize that if I’m wrong, I’ll be saddling you and me both with a needless burden. But if I’m right, then I have to believe that this teaching is actually good for us. Because if it weren’t, God wouldn’t have revealed it.

Think of it this way: when a student hears that there’s going to be a final exam, how should he respond? Answer: not by worrying, but by preparing! In the same way, when Paul says that “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,” (2 Cor 5:10, emphasis mine), his response is not, “We just hope it’ll be over quickly,” but rather “We make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). The thought of the exam doesn’t paralyze him—it energizes him.

Same with John. If you want to have confidence for the day of judgment, the answer is simple:

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. (1 John 2:28 ESV)

Abide in Christ. Walk in the light. Confess your sins.

Rather than quailing at the thought of having our sins exposed, let me turn the question back on us and ask, should the prospect of having our sins revealed really be that terrifying to a Christian? Is it really such a foreign thing for a Christian’s sins to be exposed and brought into the light? Do we not do this for ourselves on a regular basis? Who’s to say that on that final day, when we’ve finally been perfected in love and freed from all fear of man that this will be such a terrible thing?

John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” addresses this very concern in a letter to an elderly saint who wrote to him asking this very question, “Will my sins be revealed on the day of judgment?” His response is a model of pastoral sensitivity:

When we arrive in glory, unbelief and fear will cease forever; our nearness to God, our communion with him, will beyond what we can now conceive. Therefore the remembrance of our sins will be no abatement of our bliss, but rather the contrary. When Pharaoh and his host were alive and pursuing them, the Israelites were terrified; but afterwards, when they saw their enemies dead upon the shore, their joy and triumph were not abated, but strengthened by the consideration of their number.

He continues.

With respect to our sins being made known to others, I acknowledge with you, that I could not now bear to have any of my fellow-creatures made acquainted with what passes in my heart for a single day; but I [see] it is [as] proof of my present depravity that I feel myself disposed to pay so great a regard for the judgment of men, while I am so little affected with what I am in the sight of a pure and holy God.

But I believe that hereafter, when self shall be entirely rooted out, and my will perfectly united to the divine will, I should feel no reluctance, supposing it for the manifestation of his glorious grace, that men, angels, and devils should know the very worst of me.

Be diligent, but don’t be afraid. Remember who the judge will be. Remember that you’ll be standing there in a glorified body and your destiny will not be in doubt. Remember that any sin that gets revealed on that day will be disarmed of its damning power. If your sins are exposed, they won’t be a source of crippling shame, but a reason to sing “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” Where sin had abounded, grace will abound all the more. And if there be any tears, they will be wiped away by the nail-scarred hand of your Judge right before he says “Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

What should we expect at the final judgment? We should expect to be examined, and that should make us diligent. But we should expect to be saved, and that should make us confident.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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