Ambassador of Reconciliation
8/29/12 at 01:15 AM 63 Comments

False Hope, True Hope / False Fear, True Fear: Part 2

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In Part 1 I tried to show that you do not need to be terrified of unending torment for yourself or anyone else, because God does not inflict pointless suffering. Nevertheless, we do need to fear the wrath of God. He hates sin, because it violates His holiness and destroys the people He loves, so He will do whatever it takes to root out the sin from our lives and ultimately eradicate it from the universe entirely.

The Bible has much to say about the wrath of God against all unrighteousness, but here I would like to focus on God’s judgment of His own people. Some Christians think believing in Jesus means that you will waltz right into heaven when you die and live happily ever after. They picture salvation as a ticket to heaven, and if you have your ticket in hand when you meet Jesus, you’re good to go. Others think it’s possible to lose your ticket, so they believe you have to make an effort to hang onto it. So which is it? Once you get your ticket, do you keep it forever? Or can you lose it? Or…does the whole “ticket” paradigm need to be re-examined? Are both complacency about our salvation and fear about losing it misplaced? Where is the false hope? The true hope? What fears can be put to rest? What should we fear?

Let me begin by affirming some fundamental Scriptural truths. Nothing I say should be construed to contradict these truths. First, salvation is by grace through faith. It is the gift of God, not a reward for something we do:

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 (Eph. 2:8-9).

Second, those who are in Christ do not need to fear condemnation:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

Not only do we not need to fear condemnation, but on the positive side we have peace with God, access into His grace, and hope of experiencing His glory:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).

So what is there to worry about? Why should Christians have any fear of judgment?

The Old Testament has many instances of God’s wrath and judgment against unbelieving nations, cities, and individuals—the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Egypt, the Canaanites, Nebuchadnezzar, Assyria, Edom, to name just a few. But just as often, God judged His own people. He had to deal severely with them to get them back on track, often using pagan nations—the very ones who were also under His judgment—as His instruments. When wooing His people by His lovingkindness and patience did not work, He arrested them in their tracks so they would return to Him. They would fall away again, but He kept calling them back by whatever means were necessary.

Similarly in the New Testament, we see God’s wrath declared and displayed against all unrighteousness, as in Romans 1 and throughout Revelation. In the words of Paul,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Rom. 1:18).

Christians sometimes comfort themselves with the thought that their own sins are already covered by the blood of Christ and that God’s judgment is only for unbelievers. But God’s people are not exempt from judgment. In fact, Peter says,

It is time for judgment to begin with the family of God (1 Pet. 4:17).

He goes on to say, “if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” In other words, it will be more severe for those who do not obey the gospel, but do not think that a profession of faith will enable you to escape God’s judgment.

So what does this judgment look like? What is its purpose? What is its end result? God’s judgment could be the topic of many volumes of writing, but I will offer some passages from Scripture and a few comments of my own, and let readers draw their own conclusions.

With regard to judgment, there are some passages that seem to draw a sharp distinction in the status of individuals strictly on the basis of belief or unbelief.

Whoever believes in him [God’s only Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (Jn. 3:18).

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him (Jn. 3:36).

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (Jn. 5:24).

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die (Jn. 11:25-26).

Passages like these suggest that belief is the sole criterion for undergoing or escaping judgment. Yet consider the many passages that speak of judgment based on righteousness or unrighteousness, obedience or disobedience, godliness or ungodliness. Jesus says that the Father has given all judgment to the Son (Jn. 5:22). He will judge not only on the basis of belief (5:24), but also on the basis of doing good or evil (5:29):

And he [the Father] has given him [the Son] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (Jn. 5:27-29).

Paul speaks of the judgment of works in Romans 2:

We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things [every kind of wickedness, detailed in chapter 1]. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 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. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality (Rom. 2:2-11)

Paul is not teaching works salvation here, but he is warning us that the way we live now will have a profound effect on how we are judged later. The declaration that God “will render to each one according to his works” means that our good and bad works will impact how God deals with us.

In Romans 14 and 2 Corinthians 5, Paul clearly teaches that believers will undergo judgment:

For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Rom. 14:11-12).

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 (2 Cor. 5:10).

He also speaks of the judgment of Christians in 1 Corinthians 3. There he explains that the only foundation is Jesus Christ, but on the Day of Judgment our works will be revealed and we will be evaluated and punished or rewarded depending upon how we have built upon the foundation:

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—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. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor. 3:11-15).

Another warning to Christians is found in 1 Corinthians 11.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor. 11:27-32).

Paul is also speaking to Christians in Galatians 6, where he warns that we will reap what we sow—whether corruption by sowing to the flesh, or life in the age to come by sowing to the Spirit:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal. 6:7-10).

The writer of Hebrews uses the rebellion of the people of God in the Old Testament as a warning to believers not to miss out on God’s blessing because of disobedience and unbelief:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin…. And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it (Heb. 3:12-13; 18-19; 4:1).

Here the writer sees a real danger that Christians might fall away from the living God and come under His judgment. Later he also warns against falling into the sin of Esau and missing the grace of God. He is exhorting the believers to holiness, which we must have in order to see the Lord.

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears (Heb. 12:14-17).

And in the same passage where he encourages believers that they can have “confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (10:19) and “the full assurance of faith” (10:22), the writer of Hebrews also warns them of the very real possibility of “a fearful expectation of judgment”:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.... How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-31).

This judgment is upon God’s people. It is possible for those who have received the knowledge of the truth and professed faith to “profane the blood of the covenant by which [they were] sanctified” and to “outrage the Spirit of grace.” They ought to fear falling into the hands of the living God and experiencing His punishment.

In Matthew 18, 24, and 25, Jesus tells three stories about wicked servants and one about virgins waiting for the bridegroom. In each instance, you could make a case that Jesus is talking about those who belong to Him. In chapter 18, the servant has been forgiven of an enormous debt, only to turn around and refuse to forgive his fellow servant. The master deals with him very harshly:

Then his master summoned him and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”  And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart (Mt. 18:32-35).

Notice the hints that Jesus is talking about a believer (master/servant, “I forgave you all that debt,” “I had mercy on you,” “your brother”). Then in chapter 24, one servant is put in charge of all the servants in the “household.” If he starts living loosely and treating his fellow servants badly, he will be sent to a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth:

But if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 24:48-51).

The servant in chapter 25 has been given one talent but instead of investing it wisely, he hides the talent in the ground. The master is not pleased:

But his master answered him, “You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.

“So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt. 25:26-30).

In the parable of the ten virgins in chapter 25, five of the virgins are not prepared when the bridegroom arrives, and they are excluded from the wedding banquet:

And while they [the foolish virgins] were going to buy oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you” (Mt. 25:10-12).

The context in each case indicates that Jesus is talking about His own people—a servant whom He has forgiven or put in charge of His household or blessed with a talent, or virgins who are invited to His marriage banquet. All of them face judgment not because they have never exercised faith, but because of their actions. The people in these passages who are weeping and gnashing their teeth are believers!

Then in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus describes the judgment of the sheep and the goats. Despite all attempts to make this passage say that Jesus is dividing people into two groups depending on whether or not they believe in Him, what He actually says is that the criterion is how they treat others. Did they feed the hungry? Give drink to the thirsty? Welcome strangers? Clothe the naked? Visit the sick and those in prison? Those who do these things are blessed by the Father and will inherit His Kingdom and gain life in the age to come (ζωην αιωνιον). Those who do not will go away into punishment in the age to come (κολασιν αιωνιον).

So what are we to make of these passages and others like them? I will make some observations, and I invite you to offer your own ideas.

Clearly believers are not exempt from judgment, both here on earth and after death. But if Jesus died to forgive our sins and take our punishment for us, why do we still get judged? It is true that we do not have to fear condemnation, but we will have to give an account for the way we have lived. God will evaluate our lives and deal with us accordingly. Our sins that have been brought to the cross are forgiven, forgotten, and buried in the deepest sea. The works that we have done in service to the Lord will be rewarded, and we will receive the blessing of the treasures we have laid up in heaven.

But what of our bad works? God’s intention is not to get back at us for what we have done wrong; rather, He desires to make us fit to live in His Kingdom, which will require His continued work in our lives. What that work will look like and how long it will take, I cannot say. The passages presented here indicate that the judgment of believers may be very tough, like going through a fire, but like discipline here on earth, the end result will be a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb. 12:11). We will be thoroughly purified and fit for the Kingdom of God, resulting in praise, glory, and honor to Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 1:7).

You might be thinking that accepting Jesus as your Savior will keep you from ever experiencing God’s judgment, but I urge you not to be complacent. The people of God must not rest in the false hope that they are immune to judgment; the sins of the Church and of individual believers must be exposed so we can be purified and refined. The false prophets were rebuked for not exposing the sins of the people of God but rather filling them with the false hope that all was well when it was not well:*

Your prophets have said so many foolish things, false to the core. They did not save you from exile by pointing out your sins. Instead, they painted false pictures, filling you with false hope (Lam. 2:14, NLT).

They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14, NLT).

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jer. 23:16, ESV).

So what are we to do? We are not to panic, but we should take a sober look at our lives. Are we living in such a way as to be fit for citizenship in the Kingdom of God? Are we following the Kingdom principles outlined in the Word of God? Are we practicing the Beatitudes? Are we filled with the fruit of the Spirit, which will be in full bloom in the Kingdom? Are we, as God’s chosen ones, putting on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,” bearing with one another and forgiving each other, and above all putting on love (Col. 3:12-14)?

In some respects God is like the judge of an athletic competition, such as gymnastics or diving, who evaluates a performance and determines whether it is worth a gold, silver, or bronze medal or no medal at all. Both now and at the judgment seat of Christ we receive blessings and rewards for serving Him well. But in another sense, God is more like a coach who evaluates the performance and then says, “OK, how can we turn this 7.32 into a perfect 10?” He longs to sanctify us through and through, and He uses whatever means are necessary, which will vary according to our response. Are we humbly and obediently allowing God to do His work of sanctification in us now? We ought to be cooperating with Christ in the process of cleansing us and making us holy, with the goal “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27). The more we allow ourselves to be purified now, the less refining we will need later.

Do you indulge in certain sins without thought of the consequences? Do you have a broken relationship that needs to be healed before you can spend eternity with the other person? Do you harbor a spirit of bitterness or unforgiveness? Are you living for the pleasures of this world? Do you seek to control rather than to serve? Are you laying up for yourself treasures on earth instead of treasures in heaven? Do you take the bread and the cup unworthily? Then take heed now, and bring those sins to the cross and let God do His sanctifying work in you now. Otherwise, even if you have made a profession of faith, you may face a terrifying expectation of judgment.

Certainly we are to be warning the world about God’s judgment. It is our responsibility to share the good news of the gospel and the reality of judgment, and to call people to come to Christ now that they might not be condemned. Today is the day of salvation; we should never give the idea that it’s fine to put off that decision. But we should be equally diligent in calling the Body of Christ to repentance and godliness. We should examine our own lives and see if there are any parts of our lives that are incompatible with citizenship in God’s Kingdom.

Paul’s words to the rich about how to lay a good foundation for the future apply to all of us:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Tim. 6:17-19).

The good news is that, one way or another, He who began a good work in us will surely carry it on to completion (Ph. 1:6) and sanctify us fully:

God is able to keep us from falling and to present us before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy (Jude 24).

Some Christians seem to know just what will happen after death and in what order and to what classes of people. I do not. But Scripture does reveal enough that we can be thoroughly warned and fully reassured:

Do NOT be in bondage to the false fear that you or anyone else will be tormented endlessly.

Do NOT cling to the false hope that you can live however you want and still escape God’s righteous judgment.

DO live your life in the true fear of God’s holiness and the expectation that He will do whatever it takes to root out the sin in your life.

DO rejoice in the true hope that God will fully accomplish His purpose for sending Jesus to die on the cross. He will eradicate sin from His entire creation and make everything right!

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*Thank you to John Hillary for drawing my attention to these passages.

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