By John Piper
The biblical truth that I want us to understand, believe, and live by today is this: a time is coming when every responsible person, on the basis of his or her actions and attitudes, will meet the final judgment of God either as eternal life or as wrath and fury. With that sentence I am trying to answer three questions about final judgment :
1) Who will be judged?
2) On what basis will they be judged?
3) What are the alternatives they may experience?
But some would ask another question first, namely, why talk about judgment? What good does it do? Doesn't it just make life dismal and cast a shadow across the bright field of God's love? My answer is three-fold.
Why Talk About Judgment?
First, I preach about judgment because it is so prominent in Scripture, and I am accountable as a pastor-teacher to unfold the whole counsel of God.
And whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake off the dust of your feet. Truly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city. (Mt. 10:14, 15)
God has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:31)
It is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
If we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:26, 27)
I do not see how any pastor could neglect this theme in Scripture with a clear conscience.
The second reason I preach on this theme is that for some people the fear of judgment may be the only motivation to consider trusting Christ as Savior. Now, to be sure, there are better reasons to come to God than to escape hell. But if fear is the only thing that will shake a person loose from his bondage to sin and cause him to consider Christ, then, for love's sake, so be it. There are better reasons for a child to obey his daddy than the fear of a spanking. But if that fear is the only thing that will keep him out of the street, then, for love's sake, so be it. I am not as hesitant as some to let people feel fear, for I have ringing in my ears the words of Jesus:
Do not fear those who can kill the body and afterwards have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the one who after he has killed has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4, 5)
The third reason I preach on judgment is that it reveals part of God's character and so helps us love him for who he is. If hearing about God's judgment makes it harder for us to love God, then probably the God we love is a figment of our imagination and not the real and true God. If we would love the true God, we must know the true God. There is something wrong with our faith if we cannot sing praises to God not only as our loving Father but also as the righteous Judge of all the earth. As I was preparing for our worship service today I went through two hymnals looking for a hymn that celebrated the glory of God's righteous judgment and summoned us to fear as we ought, and I couldn't find one. That is a bad sign of deficient theology and a stunted relationship to God. We ought to sing the praises of all that God is instead of implying by our silence that, if he judges, he is not wholly admirable.
Who Will Be Judged?
For these three reasons, then, I consider it essential to preach from a text whose theme is the judgment of God. The text I have chosen is Romans 1:28–2:11, and the first question we should try to answer from this text concerning final judgment is, Who will be judged? Paul gives the answer in verses 5 and 6, "According to your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and the righteous judgment of God who will render to each person according to his deeds." The simple answer is: everybody will be judged.
Paul bends over backwards to make this point because there was at least one group of people in his day some of whom thought they would not be subject to judgment, namely Jews. Notice how Paul approaches the problem. In Romans 1:20, 21 he shows that the typical Gentile of his day who did not glorify God was without excuse and subject to judgment. He says,
Since the creation of the world God's invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give thanks.
In other words, where there is sufficient knowledge available that God is worthy of honor and gratitude, yet people don't give it, they are without excuse and destined for wrath.
Then in the latter part of chapter 1, Paul describes the sorts of things that a person who does not acknowledge God falls into. Verses 28–32:
Just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice, full of envy, strife, deceit, maliciousness; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.
Those were the sorts of sins that Paul saw as he looked around on the Gentile society and family and business life of his day.
But there was a small enclave of people in that pagan society who looked on the Gentile world with disdain, and in passing judgment on the Gentiles, reinforced their own sense of security from judgment. Yet according to the apostle not only are the Gentiles without excuse and liable to judgment, so are the Jews. This is the point of chapter 2, verses 1–3:
Therefore you are without excuse, O man, everyone who judges; for by judging another you condemn yourself for you who judge are practicing the very same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things. Or do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment upon those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God?
That is precisely what some of Israel supposed.
Do you recall how John the Baptist preached at first to the unbelievers of Israel: "You brood of vipers; who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham for our father,' for I say to you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham."' There were many in Israel who had the misguided notion that belonging to the chosen people, being a Jew, was a free pass at the judgment day. So John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul struggled to get the point across that those who reject Jesus and live in sin will be condemned at the judgment day whether Jew or Gentile. It was the Jewish towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida to whom Jesus said, "Woe to you . . . For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon (Gentile cities) which occurred in you, they would have repented in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you" (Matthew 11:21, 22). Jesus turns the false notion on its head: worse for the Jews in judgment, not better, because their privilege was greater.
And is this not precisely what Paul says in Romans 2:9–11?
There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to every man who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.
To whom much is given will much be required. Therefore, the Jews are first into blessing and first into judgment. No man is saved by his race, his heritage, or his outward religious form. God is no respecter of these things. He looks to the heart and its out-flowing in daily life.
The sum of the matter is given in Romans 3:9 and 22f.: "What then? Are we Jews any better than they? Not at all, for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin . . . There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." And the upshot of this for us is that everyone in this room, who hasn't fled to Christ for mercy and forgiveness is under the wrath of God and heading for hell. And it also means that there are no pockets of our society which are excluded from judgment. From the top of the I.D.S. to the dens of Hennepin Avenue. Corporate heads and cab drivers, congressmen and custodians, housewives and harlots, sailors and secretaries, pimps and pastors—we will all be there before the bar, at the final fork in the road of life. And all the money and possessions and status and power and looks in which our souls have sought refuge will weigh in the scales of God's justice like dust that has to be blown away before judgment can begin, before the real issues of life can be weighed.
On What Will the Final Judgment Be Based?
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 of 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 capitol 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 includes 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.
What Are the Alternatives in Judgment?
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.
By John Piper. ©Desiring God. Website: www.desiringgod.org
Email: mail@desiringGod.org. Toll Free: 888.346.4700.
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