“ButterintheField,” whose comments have occasionally led me to create a post, has reminded me in a comment that I had better finish up at least one part of the Rebuilding the Foundations series.
I stopped doing this project on the blog, and I am working on finishing it as a Word document. I am praying that I can complete it, print it as a pamphlet, and have it available when I speak in Pittsburgh in a month. Here is the section on the judgment, it is a little long for a blog post.
Summation of Previous Posts
In the word document, the following is at the end of chapter 4. Most of the first few chapters are covered in the previous posts:
Everything we have looked at is very simple to understand. Paul said that if a person tried to obtain glory, honor, and immortality by patiently doing good works, God would reward that person with eternal life. We all agree that people in general are slaves to sin (Rom. 7:7-24; Eph. 2:1-3). Thus, the obvious solution to this dilemma would be to free people from their slavery to sin. We have seen that the New Testament provides power to patiently continue to do good works through many means, all revolving around the Holy Spirit, grace, and the Scriptures.
There is no other problem to be resolved. Romans 2:6-7 works for Christians who are born again, filled with the Spirit, empowered by grace, and equipped with the Scriptures. I have not even touched on the fact that we have each other so that we can provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24; cf. 3:13) and grow together with each other’s help (Eph. 4:11-16).
I am basically saying here that we have followed simple steps in looking at God’s foundation, followed by examining what the New Testament has to say about works. Then I describe the problem that arises with what I have written. I wrote the description of the problem before ButterintheField wrote his comment to me. His comment is longer, but it does show I was guessing accurately the problem my readers would find.
This would be as simple and obvious for my readers as it is for me except for one more false teaching that is more devious, deceptive, and destructive than anything we have looked at so far.
That false teaching is that God will not let anyone into heaven who is not perfect. It is the accusation that God is not a just judge.
Almost everything ButterintheField wrote in his comment is covered in my chapter on the judgment even though it is not completed. I am trusting he is going to comment further if I did not answer his comment sufficiently.
The Just Judgment of God
This is a copy and paste from the Word document I am writing. It is 1766 words, and a lot of those are from Ezekiel. Bookmark this page and read it over a couple days, maybe?
I am encouraged that the idea that God requires absolute perfection at the judgment is losing traction. Ligonier, a Reformed theology ministry, has a web page called “The State of Theology.” On it, they report that a survey showed that 61% of participants strongly disagreed with the statement that “Even the smallest sin deserves eternal damnation.” (2017. “The State of Theology.” Ligonier. Retrieved July 8, 2018 from https://thestateoftheology.com/)
I rejoiced when I read this statement. In my mind, torturing a person eternally for one sin that they committed in their life is horribly unjust. It is not just unjust; it is wicked. Ligonier does not agree. “If [God] is perfectly holy and just,” they say, “He cannot let sin go unpunished. But God is no longer holy—in the minds of six out of ten Americans.”
This kind of thinking is unthinkable to me. In fact, on a logical basis, it is so unreasonable that it is silly. Try applying the same kind of thinking to a Christian. If you met a Christian who would not forgive the smallest sin, would you think that Christian was perfectly holy and just? No, you would think he is incapable of mercy. It would not matter to you if the Christian tried to justify himself by saying, “I will forgive this small injustice done to me by someone else if you will let me slap you in the face. You see, I am holy, and I must punish sin, but you can take the punishment if you want.”
Such a person might be regarded as insane, not holy or just. Why, then, would we lay such a charge upon God?
The answer is that we have taken one passage in James 2 that is talking about our judging one another, and we have turned it into the standard on God’s judgment and mercy. That passage reads:
But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. (James 2:8-11)
If there were no verses talking about God’s judgment on the last day, then we might be justified in concluding that God will judge us the way James describes in this passage. There are many verses describing God’s judgment of humans, however, and none of them list “any point of the law” as a standard. This passage has to do with judging one another. Since we are all law-breakers, we sin if we give preference to some individuals as though we were not all law-breakers. More specifically, in the context of James 2, we sin if we prefer rich people over poor people because both are law-breakers.
One of the passages that talks about God’s judgment of humans is a vehement protest by God against Israelites who were complaining that God did not judge justly. In response, God gives a careful explanation of the terms of his judgment. Please excuse the length of this quote from Ezekiel. God gives a better explanation of the judgment than I ever could.
“The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.
“But if a wicked person turns away from all the sins they have committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, that person will surely live; they will not die. None of the offenses they have committed will be remembered against them. Because of the righteous things they have done, they will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?
“But if a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked person does, will they live? None of the righteous things that person has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness they are guilty of and because of the sins they have committed, they will die.
“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, you Israelites: Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust? If a righteous person turns from their righteousness and commits sin, they will die for it; because of the sin they have committed they will die. But if a wicked person turns away from the wickedness they have committed and does what is just and right, they will save their life. Because they consider all the offenses they have committed and turn away from them, that person will surely live; they will not die. Yet the Israelites say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, people of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust?
“Therefore, you Israelites, I will judge each of you according to your own ways, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live! (Ezek. 18:20-32)
This is God’s idea of a just judgment. God commands the wicked to repent, and if they do, he forgets all the wickedness they have every done. Their righteousness will reap life for them.
It is obvious that God cannot be talking about perfect, sinless righteousness. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach that no one is without sin, not even the righteous or the born again (1 Kings 8:46; Jas. 3:2; 1 Jn. 1:8-10). Instead, under both the Old Testament and New Testament, there are those “whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” (Ps. 32:2; Rom. 4:6-8).
On top of this description of the judgment, Ezekiel gives a very interesting picture of righteousness in the eyes of God that is pertinent to this discussion.
“Son of man, if a country sins against me by being unfaithful and I stretch out my hand against it to cut off its food supply and send famine upon it and kill its people and their animals, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Ezek. 14:13-14)
Through Ezekiel, God lists three men who were so righteous that they could not only save themselves, but intervene for the sins of others. Of course, in this case, God has reached the point where he has crushed the kingdom of Judah and they are in captivity. He is not going to forgive them until the prophesied 70 years are fulfilled (Jer. 29:10). Nonetheless, God holds these three men up both as righteous enough to save themselves from judgment, and he clearly implies that their prayers carry weight with him for deferring judgment on the sins of others based on their righteousness.
We know that these men sinned because there is no one who does not sin. Even under the New Covenant, the Apostle John states that anyone claiming to have no sin is a liar (1 Jn. 1:8). Nonetheless, God has the highest regard for their righteousness.
This is a good spot to dismiss another myth. We evangelicals regularly quote Isaiah 64:6 and interpret it to mean that even when we do good, our righteousness is as dirty as filthy rags. This is not the case. Isaiah 64:6 is a specific lament by Isaiah in regard to Israel at a specific period of time. The passage is regularly quoted by us, but it is never quoted by Jesus or the apostles. And as you can see, the righteousness of Noah, Daniel, and Job are not considered filthy rags by God.
This is not just true of Noah, Daniel, and Job. God tells us through Ezekiel that anyone who turns from their wickedness and begins to do righteousness will live because of their righteousness. Their wickedness will never be brought up to them! (Ezek. 18:22).
I will not make you read through a passage you are surely familiar with, but in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us that when he sits down on his throne to judge us, he is not going to take stock all the little imperfections we accumulated in our lives. Instead, he is going to recount to us whether we have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. There is nothing in that passage about distinguishing between those who had faith and those who did not. He will know who had faith by whether they fed the hungry or not.
The fact that God will not require sinlessness at the judgment does not mean that we cannot arrive at the judgment blameless, without stain or blemish (1 Cor. 1:8; Eph. 5:26-27; Jude 1:23). We have already discussed the fact that there are those to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Who are these people?
The Apostle John has a lot to say about this. For example, in 1 John 1:7 he tells us that “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” While in 1 John 1:9 we read that he will forgive and purify us if we confess our sins, 1 John 1:7 tells us that we will continually be cleansed if we will walk in the light.
Of course, we then have to ask, “What does it mean to walk in the light?”
Ephesians 5:8-15 addresses this directly. There Paul tells us that if we live as children of light, then the fruit we bear will be “goodness, righteousness, and truth” (v. 9). Light exposes (v. 13; Jn. 3:19-21). It is safe to conclude, then, that the person who is seeking to live a godly life, confessing his sins to God (1 Jn. 1:9) and others (Jas. 5:16), can expect to be forgiven on an ongoing basis. Such a person can expect to be among those to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
All the above was cut and pasted from what I wrote in the Word document. Let me add this to show you the direction I am going with the rest of the chapter.
This idea that there is a standard that much be met in order to be among those whose sins the Lord will not take account is in the New Testament in a number of places. We have already looked at 1 John 1:7, which says that walking in the light is what leads to fellowship with one another and to continual cleansing by Jesus’ blood. Walking in the darkness provides us with no fellowship with God at all (1 Jn. 1:6).
More directly, 1 John 3:7 tell us that we need to be practicing righteousness if we expect to be righteous as Jesus is righteous. It tells us not to be deceived about this.
Finally, Galatians 6:7 says, “God is not mocked.” There is a place where our sowing to flesh will lead to corruption. This place is not at one sin, but there is a such a place.
Any time I bring up these verses, or suggest that we as Christians will face the judgment, I am asked about “the line.” Where is the line? How badly must I sin before I am mocking God. How much righteousness must I practice in order to be sure that God is attributing the righteousness of Jesus to me and not accounting sin to me?
Normally, this is not even a real question. Normally this is a challenge. Those who ask me this are saying, “Your teaching is wrong because it leaves us wondering where the line is.”
The answer, though, is that we are supposed to be wondering. Look at Paul’s response to his own teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:27 and Philippians 3:8-15. Paul is discipling himself daily, and he is pressing forward with all his might. Why? Because he wants to attain to the resurrection of the dead. He does not want to be disqualified after preaching to others. What does he mean by disqualified? Well, he uses the same word that he uses in 2 Corinthians 13:5, where he tells us that we should examine whether we are in Christ. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 if we are disqualified, it is contrasted with being in Christ.
I know this is a horrifying thought to most of us, but it is definitely Paul’s attitude. Peter seems to agree because he tells us to live our lives in fear because of the judgment (1 Pet. 1:17). He also tells us to be diligent to make our calling and election certain (2 Pet. 1:10).
God does provide assurance, but it is not the kind of assurance we are typically offered by American preachers. He provides the witness of the Holy Spirit that we are his children (Rom. 8:16; 1 Jn. 3:24). We can also assure our hearts before God by loving in deed and truth rather than just talking about loving (1 Jn. 3:18-22).
We have to contrast this kind of strictness with the nature of God, who is merciful. The primary marker of God’s character is love (1 Jn. 4:8), but mercy is a close second (Ex. 34:6). When we sin, we are not supposed to run away from God, but we are to run to him because he will show mercy and “freely pardon” (Isa. 55:7).
This balance can be both frightening and amazing. Frightening because we must follow Paul in disciplining our body and bringing it under subjection (1 Cor. 9:27), and amazing because when we fail we find his mercy to be new every morning (Lam. 3:22). Surely God is as willing to forgive us as he commands us to forgive others. Jesus told Peter to forgive his brother 70 times 7 times if his brother offended him (Matt. 18:22). Surely God is more merciful than we are.
Okay. I will quit there except to say that if you are struggling with the fact that there is a line that you should fear, you should make sure you have Christians around you with whom you are in real fellowship (friendship). You need them anyway (Heb. 3:12), but they can provide an outside perspective besides our own faulty judgment of ourselves. They can tell you whether you are being too hard (or ridiculously hard) on yourself or whether they wonder with you whether you are really a Christian.