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 Law and Gospel
Toward the Eternal Harbor

Part III

The Judgment and Justification by Faith

The judgment of all men at the end of the world was proclaimed by the apostles as part and parcel of the gospel (Acts 17:31). But the Catholic Church's preoccupation with Plato's idea of the immortal soul rather than the Biblical resurrection of the dead, caused a decided loss of real eschatological hope in Christian thinking. With the Reformation, especially with Luther, eschatological hope was revived and the doctrine of a final judgment upon all men was seen to belong with the great message of justification by faith.

In his book, The Last Judgment in Protestant Theology from Orthodoxy to Ritschl (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1963), James Perry Martin traces the history of the judgment doctrine in Protestantism. He shows that since the time of the Reformers, the importance of a final judgment has been receding from Protestant thinking. Instead of justification by faith being seen in such a light as to make the judgment necessary, he points out that the tendency is to teach justification by faith in such a way as to make a final judgment almost totally irrelevant. The Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, as well as the old Platonic idea of natural immortality, are also implicated as undermining the real Biblical emphasis on the final judgment.

This is very unfortunate for Protestantism, for the message of the judgment has a definite place in the proclamation of the gospel. Prior to the coming of Christ, the everlasting gospel is represented as announcing the judgment hour to the world:

    "And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters." Rev. 14:6, 7.

As the Church nears her eternal harbor, Satan will be permitted to work with all power, signs and lying wonders (2 Thess. 2:9). The church will be threatened with destruction on the rocks of legalism and the reef of antinomianism. God knows that in order for her to steer safely into port, she not only needs the light of justification by faith behind her, but the light of the judgment before her. It is this light, shining from the judgment bar of God, that will expose the dangerous rocks of legalism and the treacherous reef of antinomianism.

Antinomianism Exposed by the Light of the Judgment

The Bible repeatedly speaks of a judgment, not for some men, but for all men (Eccl. 3:17; 12:13, 14; Acts 17:31). Especially will those comprising the church be judged (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). The Judge will have no favorites. He will not gloss over the evidence. He will not be afraid to have the lives of His people examined. Every man will be judged by his works (Rom. 2:6-8; Gal. 6:7-9; Col. 3:23-25; l Cor.3:13;4:5;1 Peter l:17; Ps. 62:12; Matt. 16:27; 25:31-46; 12:37).

Someone may then ask, "How can this be harmonized with Paul's insistence on justification by faith alone?" We must be careful to note that Paul can just as fervently appeal to judgment according to works. In his epistles, he calls for concrete acts of love and lives rich in good works. The apostle knows that the only work which will abide that day will be the work of faith and the toil of love (1 Thess. 1:3). Everything will hinge on whether the works have been done in faith. Without faith, the best deeds will only be glittering sins (Rom. 14:23). No wonder Paul insists on faith! A man may be a Christian or he may be lazy, but he cannot be both. Present-day Protestantism needs to hear the judgment-hour message and be confronted with the reality of God's tribunal. Then men will clearly see that there is no room for presumptuous ideas about being saved no matter what they do, nor will there be a place for such sentimental twaddle as God being too merciful (or indulgent) to judge His people.

Lutheran scholar, Adolf Koberle, has expressed this beautifully in his The Ouest for Holiness:

    "It is impossible to restrict the statements of the New Testament concerning the final judgment to the ungodly or to self-righteous zealots for the Law, to say nothing of trying to explain them as remnants of Jewish ideas in the theology of St. Paul. The Son of Man will require a special reckoning from those who have been engaged in His service and have been endowed with His gifts. That the returning Judge would reward every man according to his works was told to the disciples. Every idle word spoken by man must be accounted for at the last day. St. Paul regards every earthly tribunal and every earthly self-judgment as unimportant, whether it be approval or disapproval, for that day shall declare it; the day in which the Lord will judge. Then will man's work first be revealed, of what sort it is. Each one will reap what he has sowed. All must appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the final judgment on this earthly life. Whoever in the earthly congregation continues to serve evil shall not inherit the Kingdom.

    "All these declarations that could so easily be multiplied are so unanimous and overwhelming that the evasion of the older orthodoxy, according to which all this is to be understood hypothetically and cannot be applied to the one who is justified, is no longer permissible. At the end of days the judgment will actually be passed on the works of the sinner and of the righteous, and so the fear of displeasing God must accompany even the life of the believer as a holy fear and as an aid in overcoming temptation. Insincere life, an unbridled tongue or body, impure passions, implacable enmity which faith that possessed the Spirit might have restrained or turned aside, will go with us and accuse us before God. But when the idea of judgment on the entire attitude of the one who is justified has been maintained, there will be no room for the ancient antinomian misunderstanding which has always accompanied Paulinism and Lutheranism like a dark shadow; the question whether the Christian cannot continue in sin because the working of grace would thus become so much more mightily evident (Rom. 6:1 seq.). If even the justified sinner must face the judgment it is no longer a matter of indifference as to the degree in which he has allowed himself to be purified by the Spirit from the 'defilement and evil of the flesh.' " pp.165, 166 (1938 ed.).

Legalism Exposed by the Light of the Judgment

While God's people must be careful to maintain good works, they must be just as careful not to trust in them. When the believer faces the prospect of standing before the judgment seat of the Almighty, how can he find confidence in anything within his own experience? As Calvin would say, "For if the stars, which seem so very bright at night, lose their brilliance in the sight of the sun, what do we think will happen even to the rarest innocence of man when it is compared with God's purity?" When Isaiah and Daniel beheld the perfect glory of the Holy One of Israel, they were astonished and humiliated by the sense of their own radical sinfulness. Let a man scale the alpine heights of holy living; yet his holiest duties could not abide the severity of God's judgment.

Well might the greatest saint flee from the judgment bar of God in terror if there were no Lamb, as it had been slain, in the midst of the throne (Rev. 5:6). But the righteousness of Jesus will go with the believer to judgment and plead his abundant entrance into the kingdom of glory. All that falls short of God's glory is sin (Rom. 3:23), and in this sense "every good work of the saints while pilgrims in this world is sin" (Luther). But the works of God's people are appraised, not on the basis of their intrinsic worth, but as they appear fragrant with the merits of Christ's intercession. Thus the saints shall be judged in mercy (2 Tim. 1:18) and shall be counted worthy to sit with Him on His throne (2 Thess. 1:5). There is no place for legalism in view of the judgment.

To summarize, two great facts of judgment confront us: the fact of an actual examination of works cuts off all possibility of antinomianism; the fact of Christ's needed final intercession cuts off all possibility of legalism. The Christian shall finally triumph in the same way as he began — by grace, by Christ and by faith.

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