Author note: We are grateful to Aaron Berkowitz for sharing this short article that he wrote for his congregation. Aaron is an ordained Presbyterian Minister in the Presbyterian Church USA. He has a bachelors degree in English literature from UC Riverside and a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He currently lives just outside Boise Idaho with his wife and two children where he serves a small congregation.
It is good to emphasize the grace of God. Grace means that God reaches out to us before we reach out to him. Grace means that God gives us more and better than we deserve. The best way to explain grace is to say: “there is nothing we can do to make God love us any more, and nothing we can do to make God love us any less”. God loves us unconditionally.
All of that should make us able to hear with trust the hard words that follow. Scripture also teaches that each and every person, including Christians, will be judged by our actions.
“God will repay each person according to what they have done.” (Romans 2:6, NIV)
“Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear.” (1 Peter 1:17, NIV)
Christ has died for you, and by his death you have been redeemed from bondage to corruption. Some people may think that because Jesus died for them, they are immune from judgment. However, the Bible announces that all, even Christians, will be judged by their actions. But what does that mean? I guess some people, when they hear the word “judged”, might think it means “condemned forever”. I don’t know why they think that. Perhaps it was a Bible thumping preacher they heard in their youth. Wherever they got the idea, it is wrong. God’s judgment is essentially this: it is the way God separates evil from good. Judgment is the way God destroys evil. This is why fire is the most common metaphor for God’s judgment. Like fire, it consumes evil and purifies creation. This is what God’s judgment does to us too. It separates us from our sins, destroys them, and purifies us. Now, this may be unpleasant. The more attached we are to our sin, the more painful our judgment is likely to be. The closer we hold our jealousies, our un-forgiveness, our selfishness, the more we feel the heat. This applies not only to any “final judgment” we might face, it applies to us each and every day when we experience the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting us of sin, prodding us to repent, and calling us make amends. Judged we will be, and judged we should WANT to be!
This goes back to Jesus’ death on the cross. In the gospel of John Jesus says about his death, “31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:31-32, NRSV)
It is from the cross that Jesus marks sin out for destruction. When he draws all people to himself, he draws them out of their sin. As he draws us, we die to ourselves, and live to God. This is our baptism, and we live our whole lives in the power of baptism. Christ died so that we might die and rise with him each day. Think of it this way. Our baptism is our participation in the cross, and our judgment the cleansing outcome of our baptism. We can see through the cross that our judgment is identical with this dying to sin and rising to life. Judgment is therefore the joyful news that is promised by the cross, not something nullified by it.
And here is another reason to rejoice over judgment. Heaven could not be heaven if it were populated by sinners. If we are not judged, that is to say, purified, then we could not enter heaven without bringing with us all the evil we hoped we left behind. God forbid that any of us should enter heaven without being judged! George MacDonald described this in his sermon, “The Last Farthing”, based on Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that God will exact from us the last farthing we owe for our wrongdoings:
It is a joy profound as peace to know that God is determined upon such payment, is determined to have his children clean, clear, pure as very snow; is determined that not only shall they with his help make up for whatever wrong they have done, but at length be incapable, by eternal choice of good, under any temptation, of doing the thing that is not divine, the thing God would not do.
There has been much cherishing of the evil fancy, often without its taking formal shape, that there is some way of getting out of the region of strict justice, some mode of managing to escape doing all that is required of us; but there is no such escape. A way to avoid any demand of righteousness would be an infinitely worse way than the road to the everlasting fire, for its end would be eternal death. No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it–no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather! Neither shalt thou think to be delivered from the necessity of being good by being made good.
The good news of Jesus invites us to rejoice at the judgment of God, because God makes all things work for the good of those who love him. So we say with the Psalmist (NRSV):
“Zion hears and is glad,
and the towns of Judah rejoice,
because of your judgments, O God.”