Judgment according to works?

Every passage of Scripture describing a scene of final judgment makes works of righteousness done in this life the basis for judgment (e.g. Matthew 7:21-23; 25:31-46;II Corinthians 5:10;Revelation 21:11-15).

Yet, according to the gospel, eternal salvation is given as God’s undeserved gift and is “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5).

How do we reconcile works based judgment with the fact that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Final Judgment 

Let’s first be clear about the fact that, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). “It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
 every tongue will acknowledge God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:11-12).

Judgment based on works

One of the clearest Scriptures connecting eternal destiny with human works comes from Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46.

After Jesus pronounced judgment on two different groups of people, he gave the basis for the judgment by using the “FOR“- each time.

The setting

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.”

The sheep

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. FOR I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’” (Matthew 25:31-36).

The goats

“Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. FOR I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me’” (Matthew 25:41-43). Conclusion: v. 46 – “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Evidently, “Sins of omission are judged as harshly as overt sinful acts.” (K. Snodgrass)

Unexpected outcome

The first group is surprised at the verdict because they were unaware that what they did was actually done for Jesus himself.

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:37-40).

A matter of motive

Their surprise was not that they didn’t realize that they were serving the Lord. But their surprise excluded the idea that their deeds were being done to win salvation. In their surprise, Jesus used, “a literary device indicating that the service rendered was not done for recognition or reward.” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent, p. 560). For those who have been forgiven by God, acts of mercy toward others will not be a means to an end but as a response to God’s redeeming love.

Those who do merciful deeds to score points with God or hoping to make God beholden to them miss the point Jesus made in the surprise of the righteous.

Excellent observations

“The narrative is a piece of the gospel, but not its whole theology in miniature. To debate the implications of ‘for’ for a theory of salvation taught here is to push the passage beyond its intent. It warns that judgment will be determined by acts of mercy, but does not address whether this mercy is the result of redemption or its cause.”

“To raise the problem of works righteousness is to foist on Jesus and Matthew a concern that is not theirs. Their concern is a discipleship that is evidenced in love and mercy. The judgment evidenced in this narrative does not ask if a person has accumulated x number of merciful acts but asks ‘what kind of person are you?’ The point is that a person cannot claim identity as a disciple of Jesus without evidencing it in acts of mercy” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent).

Judgment as validation or verification 

Our eternal destiny is settled in this life and judgment will verify (by means of our works) our identity as redeemed or unredeemed. Judgment will expose the connection or lack of connection between our profession and our practice. As Jesus said, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

All of this presupposes that saving faith is life changing faith. Something is expected in the lives of those who encounter the true and living God and receive His gift of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Steve Cornell

The anxiety we feel in death

Hope-logo-2Each death of a follower of Jesus leads to an answer to His prayer, “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (John 17:24).

Because of this, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”.. “…to depart and be with Christ, is better by far” (Philippians 1:21-23).

And one day, “when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (I Corinthians 15:54). For Jesus broke the power of death, and those who trust him as their Savior rest confidently in his promise, “my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:39-40).

Because of these great truths and promises, “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).

Jesus gave us direct orders when he said, “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3).

Consider some of the features of this place awaiting us: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Reflect deeply and prayerfully on these words

We must view death as an enemy and a thief – not a welcomed friend. Death is a separator. It brings things to an end and removes loved ones from our presence. But gratefully our Creator did not allow death to have the final word. Life in our present physical bodies is not our only existence. “Christianity is, among other things, the wonderfully good news that this life is not our whole story” (Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion).

Therefore “… the anxiety we feel in the face of death is the consequence of our investing this life (from which we must die) with ultimate significance. The despair we feel when forced to reckon with the vanity of all our activities and pleasures is the result of our according ultimate significance to those activities and pleasures—to their being for us the whole story, or the center of the story. If we could manage to see this life as a stage in an eternal life, then it could be accepted honestly and gladly for what it is. If we could see the significance of our present activities and pleasures as deriving from a context beyond this present one of flowering and fading, they could be honestly enjoyed for what they are, no less and no more.”

“If on the other hand we have no larger expectation in terms of which to interpret this life, then since we are creatures who cannot escape our surveying imagination and our deeper longings, embitterment dwells on our doorstep. And we live in constant fear of stepping out into the open” (R. Roberts).

Steve Cornell

Troubled dust, but dust that dreams

As he struggled with the exasperating enigma of existence, Scottish agnostic, Richard Holloway, couldn’t escape the feeling that there must be more to life than this world. 

  • “This is my dilemma. I am dust and ashes, frail and wayward, a set of predetermined behavioral responses, … riddled with fear, beset with needs…the quintessence of dust and unto dust I shall return…. But there is something else in me…. Dust I may be, but troubled dust, dust that dreams, dust that that has strong premonitions of transfiguration, of a glory in store, a destiny prepared, an inheritance that will one day be my own…so my life is spread out in a painful dialectic between ashes and glory, between weakness and transfiguration. I am a riddle to myself, an exasperating enigma…the strange duality of dust and glory.”

From dust to glory 

Jesus broke the grip of the curse of dust! “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13).

  • “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of death… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15). For “God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot (decay) in the grave. God raised Jesus from the dead… Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us” (Acts 2:32-34, NLT).

God did this “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25). Yes, “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:8-9). 

Security in an uncertain world

Paul emphatically and unequivocally states that no experience in this life can alter the certainty of God’s love for us.

  • “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

Rest securely and confidently in what God has done for you in Christ! And remind yourself often that, 

  • “When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he declared us righteous and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).

Steve Cornell

Final Restoration of all things

The final and full restoration of everything:

  • Acts 3:21 – “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.
  • Colossians 1:19-20 – “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Christ), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

What will it involve?

  • Philippians 3:20-21 – “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”
  • I Corinthians 15:24-28 – “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.”
  • II Peter 3:10-13 - “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (cf. II Thessalonians 1:6-10).
  • Revelation 21:1-8 - “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”

“He said to me: ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.’”

Steve Cornell

What did Jesus teach about entering heaven?

Did Jesus preach the gospel?

Is there a difference between the way you invite people to receive salvation from God and the way Jesus did?

Is there consistency from the gospels through the epistles regarding how one is to be reconciled to God and assured of heaven?

Audio Resource: Listen to part 7 of In Step with the Master Teacher here.

Entrance requirements of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew

  • 5:20 – surpassing righteousness
  • 7:21 – doing the will of the father
  • 18:3-4 – childlike humility
  • 18:8-9 – amputation of sinful offenses
  • 19:16-24 – love of riches as an obstacle
  • 25:21, 23 – the faithful servant entering the joy of the Master

Five verdicts of the gospel

  1. I stand condemned before God – guilty of sin and deserving of God’s judgment         (Romans 3:10,23:6:23a; James 2:10)
  2. I cannot improve my standing before God (Romans 4:5; 5:6;Galatians 2:16, 21; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).                                                               
  3. Apart from the mercy and grace of God, I remain forever under God’s just condemnation (Romans 3;Titus 3:5-7).
  4. What I cannot do, God did for me when Jesus Christ took the judgment my sin deserved (Galatians 3:13;Romans 5:8; 8:3-4;II Cor. 5:17,18,21).
  5. There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1, 32-39;John 1:12;3:16-18,36; 10:27-28).

Romans 5:6, 8-11 - “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

Steve Cornell

 

What does it mean to be gospel-centered?

The gospel is the great news about what God has done to make it possible for us to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with Him in Christ.

A summary of the gospel is outlined in II Corinthians 5:17-21. 

Gospel-centered living happens when three tenses are kept in view:

  1. What we were apart from Christ (past)
  2. What we already have in Christ (present)
  3. What we will have through Christ (future)

Reflection: Titus 3:5-6 – “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Galatians 2:21 – ”if right standing with God could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Colossians 3:1-4 – “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.”

Gospel-centered living is based on two confessions:

  1. Romans 7:24 – “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (my imprisonment to sin)?
  2. Romans 7:25 – “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” – 8:1)

Reflection: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). (see: Romans 3:19-20). “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Romans 11:32).

Have you responded to what God has done for you through Jesus Christ? 

Here is a way to express your need to God:

“God, I am ready to admit that I am a sinner. I have done many things that don’t please you. I have lived my life for myself and deserve to be punished for my sin. But I believe that Jesus Christ died for me to pay the debt I owe.”

“Today, the best I know how, I am placing my trust in Jesus Christ as my Savior. I am turning to you for forgiveness and salvation. I believe that you sent Jesus Christ to pay the penalty my sin deserves. I believe that when he died on the cross, his death was for my salvation. Through Jesus death and resurrection, you did what I could not do for myself.”

“I thank you right now for the gift of eternal life promised to those who believe in Jesus Christ. I now turn my life over to you. I thank you that by believing in Jesus Christ I can be your forgiven child and be completely assured that I will never perish but have eternal life with you. Help me to always recognize that my relationship with you is only based on what Jesus did for me. Protect me from the kind of pride that thinks that I can do what is needed to make myself right with you.”

Reflect on these Scriptures: Luke 18:9-13; John 3:16-18; Romans 10:9; II Corinthians 5:17-21; Ephesians 2:8-10;

Share this with others. 

Steve Cornell

Resurrection is life after life after death

I expect to be resurrected one day because Jesus promised that, “…everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:39-40).

But when I say I expect to be resurrected, I am not only saying I expect to live after the death of my physical body. I do expect this, but resurrection is more than life after death.

Resurrection is bodily life after life after death. It is postmortem existence stage two. In other words, I expect to return to identifiable bodily existence just as Jesus did.

Everyone should expect to be resurrected because Jesus also promised, “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out — those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).

The last experience of life is death. It is the most certain thing in every person’s life. “There is a time to be born and a time to die” (Ecclesiastes 3:2). But death is not final. Some definitions for death use the word irreversible. One defines it as the irreversible cessation of organismic functioning. Another includes the irreversible loss of personhood.

Do these definitions oppose all forms of postmortem existence? Or, do they only deny the possibility of physical life after death? 

Six events of history remind us of how important the body is to God.

  1. Creation: God fashions the body from the dust of the earth
  2. Incarnation: God enters the body prepared for him (Hebrews 10:5)
  3. Resurrection (Christ’s and ours)
  4. Ascension: Jesus has bodily existence at the Father’s right hand
  5. Salvation: The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit
  6. Glorification: Final redemption of the body (Romans 8 )

Most people expect some kind of life after death and also fear the possibility of postmortem accountability.

Yet how many really expect dead people to rise from the dead in actual bodies? Clearly the early disciples of Jesus did not expect his bodily resurrection. Despite his repeated predictions of his death and resurrection, the crucifixion of Jesus crushed their hopes of a kingdom with Jesus as their king. The notion of a crucified Messiah (much less a resurrected one) was not part of their worldview. And, to be fair to them, the resurrection of Jesus is unparalleled in ancient near eastern religion.

But after the unavoidable evidence that Jesus had broken the power of death and was alive again, the disciples became bold witnesses and the Christian Church was born. Apart from the actual resurrection of Jesus, it would have been exceptionally strange for his dejected disciples to go everywhere spreading the message that Jesus had risen from the dead. They boldly announced to everyone that, “God raised him up putting an end to the agony of death since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24).

If this was only a self-fabricated story, there is no reasonable explanation for the birth and flourishing Christianity. And they didn’t go to some distant town to preach the resurrected Christ. They began announcing it in the very city where Jesus had been buried. Their message would not have lasted for one day if Jesus’ body were still in the tomb. The religious leaders who were eager to silence the message could have easily done so by revealing Jesus’ body.

Even more incredulous are theories about a stolen or resuscitated body. It is nonsense to suppose that the disciples got past a Roman guard, rolled a massive stone aside, unwrapped the grave cloths and restored Jesus’ body to health after crucifixion.

The first recorded witnesses to the resurrection were women. This is significant because a woman’s testimony was not credible in first century legal systems. Yet the documents telling the story don’t pander to the expectations of the times to make the story more plausible. The facts are presented as they happened.

The four gospels were written by and on behalf of eyewitnesses. They were circulated during the lifetimes of those who were alive at Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus’ body had still been in the tomb, these people could have easily discredited the accounts.

It is simply beyond imagination that Christianity and two thousand years of the legacy of Jesus would have flourished based on a resurrection hoax. I realize that other religions have flourished based on lies but most of those who embraced them did so under coercion. True Christianity is not spread by forced allegiance.

Certainty of death, judgment and resurrection

Scripture says. “each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The Apostle John wrote, “I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and the grave gave up their dead. And all were judged according to their deeds” (Revelation 20:12-13).

Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave” (Revelation 1:17-18).

“Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).

“when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (I Corinthians 15:54). “But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:57).

Steve Cornell