Advent: The Four Last Things

Session 2 — Judgment

ADVENT: THE FOUR LAST THINGS
Session 2 — Judgment

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
Have mercy upon us.

O God the Holy Spirit, Sanctifier of the faithful,
Have mercy upon us.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God,
Have mercy upon us.

In all time of tribulation; in all time of prosperity; in the hour of death, and in the day of judgment,
Good Lord, deliver us. Amen
(BCP 2019, The Great Litany (excerpts), pp. 91-92).

INTRODUCTION

Hebrews 9:27–28 (ESV): 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

I do not like stringing a guitar. I dislike it so much that I generally pay other people to do it. Unfortunately, my trusted local guitar shop closed, and recently I had to replace a broken string on my daughter’s guitar myself. The string is fixed at two opposite points on the instrument, one at the tuning peg and other at the bridge. The tuning peg presents no real problem. But, on a classical guitar, the bridge is another matter. The string goes through a small hole in the bridge, is then looped back on itself, and a twisted “knot” of sorts is formed. Then with one hand holding that knot in position and a second hand guiding the placement of the string on the tuning peg, you use your third hand to tighten the string. Don’t have a third hand? Now you see why I hate stringing a guitar.

With the string secured at opposite ends of the guitar you can begin to increase the tension in the string to bring it up to proper pitch, all the while praying that the knot at the bridge doesn’t slip forcing you to start all over again. Three elements are required to make good music on a guitar string: two opposite fixed points and proper tension in the string between them.

It is often the same with theology. There are two fixed points apparently on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, and we are required to live in tension between the two. Is God immanent (God with us) or is God transcendent (God utterly beyond us)? Yes, to both: those are the two opposite fixed points and we must live in tension between them. Lose either one of them and you can’t make good theological “music.” Has God elected a people for himself, or do we have free will? Yes, to both: those are the two opposite fixed points and we must live in tension between them. Is death an enemy or an ally? Is God impartially just or is God graciously merciful? And so on. We are often called to hold apparently opposite and contradictory notions in tension with one another, knowing that the truth, as best human minds can fathom it, is found in the tension and not at either fixed end alone.

I mention this because such tension may well emerge in today’s lesson, for some of you more than others based on your theological and denominational backgrounds. Today, we speak of judgment, of God’s final judgment, and of the basis for that judgement.

JUDGMENT

Introductory Questions
Before we engage the various biblical texts related to judgment, let’s start with a few introductory questions:

What is judgment? Many definitions are possible. Perhaps this one will do: judgment is a discerning assessment of merit, quality, or worth. The image of a plumb line is used in the Old Testament as an image of judgment, and that gets at it pretty well. Is this wall vertical or not? If not, it is judged unworthy of the craftsman and considered a defective product.

What are the purposes or functions of judgment?

Judgment has several related purposes or functions:

• To say yes to some some things and to say no to others, i.e., to draw necessary distinctions

• To vindicate and reward some and to repudiate and punish others

• To encourage good behavior and to discourage bad behavior

• To promote goodness, truth, and beauty and to eliminate evil, lies, and ugliness

• To execute justice and put all things to rights

Is judgment something to be desired? Judgment — both human and divine — seems necessary and, in that sense, desirable. We make judgments — which is to say decisions — all the time and they make life function. As for divine judgment, would we really want a God who makes no distinctions between good and evil, between justice and injustice, who does not say yes to some things and no to others? Hardly: though we may not want to be the recipient of divine judgment, the idea of existence without divine judgment seems worse still. This may be one of the most important points in this lesson; a God who does not judge between good and evil is not good and loving, but rather irresponsible and derelict in his moral duties. While we may not want to be judged, we certainly want some others judged. A God who does not judge is no god at all.

The Two Fixed Points
It is time now to turn to Scripture and to locate the two fixed points on the spectrum of judgment.

The first of the fixed points is a declaration of salvation by faith:

Ephesians 2:8–10 (ESV): 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We can call this fixed point Judgment by Faith, and I want to affirm it absolutely; we are saved — judged righteous before God — by grace through faith and not as a result of works.

The second of the fixed points, though, is a declaration of works:

Romans 2:2–11 (ESV): 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.

We can call this fixed point Judgment by Works, and I want to affirm it absolutely; God will render to each one according to his works, eternal life for those who do well and wrath and fury for those who obey unrighteousness.

For various theological, political, and sociological reasons, the churches of the Reformation and their descendants have privileged the first fixed point — judgment by faith — and have almost untethered the “theological string” from the other fixed point. It is an exaggeration — but not by much — to say that the Reformers did not live in the tension but rather eliminated it by having only one fixed point: faith. That is true to some extent of the Anglican Church as its doctrine is expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

XI. OF THE JUSTIFICATION OF MAN
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

While this is true, it is not the whole truth.

We will return to the Articles in a bit to see how this position is properly nuanced. But first, let’s examine a good sampling of Scripture that insists on the other fixed point, that all men — Christians not excepted — will be judged by their works.

We start, as we should, with Jesus. He speaks of the importance of works/fruit and the reality of judgment based upon works/fruit most often in analogies and parables.

Matthew 7:15–23 (ESV): 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

And, notably, there is the parable of the talents in which the servants are judged and rewarded/punished based upon their fruitfulness.

Matthew 25:14–30 (ESV): 14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

It is interesting that in these parables, there is no mention of faith, but only of works/fruitfulness.

But, it is not Jesus alone who speaks of works and judgment. Paul, the Apostle of grace, insists on it as does the author of Hebrews and St. John the Evangelist.

In addition to the passage from Romans 2 we read earlier, there are these passages from 1, 2 Corinthians, Hebrews, and Revelation.

1 Corinthians 10:1–12 (ESV): 10 For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

6 Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. 12 Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

2 Corinthians 5:10 (ESV): 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Hebrews 10:23–31 (ESV): 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Revelation 20:11–15 (ESV): 11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

So, the fixed point of judgment based upon works/fruit is abundantly attested to in Scripture, and we find ourselves living in the tension between faith and works if we want to be faithful to Scripture.

Living in the Tension
So, how do we make sense of this? Better minds and hearts than mine have tried with greater or lesser measures of success. I can make a few tentative suggestions based upon their work, suggestions which I think are faithful to Scripture and to our own Anglican tradition based upon Scripture.

First, let’s begin with the notion of faith itself. There is a tendency in the modern church to reduce faith to belief, but that distorts the fullness of faith in Scripture. A better understanding of faith— better in the sense of being more faithful to Scripture — involves a classical three-fold paradigm: notitia, assensus, fiducia — notion (understanding), assent, and fidelity. To see how this works, let’s consider the earliest Christian creed: Jesus is Lord.

The first essential element of faith is simply to understand the notion being expressed. The earliest Christians, who were all too familiar with the declaration “Caesar is Lord,” knew full well what was being stated. It was not a nice invitation to believe in Jesus or not; it was a proclamation that there was a new ruler before whom every knee must bow, Jesus of Nazareth, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and ruling at God’s right hand. They understood.

The second essential element of faith is to assent to the notion. Do you accept it as true or not? Your assent does not change the truth of the assertion, but it does determine whether you will progress to the next step of faith.

The final essential element of faith is fidelity. You understand, and you believe (assent). Now, you must exercise fidelity; that is, you must live in accordance with what you understand and believe. I might say it this way: the last essential element of faith is faithfulness. And fidelity/faithfulness is demonstrated by what you do, i.e., by works/fruit. Josephus was once sent on behalf of Rome to confront a Jewish rebel. He did so with these words, “Repent and believe in me.” What did he mean? He meant for the rebel leader to turn away from his rebellion and to act faithfully toward Josephus as a representative toward Rome. The rebel’s belief would be demonstrated by his faithfulness and the fruit it bore. To understand and believe is to stop short of full faith. Understanding and belief do not save; they will not withstand God’s judgment. The classic presentation of this is by James, the brother of our Lord.

James 2:14–26 (ESV): 14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

It is not mere belief but full blown faith — understanding, assent, fidelity/faithfulness — that counts. And that kind of faith necessarily produces the kind of work/fruit that will be seen and judged as saving faith in the final judgment. Notice the subtlety here. You are indeed saved by faith only (sola fide), but saving faith necessarily produces the evidence of good works. This accords well both with Scripture and with the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

XII. OF GOOD WORKS
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s Judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

Let me suggest another way to live in this tension. To be “in Christ” means to be in dwelt by the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit bears fruit in the life of the believer:

Galatians 5:16–26 (ESV): 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Far be it from me to judge another! But, I think it appropriate to discern the presence or absence of the fruit of the Spirit in my own life. If I am unconcerned about bearing fruit, if no fruit is present, and even worse, if the works of the flesh are evident in abundance instead of the fruit of the Spirit, this is evidence weighing against my claim of saving faith. Ultimately, Christ judges, but I must take stock since not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Mt 7:21).

Judgment and Reward
It is not just the mere presence of works or even the abundance of works that will be judged, but also their quality. While St. Paul is writing specifically about the work of building the church and maintaining unity, I think his thinking can be extended more generally:

1 Corinthians 3:10–15 (ESV): 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Some works are of high quality and will survive the judgment/testing by fire. These will result in reward. Those of low quality may not survive the judgment and reward may be lost. Paul doesn’t detail the nature of the reward and the loss, and I will not speculate. But, perhaps, Jesus’ parable of the talents provides a hint. In that parable, the reward for a job well done was greater authority and greater opportunities for service. I do not expect to sit on a throne judging the nations, but I hope, perhaps, to be a doorkeeper in the kingdom.

Summary
So, how can we summarize the theological tension of judgment?

We start with the saving work of Jesus Christ. It is this, and this alone, that frees man from the dominion of the demonic, cleanses man from sin, and releases man from bondage to death — the three-fold problem for which the Gospel is the solution, as we discussed in our first session. We cannot accomplish this victory on our own; our very best works are woefully insufficient.

And that realization brings us to the first fixed point: judgment based on faith alone, where faith is understood fully as understanding, assent (belief), and fidelity (faithfulness). That type of faith will necessarily produce good works/fruit as evidence of faith.

The second fixed point follows from that: we will be judged based upon the evidence of faithfulness that we present, i.e., we will be judged based on our work/deeds/fruit and rendered a reward accordingly.

There may be a tension between these two, but there is no contradiction. In typical Anglican fashion, the answer is not either/or, but both/and. One of our treasured Anglican mottos is lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of prayer is the law of faith. It means that we pray what we believe and believe what we pray. So, if I have rightly “tightened the string” it ought to play the music of a good Anglican prayer. Listen to see if it does. See if you hear notes of faithfulness, works, and reward.

The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.

Let us pray.

Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people, that bringing forth in abundance the fruit of good works, they may be abundantly rewarded when our Savior Jesus Christ comes to restore all things; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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