By Douglas Webster
The Bible teaches that the curse of sin and death is overcome by unmerited divine grace received through faith in Christ. “All whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world” will be “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 13:8; 20:15). This is why the church, the body of Christ worldwide, preaches the Gospel of grace, because Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5).
The Second Coming of Christ will usher in the Day of Judgment, when the risen Lord Jesus separates the wicked from the righteous. All who believe in Jesus as the One sent from God to take away our sins have already “crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). All who are in Christ have a deep assurance that the blood of Christ “rescues us from the coming wrath” and “cleanses us from all unrighteousness” (1 Thessalonians 1:10; 1 John 1:9). This assurance of salvation is consistent with the fact that all believers will be held accountable for their actions. “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat . . . So then we will all give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:10-12).
Assurance Vs. Complacency
To be honest, I tend to view the Final Judgment as nothing to worry about because Christ has saved me from my sins. My attitude has been that the people who need to dread Christ’s judgment are those who refuse to respond to God’s gift of salvation.
But we must be careful. The Bible also teaches that believers will be rewarded based on what they have done. We need to remain vigilant because the extraordinary comfort and assurance of eternal security in Christ can be corrupted. This glorious truth, the freedom from the fear of the wrath of God, can lead to spiritual complacency and evil complicity.
There is a tension between assurance and complacency. Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer highlighted this difference when he compared the costly grace of Jesus Christ and His cross with the cheap grace of religious conformity and nominal Christianity. To tell believers, week after week, that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” without explaining and expounding on what it means to be in Christ Jesus may have the unintended effect of condoning and enabling believers who are far more conformed to this world than transformed by Christ (Romans 8:1; 12:2).
The sober side of hope finds far more expression in the New Testament than we often admit. Saving faith cannot be separated from a serving faith. Jesus said, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done” (Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6).
True faith is always a working faith. “So we make it our goal to please him,” declared the Apostle Paul, “whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10).
We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. In the words of the Reformers, “Faith alone justifies, but not the faith that is alone.” Works are meant to follow faith just as power flows from an energy source. “People are not saved on account of any work of theirs,” wrote Jonathan Edwards, “and yet they are not saved without works.” J. I. Packer wrote, “Holiness is no more by faith without effort than it is by effort without faith.”
Bad faith is faith without faithfulness. Paul affirmed the natural complement of faith and faithfulness when he wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Martin Luther put it well: “True faith will no more fail to produce good works than the sun can cease to give light.”
In His final sermon, delivered just two days before the cross, Jesus focused on the significance of His Second Coming for His disciples (Matthew 24-25). He likened the coming of the Son of Man to a midnight break-in. It may seem incongruous for Jesus to compare the glorious coming of the Son of Man to a burglary, but I doubt that He would change His metaphor to suit our sensitivities.
Jesus’ mini-parable laid down the right emphasis on readiness and obedience. He drew a parallel between home security and eternal security (Matthew 24:43). Jesus wanted His disciples, including today’s disciples, to cultivate a healthy, holy fear of what God expects of us. Faith and faithfulness go hand in hand. Jesus promised never to leave us nor forsake us. Such assurance was meant to inspire and motivate faithfulness and obedience, not condone laziness and disobedience.
We Can Count on His Faithfulness
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). But God’s faithfulness is no excuse for our faithlessness. Jesus holds us accountable and challenges us to meet our vulnerabilities with vigilance. He warns us to stay alert. Be faithful. We are to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
Jesus concluded His last sermon with three fear-of-the-Lord parables and a picture of the Last Judgment. Each parable is a contrasting picture of faithfulness and faithlessness. Will we be like the faithful steward or the irresponsible and selfish steward? Will we be like the five wise bridesmaids, who represent disciples ready for the Second Coming of Christ, or will we be like the foolish bridesmaids, unprepared and asleep? Will we use what Christ has given us in God’s Kingdom work or will we be like the fearful servant who blames his Master and buries his talent?
Jesus was deadly earnest about our faithfulness to the end. So-called believers who are selfishly, thoughtlessly and fearfully unfaithful will face extreme consequences. Jesus isn’t kidding. If we emotionally or intellectually assent to a few ideas about Jesus and then go on about our life as if nothing has changed, there is hell to pay. To believe is to obey and to obey is to believe. If we don’t believe and obey, Jesus is clear about the consequences.
Crown of Life
The Apostle Paul gave the sobering scenario of a believer whose life work was destroyed in the fire of judgment. In Paul’s analogy, the believer used inferior building materials to build on the foundation of Jesus Christ. He warned that “the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15). The measure of our lives is not in what we achieve for ourselves or even in what we achieve for God; true success is based on what we receive from Christ. The sad truth is that we often let possessions and selfish pleasures hinder the life of obedience and service the Lord seeks to give us.
Willful indifference or a life of distraction blocks the adventure of reaching out to others in the name of Jesus. Paul challenged believers to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, because “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
The graphic picture of a believer’s life’s work going up in smoke as the believer runs from a burning building is in tension with Paul’s positive picture of competing in the race to receive a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). “I don’t know about you,” Paul urges, “but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27, The Message).
The Bible describes competing for the victory crown in various ways: the crown of life, signifying victory over death (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10); the crown of righteousness, signifying victory over sin (2 Timothy 4:8); and the crown of glory, signifying victory over all that is passing away (1 Peter 5:4).
Competing for the crown has nothing to do with works of righteousness or self-righteousness but everything to do with “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). This is the crown worth investing in. You can bank on it.
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Douglas Webster is a professor of divinity at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.