The Bible and the End-time (4): The Day of Judgement
The return of Christ will be the end-point of human history, but it will not be a stand-alone event. Christ will come with clear purposes in mind. One of these will be to raise the dead. Another will be to summon all nations to his Throne of Judgement.
The most striking description of this, the judgement which finally seals the eternal destiny of every human being, is what has come to be known as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Mt. 25:31-46). It comes from the lips of Jesus himself, and against the backdrop of his own imminent trial in the courts of Caiaphas and Pilate. But it reflects a very different world. Jesus is no longer the prisoner in the dock. He is the glorious Son of Man, sitting on his judgement throne, before him are gathered all nations and all earth’s great ones, and from his court there can be no appeal. The sheep, to the right, are rewarded; the goats, to the left, are condemned.
A judgement based on works
What is theologically challenging, however, is that the judgement is based on works. The sheep are welcomed into the kingdom on the basis of what they have done; the goats are excluded on the basis of what they have not done. Does this mean that we are not justified till the Day of Judgement? And does it mean, further, that our justification depends on our works?
The answer to the first question has to be a categorical, No! Our justification takes place in this life, in the moment when we first put our faith in Christ. Abraham, for example, was justified the moment he believed, and that justification was sealed and attested by his circumcision (Rom. 4:11). This is equally true of New Testament believers, which is why Paul can write, ‘since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God’ (Rom. 5:1, italics added); and again, ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 8:1, italics added). He makes it even clearer in 1 Corinthians 6:11: ‘you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.’
These statements all bear witness to the fact that believers are already justified. There was a definitive moment in their lives when they ceased to be in a state of condemnation and moved into a state of justification. Furthermore, this justification is at once complete, conferring an immediate title to the whole heavenly inheritance; and it can never be lost. God has once and for all declared his children righteous, and he will never revoke his verdict.
The answer to the second question must also be a categorical, No! Our justification does not depend on our works. Indeed, if our standing before God depended on our faithful performance of all the acts of kindness listed by our Lord at this, the Great Assize, none of us could ever be at peace with God or, indeed, with ourselves. Can any of us really defend our record on feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless, and visiting those in prison; and that’s before we even begin to think of our record in relation to what is still the greatest of all the commandments (Mt. 22:38), ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart’? Do we not have to cry out with St. Paul, as he struggles with his failure to do the good that he would, ‘What a wretched man I am!’ (Rom. 7:24).
'Openly acknowledged and acquitted'
But if the judgement pronounced in Matthew 25:34-36 is not a second justification based on exactly opposite principles to those which underlay the first, what, then, is it? It is the moment when Christ acknowledges his people before the whole world. We will not appear before him on trial, trembling in fear of the verdict. We will appear as his sheep, as those blessed by his Father, and as the lawful heirs to his kingdom. And not only will he acknowledge his people: he will vindicate them, publicly and proudly, as those whose record befits the high honour he is about to confer on them.
Of course, the activities listed here by Jesus are also paradigms which must guide our Christian lives in the here and now, and as such a clear warning that religion cannot be divorced from morality. A profession to love God has no credibility if it is not accompanied by love of neighbour and compassion for the poor (especially the poor on our own doorsteps). But by the time salvation-history has reached Matthew Twenty-five, the Lord is no longer demanding that the sheep obey his voice, but announcing (before the whole universe) that they have done so, and that he is proud of them. They are presented before the presence of the Glory faultless, and with great joy (Jude 24).
The vindication of God himself
But there is more here than the final vindication of Christ’s people. There is the vindication of God himself. He had justified the ungodly (Rom. 4:5) and given a free and unconditional pardon to sinners, and the cry had at once gone up that such indulgence would mean the collapse of the whole moral universe. Men would take advantage of such grace and cry, ‘Let us sin that grace may abound!’ (Rom. 6:1), and God’s free pardon would lead to anarchy.
But at the Great Assize the outcome is shown to be utterly different. It is precisely those who have been freely pardoned who have shown true love for their neighbours; and this, of course, carries a solemn corollary. If we don’t replicate the love that Christ has shown to ourselves with practical compassion for those in distress, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats should shake us out of our complacency. The goats didn’t even notice the poor and needy (Mt. 25:44): ‘There’s no poverty nowadays,’ they said.
Yet this is only part of the story. To see the complete picture we have to look at such a passage as Romans 8:29, where we see that the intention of the divine love was not merely to grant us a free pardon, or even to move us to feed the hungry, but to conform us to the image of God’s own Son. On the Last Day, the sheep will stand before the Throne not only as those applauded for giving a cup of cold water to the thirsty, but as those clothed in the physical and moral beauty of Christ. The grace of which people said they would take advantage has instead transformed them.
‘Here,’ God declares in the presence of the whole moral universe, ‘is my workmanship, my poem (poiēma, Eph. 2:10), the art-work of my grace: a multitude too numerous to count, and each one as glorious as my incomparable Son.’
But the praise must go to the Artist, not to his subjects.