(This is a section of a manuscript of the first prepared sermon I ever preached, which was in 2009 at the Evangelical Church of Fairport.)
Romans 2:6, “He will render to each one according to his works…”
So, if it is indeed the case that we are justified by faith apart from works of the law, how can we then be judged according to our works as our text so clearly states?
The first key in understanding the role of works in judgment and justification is that Christ’s death in our behalf removes our guilt, but not our responsibility. We remain perpetually responsible for our actions, even though the shame and penalty for those actions have been absorbed by another.
So, will the sins of believers be made public on the last day? There are theologians and commentators who argue that since the sins of Christians are covered by the blood of Christ, they cannot be a subject of discussion at the judgment. Although the Bible teaches that believers have the guilt and penalty of their sins removed and are clothed with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and thus are not in danger of being cast into hell, Scripture does teach very clearly that all Christians will have to give an account on that day. The reasons for this assertion are manifold.
First, one cannot avoid the biblical passages that speak of the judgment as an event that includes both the saved and the unsaved (e.g., Eccl. 12:14; Mt. 13:30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:31-34, 41; Ac. 17:30-31; Rev. 20:12-13).
Second, the evaluation of a believer’s works on the day of judgment is explicitly taught in the epistles and is used by Paul to urge believers to greater diligence in doing good: “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..” (2 Cor. 5:10) “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” (1 Cor. 4:4-5). “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 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. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:12-15). “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God… So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Rom. 14:10,12). An account cannot be given, however, except by a careful disclosure of one’s entire conduct, and thus the imperfections and failures of the faithful will of necessity also be made public.
Third, passages which warn believers that “God will judge the secrets of men” (Rom. 2:16); that men will give an account on the day of judgment “for every careless word” they speak (Mt. 12:36) cannot (given the context and audience) be restricted to unsaved sinners. Statements made by Jesus and the apostles, which are intended to spur Christians on to greater obedience, lose all their force if they do not apply to believers!
This view of the judgment raises a number of objections. First, if Jesus paid for all our sins why would He bring them up again on that day? Would this not bring shame upon the saints? Is not such shame incompatible with the joy of that day, when sinning will be no more? One must keep in mind that the sins evaluated are forgiven sins. A passage of Scripture that teaches that genuine believers will not experience shame at Christ’s coming is 1 John 2:28. “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.”
“Believers do not turn in shame from Christ for they know that their sins have been forgiven. They are free from shame. But those who have pretended to be Christians cannot stand in the revealing light of his coming. They cannot hide their shame.” (Simon J. Kistemaker) They are brought up not to shame the believer but to magnify God’s grace and determine a suitable reward. Further, all saints who appear before the Son of God in their glorified bodies will be happy to confess all their sins to Christ. Being perfected in sanctification, Christians on that day will not feel shame but rather will experience the sweetest type of spiritual joy. They will evaluate their own works not from a standpoint of selfishness, ego or self-glorification, but from the standpoint of having the mind of Christ. Thus, even the most faithful of saints will throw their crowns at the pierced feet of the Savior (Rev. 4:10).
Second, doesn’t the Bible say that the sins of believers are covered (Ps. 32:1), washed away (Ps. 51:2), cast into the depth of the sea (Mic. 7:19), taken from us as far as east is from west (Ps. 103:12), never to be remembered by God (Isa. 43:25)? Indeed, it does say these things. However, these statements must be understood within the full context of Scripture. A reading of the Bible reveals that not only are the sins of believers such as Moses, Abraham, David and Peter remembered by God, but they are recorded in Scripture and published before all for eternity (Isa. 40:8). When the Bible speaks about God removing and forgetting sin it means that the guilt and penalty of our sins have been removed. God no longer holds the sin against the sinner for Christ has paid the price. The passages regarding God forgetting sin must be applied to guilt and punishment for it is impossible for them to mean that an omniscient being forgets our sins.
So, how do we live in light of the knowledge that we are justified by faith but will be judged according to our works? Scripture abounds with admonitions and examples in this regard, but I will choose one which I think is both easily overlooked and remarkably vivid when correctly understood. Ps. 23:4-5a says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”
Picture two armies arrayed for battle, facing each other several hundred yards apart. A scene right out of Braveheart or The Patriot or Glory. The captains of the armies traditionally meet on the battlefield to discuss the possibility of a truce, the rules of engagement, the expectations of the battle. When our Lord declares us justified he prepares a victory feast for us in the presence of the world, the flesh and the devil rather than a negotiation table. The enemy arrives to negotiate the terms of battle and finds that we are already celebrating victory! In justification we are declared victorious and begin to enjoy the spoils of victory before the battle has been waged. It is completely counterintuitive. “You are victorious! Now go fight the battle! Fight like a champion! Be what you are in Christ!” This is one of the keys to understanding gospel-centered Spirit-empowered faith-driven obedience to God: be what you are in Christ. God has declared you righteous, sinner, now live righteously. You need fear no evil, not your own sins, not the sins of others, nothing. Everything you do is permanent and you are responsible for everything you do, but everything which Christ has done is just as permanent and has been credited to you and your guilt to Him. We are declared justified, though the final judgment has not yet taken place. Court is not yet in session, but a verdict has been rendered and all of the charges have been “dismissed with prejudice.” We are declared to be what we will become, what God will make us. He will complete the good work he began in you, working in you to will and to do according to his good pleasure. The law is then no longer a curse to us which we cannot obey, but a promise of all that we are and are becoming and will be in Christ. “You will not kill. You will not steal. You will not lie. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.” Now go and live in the fearless, risk-taking, self-sacrificing love of your Savior; go live in the freedom of the righteousness of Christ given to you, so that you won’t be ashamed on the day of judgment. Freely you have received, now freely give.