dianoigo blog
Showing posts with label judgment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label judgment. Show all posts

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Saved by grace through faith but judged according to works?

Disclaimer: I write some posts which reflect careful study of Scripture and interaction with scholarly sources. I write others which represent thinking aloud on matters I haven't studied in any great depth. This post falls firmly into the latter category.

One of the most oft-quoted passages of Scripture, especially in Evangelical Christian churches, reads as follows:
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 the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
This text appears to declare in straightforward fashion that salvation is not the result of works. There are several other similar passages in the Pauline corpus (Romans 3:23-28; 4:1-6; Galatians 2:15-16).

However, if we look at passages in the New Testament which describe the Final Judgment, they consistently declare that judgment will be on the basis of works.
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matthew 16:27) 
28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. (John 5:28-29)
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12-13) 
See also especially Matthew 7:21-23, Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-8 and Revelation 2:23.

All of this raises a conundrum: if God's people are justified by faith and not by works, why is it that judgment is according to works? Some liberal scholars might argue that Scripture is inconsistent in this matter: some New Testament writers believed that salvation depended on works, but Paul did not. The claim of inconsistency fails, however, inasmuch as Paul himself refers to judgment according to works. It is unlikely that a writer as intellectually and theologically sophisticated as Paul was incoherent on this point. Thus we ought to regard the conundrum as a paradox and not a contradiction, and to seek a theological solution.

One solution could be that those who believe have their bad deeds blotted out by the blood of Christ, so that when the books are opened, only good deeds remained. There is certainly some truth in this; the imputation of righteousness (Romans 4:22-24) explains how people can receive a favourable verdict from a just and holy God despite having sinned. However, the link to the atoning work of Christ is not made explicit any of the judgment passages above. A favourable verdict may require imputation of righteousness according to faith and through the blood of Christ, but it is also associated with what the individual has done (and not done).

Here is how I see the solution to this conundrum. People will, in a sense, be judged according to their faith. But how is faith measured objectively? By works of faith! Works are the 'units of measurement' of faith. As James says,
But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. (James 2:18)
Similarly, throughout the 'Hall of Faith' passage in Hebrews 11, the faith of people is demonstrated by what they did (and refrained from doing).

It is not as though the Lord needs to see our works in order to know whether we have faith. He knows each heart and mind (Revelation 2:23) and he knows who are His (2 Timothy 2:19). However, in the Last Judgment He will refer to our deeds as objective evidence to verify His ruling in the hearing of the one judged and any others present.

There is an interesting phrase that bookends the Epistle to the Romans: "the obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:26). While this phrase is not directly contrasted with "the works of the law", I think this term sums up how Paul regarded the behaviour of those justified by faith as distinct from those who trusted in works. Works righteousness says, 'Let me try to earn God's favour by keeping His commandments.' Faith righteousness says, 'I can't earn God's favour by keeping His commandments. Let me trust in His mercy which is extended because of what Jesus did on the cross.' However, it does not go on and say, 'So it doesn't matter how I live.' It recognizes that faith, too, is a way of life and not merely a verbal or mental assent. Behaviour is a reflection of what is in the heart. If I truly believe in my heart, I will have obedience to show for it. True faith cannot be divorced from works.

Faith begins with a single step but is in fact a lifelong journey, and it is the one who "persists" (Romans 2:6), "perseveres" (1 Timothy 4:16; Hebrews 10:36; James 1:10) and "endures" (Matthew 10:22; 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 14:12) who will reap the reward (Galatians 6:9). Of course, it is the Lord who by His power enables us to endure (Romans 15:5; Colossians 1:11). It is not by our own willpower, the arm of flesh, that we persevere in doing good and refusing evil. On the other hand, we do not become automatons the moment we receive Jesus. We choose whether or not to abide in Him.

The take-home message is this: do not try to earn salvation through works, and do not try to coast to salvation on a faith devoid of works. Instead, have faith in God, and live out your faith. "Trust and obey", as the grand old hymn goes.

Saturday 7 September 2013

How do you answer prayers?

The word "pray" is usually used today in a religious context, as in to make a petition to God. However, the broader meaning of the word is an earnest request or entreaty, regardless of who is 'praying' and who is being 'prayed' to. Although uncommon in contemporary English, it can be used in strictly human-to-human requests, as in the expression "Pray tell."

Any earnest request made of us by another person could be called a "prayer", then, in the broad, non-religious sense of the word. As such, all of us are recipients of "prayers". Examples could include: 
  • Requests for material or financial assistance from beggars
  • Requests from coworkers or fellow students on a project or assignment
  • Requests from our kids to buy them something, take them somewhere, etc.
  • Requests for advice or moral support from a friend who is going through a difficult time  
  • Requests for forgiveness from a person who has wronged us
  • Cries for help from a person in danger
Many other examples could be added.

Now, Jesus in his teaching laid down an important principle concerning the relationship between how we treat others and how God treats us. In the context of judgment, the principle is stated thus: "For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." (Matt. 7:2). In the context of forgiveness, the principle was illustrated by Jesus in the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matt. 18:23-35, and in the Lord's prayer in Matt. 6:12. In the context of deeds of kindness, the principle is illustrated in the picture of the Final Judgment given in Matt. 25:31-46.

I wonder whether we could not apply this principle in the context of prayer, here and now. We believe that God hears prayer (Ps. 65:2). We believe that God answers prayer; but not always. Why does he not always answer prayer? Partly because our prayers are sometimes bad (e.g. Luke 18:9-14; James 4:3) or not asked in faith (James 1:6-7). Partly because God knows better than us what our best interests are. In short, when we pray to God, he weighs our requests and makes a decision - a judgment - on whether to grant them.

Do we not do the same thing when we receive requests from our fellow human beings? Whether your child is asking you for a toy, a beggar is asking you for spare change or a friend is asking for advice, do you not weigh the request, and make a judgment call on whether, and how, to grant it?

And if God deals with us according to how we deal with others, may he not take into account how we answer the "prayers" of other people when considering how to answer our prayers?

When someone makes an earnest request of me, do I unselfishly respond in a way that seeks the best interests of the requester and all others involved? Or am I cynical and dismissive? The Scriptures make it clear that we cannot enjoy true fellowship with God while remaining insensitive to the needs of our neighbour (Matt. 22:37-39; James 3:9; 1 John 4:20-21).

Just as we trust that the eyes and ears of our Lord are open to our prayers (Ps. 34:15), so we ought to keep our eyes and ears open to the requests of those who call on us for help, doing all to the glory of the Lord.

Sunday 26 May 2013

The Second Coming of Christ: Peaceful or Violent?

I was recently involved in an online discussion in the Christadelphians Worldwide Facebook group on the topic of the end-times conflict that will occur at the Second Coming of Christ.

This is a very unpopular topic in postmodern Western culture, so I wasn't surprised that some sharp disagreement arose. However, I was unprepared for the claim that when Christ returns he will win the nations over with the greatest outpouring of love the world has ever seen, rather than using force.

The person who made this point insisted that it would be a contradiction for the same Jesus who preached the virtues of love and peace to use violence to impose his rule on the nations.

This position is attractive to our sensibilities in the postmodern age, where the rights of the individual are paramount. Sinful humans are practically entitled to God's mercy, and God's sovereign right to judge his creatures is belittled if not rejected entirely.

 The problem with this view of Christ's return is that no scripture - including the words of Jesus - makes any such point when describing Christ's return. Jesus himself compared his coming to two past situations recounted in Genesis: the days of Noah and the days of Lot (Luke 17:26-30). In both cases, as Jesus described it, people were going about their business when judgment came from God and "destroyed them all." He concludes, "So will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed."

Short of rejecting Jesus' words there is no way to revise this historical message to bring it in line with postmodern values. Many other scriptures could be brought to bear on this matter, but the point is clear. Any view of Christ's return which ignores judgment and destruction is unscriptural. It is true that Christ's return will be a joyous occasion for those who are expecting it, and that it will be the first of a series of events leading to world peace. However, this does not change the fact that Christ will bring judgment and will crush resistance to his rule.

Judgment and destruction are compatible with the love of Jesus. For anyone who thinks otherwise, I recommend D.A. Carson's book, "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God."

Tuesday 12 March 2013

A Warning on Spiritual Entitlement

I have recently been studying the Book of Jeremiah. I have gained a new appreciation for the relevance of God's pleas and warnings to Judah in this book for our generation. I think the attitude of the Judeans at this time could be described as "spiritual entitlement." One Old Testament scholar summarized their attitude thus:
The Jerusalem establishment believed God had committed himself through a series of irrevocable promises to the temple and the monarchy. Thus the city and temple were inviolable and Judah’s future was secure, no matter how she sinned and no matter how threatening the international scene appeared. This misguided and unfounded confidence created in Judah a false sense of immunity from judgement and subtly became the official religion of Jerusalem. (Arnold, Bill T. Recent Trends in the Study of Jeremiah, Ashland Theological Journal 25:0, 1993, p. 91).
The Judeans thought that since God had promised David that his dynasty would continue forever (1 Kings 2:4), and that he would dwell in Solomon's temple forever (1 Kings 9:3). Although continued obedience was made a condition of both promises, the Judeans of Jeremiah's day believed God would not let his name to be dishonoured among the nations by allowing Jerusalem to be destroyed.

Jeremiah was a lonely voice speaking against the complacent attitudes of his day: "Do not trust in these deceptive words: 'This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD'" (Jeremiah 7:4). If they did not heed the call to repentance, Yahweh would destroy the house called by his name (v. 14) and uproot the kingdom of Judah. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened.

In Jesus' day, a similar attitude prevailed among the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Indeed, Jesus' accusation that they had turned God's house into a den of thieves (Matthew 21:13) is borrowed from Jeremiah 7. The temple and the people of that generation suffered a similar fate.

Today, Christians follow Paul's teaching that the church itself is God's temple (2 Corinthians 6:16) and (provisionally at least) his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). We feel our future is secure because of the abundance of God's grace. This is all true, but must be held in tension with the truth that God will bring terrible judgment on the world, beginning with his household (Hebrews 12:26; 1 Peter 4:17).

Messages of judgment are rare and unpopular in the 21st century church, being seen as out of touch with God's love and grace. God has given us great and precious promises (2 Peter 1:4) and made us his dwelling place (Ephesians 2:22) but let us be wary lest we too fall into disobedience due to a sense of entitlement. We need to hear afresh the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
"Have you not just now called to me, 'My father, you are the friend of my youth-- will he be angry forever, will he be indignant to the end?' Behold, you have spoken, but you have done all the evil that you could." (Jeremiah 3:4-5) 
"Will you...come and stand before me...and say, 'We are delivered!'--only to go on doing all these abominations?" (Jeremiah 7:9-10)
And finally, a rhetorical question posed thrice by God in the book: "Shall I not punish them for these things? declares the LORD; and shall I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?" (Jeremiah 5:9; cp. 5:29, 9:9).