The subject before us is a very serious one and also a comprehensive one from a doctrinal standpoint. The Scriptures tell us plainly in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” This means that every soul anywhere in all the world, past, present, or future—every human being who has ever walked the face of the earth—some day will stand before a holy, omniscient, all-powerful God who will judge according to the standard of perfect righteousness. This makes the doctrine very personal. Theologians who believe the Word of God, regardless of their viewpoint concerning the millennium, are agreed that there is appointed to every man a time of judgment before God, and that this is certainly going to take place in God’s future program for the world and for the individual. Those who believe that the Bible teaches a specific program of events understand that this judgment will not be one general judgment as viewed by some theologians. Instead of being one judgment in one place with one set of circumstances, it is a series of judgments, some of which are separated from the earlier judgments by the whole millennial period of one thousand years. The predicted divine judgments, then, while they extend to every soul, are not judgments which all take place in one moment of time.
The fact is that one of God’s great judgments is already past. That judgment is the judgment of Christ as the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world,” and it took place on Calvary more than nineteen hundred years ago. The moment we really trusted in Christ our judgment for the guilt of sin became effective once and for all. It was accomplished for us at the cross of Christ. For a Christian there is no future judgment for sin. There is no future condemnation for sin, “for there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
For a Christian there is only one future judgment and that is the judgment at the judgment seat of Christ, which is a judgment of works in which Christians will be rewarded according to what they have done, whether it be good or bad. The central passage of the Bible on this subject is 2 Corinthians 5:8-11. In this portion of Scripture Paul writes to the Corinthian church:
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him [literally, ‘be well pleasing to him’]. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.”
This passage presents, first of all, the fact that all Christians will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The basis for this judgment is not going to be the question of whether we are saved or lost. It is very plain that the issue of whether one is saved or lost is not settled in eternity future; it is settled right here and now by what one does with Jesus Christ. That is finished before one leaves this world. Everyone in this judgment is already saved and it is only a question of rewards.
When we come before God, if our life could be viewed as a ledger sheet with its credits and its debits or with its good works and its bad works, it is only a question of classification; and when we come before God the debit side is absolutely clean. It is all wiped out. The question is, What is there to our credit? As the books are examined, if we may use that figure of speech, we are rewarded according to our works.
There are three figures in the New Testament used to illustrate this truth. The first figure is found in Romans 14:10-12, where it is used of our life as a stewardship. A steward is a servant to whom is committed a trust and he has to report to his master. On the basis of this, our lives are viewed as a stewardship and the argument is raised: “Why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Rom. 14:10-11). The point of this passage is that we are declared to be stewards. This same figure is brought out in 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, particularly verse 5, where we are told to judge nothing before the time that God judges our lives. In other words, everyone of us, as stated in Romans 14:12, “shall give account of himself to God.” As a steward reports to his master, so God is going to hold us accountable in that day for what He has committed to us. We have a great many things committed to us. We all have life; we have spiritual gifts; we have opportunities; we have power; we have money; whatever we have God has given to us. There is no ground for pride, for everything that is good has been given to us by God. The more one has the more he has to give account for in that day of judgment.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the figure is used of an athletic contest, a runner striving for the prize, and we are exhorted so to run that we may obtain. Life is a race. We are to live in such a way that when we stand before Christ we will win the prize.
One of the most comprehensive figures is found in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where the illustration of a building is used. This portion of Scripture presents the Christian life as built upon the foundation of salvation. “Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” In other words, God supplies the foundation upon which we build. According to the context, we can use six different materials: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble. No doubt, each of these materials has its spiritual meaning, but the important point is that the gold, silver, and precious stones are fireproof, whereas wood, hay, and stubble are all consumed by fire. We are warned very faithfully that fire is going to try every man’s work of what sort it is. Verses 14-15: “If any man’s work abide [or remain] which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
Now it is made very plain that we are not saved by the house we build. We are saved because we are on the foundation. We are on the foundation if we are trusting in Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. But the life we are building on that foundation will be subject to judgment, represented by fire which will test our lives according to eternal values. The gold, silver, and precious stones may not make a big and showy house, but they stand the test of fire. The wood, hay, and stubble will erect a big building, but they burn very easily. There is a very obvious point to this: What kind of a building are we building? The only kind of building which is worth while is a fireproof building—a life that is lived in the will of God to the glory of God. We will have some great surprises in eternity. Some people may have built a lovely house of wood. They may have used the best of wood, such as mahogany. They may have polished it and carved it until it was just the acme of all that human ability could do. But when the test of fire comes, it will be reduced to ashes just as the hay and the stubble. There are different degrees of value and worth here, but the important thing is the fact that we will some day stand before Christ and everything that is not of eternal value will be reduced to ashes. We are going to be rewarded according to that we have done for the Lord.
It is a wonderful token of grace that no one is going to be lost in this judgment. “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss [the whole building destroyed]: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” We occasionally read in the paper of someone who is awakened in the night to find the house on fire and flees in his nightclothes, and has the agony of seeing everything he owns go up in smoke. Tragic, is it not? But that is what some are doing spiritually. When they leave this world they are going to have nothing to take with them. It may not be quite that bad. According to 1 Corinthians 4:5, the forecast is that when our life is judged, “then shall every man have praise of God.” Every Christian is going to have a little left. God is not going to ruin all our building. But how important it is as we face that judgment to have a life that is well spent in the Lord’s service. Some people talk about prophecy being impractical. There is no more practical prophetic truth than this simple pointed doctrine of the judgment seat of Christ. When we stand in that judgment, the Scripture states clearly that we will stand before a judge who knows all about us.
I sometimes try to press home, while teaching theological students, how important it is to have a Christian home and to live in that Christian home a Christian life. One is no better Christian than the person who knows him best thinks he is. Where does that put you? What does your husband think of your spiritual testimony? Parents, what do your children think about your spiritual testimony? Children are some of the best judges to be found anywhere. One does not deceive them. When we stand before God, we are going to stand before the Lord Jesus Christ who knows us better than any human frame can know us. How important it is to extend to every relationship of life, to every contact, the fragrance and the love of Christ! We should manifest in all our relationships that sweetness of Christian testimony which Christ said should characterize the Christian life: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” As people come in contact with us they should see more than orthodoxy; they should see more than zeal; they should see the beauty of Christ. As we stand before Christ in that day, this is the thing that will be so very, very important.
This subject embraces the whole of Christian life: soul winning, prayer life, giving, sacrifice, work, everything. All is involved. As we stand before Christ, we are going to have a perfectly just judgment. We will get our whole pay. Sometimes in this life we do not get paid in full. Sometimes we are overpaid. But there is an equalization board in heaven. When we get up there, we can be sure that all inequities will be fully corrected. In that day many missionaries who have turned their backs on comfort, home, and friends here in this land and have labored under great difficulty and opposition of Satan, encountering loneliness and difficulty of every sort, will be paid in full. How wonderful it will be in that day when they stand before the Savior who loved them and gave Himself for them!
When Christ comes back, there will be at least two major judgments. These concern not the resurrected dead nor the translated, but the living in the world at that time. The judgment of the Gentiles (Matt. 25:31-46) has created some concern and misapprehension on the part of God’s people. If you are a Christian, you do not need to worry about this judgment because you will not be included with those judged here. It concerns those who are living on the earth at the time Christ returns to establish His kingdom. In Matthew 25:31-32 it is revealed: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory [the time is specified, the second coming of Christ], and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats.” The passage goes on to describe what follows. The sheep are ushered into the millennial kingdom, and the goats are cast into everlasting fire.
There are some very important questions raised by the study of this portion of Scripture. First of all, who are the nations? There has been, unfortunately, some confusion here, partly due to the translation in the Authorized Version by the word nations. That is exactly the same word translated many times in the Bible by the word Gentiles. No doubt God will judge nations as such throughout the tribulation time as judgment after judgment will be poured out upon the nations of the world. When it comes to this judgment, however, by its very nature it must be an individual judgment. People are going to stand before God not in the mass but as individuals. Therefore, this word should have been translated Gentiles, as it is in Matthew 6:31-32 and in 20:19 where it predicts concerning Christ, “And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and crucify.”
In this portion of Scripture there are three different classes of people: “my brethren,” the sheep, and the goats. Judgment upon the sheep and the goats will be according to their treatment of “my brethren.” The brethren are not brought into judgment here. Not a word is spoken about their being judged. No mention is made here of anyone being raised from the dead. No resurrection is in view in this Scripture. It is not a general judgment. It has to do only with the Gentiles living in the world at the time Christ returns.
The basis of the judgment has confused some people. Seemingly, it is a judgment based on works, and the question is naturally raised, “Is anyone in any dispensation ever saved by works?” You will notice when the King sets the sheep and the goats before Him He says to those on His right hand, who are the sheep: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me” (Matt. 25:34-36). The righteous answer, “When did we do this?” And He replies: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” In other words, it is on the basis of works. How can these people be ushered into the kingdom on a basis of works? The goats are judged on the same basis. They are caused to depart into everlasting fire because they did not do these things.
It is plainly taught in Scripture that the only ground for salvation in any dispensation is grace. In other words, all the Old Testament saints were saved because of the fact that Christ was going to die. This is the teaching of Romans 3:25 where it is stated that the basis for God’s forgiveness to Old Testament saints was the fact that God knew that Christ was going to die and pay for their sins on the cross. The Old Testament saints were saved, as it were, on credit. We today have just the opposite situation. We look back to the payment on the cross and we are saved by what Christ did nineteen hundred years ago. In the tribulation time and in the millennium, everyone who is saved will be saved on the basis of what Christ did for him on the cross. But why then these works?
If we examine the Scriptures, we will find that in different dispensations there are different outward tokens of faith. For instance, examine an Israelite in the Old Testament in regard to the question of whether he is saved. How would you know? If you watched him and found him carefully, conscientiously keeping the law of Moses, bringing his sacrifices, doing the things that the law prescribed, you would say he was saved. He would be saved not because he kept the law but because keeping the law was the outer evidence of a work of God in his heart which we call salvation. In the present age we are told that faith without works is dead. Why? Because faith without works is not real faith. Faith cannot be seen. It is an immaterial thing. All one can see is the evidence of it. In the present age, when we try to determine whether a person is saved, we may first of all try to get a testimony from him concerning his relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. We may form a judgment about whether he is saved or not on the basis of what he says. Or we may watch his life. We may form a judgment as to whether he is saved on the basis of what he does. What he says and what he does cannot save him. God, who sees the heart, knows whether he is really trusting in Christ.
In Matthew, chapter 25, while the emphasis is on works, it is the emphasis on works as a testimony to the fact that those being judged are saved. In the time of awful tribulation which these people will come through, there will be a strong spirit of deceit on the part of Satan. People will be deluded. They will believe a lie. There will be a sharp contrast between those who trust in God and those who do not. And in that period of time particularly the whole world will be gripped by a hatred for the Jews which will be inspired by Satan himself. Anyone who does not hate the Jew in that time (and with the very risk of his life will befriend the Jew to the extent of visiting him in prison and showing his interest in him) will do so only for one reason and that would be that he had had vital dealing with the Lord Jesus Christ. In this present age, sometimes unsaved people do very kind things and very courageous things. In the tribulation time, no one will do what this Scripture says the sheep do unless they are really trusting in Christ.
The Scripture promises that the sheep will enter the kingdom, but the goats will be cast into everlasting fire. Some consider the everlasting fire equivalent to the lake of fire. The present state of the unsaved is fire, and it will be everlasting in its character, but not until after the judgment of the great white throne are the unsaved cast into the lake of fire. Fire characterizes the state of the lost immediately upon death and is therefore everlasting.
The Scriptures reveal that the brethren, or Israel, will also be brought into a place of judgment. This judgment is described in Ezekiel 20:34-38. The context indicates that God is, first of all, going to gather Israel out of all countries at the second coming of Christ:
“I will bring you out from the people, and will gather you out of the countries wherein ye are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people, and there will I plead with you face to face. Like as I Egypt, so will I plead with you, saith the Lord GOD. And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant: and I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel: and ye shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 20:34-38).
This passage teaches that at the time of the second coming of Christ He will gather every Israelite from all over the world and bring them into this central meeting place, and there He will judge them on the issue of whether they are saved or not. The rebels, or unbelievers—those who continue to blaspheme against God, who have rejected the Lord Jesus Christ—will be purged out as unfit to enter the kingdom. But those who are left are the remnant, the godly remnant of Israel, who in that awful hour of the tribulation found that Christ was their Messiah indeed and their Savior, and turned to Him and trusted Him. In this judgment God separates saved from unsaved at the beginning of the millennium. Due to the fact that unsaved Gentiles and unsaved Jews are purged out, the millennial period will begin with only saved people.
The world in that day will be a very wonderful world. Saved people, people who came to know Christ in the fiery crucible of the tribulation, who counted the cost, who were willing to die if need be for their faith in Christ, will be rewarded by entering the glorious, wonderful millennial period when Christ will reign over them. During the thousand-year period these who have come through the tribulation are still in the flesh. They still have mortal bodies and will till the ground, tend their farms, and beget children. There will be a tremendous increase in population through the thousand-year period so that at the end of the millennium the world population will be greatly increased with the millions of people who will have been born during that period. These will be subject to the judgments which come at the close of the millennium.
At the close of the millennium Satan will be loosed and permitted once again to deceive the nations. Some of these born in the millennium will follow Satan and rebel against God as recorded in Revelation 20:8-9. They will gather against the camp of the saints (Rev. 20:9). The judgment of God then will come upon them as fire descends from God out of heaven and devours them. They will suffer physical death in this way.
After the conclusion of the millennium, according to Scripture there is a great white throne established (Rev. 20:11). “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away: and there was found no place for them.” The present earth and the present starry heavens will be destroyed at the end of the millennium and this judgment will take place in space. It is not related either to heaven or to earth and the Scriptures declare in verse 12: “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”
Every predicted divine judgment, whether it deals with saved people or lost people, is according to works. The judgment of the Gentiles is according to works. The Jew is judged according to whether he has rebelled against God or not. At the great white throne, they are judged out of those things which are written in the book according to their works. What does that mean? It means that every soul in one way or another will stand before God and be judged according to his works: but there is a tremendous difference in the principle of each of these judgments. For the Christian the question is, What has he done for Christ? What are his rewards? What are his crowns? But for the lost it is not a question of reward, but of punishment. What has he done against God? What does he merit in just judgment from God? The Scripture states that they were judged every man according to his works. “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell [the temporary place of the dead] were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13-15).
These are solemn words, but they are just as true as John 3:16, or any precious promise ever claimed in the Word of God. These verses are the Word of God. Christ said that not one jot or tittle can pass from the law until all is fulfilled. The Word of God is eternal; it cannot be broken; it must be fulfilled. These sad words are going to be fulfilled. “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” The judgment of the great white throne concerns lost souls only. There are some people in Scripture concerning whom we have no revelation. For instance, there must be somewhere a final judgment of those who go through the millennium. The judgment of the Gentiles and the judgment of the Jews at the beginning of the millennium were not final judgments for them. There apparently is a judgment of rewards for them that is not revealed to us because it docs not concern us. There will no doubt be further instruction given to the millennial saints while Christ is reigning on earth.
The judgment of the great white throne, however, concerns this present generation. Everyone whose name is not written in the book of life, according to this Scripture, will be cast into the lake of fire. That does not mean extermination. According to the Scripture, this is the eternal state of those who know not Christ. This passage raises the important question, Where are you going to spend eternity? Those who know the Lord Jesus Christ as personal Savior will not be at this judgment of the great white throne. They will be judged at the judgment seat of Christ and will receive rewards. They will be with the Lord forever in a place of bliss and grace where God’s love is free to manifest itself to them for all eternity. What a wonderful state it is to be saved! If we are saved, we never have ground for complaining about anything. It is so wonderful that it transcends every other thing that may occur to us in life.
For the unsaved, however, it can be said on the authority of the Word of God that unless they receive Jesus Christ as their Savior they will be cast into the lake of fire at this awful final judgment. This is plain as the Word of God can make it. When Christ was on earth He said a great deal more about punishment and eternal punishment than He said about heaven. He was faithful in warning His generation that they were not dealing simply with theological concepts but with the destiny of their own souls.
It is of God’s grace that it is not too late. The Scriptures state, “Now is the accepted time.” Right now it is possible to settle this issue for all eternity, if in the heart there is the willingness to receive Jesus Christ as personal Savior. God will not save one against his will, but He will save anyone who is willing to trust in Christ.
There are four simple facts regarding God’s divine judgments. First of all, the judgment of God is universal. It deals with both men and angels, though the judgment of angels has not been considered in our present study. No one escapes divine judgment. That means everyone of us will some day be judged by Christ Himself.
The second fact is that the judgment of God is absolutely certain. There is no question about it. We are not gambling about the future. We are dealing with absolute certainty. We will face Christ and He will be our judge. The Scriptures make this perfectly clear.
The third fact is that the judgment of God is just. If God saves one for all eternity it will be just, because Christ died. If God rewards one it will be a just compensation. There will be no favorites, for God is perfectly just.
The fourth fact is that the judgment of God is based upon the principle of human responsibility. God holds us responsible for our opportunity, for our life, for all that of which He has made us stewards. Sometimes it is supposed that grace relieves us of responsibility. It does not. It increases it. Grace emphasizes the whole matter of our responsibility to God. We are responsible for grace. We are responsible for our gifts, for our possessions, for our thoughts, for our love, for our opportunities for worship, for our faith, for everything God has given us. When we face the Lord Jesus Christ, may it be a gracious judgment, a judgment of reward, a judgment of blessing, a joyous time of compensation for lives that have been spent in the Lord’s service. But if there should be one reading this message who has never trusted in Christ, may I invite you to receive in simple faith the Lord Jesus Christ as your God and Savior. God will save your soul for eternity and give you His wonderful salvation if you will only trust in Christ.