Grace and Judgment

In traditional seminary/theological education, there are four main fields of study:

  • Historical theology studies the history of God’s people and the Christian faith
  • Exegetical theology deals with the study of Scripture, and includes learning Hebrew and Greek towards this end
  • Systematic theology encompasses and studies Christian doctrine
  • Practical theology explores the Christian life and the application of doctrine and tradition to the lives of people here and now and includes the role of preaching

Although I enjoy the logical aspects of systematic theology, even in seminary I understood that doctrine is all well and good but essentially useless if it can’t be applied. To know there is a truth has little value unless that truth is connected in some way to daily life or certain situations. I trust the quadratic equation is true – but it is of little value to me personally as I’ve had no need to know or use it in my life. I’m glad others can and do, and I know that must benefit me in very tangible ways, but my thoroughgoing ignorance of that means I ascribe little practical, personal value to this undoubtedly crucial truth.

For us Lutherans, the go-to in terms of systematics study is a guy by the name of Franz/Francis Pieper. He wrote the current definitive text used by Lutherans in studying systematic theology. I can number on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to look at his 3-volume (I don’t have the fourth volume which is an index of the previous three) Christian Dogmatics, but it’s a handy resource on those occasions where I need to talk about a complicated topic

One such topic which has arisen in several quarters recently is the relationship of salvation and grace to the issue of final judgment. It makes people nervous to know that we will stand before Christ for judgment, and it also seems a bit odd, since we know we are forgiven in Christ already through faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And granted, it’s not a pleasant idea to know our dirty laundry might be aired before all creation. Couldn’t we just sweep that under the rug, since it’s all forgiven in Christ anyways?

I tend to address this topic with the assertions that yes, we are forgiven. Yes, we will participate in Judgment Day along with the rest of creation. And even if all our bad deeds are on display, it will only be for an instant, and only to glorify God whose forgiveness is so immense, his grace so abundant, that the worst of our sins in thought, word or deed are nothing compared to the immeasurable sacrifice of the Son of God on our behalf. But I decided to do a little brush-up with Pieper on the specifics.

The issue of judgment comes, perhaps fittingly, at the end of his last volume (Volume III) starting on page 539 in case you want to follow along at home. He lays out the following basic tenets of the faith:

  • Judgment is linked to the return of Christ (Matthew 25:31)
  • All persons will be subject to judgment – including “men, pious and wicked, dead and living, and besides mankind also the evil angels” (Revelation 20:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; Acts 10:42; 2 Peter 2:4)
  • The norm of judgment will be the works of men (2 Corinthians 5:10). In other words, our eternal fate is determined by our works, but not necessarily in the way we tend to think about these things. It isn’t as though (as with Islam), all our good deeds are piled on one side of a cosmic scale and all our bad deeds on the other side and our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds to merit eternal joy. Rather, good deeds is a technical term/concept, defined first and foremost in terms of our relationship to God and in particular to God the Son. Only in right relationship to God can anything we think, say or do be considered good. Apart from proper relationship to God, good does not exist, by definition. Oh, there’s the ‘good’ we define in terms of our relationships to one another, but even those definitions can’t ultimately be separated from their source in God, otherwise they’re arbitrary fads or fashions and can’t really be said to be good in any substantive way. Whatever we know of good, we know because of God. Whether we accept that or not makes a great deal of difference!
  • Consequently, using Matthew 25 as a basis, believers will be judged, but only their good deeds will be considered, since their bad deeds are indeed forgiven and forgotten (Malachi 7:19). In Jesus’ story in Matthew 25, only the good deeds of the people of God are mentioned, not their bad deeds.

Thus sayeth Pieper.

There are those who would argue and say that’s not much of a judgment, and therefore the bad deeds of God’s people must also be mentioned. Pieper doesn’t see this as reasonable, but rather the improper conclusion of trying to hold together two Scriptural teachings – 1) all people (including believers) will be judged, and 2) believers are not judged. How do we hold together these seemingly contradictory statements?

Pieper harmonizes these two statements with the use of another Lutheran theological/systematic idea – Law and Gospel. The Word of God is either Law or Gospel, either condemning us of our sin or freeing us from our sin through the grace and forgiveness of God. Therefore, in condemning us of our sin the Bible reminds us that all will be judged. This should spur in us a serious assessment of ourselves, a daily acknowledgement of our sinfulness, and a daily seeking of refuge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As this happens, we are no longer under the judgment of God and the Gospel must immediately be spoken, assuring us our sins are indeed forgiven and forgotten in Christ and won’t ever be held against us or even brought up on Judgment Day, again citing Matthew 25 as evidence.

I’m not all together certain Matthew 25 can be relied on exclusively as the clinching argument in this matter, but I’m willing to roll with it until I encounter a compelling alternative argument. For the believer in Jesus the Christ, we are to have peace, trusting in his forgiveness. However that exactly plays out on Judgment Day is a matter of technicalities – we know the end result is our being welcomed into the presence of God eternally. Towards that end we must continue to take sin seriously, never making the mistake of ceasing to recognize it or acknowledge it as such. Not because we won’t be forgiven, but because eventually our sin could cause us to reject God because we love our sin too much.

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