There’s a lot of conversation about judgment. We’re in the throes of a fascination with the last days, the “end times” and there is a substantial element of judgment in that whole conversation, and we talk about “the Great White Throne.”
There’s also a growing awareness among believers of how the world sees churches as judgmental. “Don’t do this, don’t like that.” It’s my observation that there is a growing polarization in the church on this topic – some are pronouncing more judgment and calling it holiness; others are judging the world and other believers less. Judgment is clearly on the mind of the Saints.
Judgment is Misunderstood
I believe that the topic is badly misunderstood in the church. I’ve certainly learned recently how badly I’ve misjudged the concept of judgment.
I suspect that the main reason we misunderstand judgment is because we are instructed by the wrong sources. Our culture has a great deal to say on the topic, from Judge Judy, to the evening news, to the entire legal system: our culture teaches us that judgment is largely about punishment: “Stop doing that!” “Go to jail!” “Pay this fine!”
Traditional Christian Culture supports this understanding: “God’s going to judge that,” though what it is that God purportedly will judge changes depending on which Christian subculture you’re listening to, but that’s another topic.
Here’s where I’m going: In one way or another, we generally consider judgment to be bad, to be about punishment. That’s not true! Punishment certainly is a part of judgment, but by no means is it the whole story.
Some years ago, when I was a potter, I entered several of my creations in the local County Fair. These were my creations, very personal. And do you know what happened? Judges came to look at my work. Judges! Can you imagine! And do you know what they did? They judged my creations! And then they handed me a couple of ribbons, and awarded me twenty bucks cash money.
Judgment, in the truest sense, does include punishment, but really, it’s more focused on rewards, particularly in the Kingdom of God
In fact, I don’t think it’s judgment itself that is a problem, but the condemnation that is usually unleashed when judgment is performed inappropriately. I’m beginning to understand that while condemnation is to be generally condemned, judgment is to be embraced.
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go into the house of the LORD…. For thrones are set there for judgment, The thrones of the house of David.
-- Psalm 122:1,5 [emphasis added]
A Closer Look at Judgment
Let’s look at the biggest, most famous judgment of all, at the end of the world:
And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. … And they were judged, each one according to his works. … And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
-- Revelation 20:12-15
This is, of course, not one judgment, but two. The famous one is in the last verse: if your name is not in the Book of Life, it’s “game over” when we come to that court. But that’s only half the story, only one of the books of testimony used as evidence in that courtroom.
The other judgment is about your works (and mine), and the testimony is a stack of books listing what we’ve done. The judgment is based on what is written in that stack of books.
So the Judge on the throne is making judgment based on our works, but the books that list our works have all the forgiven things wiped out of them, stricken from the record; a whole lifetime worth of the good things that we’ve done, said and thought are all that remain. When the Judge looks at those, his judgment is not going to be about punishment but reward:
"I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake;
And I will not remember your sins.
Put Me in remembrance;
Let us contend together;
State your case, that you may be acquitted.
-- Isaiah 43:25-26
So the Judge on the throne is making judgment based on our works, but the books that list our works have all the forgiven things wiped out of them, stricken from the record: the only things that remain are whatever (hopefully few) sins are un-repented of, and a whole lifetime worth of the good things that we’ve done, said and thought. When the Judge looks at those, his judgment is not going to be about punishment but reward.
Jesus teaches on judgment rather a lot. This is the Parable of the Talents:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money. After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
“So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’
“Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’
“But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents.
‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
And this is his Parable of the Minas: similar lessons, but a different presentation.
Now as they heard these things, He spoke another parable, because He was near Jerusalem
and because they thought the kingdom of God
would appear immediately. Therefore He said: "A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them, 'Do business till I come.' ….
"And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, 'Master, your mina has earned ten minas.' And he said to him, 'Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.' And the second came, saying, 'Master, your mina has earned five minas.' Likewise he said to him, 'You also be over five cities.'
"Then another came, saying, 'Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief. For I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.' And he said to him, 'Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?'
"And he said to those who stood by, 'Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.' (But they said to him, 'Master, he has ten minas.') 'For I say to you, that to everyone who has will be given; and from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.
-- Luke 19:11-27
In the Parable of the Talents, every servant received a different investment; it would not be inappropriate to think of these as skills, giftings, opportunities: places where everyone is different. Those who were rewarded all earned the same profit – whatever they had received, they doubled – and they all received the same reward: “‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.” It is not inappropriate to come away with the understanding that whenever we make an increase for the Kingdom from our God-given talents, He will be pleased.
It is also fair to point out that when we are afraid of God, when we bury our talents out of fear that what we do won’t be pleasing to him, that reaction itself is very displeasing to him. That is not a good choice: those who make this choice will regret it; here judgment does indeed bring punishment.
The Parable of the Minas teaches much the same lessons, but this time, every servant received the same gift; think of these as places where we’re all equal before God: we have the same new life, the same access to the Holy Spirit, the same freedom to come boldly before his throne and obtain grace. In this parable, each servant came back with a different success story: some brought back ten times the amount that was invested in them, others only five times as much. Every successful servant was judged and rewarded by the King; in this case, the extent of the reward was related to the amount of their success with his investment in them. Again, it is not inappropriate to come away with the understanding that whenever we make a profit for the Kingdom from our God-given talents, He will be pleased.
And again, there was one servant who was afraid of the King, afraid of failing, and therefore hid his gift away privately; this servant’s judgment brought punishment: his gift was taken from him and given to the more successful servant. The servant’s fearful, self-protective choices did not protect him.
What Is (And What Is Not) Judged
While we will indeed stand before God one day and be “judged, each one according to his works,” it is important to understand what we will be judged for and what we will not be judged for.
Here are some things that we will apparently not be judged for:
· Our gifts. Some of us have greater gifts, some lesser, but like the talents, all are given by God. Why would God judge us (reward us) for how much he himself has given us in the first place? In both parables, the servants were rewarded, but never for the king’s initial investment in them.
· Our works. I grew up in a generation that has valued hard work, and I don’t mean to disparage sweat, but our hard work is not the thing that God is looking to reward. God is not in the habit of rewarding man’s works, and in the Old Testament, he specifically prohibited things that caused sweat (see Ezekiel 44:18): a picture of not relying on our own works to accomplish his purposes.
· Our Opportunities. Some people have tremendous opportunities for their gifting; others labor in obscurity. A couple who labors faithfully to pastor a house church is not judged to be inferior to the inherits the leadership of a mega-church from his father.
· Our Faithfulness. While our giftedness are not rewarded, what we do with those gifts will be rewarded. The choice to faithfully use the gift is rewarded, but the choice to hide the gift is punished. John Wimber taught that “Faith is spelled R-I-S-K,” and that applies in this conversation: choices that are safe, that are comfortable are probably not choices that bring the kind of rewards that Jesus talked about. Choices that are built on a value to extend the Kingdom, but scare us, that make us rely on God more, choices where we must walk carefully, hand-in-hand with Jesus are the ones that bring eternal rewards.
· Our Results. While our hard work, our sweat, is not rewarded, the parable of the minas clearly demonstrates that greater results from the same gifts will result in greater reward. It is clear that the greater results don’t come from working harder, but from strategies like cooperating more with God’s purposes
For now, I’d like to encourage us to submit to God’s judgment. I have a strong expectation that Holy Spirit will be teaching us more about judgment in the months to come. He is not through with the topic.