The following is an answer to a question regarding judgment passages such as Matthew 16:27 and Revelation 22:12.
I couldn't find anything that I had specifically written on this subject, but I have a sermon
on the sheep and the goats that touches near the issue. The most important thing we need to keep in mind is that God's judgment is all about righteousness
. It is not about God judging us for our good deeds with our bad deeds, giving us some good back for the good we've done and giving us some bad back for the bad we've done depending on the proportion of each. That is how most people tend to think the judgment will be, but in reality no one will get five cookies and three coals from God, so to speak. It's all or nothing, because righteousness is all or nothing (Deut. 6:5, 25, 12:32; Gal. 3:10; James 2:10). Those who have "done good" are the righteous, and those who have "done evil" are the unrighteous. There is no in-between.
"For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to what he has done." (Matt. 16:27)
Whenever Jesus describes this day, it always has to do with the "righteous" and the "unrighteous" (Matt. 13:37-43, 47-50, 25:31-46). There will not be a judgment where a man stands before God and is given a mixed recompense. A person either does good or does bad. There are no other options.
It is amazing how John states this:
"Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that does good is of God; but he that does evil has not seen God." (3 John 1:11)
"Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth: they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation." (John 5:28-29)
Paul adds a very important ending to Jesus' "according to what he has done" phrase. We must keep this in mind:
"We must all be [revealed for what we truly are] before the judgment seat of Christ, so that every one may receive in the body according to what he has done, whether what he has done was good or evil." (2 Cor. 5:10, my paraphrase)
In the eyes of the world, could John, Jesus and Paul have been more ambiguous? Have you "done good"? How do we judge that? It seems so general! We can see immediately that if we understand good and evil in the way they are commonly understood we are at a loss, because everyone, according to the common understanding, does a mixture of good and evil. What is goodness? What is evil? What does the passage mean by these? Without the Biblical truth of righteousness we are at a loss. Through the gospel we understand that good and evil have everything to do with righteousness. A man does good when he is righteous, and does evil when he is unrighteous.
However, no one does good (Rom. 3:12). There are none righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10). So how will any pass the judgment? How will God resurrect the righteous if there are none? Yet the Scriptures also state that there are
righteous people, who are born of God, and therefore that "do good". We reconcile this apparent contradiction (and it is
an apparent contradiction) by pointing to that righteousness from God which is given to us through faith in Christ. We are not righteous by obedience to the law, but are counted righteous through faith in Jesus Christ, and therefore attain to the resurrection of the righteous. Clothed with this righteousness, the Judge will judge us as righteous on that day. In this way believers have done good. This is the language of Genesis 4:7: "If you do well, will you not be accepted? But if you do not well..." What is it to "do well" in context but to do what righteous Abel did? That was to believe (Heb. 11:4). The Bible uses the language of "doing good" or "doing righteousness" (ex. Gen. 18:19, Is. 64:5, 1 John 2:29, 3:7, 10). We know that righteousness is moral perfection, but how do we do it? How do we become righteous, and thus live on judgment day? It is not through the doing of the law, but through faith in Christ that we "do righteousness". Believing is something we "do", just like resting is something we do, though the nature
of what we do determines that it is not a work (see Is Faith a Work?
). What do we do? We "do truth" (John 3:21, 1 John 1:6): that is, we agree with God concerning our unrighteousness, and agree with God concerning the testimony of His Son. We "do the will of the Father" (Matt. 7:21, 12:50): because we believe in His Son as He commands us to believe. "What must I do to be saved?" is a perfectly acceptable question. "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved" Paul said(Acts 16:30-31). Believing is what we do, and by doing it we do the will of the Father, we do the truth, we do righteousness, we do good. By believing we show that we are born of God.
So I--, whenever I read those passages I read them with righteousness in view. God will indeed judge men according to what they have done. Let us remember that His standard is righteousness. Those who haven't believed will be found unrighteous and punished for their sins. Those who have believed will be found to be blameless in God's sight, and will be declared the one's who have done good. The wonder of it all is that we are sinners ourselves, and our righteousness is not our own.
If we don't see the judgment this way, we will, at best, always be in doubt about our standing on judgment day. Actually, if judgment depends upon our works in a general sense, then we shouldn't even be in doubt, but rather be in despair. If God judges me based upon my works and gives me what I deserve, I am a lost man. There is no way to have peace except by lowering the standards, but this is impermissible. Except by fooling myself that my good deeds outweigh by bad, or that the punishment for my bad deeds isn't going to be that bad will I have some semblance of peace. But this is not how God judges. His judgment is based upon righteousness; righteousness is moral perfection; and the punishment is severe because of the serious nature of sin. There is simply no other way to Biblically understand judgment day.
The final issue that needs to be addressed is the issue of reward. Many of those judgment passages say that Christ will "reward every man according to what he has done." (Matt. 16:27, Rev. 22:12) As Christians we get hung up on this word (and with good reason), because if salvation is a gift of grace, how can Jesus be referring to salvation in these sayings, since they state that He will be doling out rewards? Many Christians therefore conclude that these sayings have nothing to do with salvation, but rather with non-salvific heavenly rewards. While I don't deny the reality of such rewards, I do not believe that these sayings are referring to them. They are referring to salvation or damnation (2 Cor. 5:10-11). But how then can salvation be a reward?
It is a good question, but there is a not-too-difficult answer. First, the English word "reward" is not always the best translation of the Greek word apodidomi. The word can mean several different things, the main idea being "to deliver". It can mean to reward/recompense, or to give away what is yours, or to give back, or to sell, or to give what is promised. The last, "to give what is promised", is helpful, for God has promised blessing for the righteous and punishment for the unrighteous. When Christ returns He will give what He has promised to every man according to what they have done. But though this softens the word some, it still does not wholly answer the dilemma.
We know that sin deserves death. Does righteousness therefore deserve life? Yes it does. Just as death is the appropriate thing for God to give a sinner, life is the appropriate thing for God to give a just man. God is just in giving death to sinners, and God is just in giving life to the righteous. In fact, He must give to each what is just or cease to be just. Therefore, in this sense the righteous indeed await the bestowal of that life which is rightfully theirs. We can say that life is the reward of righteousness. However, our righteousness is a gift and not something we worked for, and so therefore the life that accompanies that righteousness is also a gift and not something we worked for. I only possess life because of the grace of Christ. I can also say that I possess life because of righteousness. As Paul said, eternal life is a free gift from God (Rom. 6:23) because it is "through Jesus Christ our Lord" who provided righteousness for sinners by His death.
Therefore we can see how God will reward every man according to what he has done, whether good or evil, and that this is consistent with the gospel. We don't need to go outside of the gospel to understand this saying. One final passage from Paul: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give [Grk. apodidomi] me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Tim. 4:7-8) Here we see Paul's conception of his own salvation and the judgment which Jesus spoke of. The Righteous Judge, Christ, who judges in righteousness, will "give" (and the word is the same one translated "reward") Paul the crown of righteousness (which I take to mean life, the manifest glory which is given to the righteous and declares that they are righteous) on that day. It is the reward of righteousness, but there is no doubt in Paul's mind that it is gift. Our crowns will simply be trophies for the glory of God, as we Christians sing so often.
And it is with this message of the gospel that we need to encourage our flocks. It isn't by salvific nor non-salvific rewards and punishments merited by our works that we will rightly motivate people to say no to ungodliness and worldly lusts, but by the inspiration which arises by the sight and experience of the grace of God (Titus 2:11-15, 3:1-8). This is a lesson the Church needs to learn.
Hope this provides some helpful food for thought.
Miss you, I--!