Why are Christians under judgment? It seems absurd for Peter to inform believers that they are exposed to some divine review that demands obedience, if they have already been forgiven. Human courts don’t even allow offenders to be exposed to double jeopardy.
If Christians are truly forgiven before God, then why does the Bible say that the Church is facing judgment now?
“For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet 4:17)
As you might imagine, there are endless explanations, interpretations, and excuses for why Christians shouldn’t be concerned. Most fall under one of two common ideas. Either, believers are told that this judgment is against the “old man” of their past that has effectively died, since they have crossed from death to life and are living as a new creation in Christ; or, they are told that since they belong to Christ, the judgment is a fait accompli and they are guaranteed to pass with flying colors, like some rubber stamp process. This latter, foreign sounding fait-idea means “a thing that has already happened or been decided before those affected hear about it, leaving them with no option but to accept it.”
Fewer go with a third explanation, though it is out there, that their forgiveness through faith in what Jesus did for them on the Cross is only about past committed sins, and they are under scrutiny over any new sins they do. All three interpretations are bunk, and do not fit with what Scripture says.
The Spirit has revealed that in these latter days, it will be extremely common in Churches for believers and ministers to gather around them people who say nice things that are encouraging and attractive while avoiding the real truth. That is the same approach taken by the majority of God’s people under the Old Covenant, and it remains the dominant style today for those who claim to be under the New Covenant.
The general teaching is “don’t worry about it, no matter what, you will still be saved.” However, for those who are more sensitive to the gentle voice of the Lord, can you sift through all that noise to hear what the Spirit is actually saying to the Church?
In order to rightly divide the word of truth, it is important to grasp the larger context of who we are and of what God’s plan is in addressing our condition. From day one (or should we say, day six), God created humanity in his image, without any stain of sin or defect, and declared that it was very good. We were made with an eternal purpose, but formed in temporary mortal existence.
In genuine freedom, mankind was given the right and ability to choose whether to submissively live in line with that design, or to veer toward a path of self-actualization. The evidence of history, as well as the preservation of Scripture, shows that humanity wanted to live under self-rule and make our own path. We botched the whole thing, defying God’s command and authority, which he allowed, but which also came with a dire consequence: death.
From the very beginning, before sin ever tickled the desires of lust, God knew what unsubmissive self-rule would cause, and so Christ was determined to both allow its eventuality as well as provide the means for rectifying it. God could declare death for sin, and then allow himself (through his Son, Jesus) to pay for that penalty by taking that curse upon himself through actual physical death upon the Cross.
The glorious truth of the Christian gospel is that God offers complete forgiveness for sin through faith in Jesus and what he accomplished for us. That’s it. Believers are truly and fully forgiven. No double jeopardy; no fake-forgiveness; no time-limited forgiveness (to just the past). Christians have been set free from sin, from its ultimate penalty, and from any threat of being re-exposed.
By way of clarification, there is a very huge caveat here. Many think they belong to the Lord, but he doesn’t agree. Many think they have been forgiven, but they remain under God’s wrath. Many think they will be saved, but there will be great weeping and gnashing of teeth, when the truth comes out that they were deceived in their claim of security.
So, before we can consider this judgment upon the church, we ought to consider what is the difference between those who truly are forgiven and those that think they are, but are not? This church-judgment does not apply to this latter group of deceived believers who say “Lord, Lord, but do not do what I say.” Remember, there are many weeds and wolves intermixed within the Church, and although they claim to believe, they do not have the same hope granted to the faithful.
This difference gets down to a matter of belonging. Scripture declares that many are called to faith in Christ, but few are chosen to actually belong to him as his own. Although God knows the heart in ways that no human can ever recognize as clearly, he does tell us that it is fully possible for us to get a fair idea of our condition and relationship with God by the evidence of what comes out of our life. If we claim to have faith, then our life will “walk as Jesus did”, and be according to how he defines that, not per our own justification of self-assessed religiosity.
Those who look very religious, but in some detail harbor sin, or repeatedly misrepresent God’s truth to others, exhibit the fruit of “having a form of godliness, but deny” God. They remain under the pending judgment that will come upon all unbelievers beginning at the dramatic return of Christ to this earth.
Genuine Christians, have passed beyond that judgment, because Jesus took it upon himself. The reason the two groups are so hard—or better yet, impossible—to tell apart is that both still exhibit sin in themselves. In fact, John confronts believers who claim they are beyond committing sin, by calling them out as liars who have zippo truth in them. Christians remain capable of sinning and do still sin at times, but through faith in and repentance toward Christ they also enjoying both forgiveness for such ignorant offenses as well as freedom from the declared penalty. So is that what this judgment is about, dealing with those later pesky sins?
No. The momentary sacrifice of the eternal Christ is designed to radiate in both directions of time—into the distant past, all the way back to the very first moments of sin developing within humanity; and, all the way into the future, proving a covering for all post-baptism sins unfortunately still committed by struggling believers. His blood has no restraint or limits in what it covers and thereby in what Jesus is willing to forgive.
The provision for future sins by a committed Christian, involves repentance, not additional sacrifice. It is that horrific recognition of failure before a holy God that compels a believer to cry out for forgiveness. His grace is such that even after having come to faith, a brief stumble, though regrettable and damaging here-and-now, can still be cleansed simply by calling out for that eternal blood of the Covenant provided by Jesus.
Don’t assume, however, that such forgiveness is automatic, for Scripture is replete with examples of arrogant believers who don’t think they need to ask for forgiveness, who indulge in their sinful desires, and foolishly think God will save them anyway. This is not to suggest for a genuine believer, that they never were forgiven, but something much worse—that now that they know the Lord for who he really is as Immanuel, and still insist on “continuing in sin”, that new sin of willful rebellion crosses the line into the second court of judgment.
This is where Christians face the trials of this life. God’s intent, however, is for believers to discover not only the peace provided by forgiveness for their former ways, but to go way beyond that to discover the power to live a new holy life through the presence of God’s Spirit.
So why the current judgment upon the Church?
This is a new judgment based upon the expectations of the New Covenant, not past choices. It is a review of how well a believer is becoming Christ-like. It is an assessment of transformation, from natural orientation, to internalized righteousness.
The Righteous One has granted us his own nature, but that is not like some automatic computer upgrade. Rather, God implants his own presence within a believer through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that person, who retains the same, original freedoms to choose from the life set before them, is guided to become what God has declared upon them.
This is the biblical shift between the doctrinal truths represented in justification and that of sanctification. So many get derailed into thinking that the “it is finished” of justification, means salvation is fait accompli, but that violates many passages of Scripture. We are in-process, participating in sanctification upon the basis of our justification, and that is under review by God’s high court.
That is what Peter was speaking about. Notice his own words in this regard, on either side of his Church-judgment revelation:
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you, but rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…So then, those who suffer [under these court trials] according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Pet 4:12, 19)
This divine review is about assessing the evidence of “doing good” while facing trials in this life as a new Christian. This is the reason that in his next epistle, Peter speaks about apparent Christians who are not developing this righteous evidence as blind.
“For if you possess these [righteous] qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.” (2 Pet 1:8-9)
Notice his reference to believers who disconnect from the truth that God forgives their past, and that their current judgment is supposed to be about increasing in the character and new life of Christ. The warning here is not about double jeopardy. Rather it is about turning away from participating in God’s holy expectations for this new life. Those who show such fruit, will never fall from their promised salvation (see the next verses in 10-11). The implication, and actual statement later in this same letter, is that those Christians who can and do fall away, will be judged for their present rebellion, not for their past choices that had been forgiven.
“These [Christian] men are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for a man is a slave to whatever has mastered him. If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.” (2 Pet 2:17-21)
God says here that some Christians will actually know Jesus, and then turn away forever from him. Grace is not a rubber stamp on guaranteed salvation. This judgment that has begun with the Church is very real and continues to have a serious warning attached to it. In fact, failure under this judgment, unlike the natural one, can never be forgiven, for it exposes Jesus to open crucifixion again, and God will not allow that to happen, not for anyone, not even for a currently-believing Christian (Heb 6:6).
The intent of this judgment upon the believers is to help them actively choose what is right in what they believe and in what they do throughout their life, but Scripture is very clear that this New Covenant still has a warning for those who enter into it. Whether by the Mosaic Law (for ancient Israel), or by faith (for Christians), the biblical expectation is still that believers learn to obey what God has declared upon them. The standard and specifics have changed, but the freedom to choose to obey or disobey, remains just as possible for both groups of believers as confirmed in Romans:
“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” (Rom 2:13) [Referring to a theological truth regarding Israelites under the Old Covenant]
“Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” (Rom 1:5) [Referring to a theological truth regarding Christians under the New Covenant]
This continued expectation to restrain our human tendency to self-regulate, and submit ourselves to the commands of Christ, as it impacts our expectation of eternal salvation, is specifically called out by Paul in this corrective letter “to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.”
[Notice, this is speaking about this new judgment that Christians face]
“God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Rom 2:5-8)
This judgment is about what we do with what we have been given in Christ, not about what we did in the past, nor really about whether we still struggle at times with human desires and sin while still in this fleshly life–so long as we repent and obey his instructions on what we need to do thereafter in order to not continue in such error. This truth about the need to obey is confirmed repeated in the New Testament, but most specifically, Paul acknowledges near the end of his own physical ministry, that Jesus will destroy those who refuse to “obey the gospel” and who are unwilling “to do the things we command” (2 The 1:8; 3:4).
Like worded by the Snake in the Garden, many Christians are side-tracked away from considering “did God really say”, and taught that they cannot lose their salvation by what they do, but that is not sound doctrine. Believers remain under judgment, and remain susceptible to the eventual wrath of God, but not because of double jeopardy for things which they have already been forgiven, but rather for how they obey Christ in their expression of claimed faith.
However, there is also something very unique about this new judgment that Christians face. In all my years of prison ministry, I constantly was reminded of how legal courtrooms work. Human courts will only consider past history, never current or future developments. If an accused is brought before a judge, it is always to face what they have already done (or not done), for which there is absolutely no way to change what has happened.
That is not how this new Church judgment works. This one has been set up as a pro-active trial court to help each participant succeed in doing what is right, while they still have the chance to do something real about it. Think about it: God so much wants his weak, little children, who are so prone to sin, to find a way to break the cycle of addiction and failure, that he not only paid for our entire debt before him for sinning, but he has transferred us over to a whole new and better court system that is designed to help us win.
This holy court is active and in session right now for every believer, but instead of being dragged in after we blow it, we are invited to come in for checkups, guidance, and extra strength to choose what is right. The very real process involves suffering, trials, and exposures to challenging circumstances in order to help us find ways to apply his words to discover righteousness, show true love, and become more excited about obeying than about stimulating temporary pleasure glands.
The idea is that “he who is faithful in little, will be faithful in much.” As such, God is putting each believer through the gauntlet of divine and angelic help, rather than abuse or condemnation. As we start to taste success, it ought to fuel even greater hunger to please him and deny our natural self-indulgence. As we start to show little starts of divine fruit, it ought to encourage us greatly that we are finally getting on track with God’s eternal plan for our forever-life.
There is nothing easy about enduring this new judgment. Life as a Christian is full of internal peace, while at the same time oppressively hard. God disciplines every child that he loves, and no such discipline is ever felt or received as pleasant, but when one understands the court they are now in, everything in heaven and earth is cheering them on, and it makes sure that nothing exists in each believing-person’s way that is more than they could get through with what God has so far developed and given to that person.
Everything on earth is struggling to tear you down—Satan, society, and even your own natural desires. However, everything from God is set up in your favor, even if it doesn’t look or feel like it. This doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to succeed, especially if you go AWOL, rebel, or try to save your natural ways and desires. The help is there, and it is very real and completely sufficient for all you need, but it does not possess you like some foul demon.
You have to want it, because you still have the same right and ability to choose, which God granted humans from the very beginning. Many will claim to believe in Jesus, but “by their actions they deny him”, because they are unwilling to put his words into actions. What we hear from his biblical word, we are duty-bound to find some way to put it rightly into practice; to become doers of his word and not hearers only.
This is the reason Jesus taught his disciples with the analogy of branches attached to the vine that are either cut off or pruned, depending on whether there is sufficient fruit that the Father finds in a person who claims to believe. The concept of being pruned means that a person is disciplined; they experience loss and trials that limit them, but the reason is not to harm, but rather so they may produce even more fruit of Christ-likeness.
It is also the reason Paul spoke about eventual worthiness. Many seem to understand that Christ alone is truly worthy before God. As the angels sing around the throne of God, he alone is worthy. However, believers can take the life of Christ in an unworthy manner, such that they can bring upon themselves the judgment of sickness and even premature death (1 Cor 11). This truth is why this Apostle wrote that the identification of spiritual growth through trials is “evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God” (2 The 1:6).
This idea of a pending “worthiness” for entering the Kingdom, seems contrary to the doctrines of many churches, but this is what Scripture teaches. This is even the point of Paul’s prayers for believers, who have already responded to the initial call to faith in Christ and are under this active judgment, that they would strive to express their faith through active deeds, and thereby be counted worthy of Christ being “glorified in you”:
“With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.” (2 The 1:11)
This is a primary objective of this divine court of judgment before which Christians stand: God has called you to faith in Jesus, forgiven your sins, granted you his very presence through the Spirit, and equipped you to become Christ-like…Will the evidence of your choices and life convict you as worthy of all God has offered to you and done for you? Grace has made it all possible, but it won’t force anyone into the righteous life God desires for you. You must submit and participate in how you live and interact in this new life.
It is the same truth expressed by the Apostle James who prophesied about those who persevere in expressing their faith in harmony with their deeds, rather than those whose claim of religion is worthless:
“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” (Jms 1:12)
As a believer, you have already been given everything godly you need to succeed, but while court is in session, you must strive to live by his Spirit rather than fall back into old patterns and destructive relationships. If you still have breath between your teeth, then give yourself no rest, if there is any detail that still pricks your conscience.
This court allows do-overs. It accepts requests to go back out and try again. It even sends you out with friends, family, and faith—all of God’s choosing—to give you company, encouragement, and help to imitate your Lord and Savior, our glorious God, Jesus Christ.
The one common admonition, the repeated refrain of advice from the holy bench of this court is this:
“Do what it says!”