In this article I will claim that the consistent teaching of the Bible with regards to judgement day is that we will be judged and receive our eternal reward on the basis of what we have done — that is to say, that Christians will be distinguished and vindicated and will enter into eternal life because of how they have behaved, and not despite what judgement day reveals.
This does not mean that salvation is by works, or that what is revealed in Christians on judgement day will merit eternal life — rather, it is a case of identification of those who are real believers, and an eternal reward which, in God's eyes, is appropriate for those who have believed.
It has surprised me to discover this, and I saw the big picture of the Biblical teaching on this after seeing it in some of the individual passages. I will go through some of the more important passages, and at the end will draw out some application.
This is the famous parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus describes how he will go about separating the sheep and the goats — a difficult task in the Middle East, where these two types of animal are much more alike than in Europe. The sheep are placed on the favoured right hand side, and are then invited to enjoy the kingdom — why? “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” This is the reason why they will enjoy God's favour — the “for” is not describing a meritorious cause (primarily because it would be impossible to square that with the rest of scripture), but rather how they have been distinguished from the goats, who did not do any of those things.
The sheep are surprised, not realising that they had ever lived up to Jesus' description of them, since they had not seen or helped Jesus personally. He explains that he counts their actions for his brothers (that is, believers in him — Mark 3:33-35) as actions done personally for him. So it is how they have behaved towards Jesus, shown in their practical love toward his people, that distinguishes them on judgement day.
Matthew 24:45 - 25:30
The parable of the sheep and goats is in a larger passage all about the end times and the return of the Lord Jesus. After describing some disturbing events in Matthew 24, at least some of which must refer to Jesus' return, he tells 5 parables about it. The first is simply about the sudden, unexpected nature of it - Matthew 24:42-44. The second, 24:45-51, is about the unfaithful servant who gets drunk and beats the other servants, who will be "cut in pieces" on his master's return, contrasting with the faithful and wise servant who will be blessed if the master finds him attending to his duties when he returns. Notice that while perhaps the biggest point is the suddenness of the master's return, it is how they behaved that distinguished them.
The next, Matthew 25:1-13 is the parable of the ten virgins — 5 wise, 5 foolish. Having oil in their lamps is probably not itself the distinguishing factor — that would then leave us simply puzzling about what was symbolised. Rather, it is the wisdom of being prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom that marks out those who enter into the kingdom. In this parable, the main focus is on the suddenness of Jesus' return, and the need for preparation (without specifying exactly what that preparation is). The application is “watch, therefore”.
The fourth, Matthew 25:14-30, again emphasises that we don't know when Jesus will return, but we must also notice that the servants will be assessed according to what they have done with what they were given. There is no suggestion that all are found equally wicked, and some are rewarded despite this — no, the master has good reason to be pleased with the first two, and every reason to be angry with the last.
So the parable of the sheep and the goats fits in exactly with the others, while dropping the theme of the suddenness of Jesus' return to focus on how Jesus will do his judging.
This passage states that on “the day” when God's righteous judgement will be revealed (which is clearly judgement day), “God will render to each one according to his deeds”, and goes on to describe the two categories of people. Those who gain eternal life are “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality” and those who “do good”. The ones who are condemned are those who “do evil” and are “self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness”.
But there is debate over this passage — some claim it is describing only the general principle, a principle that leaves us all condemned. So states the New Bible Commentary:
Since Paul elsewhere makes clear that people can achieve eternal life only through faith (1:17; 3:20, 21-22), he cannot mean that people can actually be saved simply by doing good works. Some scholars (e.g Cranfield) think Paul is describing Christians whose good works demonstrate the reality of their new life. But Paul says that it is the doing of good itself that brings life. It is better, then, to view these statements as general assertions of principle: if someone were to do good persistently (see v7), that person would gain eternal life. But what Paul will make clear elsewhere is that no person, since the fall of Adam, can, in fact, do good persistently (see 3:9-18, 23). Paul's purpose at this point is not to show how people can be saved but to set forth the standards of God's evaluation apart from the gospel.
Although I agree that the focus here is not on the way of salvation, I basically disagree with the above view, for the following reasons:
The phrase “those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality” can easily be taken as a description of believers:
It does not say “perfect” obedience, but patient obedience, and believers are those who endure to the end (Matthew 24:13).
It does not actually say that “it is the doing of good itself that brings life” (as the NBC states), but rather that these people “seek” for glory by their behaviour.
And believers are those who strive for glory — this description is not dissimilar to Philippians 3:13-14.
In fact, in John 5:44 Jesus criticises those who do not seek the glory that comes from God, categorising such people as unbelievers.
The phrase describing those who go to eternal destruction includes “those who do not obey the truth”. This is the normal language of the New Testament specifically for those who reject the gospel. Very similar language can be found in various places in Paul's letters and Peter's letters, and it always describes the distinction between believers and unbelievers:
So, in Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26 Paul talks of “the obedience of faith”
In Romans 6:17 he describes the converted as those who “have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed”
Unbelieving Jews are those who “have not obeyed the gospel” (Romans 10:16).
Galatians 5:7 uses “obeying the truth” to describe the faith/life of Christians
2 Thessalonians 1:8 describes unbelievers who will be punished on judgement day as those who “do not obey the gospel”
In 2 Thessalonians 2:10,12 Paul again uses similar language for unbelievers: “they refused to love the truth”, they “did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness”.
1 Peter 1:22 says that believers have purified their souls by “obedience to the truth”
1 Peter 3:1 describes unbelieving husbands as those who “do not obey the word”
In 1 Peter 4:17 those outside the household of God are those who “do not obey the gospel”
In the light of this, it is extremely difficult to avoid the conclusion that this phrase refers specifically to non-Christians.
The language of the passage is simply “the day when God will render to each according to his works”. There is no hint in these words that Paul is describing a hypothetical day of judgement which none of us could stand up to.
In the view I oppose, you have to conclude that this description is “the day of judgement without the gospel” (which is just what the NBC explicitly says) — it is all part of Paul condemning everyone, “so that all the world may be guilty before God”, so that in chapter 3 he can introduce the gospel for the first time. However, this passage explicitly tells us that this is not the case — in v16 Paul adds “on that day” (clearly referring to the same day of judgement) “when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” This is judgement by Jesus himself, according to the gospel, not apart from it.
So, this passage is also stating that “He will render to each one according to his works”. Doing exegetical somersaults around those words contradicts the plain sense of the text at many points, and is also completely unnecessary. Steven J. Cole has a fuller and very helpful article on being judged by your deeds in Romans 2:6-11.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
This passage again states, repeatedly and quite explicitly, that the dead are judged “according to what they had done”. The books that are opened are presumably the records of their entire lives, and they are judged by the contents. But a twist is added — another book is opened, the book of life, and we are told that those who are thrown into the lake of fire are those not found in the book of life. It seems that the book of life represents essentially the book of the elect (see Revelation 13:8) so this gives us two options:
The first is that everyone is actually condemned by their own deeds, but some escape by virtue of being found in the book of life i.e. because they are elect. This is possible, but it has problems.
First, the passage never states that all are condemned at this point — we would have to import from elsewhere the idea that believers will be condemned by the opening of the books on judgement day. And this idea is not only foreign to the book of Revelation, it is not found anywhere in the pages of the Bible.
Second, in Revelation, there is never a contrast between being in the book of life and behaving in an upright manner, but always complete agreement. Revelation 21:27 assumes this when it states concerning God's paradise that “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life.” Also, in Revelation 3:5 there is the strong implication that those who do not “repent”, those who do not “conquer” by turning their backs on sin, will actually be blotted out of the book of life — those who are unworthy, because of their behaviour, of being in the Lamb's book of life, will certainly not be found in it — they will be removed.
So, we are forced to a second option regarding this passage: the books of our lives will be in perfect agreement with the book of life. There is no contrast being drawn here between the two books, but agreement, so it makes perfect sense to say the dead are judged by the first, and those not found in the second are thrown into the lake of fire. This brings agreement with the way in which Revelation always regards judgement day — a day that believers look forward to with confidence of vindication, and never with fear of condemnation.
2 Corinthians 5:10
For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
This needs no particular comment, as the context does not contain anything to confuse or lessen the impact. Paul introduces this truth immediately after saying “we make it our aim to please Him” — clearly a consciousness of judgement day is not a bad motivation for ensuring that we are living now as we ought to be.
Among many other passages that could be added, I will conclude with one more:
Matthew 12:36-37 — “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
The Biblical teaching on the day of judgement is that Jesus Christ will examine our lives for hard evidence that we really belong to him. It will be done with God's perfect knowledge of hidden actions and motivations and mitigating circumstances, and it will be shown that those who have truly put their faith in Christ have behaved differently, and they will be graciously welcomed in to God's eternal reward — not for the merit of works that they have done, but by the grace of the one who put that faith and love into them in the first place. Those who do not have this faith and love will be sent into eternal punishment.
It must be noted that Jesus' only purpose in this judgement is to discover those who have true faith. In this context, he will not judge in order to show that “all the world is guilty before God” — that is the purpose of the law, and it is already complete (Romans 3:19). Jesus will not expose the works of his followers in order to put them to shame, but exactly the opposite. It is true that some believers will 'suffer loss' on that day (1 Corinthians 3:15) — the scrutinising fire of that day will expose that there was less evidence than they thought of real love for Jesus, though they will be saved themselves. But Jesus' purpose is to show, with perfect impartiality, the reality of the faith and love of his disciples, the vast change that he has produced in the hearts of his own.
While it is faith alone that justifies, “the faith that justifies is never alone”. The Biblical teaching regarding judgement day clearly emphasises this, and is a wake up call to any who think that they'll be OK because they once made a commitment to Christ. If Jesus cannot discover hard evidence that we are his on that day, our protestations of faith will be useless.
Believers can have confidence in looking towards that day, knowing that Jesus' purpose is to vindicate them, not to put them to shame.
Believers are not waiting for judgement day for justification. We are not going to face condemnation for our deeds, and then hope to hear the sentence “not guilty” because of Christ's righteousness. No, justification is to be fully enjoyed now. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). If you are a Christian, you will not ever be more righteous before God than you are now. Judgement day is about vindication before the world, not justification before God. We seriously undermine the doctrine of justification by faith alone if we imagine or teach that justification remains a future event.
True believers are spurred on to avoid everything that will bring them shame and bring their Saviour shame, and live the kind of lives that will bring God great honour and pleasure on that day. Since everything will be exposed, on the one hand we will be driven to root out not only bad actions but bad motivation for 'good' actions, and, on the other hand, we can be encouraged to know that efforts that had something God-honouring in the motivation, but failed in execution, will not be forgotten or overlooked. This in turn enables us to live without boasting — God will honour every good thing in due course, but how much of that potential honour will be burned away if the exposé has also uncovered a lot of bragging!
God is vindicated by this kind of judgement day. It will be revealed by the perfect light of that great day that the deeds of believers have been carried out in God (John 3:21). because they truly loved him, and it will be seen that God is right to reward them — just as the trial of Job showed that God was right to boast about him, that loyal servant who refused to “curse God and die”, despite great provocation. Job was not shown to be sinless by his trial, and neither will believers on judgement day, but the genuine seed of holiness implanted by the Holy Spirit will be exposed. It will be seen that God is right to condemn those who have not known him, and to reward those who have.
[Article written Feb 2009, small edits made Dec 2009, June 2011].