I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few months about “accountability” and forgiveness. I think there are many Christians who have been taught that they will somehow have to face some sort of judgment by God for what they did or failed to do in this life. This leads to fear or concerns about how it is going to go when we come face to face with the Judge. However, this clearly contradicts Paul’s statement in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” If there is no condemnation now, there will not be any condemnation on Judgment Day. This idea also reflects a lack of understanding of what God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice really means.
Back in November, I heard a preacher on the radio say something about God “holding fathers accountable for how they raise their children”. I have heard others preach similar ideas. I had a brother that I love and respect dearly say about the same time that he “hoped” the sins he has committed would all be forgiven and that he is very concerned about facing God. Other people I know and love have mentioned that certain people (believers) will have to “answer to God” for this or that sin, usually in context to what has been done to them. And, of course, we have all heard that God will judge America for its many sins as a nation.
I began to do some research on the topic of whether Christians will face a judgment when Jesus returns at the end of the age. This was timely, as I was preparing to teach Romans 13 in our adult Sunday School class. This passage speaks of “understanding the present time . . . the day is almost here” (vv. 11-12), where Paul is exhorting the church to be mindful of Christ’s imminent return (i.e., it could come at any moment). As I dug a little deeper than I have in a long time (I felt like I was in seminary again), I discovered a few things about what happens when Jesus returns. I have also begun to break the code on why there is so much confusion and ignorance about what accepting God’s forgiveness really means for Christians.
This is not just another exploration into a merely academic theological discussion. This topic has serious implications for how we live out our Christian faith, how we experience God’s presence on a daily basis, how we are to treat our brothers and sisters in Christ, and even on how we view the topic of work. Understanding these truths will indeed, as Jesus taught us in John 8:31, “set us free”.
Do Christians face any kind of judgment when Jesus returns?
Some say “Yes.” Believers will face the “Judgment Seat of Christ”. This will be special event after Jesus returns where the quality of believers’ works will be tested by fire. It is where rewards are given. Two passages seem to support this idea:
1) 1 Cor. 3:12-15. The traditional interpretation is that our works have either contributed to building the church with wood, hay, or straw; or gold, silver, or precious stones. The Day of Judgment will reveal which it was through fire. If it is not burned up, we will receive a reward. Although this verse does seem to mention an eschatological event, in the context of Paul’s letter he is addressing divisions in the church. His point is that believers need to be careful to make lasting contributions to the church. The emphasis is on rewards, not embarrassment.
2) 2 Cor. 5:10. Paul states that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, to receive what is due, whether good or bad. This sounds very similar to what Jesus said in Matt. 25:31-45, where He tells of separating the sheep from the goats, the wicked from the righteous. It is a judgment that appears to be based on works. However, we know from Rom. 3:20-26, that no one is justified by works or by “observing the law”, but it is only be faith in Christ. The good works are the demonstration or fruit of true faith, which is what it clearly says in James 2:14-17.
However, I say “No.” As Christians, our sins are totally forgiven, forgotten, and removed from us when we receive Christ because He has paid the penalty for all our sins. There is only one eschatological judgment at the end of times, and it is for the wicked. Believers need not worry about it if their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. There are several passages that support this view:
1) Hebrews 10:11-23. The author is contrasting Jesus’ sacrifice with that of the OT priests, whose sacrifices could never really take away sins (v. 11). (If you go back to verse 2, you see that these sacrifices could never completely cleanse or remove the feelings of guilt either.) But Jesus offers a better sacrifice! Jesus’ death on the cross finished the job; the atonement for our sins is complete (v. 12). We are declared to be perfect in His eyes (the doctrine of justification), even though we are still growing in holiness (v. 14). He remembers our sins no more (v. 17, quoting Jer. 31:33). Our sins have been forgiven and there is no longer a need for any more sacrifices (v. 18). This means total forgiveness of all my sins: past, present, and future. He took away my guilt and shame. I have been reconciled with God; there is no longer any animosity or separation between us. This is irreversible; I can’t mess it up because it is not based on my performance, but on His atonement. There is no penalty or fear of punishment to dread on Judgment Day over anything I have ever done. Because of what Jesus did for me, I have complete confidence to enter into His presence daily (v. 19). I can draw near to God without fear in full assurance of faith (v. 22) because my heart has been cleansed from a guilty conscience (v. 23). Also, I can boldly come before the throne of grace to find help in times of need when I do sin (Heb. 4:16).
2) 1 Peter 5:4. This and other passages (see Titus 2:13; Heb. 9:27-28; 2 Peter 3:10-14; 1 John 2:28, 3:2-3) paint a picture of Jesus’ second coming as a joyous occasion for all believers. It is something we should look forward to and anticipate. There is not even a hint of anything to fear, like some kind of “accountability” for things we either did or did not do. There is a consistent call to perseverance in light of Jesus’ second coming, but that is to encourage us to continue to demonstrate our faith and be faithful until the end. There are no eternal consequences based on our own failings; we are exhorted to press on to save us from regret or embarrassment.
3) Rev. 20:11-15. Here is a description of the “Great White Throne” judgment. Those whose names are not found in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire. Rev. 21 describes the new heaven and the new earth that only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life will experience. This ties in with what Jesus said in John 5:24: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
With respect to this question, it seems very clear to me that believers have absolutely nothing to worry about with respect to a final judgment. We must read every reference to any kind of judgment based on works (i.e., Matt. 25, the sheep and the goats) through the lens of what Jesus and Paul have clearly said throughout the NT regarding forgiveness, atonement, and redemption. Those who have placed our faith in Christ are not judged by our works. We are judged based solely on our faith in Jesus. Since our debt has been paid by the blood of Christ, there is nothing else for us to pay. See Ps. 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” See also Ps. 32:1,2, which is quoted in Rom. 4:7,8: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” This is indeed good news, and is truth we should meditate on and rest in.
There are a few classic hymns which communicate these truths confidently, allowing us to sing boldly of this understanding of total forgiveness as I have described above:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, Was blind but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!
On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand
When He shall come with trumpet sound, oh may I then in Him be found.
Dressed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.
It is Well With my Soul
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part, but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
There is more that can be said about this topic, but I will have to close with an appropriate greeting from Peter’s first epistle: “Grace and peace be yours in abundance” (1 Peter 1:2).
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.