Are we going to be judged for how we’ve lived our lives–for the things, good and bad, that we’ve done? Is there accountability? To those from a Protestant tradition, teachings like this sound distinctly Catholic–almost heretical; yet while Jesus clearly said, “I assure you that whoever hears My word and believes in the One who sent Me has eternal life and won’t come under judgment but has passed from death into life,” (John 5:24 CEB), we also can’t ignore the fact that God’s Word clearly teaches that we are Divinely accountable for how we live. So, how are we to reconcile these two seemingly polar opposite, yet also clearly Biblical, dual doctrines?
“If you address as Father, the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in [reverent] fear [of Him] and with profound respect for Him throughout the time of your stay on earth.” (1 Peter 1:17 AMP)
This was written to the church, to those who already followed Jesus. Why? Because what we believe is super-important, as the daily decisions we make about how to act and live and respond to the various situations we encounter on a moment-by-moment basis are based on what we believe about life itself. If we’re convinced there’s no accountability for how we live; for the not-so-good, or even downright abominable, things we’re guilty of–if we think we’re going to get away with the bad stuff we do because we’re convinced we’ve accepted Jesus and it’s all good and God’ll let it go–we’ll live differently, than if we recognize that after our physical death we will stand before the holy and righteous God and be held accountable. So which is correct? Am I forgiven, or will I be held accountable?
Both; both are true. If we are truly His, we are forgiven in, because of, and through Christ, but we will also be held accountable for how we’ve lived. How is this possible?! Because of our understanding of what believing is–of what “being in” Christ involves.
We today, in our permissive, no-holds-barred and nothing-is-out-of-the-question-except-saying-something-is-out-of-the-question, society, cannot quite wrap our minds around the fact that God could actually require not just that we believe the truth of what He discloses in His Word, but also that it be such a belief that causes us to respond with the holiness of a changed life–that ours cannot merely be a sterile academic belief in certain facts that has not changed me.
This isn’t a “pulling-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps” endeavor; it isn’t me trying to clean myself up to be a better person–it has to be Jesus Christ “birthing me” into a new creation, giving me a completely new essence in who I am inside. The moment, the very instant, it really hits me that Jesus Christ wasn’t just one more religious historical figure like Buddha or Krishna–that He was and is our Creator God, who became a human being for a period of time in history to pay the ultimate penalty for and free us from our enslavement to wrong thinking and living (“In the beginning there was the Word. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things were made by him, and nothing was made without him. The Word became a human and lived among us. We saw his glory—the glory that belongs to the only Son of the Father…” John 1:1-3, 14 NCV)–that’s the moment the light hits. The moment I get it, the moment I’m released from wrong thinking and freed to become the person God intends me to be! Why is that the moment we’re forgiven and freed; the instant we come to faith, of our new birth, in Him? Because Jesus said it is:
“’This is why I told you that you would die in your sins. If you don’t believe that I Am [how God identified Himself to Moses] you will die in your sins [Jesus is saying unless you believe I am God, you will die in your sins].’ ‘Who are you?’ they asked. Jesus replied, ‘I’m exactly who I have claimed to be from the beginning…When…[I am] lifted up [a reference to His crucifixion] then you will know that I Am. Then you will know that I do nothing on my own, but I say just what the Father has taught Me.'” (John 8:24-25, 28 CEB)
When we come to understand that Jesus is really God, we’re not just accepting some truths mentally anymore, but are actually placing our destiny in the hands of the only eternal Supreme Being to safeguard it–and the moment of His new life in us!
You see, various actors in society–intentionally or unintentionally and whether with good intent, evil intent, or no particular intent–lie to us. Standard promulgated dogma these days is that you’re somehow emotionally stunted if you don’t get on board that we’ve evolved from the more primitive human belief in a Higher Power–that only those who cannot face the truth of the meaninglessness of our existences still cling to religion. Yet belief in a historically documented event which happened and is still happening is not primitive; it’s logical. Trusting in a Power greater than me who exists is not emotional stuntedness; it’s the only rational response!
Yet, the problem with understanding how we can be simultaneously both forgiven and yet also held accountable for how we live, is our understanding of the verb translated “to believe,” which has the same root as the noun translated “faith.” They both imply such a belief as generates changed behavior, not merely a mental assent to the truth of something.
So God is less concerned about whether we think He exists (James clearly says the demons believe God exists, but are clearly still condemned nonetheless), and more that we let Him work in us to perfect His holiness in us. Why? Because that’s why Christ Jesus was born, why He became a human being and lived and suffered and died instead of remaining eternally in the heavens with God the Father–to save us from our sins; to give us the new birth and spiritual life; to awaken in us a desire to share in His holiness!
And that’s why Peter warns the church to conduct ourselves with profound respect for God while we’re alive. Why? Because He is completely impartial! He has no favorites!! I can’t say, “I’m special; I’m God’s favorite because I ‘accepted Jesus;’ I’m going to get away with a lot of sins; God won’t judge me,” if I don’t evidence–through my holy and reverent life–the fact that I actually believe what God says, that I take Him seriously, that I have placed my eternal destiny in His hands. St. Paul explains:
“So every single one of you who judge others is without any excuse. You condemn yourself when you judge another person because the one who is judging is doing the same things. We know that God’s judgment agrees with the truth, and his judgment is against those who do these kinds of things [the verse right before this passage says, “Though they know God’s decision that those who persist in such practices deserve death, they not only keep doing these things but also approve others who practice them.” So, God’s judgment is against those who willfully and rebelliously continue sinning.].
”If you judge those who do these kinds of things while you do the same things yourself, think about this: Do you believe that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you have contempt for the riches of God’s generosity, tolerance, and patience? Don’t you realize that God’s kindness is supposed to lead you to change your heart and life? You are storing up wrath for yourself because of your stubbornness and your heart that refuses to change [if you refuse to submit to Christ and stop sinning willfully and intentionally]. God’s just judgment will be revealed on the day of wrath. God will repay everyone based on their works. On the one hand, He will give eternal life to those who look for glory, honor, and immortality based on their patient good work. But on the other hand, there will be wrath and anger for those who obey wickedness instead of the truth because they are acting out of selfishness and disobedience. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. God does not have favorites. Those who have sinned outside the Law will also die outside the Law, and those who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law. It isn’t the ones who hear the Law who are righteous in God’s eyes. It is the ones who do what the Law says who will be treated as righteous. Gentiles don’t have the Law. But when they instinctively do what the Law requires they are a Law in themselves, though they don’t have the Law. They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it. Their conflicting thoughts will accuse them, or even make a defense for them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the hidden truth about human beings through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:1-16 CEB)
Did you catch the last part about God judging the hidden truth about human beings through Christ Jesus? The Orthodox Jewish Bible phrases it like this, which I feel is clearer once you sort it out:
“In the Yom [HaDin (Day of Judgment)] when, according to my Besuras HaGeulah, Hashem, through Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach Yehoshua, is to judge the secrets of kol Bnei Adam (all men).” (Kehilah in Rome 2:16 OJB) On the Day of Judgement, according to my gospel message, God through Jesus, is to judge the secrets of all men…
So, what is it that will become evident on that Day, in us who follow Christ, when the secrets of all are laid bare? If it is indeed true for me personally–Christ, living in and through me, is what will be revealed in me. Because nothing can be revealed except what’s really there already, right? If I truly trust and love Jesus; if I have , “…cleanse[d]…[myself] from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” (II Corinthians 7:1 NKJV); if I’ve conducted myself “throughout the time of…[my] stay here in [reverent] fear;” (I Peter 1:17 NKJV); if I’ve “…work[ed] out…[my] own salvation with fear and trembling;” (Philippians 2:12 NKJV)–THEN, what all will see in me is “…the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles [those who didn’t formerly know God]: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory…[the One] we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.” (Colossians 1:27-28 NKJV)
Only then. That’s how all of the seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture about both forgiveness in Christ and accountability are simultaneously true. Because we today tend to not realize that the belief and faith God talks about isn’t a mental acknowledgement, but a new birth–it’s the work of Jesus in us as we trust in Him and believe what He says and take God seriously. Because when we get that kind of faith everything changes; it’s not the end but the beginning. And He doesn’t leave us where He finds us, but commences the process of perfecting us, of making us into who He wants us to be!
“…He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ;” (Philippians 1:6 NKJV)
Remember that Jesus said, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Matthew 7:13-14 NKJV
It isn’t that we are saved by our works; we are saved through faith in Christ. We love to say that true faith is the holiness of Christ in me, the hope of glory, and it is–this is 100% absolute true! Yet keep in mind that choosing sin rather than holiness is evidence of disbelief, and cannot characterize our lives on a consistent basis. And He forgives disbelief too, but it is still sin, and our life as God’s people need to be characterized more by obedience than disobedience–otherwise how can we claim we believe Him? Because consistent disobedience is evidence of disbelief that He can govern our lives and solve our problems.
Help us come to genuine faith–really believe–in You; to conduct ourselves in reverent fear of You and with profound respect for You throughout the time of our stay on earth. Amen.