Judgment: doctrinal relic?

For some in the church today, the idea of a divine examination of one's life is negative, the antiquated legacy of an earlier age. In this view, judgment is nothing more than a welcome vindication of the saints.

B. Russell Holt is the executive editor of Ministry.

Not so many years ago most people accepted what the mayor said or the explanations of their boss. They believed nearly everything they read in the newspaper, and they certainly didn't question the positions put forth by their pastor.

Those days have vanished forever, along with Studebakers and the five-cent candy bar.

Conventional wisdom today expects little that is worthwhile from any human institution. Corporations are corrupt; politicians self-serving; the media biased. Even the church is suspect. And this cynicism is feeding (and, in turn, being fed by) a growing tide of individ ualism. One of modem society's most hallowed axioms at present is the per sonal freedom of the individual. Its rallying cry: "No one, no matter who he is, has the right to impose his standards or life style on another." Abortion? "Every woman should be able to do as she pleases with her own body!" Homosexu ality? "Personal preferences are not immoral just because they are different." There's no doubt about it—society today has little use for authority of almost any kind. We don't want anyone telling us what to do or calling our lives into question.

Somebody ought to study what con nection there might be between the prevailing attitudes of society at any particular time and the doctrinal, theo logical issues occupying the church's attention. Without any research at all to support me, I'm willing to offer my opinion that such a relationship exists. A case in point: the judgment.

I don't believe it is coincidental that we see a growing antipathy to the whole idea of judgment on the part of some within the church today. One symptom: we prefer the neutral term "pre-Advent judgment"; an "investigative" one sounds too much like divine scrutiny, and we don't want anyone scrutinizing our lives. The attitudes of society being what they are, I suppose we could hardly expect anything else. A comment in a recent Sabbath school class caused me to begin thinking about this parallel between the world's insistence that no one interfere with its freedom and the church's uneasiness with the idea of judgment. But it was a panel discussion on the topic of the judgment in an area Seventh-day Adventist church that really began to solidify the concept in my mind. When the panel members com pleted their presentations and the floor was opened up for questions and discus sion, I witnessed a continued attempt to eliminate the idea of judgment or at least to remove any negative connotations.

"God will never judge me," insisted one. "I judge myself by my response to the gospel."

"The people of God should welcome judgment," another observed. "Judg ment means vindication, not condem nation."

"How can we fit the idea of a judgment prior to the second coming of Christ into the picture of salvation through faith in the atonement at the cross?"

With one exception (an argument on the basis of 1 Corinthans 3:12-15 that the wicked will be reincarnated into sinless worlds for a second chance at salvation), I had to admit that I could partially agree with the positions being stated. There is a sense in which God merely ratifies the judgment I pass upon myself. There is a sense in which saints should not fear judgment, but welcome it. There is a sense in which salvation, assured at the cross, is not jeopardized by a later judgment. But the interesting thing to me was that no one on the floor seemed willing to recognize another side to the coin. There is a sense in which God definitely sits in judgment upon each individual's life. There is an awful solemnity and searching of soul in fear and trembling connected with the judg ment. There is a real possibility of salvation accepted becoming salvation neglected and rejected until the oncesaved individual is condemned in the judgment. Although panel members kept bringing in this corrective from time to time, the audience wasn't buying it. Judgment was either a joyful, wel come event or almost nonexistent.

Perhaps the attitude of judgment as only vindication is an overreaction to the idea of judgment as only condemna tion. Perhaps denying that God is judge reflects a repudiation of too many years of seeing God as nothing but judge. Per haps emphasizing a present, assured salvation is an attempt to correct a past emphasis on a salvation that was uncer tain and future. That's the way it is with us humans. We usually replace one extreme with another. And that's why we need to stay close to Scripture. No matter what attitudes society is embrac ing; no matter what gyrations the doctri nal pendulum has traced within the church, the message of Scripture remains the same.

Society may believe that it can avoid accountability by insisting on its free dom. But Christians, of all people, ought to realize that the Scriptures present a God who loves us too much to let us live as we please; who loves us too much not to discipline us for our sins and call us to account. The Bible presents a God who judges in love and mercy, whose purpose is ever to save rather than destroy, but who nonetheless judges accurately and with justice, and who will, with a breaking heart, condemn those who refuse to be drawn by His love and live in it. The apostle Peter puts it this way: "For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, . . . and spared not the old world, but saved Noah, . . . and turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes . . . delivered just Lot, . . . the Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of tempta tions, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished" (2 Peter 2:4-9).

If we will listen to its message—all its message—Scripture, like a divine com pass, will draw us back to the undeviating track of truth when we veer off in one direction or another. "And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left" (Isa. 30:21).—B.R.H.

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B. Russell Holt is the executive editor of Ministry.

February 1983

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