I've gotten several comments over the years about not losing sight of the whole principle of human responsibility when I talk about Divine sovereignty. That's a fair criticism in one sense, we are absolutely responsible in our behaviour down here, and we all will be manifest at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
On the other hand, I've been very aware that the Gospel is a message of pure grace. God, who justifies the ungodly, freely justifies all who believe from all things (Acts 13:38--39, Romans 4:5). Our Christian life begins and ends with God's sovereign grace. He acts toward us the way He wants to, with no consideration for what we earn. This is, after all, pretty much the definition of grace.
In my experience, there is a real fear of grace among Christians. It's almost like they're afraid that if we give the Gospel as Scripture gives it, people will see that as a license to sin. And I suppose that's true in some sense: Romans 6 begins with the question, if we really believe that grace over-abounds where sin abounds, why not just live in sin and get more grace? (Romans 6:1).
But if we don't teach the Gospel as Scripture teaches it, we're not doing anyone any favours. The danger that someone might see the Gospel as license to sin (and it's not really hypothetical: there are plenty of people who do just that) doesn't give us the right to fall short on giving God the glory for who He is. We're really casting aspersion on the Person and Work of Christ if we don't teach a complete, full, free, and abounding forgiveness of all our sins.
But Scripture goes on from the Gospel to teach a human responsibility as well. Yes, we can just go out and sin, but we shouldn't. Why not? Well, there are a few reasons:
- because we're dead to sin (Romans 6)
- because the one who sins becomes a slave to sin (Romans 6:15--18)
- because we weren't saved from sin just to dive back into it (Colossians 3:1--17, 1 Thessalonians 4:1--7)
- because we're to walk worthy of our high calling (Ephesians 4:1--3)
- because we're to represent Christ on earth (John 17:13--21)
- because we're called to come into God's presence as worshipers, and sin can't come in there with us (Hebrews 10:19--22)
- because we all must appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ to give an account for the deeds done in our bodies (2 Corinthians 5:9--11)
- because we are subject to the discipline of our Father (Hebrews 12:5--13), and the discipline of the assembly (1 Corinthians 5)
As much as we don't believe it, God's desire for us to walk free from sin is for our own good. Sin has a corrosive affect on us: it rots our souls. When we play fast and loose with sin, we're not escaping the consequence it has on us. When we sin, we become a slave to sin. Sin damages the one sinning as much as it damages the one(s) sinned against. But this is not always easy to believe: it seems pretty abstract.
But there's more than just the Father's desire for the best for His children: there is also the principle of God's government.
The whole issue of government is that God has created the heavens, the earth, and everything in them. He asserts His rights as Creator to be honoured in and by His creatures. And it's important to understand the God's government is quite a distinct thing from His saving sinners. I don't mean to say they're quite separate, but they're certainly not the same thing. God saves individual sinners, and has in all ages. He came and found Adam when he sinned, He saved Abel, and He is still saving sinners. And He's going to be saving sinners right up until the end.
And God only saves sinners on the principle of grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8--9). That's the plain teaching of Romans 4. Neither Abraham (without Law) nor David (under Law) were justified by works: they were both justified by faith (Romans 5:1). Sinners from Adam until the end are justified by faith on the principle of grace. This is the only saving principle: the principle of God's giving freely, looking for nothing to recommend us to Him. There is no other way a sinner could possibly be justified. If God were to act on any other principle, there would be no one justified, because we are all hopelessly lost. Only God acting in His own character and on the principle of what He is, with no regard to what we are, can possibly reach someone as lost as we all are.
But the other, parallel truth is that God will be vindicated in His creation. He will eventually have all creation bow to Him (Philippians 2:9--11; 1 Corinthians 15:20--28; Hebrews 2:5--9). So a day will come when there will be judgment, when God will judge the world through Christ Jesus (Acts 17:30--32).
When Paul preached judgment to the Athenians, he spoke in general terms of one day; but if we're to examine Scripture on the subject, we find that there are several judgments that are coming:
- the judgment of the dead at the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11--15)
- the judgment of believers at Christ's seat (2 Corinthians 5:9--11)
- the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31--46)
- the judgment of the Church (Revelation 2--3)
- the judgment of Babylon (Revelation 18)
So when the Lord Jesus said that the one who doesn't believe will not come into judgment (John 5:24), we understand that He was talking about a specific judgment; because Scripture teaches that even "we" (that is, believers) will appear before Christ on His judgment seat. In fact, the Lord Jesus was specifically talking about the judgment of condemnation. There is no condemnation to the one who believes (Romans 8:1). But there is a judgment not to condemnation: this is the judgment of His servants. This isn't a criminal judgment, it's the assessment of the Christian life. As I understand it, there is no possibility of our sins coming up at that judgment, because Christ has taken them away. They're gone forever from God's sight. The one who believes is one to whom God does not at all reckon sin (Romans 4:6--8). If God does not at all reckon sin to me, then they certainly won't be brought up at Christ's judgment seat. But He will judge the life I've lived: there will be a judgment of the deeds done in the body. As someone else has said, it's very possible to have a saved soul and a lost life. It's possible to be justified once-for-all, with no fear of condemnation, but then to squander our life, having nothing to show for it when we are manifested before Christ.
So there is a sense where all will meet Christ in judgment. Those who believe will meet Him at the judgment seat of Christ, those who don't will meet Him in the second resurrection (Revelation 20:11--15).
Now, God's purpose is to see all men honour the Son (John 5:21--23), and then the Son will subject all things to God. The subjection of all to the Son is inevitable: either you can bow now, or you can bow then. If we don't bow now, when we have a choice; then we'll be made to bow then, when we won't.
But aside even from every creature bowing, there is the whole purpose of God in human government over the earth. It is not the God deals with men only as individuals, He also deals with groups. This is really the whole point of Revelation 18: God is judging not the individuals, but the system they set up. Similarly, there is a judgment of the Church in Revelation 2--3. This isn't the judgment seat of Christ, this is the judgment of the Church in her responsibility as the habitation of God on earth. It's not individual, it's corporate.
Where God has put His creatures in a place of responsibility, He will judge them with respect to that responsibility. This isn't a matter of eternal salvation only, but a matter of God's character. God is Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), and He must be seen to be just. So He will come and require an account of His creatures in the responsibilities He has given them.
Notice, this is all quite aside from the consequences of our sins. In addition to the governmental issues of God, there is the very real fact that our actions (and words and thoughts) matter: they produce effects. If a true believer were to go out and murder someone, he or she is justified freely from it: God won't hold that sin against him or her. But the murder victim is still dead. Similarly, if a true believer were to go out and fornicate, he or she might end up with some gnarly disease. This isn't God's punishment for that sin, it's just the way the world works. God has created this world to be an orderly machine: when you push something it generally moves; when you drop something it falls. Our actions have consequences: those aren't God's judgment, they're just the rules of this creation.
Sadly, a lot of Christians have used the term "consequence" as a euphemism for "punishment", and that has led to some heretical and even blasphemous teachings. Consequences aren't imposed by God, they're just what happen as a result of our actions.
Now, in addition to consequences, there is God's discipline (Hebrews 12:5--13). We notice the Scripture doesn't teach that there is discipline for our sins: Christ has born the punishment for our sins, and God doesn't at all reckon sin to those He has justified. Discipline is what God does because of what we are, not what we have done. Consider Job: the Scripture insists that Job didn't sin (Job 1:22), even when Satan attacked him. It wasn't that Job was sinning, it was that Job was a sinner. So when God came and spoke to Job, Job began to understand who God is, " I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee: Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes." (Job 42:5--6, JND). God's discipline on Job wasn't a result of Job sinning, it was a result of His desire to reveal Himself to Job, and a desire to reveal Job's own faults (not sins, faults) to himself.
It is a frequent misunderstanding that God disciplines us for a specific sin we've committed. That is really a denial of the Gospel. Discipline isn't about our sins but our sin. It's about God molding us, shaping us, and making us into what He wants us to be.
There's a whole lot more we could say about God's government in our lives, just like we could say more about His grace: I've already written a lot more than I'd intended. But when we consider God's ways with us, it's helpful not to conflate ideas that are really distinct. The principles on which God acts aren't always revealed the same way: there are different aspects to God's dealings. And the consequences of our confounding them can be much greater than we realize.
The Judge of all the earth does what's right. We ought not to lose sight of that as we bask in His grace. Indeed, it's because we recognize what He is, and what we are, that we understand something of His grace.