Here Comes the Judge: Bad News for Modern Man
August 23, 1998
“Now this matter is between me, the two people I love most—my wife and our daughter—and our God.” Those are the words of President Bill Clinton as he addressed the nation last Monday night.
Roger Simon is a veteran reporter and columnist. In his weekly column for America Online, he offered the following analysis of the President’s words: “I don’t know what Clinton means by that, but I do know one thing: You can lie to your wife, you can lie to your daughter, you can lie to a whole country. But you can’t lie to God. And I just hope that since Clinton found it necessary to invoke His name, he at least comes clean with Him.”
That last phrase caught my eye: “I just hope … he at least comes clean with God.” What do those words mean? And how do we know if a person has come clean with God? Here is my answer. Coming clean with God means …
A) Being totally honest about your sin—both in depth and in extent
B) Asking for forgiveness from God and from those you have harmed
C) Refusing to make excuses or to blame others for your sin
D) Accepting without complaint the consequences of your sin
E) Doing whatever it takes to win the trust of those you have hurt
F) Glorifying God for both his judgment and his mercy
G) Teaching others the lessons you have learned
In case you are wondering, I didn’t make up that list on my own. It comes from the words of King David in Psalm 51 as he poured out his heart to God. If you want to know what coming clean with God looks like, read these words carefully.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge. Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. … Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me” (Psalm 51: 1-7, 10).
I submit to you that these are the words of a man thoroughly broken by his own disobedience. I will let you be the judge as to how well they fit what the President said last Monday night.
Why does it matter that the President—or any of us—should come clean with God? Of all the answers that might be given, the most basic one is this: There is coming a day of judgment when we will stand before God to give an account of everything we have said and done. If we do not deal with our sin now, we will have to answer for it then. And as painful as it may be to deal with our sins today, it will be infinitely worse to stand before a holy God with our sins unforgiven.
As Paul neared the end of his sermon on Mars Hill, he called on his hearers to repent of their sin and turn to God for forgiveness. He enforced this call to repentance by a sobering reminder of the future day of judgment facing the whole human race: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). In 1945 Professor Wilbur Smith—who taught for years at Moody Bible Institute and later at Fuller Theological Seminary—published a massive book (called Therefore Stand) based on Paul’s sermon to the men of Athens. In it he devotes an entire chapter to this one verse. His title tells the whole story: “A Righteous Judgment to Come: the Apologetic for This Time of Disappearing Ethical Standards.” As I read that chapter this week, the thought occurred to me that if he thought ethical standards were disappearing in 1945, what would he say in 1998?
Judgment, An Inescapable Fact of Life
The word “judge” comes from a Greek verb which means to divide or to separate. In everyday language it means to render a verdict on the behavior of another person. This happens every day in courtrooms around the world as a judge listens to the evidence on both sides and then renders a verdict. It also happens in families as parents lay down rules for their children and then enforce them with rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It happens in classrooms as teachers give tests and then assign grades based on classroom performance. It happens in the workplace as corporate policies are enforced and workers are promoted or punished based on their behavior.
We pass judgment whenever we decide that something is good—and something else is bad. We judge when we choose one person more qualified than another. We judge when we declare that certain things are right and other things are wrong. We pass judgment every time we make a moral choice to do this and not to do that.
Judgment in one form or another is inescapable in this life. The Bible tells us that it is also inescapable in the next: “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 NKJV). Note that the word “appointed” applies to both phrases. We are “appointed” to die and we are “appointed” to face God’s judgment. No one can escape death and no one can escape the day of final judgment.
With that as background, we turn now to consider our text—Acts 17:31. From this one verse we discover five fundamental facts about the final judgment.
I. The Certainty of the Final Judgment
“For he has set a day.” God has set a certain day—known only to him—a specific moment in time when the final judgment will begin. 1) This means it is bound to happen. 2) This means it cannot be avoided. 3) This means no one can know in advance when the day will come.
Why does it matter that there be a “day” of judgment? I offer two answers to that question:
a) So that God can set right the wrongs that seem to go unpunished in this life. So many tragedies have no simple explanation: Children killed … Police officers slain in the line of duty … Drunken drivers who hit and run … Dishonest politicians who rise to power … Dope dealers who peddle crack cocaine like candy on the street corners … Deadbeat fathers who skip town … Adulterers who cheat on their spouses and never get caught … Christians murdered in Sudan … Terrorists who blow up embassies … Vile predators who lure children into pornography … The list goes on and on and on.
There must be a final judgment so that these wrongs can be put right and evildoers punished forever.
b) So that God can be vindicated as being right in all his ways. In this life we often question what God does because we see only part of his plan. Who can deny that sometimes God seems to “overlook” sin and let transgressors get away with murder? If God is a just God, why doesn’t he punish sin all the time—and do it immediately? There are many possible answers to that question, but at the heart of it all is a mystery hidden beyond our view. Sometimes we simply don’t know why God does what he does.
Back to Psalm 51 for a moment. As David considered his own sin—and how God had dealt with him—he declared of the Lord that “you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:4). Remember what David had done. He committed adultery with Bathsheba, tried to cover it up, had Uriah her husband killed on the battlefield, and then married the woman. It appeared to be a perfect plan—until Bathsheba turned up pregnant. Now the truth could not be denied. Later the baby conceived in adultery died as part of God’s judgment on David’s sin. As he thought about his sin and the consequences, David concluded that God was right to do what he had done. Here is true repentance—when a man accepts God’s judgment as justified in every respect.
As a pastor I often hear a story like this. A woman says that her husband has been cheating on her by sleeping with other women. Eventually he divorces her so he can continue on his path of promiscuity. Her question is very simple. Why does God let him get away with it? Why does he do wrong and seem so happy while I’m left to pick up the pieces? The answer must be that in the end the man will deeply regret his actions. If not in this life, certainly he will regret it when he stands before the Lord.
There must be a final judgment so that God can be vindicated. In that day the whole universe will see that God is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.
II. The Scope of the Final Judgment
“When he will judge the world.” Note that the word for “world” is not the normal Greek word kosmos. It’s another word that means “the whole inhabited earth.” Thus the final judgment will be absolutely universal. All men and all women of all time will face that final judgment and no one will escape.
Recently we’ve been reading about an accused killer who is believed to be hiding out in the rugged mountains of western North Carolina. Although hundreds of law enforcement officers have combed the region, somehow he has eluded their grasp. I do not know if the man will ever be caught, but if he manages to stay ahead of the law, he can’t hide from God. If he doesn’t face justice in this life, he’ll definitely face it in the next. God’s judgment is universal and cannot be avoided.
III. The Standard of the Final Judgment
“With justice.” Some translations use the word “righteousness” but the meaning is the same. God’s standard of judgment will be his own absolute justice. This is truly bad news for sinners. If you’d like to do a fascinating Bible study, take your concordance and check out the words “judge” and “judgment.” It’s amazing how many times the concept of righteousness is joined with those two words. It’s as if God wants us to be absolutely clear that when he judges us, he won’t use fallible human standards.
This means there will be no special pleading in that day. No stopping the testimony. No refusing to answer questions. No blaming of others. No claiming that you are “legally accurate” but only misleading. You won’t be able to blame the special prosecutor because there will be no one else to blame.
Whenever we think of God’s righteous judgment, we tend to go to one of two extremes. Both must be avoided.
a) God is not capricious or arbitrary. Many people view God as some kind of angry deity with a handful of lightning bolts, just looking for a chance to zap someone and send them straight to hell. That’s not true at all. I can promise you that when you stand before God, you’ll get a fair deal. No one will go to hell who doesn’t deserve to be there.
b) God is not a doddering old man who can be conned. Here’s the other side of the truth. Some people think they are so slick that they will be able to talk their way into heaven—or at least talk their way out of hell. They are wrong on both counts. He’s not fooled by smooth words and phony excuses.
The moral situation in our nation is truly grave. Today men and women …