They say it again and again. It is everywhere. The regularity and consistency of the New Testament writers is amazing. Following the lead of Jesus Himself, they repeatedly say it. All of them tell us that what we do, or don’t do, in the here and now has a direct relationship on the outcome of our rewarding at the Judgment Seat of Christ. And what happens at the Judgment Seat determines much of the quality of life in the Messianic kingdom, and probably beyond.
As the writers of the New Testament spoke of godly, holy living in this present world culture, they consistently talked of the world to come. Keep an eye on the prize, they said. Don’t forget the Lord can come at any moment, they said. Books, like Hebrews, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, which normally are not viewed as eschatological writings, have powerful truths about what lies ahead for believers (and unbelievers). James is such a book. And in this brief study, we are going to look at three verses found in an unlikely place, in the middle of a discussion rebuking favoritism in the church body. Here are those verses.
“Listen, my beloved brethren, did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? (James 2:5)
“So speak and act, as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:12-13)
The Subject of James’ Teaching
In his very practical letter, James instructed these believers in Jesus to keep themselves uncontaminated by the culture (James 1:27). And, in objectifying this point, he told them that one way of doing this was to avoid favoritism among the body of believers. The culture (world) has always been characterized by prejudices and favoritism. It has taken many forms (as it still does today) and is a manifestation of fallen human nature and entrenched human arrogance. Prejudice helps people feel superior, enabling them to look down on others and to elevate themselves. In the Body of Christ (the church), where all are equal in their standing before God (Gal. 3:28), no such attitudes and displays are to exist. To do so is highly offensive both to the Lord and to fellow believers. But James startles us a bit by informing us that such prejudices in the church not only affect life in the church now, but it will affect our evaluation at the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ. In the three verses just given, James makes five significant points about this upcoming time of evaluation.
James’ 5 Points About Our Future Judgment
- Our coming evaluation is a certainty. James reminds us that we are “those who are to be judged” (James 2:12). Now, most of us know that this time is coming. But often that good, theological knowledge fails to impact us at this present moment. We are so used to hearing it that we cease to be guided by it. It is not that we no longer believe it is coming, but, perhaps, future truths seem such a long ways away. However, if the angel Gabriel informed us that Jesus was returning and His judgment seat was the day after tomorrow, it is pretty certain that no such theological lapse would be ours. You and I are going to be judged; maybe next Thursday?
- Our coming evaluation is based on the “law of liberty.” The standard for our evaluation will not be the Mosaic Law code, but rather the “law of liberty”. Previously (James 1:25) James spoke of the “law of liberty.” There he instructed believers to look carefully and seriously into it, as one might look when studying one’s image in a mirror. It is called a “law” in that it sets forth God’s perfect, complete standard for living life (cf. 2 Peter 1:3-4). And, this perfect standard, when obeyed, brings a wonderful freedom into the life of a person. Then in chapter 2, James lets us know that this “law of liberty” will, in fact, be the objective standard that Christ will use in evaluating how we have lived our lives. And we will be largely recompensed, or paid, on how closely we lived and served according to this “law” (2 Cor. 5:10). So, our obedience brings a wonderful kind of freedom now, and reward in the future at the Judgment Seat of the Lord Jesus. Time in the Word is vital to our understanding of the guiding principles and commands that our Lord Jesus has given to us.
- Our coming evaluation will scrutinize both our deeds and our words. It is our obedience to this “law of liberty” that will be of paramount importance. And all of life (since our regeneration) is evaluated. And that will include our words (which reveal our heart’s attitudes: Matt. 15:18-19) as well as our actions. So, we do well to be monitoring our speech as well as what we are doing. Giving our day, each day, to the superintending work of the Holy Spirit will give great help in keeping our words and our deeds lined up with perfect law of liberty.
- Our failure to show mercy to others now will impact us at this judgment. This is perhaps the most unique and profound contribution that James makes to the discussion of the judgment seat of Christ. All of us, as we really think about this coming judgment, are likely to be a bit unnerved by the exact nature of this time before Christ. Our failures are many. Our inconsistencies are abundant. Our hypocrisies haunt us. The one thing that we will want on that day is MERCY. We will want the Lord Jesus to withhold our deserved discipline. And, the good news is that mercy will be ours, IF WE HAVE SHOWN MERCY TO OTHERS. But apparently, it will not be ours if we haven’t been merciful to others (James 2:13). It is a sobering thought to anticipate strict judgment with no mercy attached to it. But mercy now towards others will carry us through that day. James seems to be reflecting the teachings of Jesus in passages like Matthew 5:7 and Matt. 18:23-25. All of us have received God’s amazing mercy as He forgave us our incredibly large debt; a debt that we could not pay. So, as Jesus explained, forgiveness is absolutely expected from those who have received God’s merciful forgiveness. It is wrong for we who have been shown great mercy to not extend that to others; and there are consequences for not doing that. And to this, the Apostle Paul agrees, as we are told that “just as” we have received God’s mercy, we are to extend it to others (Eph. 4:32). So, it is essential that today we: (1) deal with any leftover unforgiveness in our lives; extending forgiveness to any and all who have brought hurt into our lives, and (2) that we keep an eye on our present living with its stresses and conflicts. If someone has hurt, offended or dealt in a treacherous manner towards us, we are to forgive (show mercy). We will be most glad we did when we are at the judgment seat of Jesus.
- Our inheritance in the Messianic kingdom is determined at this judgment.
James points out (James 2:5) that there is an inheritance to those who love the Lord. There is a conditional aspect seen here. We must remember, that our love for the Lord is seen primarily in our obedience to Him (see Jesus’ point in John 14:21, 23; 15:9-10). There is a distinction which needs to be made regarding the matter of “inheritance.” When a person simply places their faith in Jesus (as the God-man who was raised from the dead and paid completely for all our sins), then they are guaranteed an inheritance in the future, forever kingdom of God (e.g. 1 Pet. 1:3-4; Gal. 3:29; 4:7). But throughout the Scriptures there is also another aspect of the future inheritance that is gained through good works and faithful endurance. It is, in the words of Paul (Col. 3:23-24), the reward consisting of the inheritance. This inheritance can be lost through unfaithfulness and fleshly living (e.g. Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). In James 2:5, it is the inheritance that can be gained or lost through our obedience and good works that James is referring to. To mix up these two aspects of inheritance leads to the idea that salvation can be lost (because inheritance and salvation are seen as the same thing). James is concerned that favoritism (prejudices) will cost them one aspect of their inheritance in Messiah’s kingdom.
There is simply no question that the New Testament writers consistently bring in prophetic themes when giving encouragement to believers as they purpose to live godly, fruitful lives in this darkened culture. They regularly remind us: He is coming and we are accountable.