How Can I Change?/Living for That Final Day
From Gospel Translations
When was the last time you heard a sermon about hell? Heaven is a much more popular subject, but even that is often ignored these days. The trend in contemporary preaching is to focus not on our eternal future, but on our current “felt needs.” And while such messages may succeed at drawing crowds, they fail to develop maturity and build the Church. Listen to this excellent observation by Darius Salter from his book What Really Matters in Ministry:
Lack of rootage in the eternal may be the greatest shortcoming in the evangelical preaching that attracts large numbers of people...The ultimate aim of preaching should not be accruing benefits in this life for parishioners but preparing individuals to stand in the presence of Christ. There is no greater goal or motivation than the knowledge that all of us are headed for eternity, and that shortly.
If anyone was rooted in and motivated by the eternal, it was Paul. Without disregarding the practical needs of those he served, he constantly drew their attention to the life that was to come. And he tells us why in his second letter to the Corinthians: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2Co 5:10).
This verse reveals one of Scripture’s most compelling —and most frequently overlooked—incentives for sanctification. It speaks of a day when we will be judged for the way we have lived in response to God’s grace. On the basis of that assessment, Christ will give each believer “what is due him.” One need not meditate for long on the implications of that verse to develop an appetite for godly living. We have one short life in which to determine our eternal rewards...or eternal loss. It’s this urgency Paul sought to impart to the churches he served.
Living by a Two-Day Calendar
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (Eph 4:1)
Every genuine Christian has received a calling from God. This call was conceived in eternity past. Before creating the world, God had already chosen us for himself (Eph 1:4). At the moment of our regeneration we experience the effect of that choice. This isn’t a result of human effort, nor is it a reward for good works—it is entirely a work of grace. And yet in response to God’s call we are responsible to live a certain way.
This is an often misunderstood point, so please follow carefully: We never were and never will be worthy of this call. Paul is not exhorting us somehow to qualify for our calling. That would be impossible and a denial of grace. He describes it to the Ephesians as a calling “you have received”—not something they had achieved. The “riches of God’s grace that he lavished upon us” (Eph 1:7-8) by way of election, adoption, redemption, and regeneration are unconditionally and freely given.
Every Christian needs to cultivate an assurance of and security in this calling. Yet it’s our privilege and responsibility to build on that foundation through the process of sanctification. As Paul said of himself, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect” (1Co 15:10). Having received a calling of which we were not worthy, we are now responsible to live worthy of that calling.
Paul lived with an intense awareness that each of us will one day stand before Christ to account for the way we have responded to his call. But to some this may seem like a contradiction. If Christ has forgiven us and accepts us, what’s this about judgment?
As Christians, we will not be judged for our sins on the day of judgment. Jesus Christ has already been judged in our place. Because of his substitutionary sacrifice on our behalf we have been saved from the wrath of God. “Since we have now been justified by [Christ’s] blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Ro 5:9; see also Ro 8:1).
But will we be judged for the works we have done—or left undone—since conversion? Definitely. Every one of us will give an account to God and have our lives evaluated. Paul presents this in vivid terms:
If any man builds on this foundation [Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work...If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1Co 3:12-13,15)
It’s critical that we grasp this distinction. Though our reconciliation to God has been secured, our rewards (or loss thereof) will be determined by the extent to which we’ve pursued godliness in response to his call. Not that God is obligated to reward us—this, too, is an act of sheer grace, as Jerry Bridges describes so well:
This is the amazing story of God’s grace. God saves us by his grace and transforms us more and more into the likeness of his Son by his grace. In all our trials and afflictions, he sustains and strengthens us by his grace. He calls us by grace to perform our own unique function within the Body of Christ. Then, again by grace, he gives to each of us the spiritual gifts necessary to fulfill our calling. As we serve him, he makes that service acceptable to himself by grace,and then rewards us a hundredfold by grace. But I think it’s safe to say that most Christians have the attitude, If I can just get past the box office I’ll be set for eternity. They assume everybody will wind up in “General Seating.” But that’s just not biblical. Scripture clearly teaches that rewards will vary. To overlook this truth is to neglect one of the main incentives for sanctification.
Martin Luther said there were only two days on his calendar: “today” and “that Day.” Each day brings us closer to that Day. It will be a day of unparalleled rejoicing as we see our Lord face to face. But it will also be a day of intense scrutiny and examination. And as Randy Alcorn explains, “It is we, by virtue of our hourly and daily choices, who will determine what transpires on that day.”
God will ask, “In light of the call you received, in light of the grace I extended despite your unworthiness, where did you invest your life? What were your priorities and values? Did you serve me or use me? Did you live a life worthy of your calling?” Again, our answers to those questions won’t determine our reconciliation to God, but they will have everything to do with whether or not we receive the rewards God so eagerly desires to give us.
Randy Alcorn writes about this rarely considered subject in his excellent book Money, Possessions and Eternity. I find his perspective extremely helpful and motivating:
Heaven will be a wonderful place. But what we seldom consider is that at the entry point to heaven Scripture plainly tells us there is a judgment of believers that will determine for all eternity our place or status in heaven...Scripture simply does not teach what most of us seem to assume—that heaven will transform each of us into equal beings with equal possessions and equal responsibilities and equal capacities. It does not say our previous lives will be of no eternal significance. It says exactly the opposite...
We have been given fair warning that there lies ahead for each of us, at the end of the term, a final examination. It will be administered by the fairest yet strictest Headmaster in the universe. How seriously we take this clear teaching of Scripture is demonstrated by how seriously we are preparing for that day.
When we took courses in college we asked ourselves and others about the teacher: “What are his tests like? Does he take attendance? Is he a hard grader? What does he expect in your papers?” If I’m to do well in the course, I must know what the instructor expects of me. We must study the course syllabus, God’s Word, to find out the answers to these questions. And when we find out, we should be careful to plot our lives accordingly—in light of the long tomorrow.
Our Lord’s return was a day Paul eagerly anticipated. So should we. Secure in the fact that we stand justified in his sight, we should devote ourselves to the good works he has prepared beforehand, fulfilling his eternal purpose in the context of the local church. Then we’ll be able to share Paul’s confidence that “there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day” (2Ti 4:8). But crowns come at a cost. Paul had lived worthy of his calling. Let’s now look at someone who did not.
The Wisest Fool
It can be quite sobering to examine the private lives of prominent figures. After studying one hundred of the most well-known leaders in Scripture, author Robert Clinton found that fewer than 25% of them finished life’s course with their reputation and leadership intact. Perhaps the most tragic of those failures was Solomon.
Solomon started off with such potential and promise. Soon after his birth, the prophet Nathan announced that God had a specific and special name for him: Jedidiah, meaning “loved by God” (2Sa 12:25). Every time someone used his special nickname it was a fresh reminder of God’s affection. (You can guess that Solomon’s brothers and sisters at times found it difficult growing up with him.)
As David’s successor, Solomon inherited the throne of a thriving kingdom. Initially he displayed genuine humility. One night after he sacrificed a thousand burnt offerings, God appeared to him in a dream and said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon, aware of his limitations as well as his responsibilities, responded, “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties...So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?” (1Kings 3:7-9). God was so pleased with the request that he promised to make Solomon the wisest man (other than Jesus) in history and to prosper and honor him above all other kings. With God’s anointing, Solomon was able to lead Israel into unprecedented and unparalleled prosperity.
But in the final analysis, Solomon squandered his call. How unprepared we are for Scripture’s final assessment of his life:
The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord...So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.” (1Kings 11:9,11)
What happened? How could a man with Solomon’s unique calling bring upon himself such strong discipline? The Bible doesn’t leave us speculating: “His heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1Ki 11:4). Though loved, called, and uniquely gifted by God, Solomon developed a pattern of disobedience that led to his gradual, spiritual deterioration. He failed to heed his own wise counsel: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Pr 4:23).
In the mercy of God, Solomon repented before he died. But God’s forgiveness couldn’t relieve the agony of regret as he pondered what his life could and should have been.
His reflections are recorded in the Book of Ecclesiastes,the painful memoirs of an old man who realized much of his life had been spent in vain. Rather than live worthy of his calling, Solomon pursued every form of personal pleasure (Ecc 2:10) and found it failed to deliver as advertised. There is much we can learn from his final words:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecc 12:13-14)
As Solomon prepared to die, I believe he was painfully aware he would not hear the words, “Well done.” Only those who have done well will. But his life has been preserved as a warning so that we might avoid a similar experience. There is no reason for us to end our lives with regret. By committing our lives to the process of sanctification, we can prove to be wiser than Solomon.
How to Ask the Right Questions
One day we will stand before God—not as a group, but alone. He will then evaluate all that’s transpired in our lives since conversion. Scripture gives us a preview of that moment: “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God” (1Co 4:5).
To make this possible, he has called us and regenerated us, prepared good works for us to walk in, and placed us in the local church where we can apply and obey biblical teaching. However, we must be aware that he is a just God...and an objective grader. When that day comes, there will be no second opportunity.
History tells us of an individual who did receive a second chance. Randy Alcorn relates the story:
Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist who made his fortune by inventing dynamite and other powerful explosives, which were bought by governments to produce weapons. When Nobel’s brother died, one newspaper accidentally printed Alfred’s obituary instead. He was described as a man who became rich from enabling people to kill each other in unprecedented quantities. Shaken from this assessment, Nobel resolved to use his fortune to reward accomplishments that benefited humanity, including what we now know as the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nobel had a rare opportunity—to look at the assessment of his life at its end, but to still be alive and have opportunity to change that assessment.
Let us put ourselves in Nobel’s place. Let us read our own obituary, not as written by uninformed or biased men, but as an onlooking angel might write it from heaven’s point of view. Look at it carefully. Then let us use the rest of our lives to edit that obituary into what we really want it to be.
Editing our obituaries begins with the willingness to ask some penetrating questions. In fact, every day of our lives should be marked by probing biblical assessment:
“Is my knowledge of and passion for God growing?”
“Am I regularly practicing the spiritual disciplines?”
“Can others confirm that I’m growing in character?”
“Am I committed and serving in the local church?”
“Is this activity worthy of the call I have received?”
“What am I doing that’s making an eternal difference?”
No decision or activity should be exempt from this kind of questioning. “The reality of our eternal future should dominate and determine the character of our present life, right down to the words we speak and the actions we take,” writes Alcorn. If God is going to evaluate every aspect of our lives, so should we. This will transform the way we view work, leisure, church involvements, and relationships. And it will insure that a lot less goes up in flames on that final day.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb 10:24-25). I trust this chapter has enabled you to see the Day that is inevitably approaching. And we pray this book has encouragedand provoked you in the process of sanctification.
It’s not an easy way you have chosen. Sanctification will be difficult, challenging, and painful—though nothing like the pain of God’s disapproval. But when the Day comes and you hear God say, “Well done,” all sacrifice will pale in light of your eternal reward. Compared to that, nothing else really matters.
- Darius Salter writes, “The preacher who best equips his hearers to cope with the pressures of American society may not be the preacher who best prepares his people for heaven.” Divide the group into two parts: the “Earthly Minded” and the “Heavenly Minded.” Let each group come up with three relevant sermon titles which reflect its perspective, and then compare notes.
- How can we show God we are worthy of his calling? (Warning: This is a trick question.)
- Should we be afraid to appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ?
- Before reading this chapter, did you think everybody in heaven would wind up in “General Seating”? Explain.
- What’s the difference between pursuing rewards and trying to earn our salvation?
- Is it sub-spiritual to be motivated by rewards?
- What were the highlights of your obituary? (Page 90)
- How are you going to respond to this chapter?
Money, Possessions and Eternity by Randy Alcorn (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989)
- ↑ Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989), pp. 138, 139.
- ↑ Darius Salter, What Really Matters in Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), pp. 123, 124.
- ↑ Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress,1991), pp. 169-170.
- ↑ J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, Volume 3: The Church, the Kingdom, and Last Things (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), p. 457.
- ↑ Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity, p. 151.
- ↑ Ibid.
- ↑ Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity, pp. 144, 149, 150-51.
- ↑ Jonathan Edwards—Representative Selections, with Introduction, Bibliography, and Notes, Clarence H. Faust and Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, revised edition, 1962), p. 38.
- ↑ David Powlison, “Crucial Issues in Contemporary Biblical Counseling” in Journal of Pastoral Practice, Vol. IX, No. 3, 1988, p. 61.
- ↑ Randy Alcorn, Money, Possessions and Eternity, p. 151.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 139.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 137.
- ↑ Darius Salter, What Really Matters in Ministry, p. 121.