What is the "it" we confess?
Well, in the Apostles’ Creed, we claim to believe that the risen and ascended Jesus will one day “come again to judge the living and the dead.”
In the Nicene Creed, we say that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end.”
Lutheran Christians have always accepted the historic creeds as faithful expressions of, not just belief, but of essential truth revealed to the world by God. And that includes their assertion that one day Jesus Christ will return to judge every human being.
Today, as we continue to consider what it means to be a Lutheran Christian, we look at the topic of Article 16 of The Augsburg Confession, “Christ’s Return for Judgment.” The first paragraph of the article says:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that at the end of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will raise all the dead....He will give the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but He will condemn ungodly people and the devils to be tormented without end...For those who seek to bring God under human authority or subject Christ to their own preferences, the very notion that Jesus Who made Himself our servant and bore our sin on the cross is going to one day send some people to hell is disagreeable. "All because they don’t believe in Jesus?" they wonder. “That’s awfully arbitrary,” a woman said to me once.
But I couldn’t help but wonder if she also thought it arbitrary of God to extend the possibility of forgiveness and new life to sinners who deserve condemnation and death.
If you and I are willing to accept the Jesus Who is so arbitrary that He offers eternity as a free and undeserved gift to all who turn from sin and believe in Him, we must also be willing to accept the Jesus Who acquiesces to the desires of some for lives without Him. There will come a point when Jesus will accept that as people's final answer to Him.
But should we fear judgment day? What will it be like?
Please turn to the passage that the Confession mentions first, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:2.
Paul wrote the letter from which these verses come to the Christians living in a place called Thessalonica, a Greek city set on the Aegean Sea. He wrote it in about 51 AD.
The Thessalonian Christians were disappointed, less then twenty years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, that the Lord hadn’t yet returned to bring His new creation to its final, eternal fulfillment.
In the meantime, believers had died. What, the surviving Christians wondered, would happen to those who had already passed away if they weren’t around when Jesus returned to this world?
Paul sought to calm their fears. He writes: “...I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.”
Paul is saying that the deaths of believers will bring grief to those who loved them as surely as the deaths of non-believers bring grief to their loved ones. But, he’s saying, if the one you loved was a believer in Jesus, there will also be hope in your grief, the hope of living eternally with a Savior Who conquered sin, death, and the devil for those who believe in Him!
That’s why Paul writes what he does next: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.” (In other words, those who died believing in Christ will be raised at the moment of Jesus’ return and they too will witness Jesus’ return.)
Then, Paul describes what will happen on the day of Christ's return. “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with a trumpet of God. [There will be no mystery about it when Jesus returns. He won’t show up incognito. The whole human population, Christians and non-Christians will hear it and see it at the moment He makes His appearance.]
"Then [Paul goes on] we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
What Paul is trying to convey here is not what some people refer to as a rapture, but a reunion between Christ and His people.
After telling the Thessalonians to comfort one another with his words, he goes on: “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you.” In this, Paul reflects Jesus’ words to His apostles when speaking of the day when He returns and judges the living and the dead: No one knows when it will happen. And anyone who claims they do is lying.
In fact, Christ's return will come perhaps when the world least expects it, when most of its inhabitants have no thought of Christ. Paul says, “that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”
But what will Jesus be judging on judgment day?
Jesus will be judging one thing. One thing only. It’s this: Do we have faith? That means...
- Do we trust Jesus?
- Have we trusted Him enough to confess our sins in His Name?
- Have we trusted in Him enough to confess our doubts about Him?
- Have we trusted in Him enough to let Him lead and direct us through His Word, found in the Bible, even when where He leads isn’t where we want to go and what He directs us to do is the last thing we want to do?
- Have we wanted Jesus even when we wandered down the blind alley of sin?
Faith is that gift we receive as we openly take the Word of God about Jesus Christ and the Sacraments of the Church. The just--the people made right with God--live by faith, the Bible tells us (Habakkuk 2:4, Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 10:38).
In Matthew 24:13, Jesus tells us how powerful this faith is within the context of talking about the day when He returns to the world: “...the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
What does it mean to endure in our faith in Christ?
There are superstars like Paul and Peter, Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie ten-Boom and Mother Teresa to inspire us with their enduring faith, of course. Despite persecution, sometimes in spite of their own doubts, they endured in trusting in Christ.
They kept heeding the Word about new life for all who believe in Jesus Christ, even when sin, death, and the devil accosted them.
But I want to hold up a different saint as an example of faith to you right now. You don’t know her. In fact, I’m not even going to use her real name. She was a member of one of my former parishes.
Joan had been afflicted with a disease that had kept her from doing many of the ordinary things people do in life since she was a teenager. But she had married. She had become a mother. She had become a grandmother.
But now, at just age 54, she was about to lose her life. Her hospital room was dark the day I visited her because any light seemed to cause her pain and she never opened her eyes. She barely had the strength to speak.
“Oh, pastor,” she told me, “I’m afraid to die. It’s not the dying that frightens me. It’s just that I’m an awful sinner.”
Now, we all know that all sins are violations of God’s holiness. In the eyes of a holy God, every sin we commit--from failing to keep a day for Him to taking His Name in vain, from stealing to gossiping, from sexual intimacy outside of marriage to murder--is equally damning.
But as I sat with Joan, I felt certain of two things.
First, I was certain that she was a sinner, just like me. Just like you.
And second, I felt certain that only a person who recognizes their sin and realizes how wonderful the God we know in Jesus Christ receives the forgiveness for sin God offers to those who repent and believe Christ.
As gently as I could, I asked, “Joan, do you remember what Jesus told Nicodemus? He said, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.’”
“Do you believe in Jesus?” I asked Joan. A tear poured down one of her cheeks and she said, “Yes.”
I tried to assure Joan that soon, she would see Jesus face to face.
To many of us, the biggest mystery about God is this: He has saved unworthy sinners like us.
It does show how gracious God is. But, you know what? We need to get over thoughts like that. They’re too much about us. We need to focus on Christ instead.
Even if you and I found a way to go through a single day without sinning, we still wouldn’t deserve forgiveness or eternity. In my natural inborn self, I’m a sinner who deserves death.
Thank God that on judgment day, I will not be judged for whom I am, but for Who Jesus Christ is and that, through faith in Him, He has come to live in me.
Please look Galatians 2:20. Paul writes there: “I have been crucified [that is my old sinful self] with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Martin Luther had this passage in mind when he spoke of how he dealt with the devil's temptations to sin. When Luther sensed the devil tempting him, knocking on the door of his heart, Luther didn't dare go to to the door. Instead, he sent Jesus to answer for him. Luther sensed Jesus telling the devil, "Martin Luther doesn't live here any more. I do. Now go to where you belong!"
Listen, Lutherans: Your old sinful self died at Baptism. A new self, your Christ self, rose then.
People can commit spiritual suicide as surely as they commit physical suicide, of course. They can walk away from Christ and His promises as I did when I was an atheist. Had I died in those years, Christ would have respected my preferences and allowed me to enter eternity without Him.
But if you and I keep holding onto Jesus, I can assure you that when we are genuinely repentant for sin, on the day of Christ’s return, God the Father will look not on us as the sinners we are. Instead, He will only see Jesus Christ living in us.
God makes of every person who repents and believes in Christ another Christ--a "little Christ," as Luther put it, another child of God, each with our own personalities and gifts, but each surrendered to the God Who made us and loves them, who pray with Jesus, “nonetheless, Father, not my will, but Your will be done.”
God covers the sins of those who believe in Christ with the grace and forgiveness of Christ and imbues our lives with Christ-like purposes and pursuits.
And as we keep repenting and keep believing, the old sinner is drowned all over again in our baptismal waters and the new self is enlivened again by the Word of God and sustained again by Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion.
First John 3:2 says, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed [in other words, when Jesus returns to judge the living the dead], we shall be like Him...”
We will be just like Jesus, fit for eternity, not because we did good or holy deeds, but because, like Joan, we held onto the promise of forgiveness and new life God makes to those who turn their backs on sin, death, and the devil and keep on following Jesus, when their faith is weak and when their faith is strong.
At the day of judgment, all who have endured in following Jesus will hear Jesus tell them--you who believe in Jesus will hear Him tell you: “Enter the joy of your Master.”
Could there possibly be better words than those to hear? If there are, I can’t imagine what they might be!
This week, ask God to give you the chance to share the good news of Jesus Christ with every person you can, to invite them to worship and study and pray with you, to ask them how, as a believer in Jesus, you can help them. Do those things, I beg you, so that everyone you know or love will come to believe in Jesus and hear those same words on judgment day that you want to hear: "Enter the joy of your Master!” Amen!
[This was shared during both of this morning's worship services at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]
After this morning's early service at Saint Matthew, I was asked what happened to Christians when they die: do they sleep until the resurrection or do they go immediately into the presence of God? The answer, I think is, "Yes." I talk about this question in this blog post from 2008, Where Do We Go When We Die?