Here Comes the Judge: Bad News for Modern Man

Acts 17:31

"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 …

· Revolt against the moral law of God

· Laugh at biblical truth

· Demand freedom to engage in all manner of evil

· Claim a leader’s private life doesn’t matter

· Promote tolerance as the highest virtue

· Call moral standards restrictive and narrow

· Deride those who teach biblical truth as narrow-minded bigots

· Throw off every restraint on personal behavior

But let the word go out to all the world. There is a God in heaven whose ways are righteous altogether. Nothing escapes his gaze. He is more than a God of love; he is also a holy God of righteous judgment. It is time for men and women to wake up to the truth that God is righteous, his laws are righteous, that he demands righteousness, that he sent his righteous Son to save us, and that only through faith in Jesus Christ can we find the righteousness he demands.

An hour is coming when each of us will stand before God the righteous Judge. What will happen to you then?

IV. The Judge at the Final Judgment

“By the man he has appointed.” Paul uses two phrases to describe Christ, both worth noticing. 1) He calls him “the man,” emphasizing his humanity. God could have appointed an angel but then someone could object that an angel doesn’t understand what it means to be human. But Jesus lived for 33 years on this earth and knows what it means to be one of us. He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. Sometimes we use the phrase “been there, done that” to convey that our experience in a given area is complete. With regard to living on this earth, Jesus could truly say “been there, done that.”

The Greeks put great store in the concept of the “ideal man"—one who represents the very best that man can be. They believed that through the study of philosophy, you could gain the virtue needed to approach that perfect ideal. Paul tells the Athenians that Jesus is “the man"—the ideal man who embodied in himself the perfection they were seeking. Because he is “the man,” he is fully qualified to be our judge.

We fear human judgment because no one else can fully understand our predicament or why we do what we do. “You just don’t understand,” we say. Or “Try walking a mile in my shoes.” We believe that no one is fully qualified to stand in judgment on our behavior. And it’s true that no mere mortal can truly judge our motives—much less every word we say or every deed we perform.

When we try to judge each other we make many mistakes because man looks on the outside but God looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). What we need is someone who truly knows what we have been through who can also see into our hearts. Such a man would be truly qualified to be our judge. We have such a man. His name is Jesus. Because he was a man, he knows what we are going through. Because he is God, he can see into every human heart with infallible vision.

2) And he is not just any man, he is the man God appointed―meaning he is divinely ordained to this task. Today he is appointed as your Savior, tomorrow he will be appointed as your Judge. If you do not want him as your Savior, then you will face him as your judge. What will you do then?

When we go to court, we rarely know in advance who the judge will be. That’s crucial because we all know that some judges are lenient and others are tough. When we come to the final judgment, we don’t need to wonder who the judge will be. God has already appointed Jesus Christ. And he will judge with perfect justice.

V. The Guarantee of a Final Judgment

“He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” How do we know there will be a final judgment and how do we know that Jesus will be the judge? Paul responds by pointing to the empty tomb. This answers the question regarding the qualification of Jesus to judge the entire world. He is qualified by virtue of his Incarnation, and his Incarnation is conclusively demonstrated by his Resurrection. He is the Man from heaven who came back from the dead. No one else could ever make that claim. He alone is worthy to stand in judgment over the human race.

Some Parting Thoughts

Let me return for a moment to the speech President Clinton made last Monday night. In claiming his right of privacy, he invoked the name of God. I do not doubt his sincerity in wanting to forestall further public discussion of his behavior. On the other hand, I agree with Roger Simon that if he is going to use the name of God, we can only hope he comes clean with him. For it is indeed true that you can’t lie to God. He was never fooled—not even for a moment.

1) I believe the doctrine of a coming final judgment must be rediscovered in our day. Too many people seem to believe that God is just a “good old boy” who will laugh it off in the end. Everything in the Bible tells us otherwise. As Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:6-7, God is not mocked. Whatever we sow, that we will also reap.

We are fast approaching a moral abyss from which there is no return. This week we discovered that the President lied to the nation for seven months. When a dishonest man sits in the Oval Office, is it any wonder that truth is in short supply everywhere? A river of pollution flows out from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that is contaminating our public life. If I were to repeat here the various stories about the President’s behavior, I would be instantly (and rightfully) removed as pastor of Calvary Memorial Church. Yet these things are being discussed on talk shows every day—and are the stuff of ribald humor around every water cooler in America.

I do not believe President Clinton is the problem—he’s just a symptom of a great national sickness. We elected this man—and by the opinion polls it seems that most Americans approve of the job he is doing. What does that say about us as a nation? I agree with Dr. Billy Graham who many years ago remarked that if God doesn’t judge America, he’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.

This generation needs to fear God’s judgment. When Paul reasoned with Felix the Roman governor about “righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come,” Felix trembled as the prospect of standing before a holy God (Acts 24:25). Men need to tremble in fear before a righteous God. When they do, they will seek a Savior who can deliver them from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).

2) Sinners need to hear that they will answer to a Righteous Judge. For too long in our witnessing we have emphasized only the positive side of the gospel. Sinners need to be warned that if they refuse God’s salvation, they must one day face his judgment.

3) Christians must believe this truth—and proclaim it boldly. The gospel contains a word of warning, and we are not being faithful to God unless we include that warning in our witnessing. Most of you know the First Spiritual Law—God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. That’s the first step in the “Four Spiritual Laws"—a presentation made famous by Campus Crusade and greatly used by the Holy Spirit to bring millions into God’s kingdom. As true as the First Law is, it’s also true that if men do not want God’s wonderful plan, he has another plan that is not so wonderful. In our evangelism, we must share the “bad news” along with the “good news” or else our gospel preaching is not complete.

4) No one can survive the final judgment in his own righteousness. We need the righteousness of another to stand in our place. This is where the gospel message becomes extremely relevant. When we stand before God, he’s going to judge us on the basis of our apparel. You will be sent to heaven or hell depending on what you are wearing that day. That’s not an exaggeration; it’s sober biblical truth. If you come before God wearing the filthy rags of your own righteousness, you will be condemned to hell (Isaiah 64:6). But if you come before God wearing the white robes of Jesus’ righteousness, the gates of heaven will swing open for you (Revelation 3:4-5).

Where you go depends on what you wear. You can take a chance and come before God on your own merits—but you will be eternally disappointed. Or you can trade your dirty rags for the robes of Jesus’ righteousness. The choice is yours.

It’s like the judge said to the defendant before he pronounced the verdict: Do you want justice or do you want mercy? If you want justice, you can have it but you won’t like it. Or you can have mercy free for the asking.

Let me wrap up this sermon with one final word. The time for action is now. No one can escape the final judgment. We will all stand before Jesus Christ. What will happen to you then? The answer is, it depends on what happens to you now. Trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and when that day comes you will have nothing to fear.


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