i. God hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.
I suspect that the vast majority of readers of this site will not quibble with the biblical doctrine of the final judgment. There will, no doubt, be variations and nuances among us, but the general teaching itself should be beyond doubt for any who take seriously the authority of God's Word.
The first thing we must recognize is that this chapter is consistent with every chapter preceding; it does not come to us, nor is it meant to be read, "on its own." The affirmation that all people will "receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil," is consistent with what the Confession has said previously. So, for example, what is said here in no way conflicts with, negates or undermines those great truths articulated in chapters 10-17, which include, among others, our effectual calling, justification, adoption, sanctification, etc. In other words, this chapter presupposes the Christian's union with Christ (see, e.g., Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 66, 69).
But we also affirm that there is no conflict in this chapter and the Confession's teaching in chapter three on God's decree of election and reprobation. The Confession is clear, because Scripture is clear, that the biblical teaching of God's unconditional election is the foundation on which our own responsibility to Him rests. Election, as chapter 3.1 says, does not in any way take away the liberty or contingency of second causes; rather, election establishes those causes, and puts them within their proper context.
With that in mind, I will highlight a few points that deserve our special attention when affirming this great truth, "Of the Last Judgment:"
God hath appointed a day, wherein He will judge the world, in righteousness, by Jesus Christ, (Acts 17:31) to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. (John 5:22,27) In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, (1 Cor. 6:3, Jude 6, 2 Pet. 2:4) but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor. 5:10, Eccl. 12:14, Rom. 2:16, Rom. 14:10,12, Matt. 12:36-37)
Three brief points to make about this first paragraph. First, we affirm that God, in His eternal decree, has set aside a day -- an actual day on the calendar -- that will be the last day in human history. The final judgment is the end of the beginning and the beginning of that which will never end. God brought all things into existence "in the beginning." "In the beginning" and until the end, life is offered by God, taken by some, and lost by others, until the end. Eternal life was offered by God to Adam and Eve, but was lost. It was then offered by God to those who were in Adam, but it could now only come if God Himself, by sacrifice, provided what was needed to cover our sinful nakedness (Gen. 3:21). This history of the offer of life was never meant to be forever. It would have an end, a terminus, and that terminus would be when the serpent's head was finally and completely crushed, and the last enemy was no more (see 1 Cor. 15:54-56).
Second, there is an important connection that Scripture makes, and that is highlighted in the initial paragraph of this section, that deserves careful thought. The language of the first clause of this paragraph, as the proof-text indicates, is taken from Acts 17:31. There, on Mars Hill, Paul declares to the philosophers and Athenians that history will end, and that the end will take place by way of the judgment of Christ.
Paul's address on Mars Hill presupposes the truths that Paul spells out in Romans 1 and 2. Specifically, Paul begins his defense to the Athenians by telling his audience about the character of the true God (Acts 17:24-29). This is in keeping with Paul's Spirit-wrought diagnosis of unbelief in Rom. 1:18-25. But then Paul moves from the "reminder" of who the true God is (whom they already know, but suppress), to the reality and certainty of a day of judgment.
Here we need to remember again what Paul says beginning in Rom. 1:32 and into Rom. 2. In 1:32, Paul, referring to what all people know by virtue of God's continual revealing activity to all people, and at all times, says: "Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them."
This one verse is replete with judgment implications. In knowing God, Paul tells us, all people also "know God's righteous decree." That is, they know what God requires of them. They don't know His requirements in explicit, biblical detail. But they know enough of who God is to include the knowledge that they should be spending their lives giving Him thanks and honoring Him for who He is (Rom. 1:21). Since they do not do that -- and this is the key point about judgment -- they know that their own suppression of, and rebellion against, the character of God is such that they "deserve to die." That is, included in the true knowledge of God that all people have is the true knowledge that their rebellion against the God whom they know brings with it the knowledge that death is justly deserved. This can only mean that all people who are and remain in Adam are, right now, judged by God, they know they are judged, and they know that His judgment is true and just.
This should be an encouragement to us. We live in a world in which, no matter the facades and fairy tales, all people know God and know that a violation of His character brings sure and righteous judgment. We never approach anyone with the gospel, and with the truth of his or her own sinfulness before God, who does not already have the knowledge of that sinfulness already deeply and permanently embedded in his or her heart. So when the Confession writes of this judgment, just as when Paul affirmed it on Mars Hill, it is writing into a context, and to people, who already know that this judgment is coming, and is proper. Notice, as Paul says, all people know they deserve to die. That is, we all know that what our lives and activities have merited is death, not life.
So a general understanding of the final judgment is nothing new. What is new, and this is one of the things that Paul highlights on Mars Hill, is that this judgment will come through God's appointed Son, who himself was judged on the cross, was raised from the dead, and who will come again to separate the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:32-33). This is why the knowledge of God, of sin and of judgment which God gives, always and everywhere, to all people, in general revelation, is meant to be inextricably tied to the knowledge of Christ and His work. General revelation points inexorably to the gospel, which is only given in God's spoken Word (see Psalm 19).
Third, (and we can only touch on this matter briefly) the notion that in the judgment all people will be required "to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil," may, taken out of context, sound as though our final judgment is based on our deeds. Consider in this regard, however, Matt. 25:34-36:
Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Here the Savior is clear that those who will be accepted by Him are "blessed by my Father," and therefore will "inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." In other words, behind the kingdom works that are manifest in those who follow Christ, is the inheritance, which by definition is not earned, and that inheritance was prepared before creation began. As the Confession makes clear, especially in 3.2, God's preparation for us of His kingdom cannot be because He foresaw our works as future, and on that basis, made preparation for us. Rather, He chose us before the foundation of the world. What follows from that is our union with Christ, which includes our sanctification (good works). Those not so chosen do not do kingdom works. They may do the same things that Christians do, in many cases, but they do those things in the context of their rebellion against the God whom they know, and against His character (law), not of their love for Christ. So even in the doing of what might appear (to us) to be the same works, they cannot enter in the joy of Christ's presence. This truth has significant implications as well for how we should think about the Christian's "cultural" activity.
Tomorrow we will comment on section two of this chapter.
Dr. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013).