Reward or Penalty?

“He will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honour and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness.”
Romans‬ ‭2‬:‭6‬-‭8‬ ‭NLT

Paul said that God will judge everyone “according to what they have done”. But when will this happen? There is an argument that says God’s courtroom is active continually, justice administered through our courts. But that was not what Paul was referring to. We must look to a passage of Scripture in Revelation to find out the background to his thinking. We read in Revelation 20:11-12, “And I saw a great white throne and the one sitting on it. The earth and sky fled from his presence, but they found no place to hide. I saw the dead, both great and small, standing before God’s throne. And the books were opened, including the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to what they had done, as recorded in the books”. There are four things we learn from these verses. Firstly, the act of God’s judgement won’t take place until after we have died. Secondly, there is a reward for those who have done well when they were alive. Thirdly, He will be very angry with those “who live for themselves”, and, fourthly, and perhaps most worryingly, everything we have ever done will have been written down. 

Paul said that God will give “eternal life to those who keep on doing good”. This could be rather contentious for some Christians, because they imply that if we once were doing good, but then stopped, God’s offer of eternal life might be jeopardised. The phrase, “keep on” is in the same tense as in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God”. We are “being saved” – present continuous tense. Salvation didn’t happen once and then all was ok for evermore. Salvation is a continuous process, and it won’t be completed until the day we are welcomed into Heaven. In Philippians 2:12b, Paul wrote, “… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. 

Jesus told the story of the sheep and the goats, which we can read in Matthew 25. The parable starts off with a picture of the “Son of Man”, who we know is Jesus, sitting on a throne. The story continues,, “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left”. (Matthew 25:32-33). This event happens after the Second Coming of Jesus, so it must have taken place at the start of the Millennium, as described in Revelation 20. But who are the sheep and the goats? We read that those who, because of their relationship with Jesus, went about their lives helping others, particularly those disadvantaged in life, were designated as “sheep”, and those who claimed to have a relationship with Jesus, or no relationship at all, but lived a selfish, unhelpful life, were called the “goats”. 

In our verses from Romans today, we have the same division of people – those who “keep on doing good” and those who “live for themselves”. Paul’s equivalent of the sheep and goats. The outcome is the same as it was in Jesus’ story. We read about the sheep in Matthew 25:34-36, “Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me””. Jesus then continued to describe the goats, those standing to His left. In Matthew 25:41-43 we read, “Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me””. Jesus finished His story with the warning that the sheep, the righteous ones, will end up enjoying eternal life, but the goats will sadly find themselves eternally punished. 

As an aside, we should note that those who kept on doing good were not saved by their good works, but did them because of their relationship with Jesus. An important distinction because we know we are saved by grace, not by works. We read in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast”. 

We have a choice in life. It’s black and white. Heaven or hell. I know what I want, and, through faith in God, I know where I am heading. We Christian pilgrims with the same conviction must tell others around us about the choice they have, and particularly that if they don’t make a choice, the default is hell. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:11, “Because we understand our fearful responsibility to the Lord, we work hard to persuade others. God knows we are sincere, and I hope you know this, too”. We might not be the most popular down the pub, but one day, those who make the right choice will be eternally grateful. 

Dear Father God. Please lead us to those who are at the point of making the choice between life and death. And we pray for those who we are already reaching out to, that Your Spirit will touch them with Your love, drawing them to Yourself. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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