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“It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor. 4:4). Evangelical Christians have a proclivity to pronounce judgment on all things pertaining to our Lord’s church. We treat this as a right and an obligation. It begins most Sundays over lunch, or in the car on the way home, or perhaps in the church foyer after the service. We pronounce commendations and condemnations on the music, Sunday school teachers, sermons, choirs, ministers, elders, and deacons. Sometimes that judgment renders a commendation that lifts individuals to a completed sanctification or a condemnation that exiles others to a region in the vicinity of purgatory.
In 1 Corinthians 4:1–5, Paul warns us of the danger of declaring such verdicts. He reminds us that Jesus is the judge of anything associated with His church. Thus, we are usurping His position when we deliver these rulings. Let’s imagine for a moment that we have been transported to the final judgment. The world has already received that justice that cannot be appealed. The sentence from which there is no parole has been executed. The holy, catholic, apostolic church stands before her Lord and Judge to receive commendations and scathing reviews that will burn away the worthless wood, hay, and stubble of our trivial endeavors (3:12–15). At that moment, who would step forth to correct or otherwise amend His evaluations? Who would suggest: “Jesus, You need to step aside and let me sit on the throne. I think I am better able to assess these matters”? Who would raise his hand and demand to be a counselor to the Judge? That is what we do when we pronounce other Christians holy or unholy. We put ourselves in the place of the Lord of heaven and earth.
In the church, we are servants of Christ (4:1). In serving Him, we are to serve each other, even washing the dirty feet of our brothers and sisters. Paul reminds us that Christ alone is the Master. We, however, as servants hand out acclamation or defamation to other servants as if ours is the approval or disapproval that matters. As a minister, I am guilty of courting the praise of others more than the approbation of Christ. If given space, this inclination will grow into a habit, and I will make decisions in order to please the crowd instead of Christ. At the final judgment, the applause of people, the acclaim we so avidly sought, will seem trifling and detrimental. Likewise, the one given to judging fellow saints will unwittingly encourage his “judges” to seek his approval more than Christ’s.
Who among us is able to perceive the motives and purposes of the deepest recesses of the heart? The minister or elder who worked tirelessly may have been chief ly motivated by a desire to rise to a place of power. The one who seemed so humble may have been totally motivated by a raging fire of pride in his inner being. The pastor whom we thought should have been more of an extrovert and more visible in the community may have been the quiet priest who spent hours on his knees daily for his city and flock. That is why Paul said, “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (v. 5). He, alone, is omniscient and just.
How do we live our daily lives waiting patiently and compassionately in anticipation of His judgment? We can live moment by moment through the day thinking that the Lord may return in the next hour. We can live through details of the week knowing that judgment will certainly come. In the darkness of this world, we can live anticipating the light of His judgment. Such thoughts are not morbid but are filled with wisdom. We will be prompted not to live and die for the approval of those whose opinions are neither healthy nor absolute. We will be reminded to refrain from judgment as we are neither sovereign nor omniscient. We will be fearful of assuming the judgment seat that belongs to Him alone.
We have a taste of that final judgment now as His Word cuts into the depths of our being: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:12– 13). Sometimes His Word exposes our innermost sins and, by the power of His Spirit, cleans out the dirt. At other times, His Word commends and encourages as we reflect His glory in the darkness of this world. One day a final accounting will be given. His Word will surgically remove all vestiges of our sin nature, and we will hear Him acclaim the battle-worn warriors to His Father. That is the day we should ever keep in mind, and we should live, even now, in its light. Certainly, it will be a fearful time. Yet that day will be more sweet than any previous, for there will be no more sin as we live in communion with Him in a restored creation that has been set free from decay and bondage.