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Confidence on the day of judgment—a matter of perspective (and works)

In this the love is completed with us, that we may have confidence on the day of judgment, because as he is also we are in this world.

This verse was mentioned in a sermon on grace yesterday. Given our perspective on things we naturally read it as a statement either about a final judgment at the end of human history or about a personal judgment after we die. Because we have received grace through faith in Jesus Christ—and only because we have received grace through faith in Jesus Christ—we may have confidence when we stand before the throne of God’s judgment. Strictly speaking, what we’ve actually done does not enter into the equation. That is core evangelical teaching. Given John’s perspective on things, however, there may be a couple of flaws in this reading of the verse.

Judgment according to works, works according to faith

The first is that, according to the argument, the basis for confidence on the coming day of judgment is not grace or faith but something much more like works. All the way through the Letter John urges his readers to walk in the light, to live out the truth, to practise righteousness, to love one another, to give generously to a brother in need, to keep a clear conscience, to confess that Jesus and not Caesar is “Son of God”. If they do these things consistently, falling back on forgiveness when necessary, they will abide in God, they will have the assurance that comes from the Holy Spirit—and on this basis they will have the confidence that when the “day of judgment” comes, they will not be put to shame.

To put it in Pauline terms, the argument is not simply that they are “justified by faith”, therefore they will be justified—as though automatically—on the day of judgment.

It is rather that they are “justified by faith”, therefore they are free to practise righteousness; and if they practise righteousness, as a community that participates really and realistically in the moral life of Christ, they will not be put to shame on the “day of judgment”.

The day of judgment was breathing down their necks

The point is that this “day of judgment” had to do with the evaluation of concrete human behaviour, which brings me to the second flaw in the conventional evangelical reading. I would suggest that when John speaks of a “day of judgment”, what he has in mind is not an end-of-human-or-personal-history event but a critical moment in the course of history, when the community that has put its faith in the good news that Jesus is the Son of God will be vindicated. History is always about perspective. Where you stand determines how far you can see in any direction; it determines what you can see and whether what you can see matters to you or not.

It is important to note that the argument about walking in the light and abiding in God, etc., is framed temporally or eschatologically—or indeed historically. The darkness of the old age is passing away, the “true light” of a new age is already shining, even if that age has not yet arrived (2:8, 17). It is the “last hour” (2:18). They face the coming of the “antichrist” as others have already done—the pagan power which will seek aggressively to suppress their witness to Jesus as the Son of God, the Lord above every lord, not least above Caesar (2:18, 22; 4:3). They have overcome the power of the “evil one”, who inspires the opposition of pagan idolatry (2:13-14; 4:4; 5:4-5). They have been promised the “life” of the coming age (2:25; 5:11-13). They have been rejected by the world just as Jesus was rejected, but “when he appears” or “at his coming”, they will be like him—vindicated and glorified (2:28-3:2).

In other words, the thought of a coming “day of judgment” is situated in a narrative of events that would directly and imminently impact the believing community. We see this throughout the New Testament—eschatology was breathing down their necks.

We also need to take into account evidence from the Greek Old Testament and other Jewish texts that “day of judgment” generally describes a climactic and catastrophic event in the course of history, usually a war, when the unrighteous within Israel or the enemies of Israel will be defeated and destroyed, and the righteous will be delivered so that they may enjoy the “life” of the coming age.

For example, the defeat of Assyria will be a “day of the Lord’s judgment and a year of recompense for the judgment of Sion” (Is. 34:8). Following her victory over the Assyrians Judith proclaims: “Woe to the nations who plot against my race; the omnipotent Lord will punish them in the day of judgment, to send fire and worms for their flesh, and they will wail in full consciousness forever” (Jdt. 16:17).

Psalms of Solomon 15:12 speaks of a “day of the Lord’s judgment, when God visits the earth with his judgment”. This “day” is envisaged in fully historical terms. It is a day when “famine and sword and death” will pursue the wicked—probably here the wicked in Israel—and “they shall be overtaken by those experienced in war, for the mark of destruction is upon their forehead” (15:8-9). The “inheritance of sinners” is destruction and death (15:10); but those who fear the Lord “shall find mercy” on the day of judgment; “they shall live by the mercy of their God” (15:13).

A “day of judgment” is a moment in history when Israel’s God is expected to put things right—to deliver his people from oppression, to defeat their enemies, to vindicate the righteous, to punish the wicked, to demonstrate his righteousness. John’s “day of judgment” fits into that category. It was an impending crisis for which the community needed to be prepared. There is no reason to think that history comes to an abrupt stop when we reach the New Testament.

What John gives us in this Letter is a glimpse into how the looming clash with Rome appeared to the early church and how they sought to articulate a faithful response to that frightening prospect. They were “little children” who had refused to worship the idols of Greece and Rome (cf. 1 John 5:21), believing that true life was to be found only in Christ.

But they had caught a tiger by the tail. What grounds for confidence did they have—as history moved towards its tumultuous climax, as the “day of judgment” or the end of the age or the day of battle (cf. Rom. 13:12) or the “evil day” (Eph. 6:13) approached—that they would stand? John’s answer is that such confidence came from abiding in God; and abiding in God came from walking in the light, living out the truth, practising righteousness, loving one another, and faithfully confessing that Jesus was the Son of God, to whom God had given the pagan nations as an inheritance. This was how the ancient world would be turned upside down.

Comments

Hi Andrew, interesting post. A couple of questions:

1. Have you read Chris VanLandingham’s book Judgment & Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul? If so, what did you think?

2. In your opinion, are all references to the judgment in the NT about moments in history? 

3. The quote from Judith is interesting - is the word translated as forever aionios (or a related word) or is it something completely different? 

If you have already answered these questions elsewhere feel free just to point me in that direction.

Thanks,

Rob

1. I haven’t read VanLandingham’s book, but judging by this brief review by Timothy Gombis my basic response to his thesis would be a qualified “yes” with respect to “works”, and an unqualified “no” with respect to “final judgment”.

I think Sanders is right to stress the priority of election, but Paul’s argument is that Israel has pushed its luck too far. The neglect of concrete “righteousness” or “good works” will bring a devastating “judgment” upon the nation; and under such hazardous eschatological conditions only an equally concrete and resilient faithfulness or trust in (the way of) Christ will ensure survival or salvation for the family of Abraham.

But the salvation of the people of God is only part of the equation here. The other part is the judgment of the nations—of the Greek-Roman world or empire. Paul understands that for YHWH to judge with integrity an alternative way of righteousness must be modelled—a people of grace, not enslaved to the pattern of idolatry, immorality and injustice. Law-based Israel will not provide this standard or benchmark—indeed, the Law has only served to demonstrate that Israel is as captive to sin as the rest of humanity. So YHWH has brought into existence a people set free from sin—something which the Law could not do—which will provide the standard or benchmark of righteousness against which God will judge the pagan world.

What I would stress is that at every point in the argument concrete behaviours and concrete outcomes matter: the idolatry and wickedness of both the pagans and the Jews; the good works of many Gentiles that will put the Jews to shame; the faithfulness of the churches under persecution; the demonstration of an alternative righteousness through incorporation into the story of Jesus. We have made both “judgment” and “faith” far too abstract. Paul’s is a much more political vision than that of modern evangelicalism. For more see The Future of the People of God.

2. No, most references to judgment are historical, and this constitutes the basic tenor of New Testament thought—it is about the historical existence of YHWH’s people in relation to the nations. But out of this historical narrative emerges a peripheral belief that the creator will ultimately make all things new, which will be preceded by a final judgment. This is made explicit in Revelation 20 but it is probably hinted at or presupposed elsewhere. In effect, though, I’m not sure that a final judgment adds very much to the basic existential belief that the wages of sin is death.

3. Yes, I wondered if anyone would pick up on the Judith quote. What is described is a day of judgment specifically against the nations which plotted against Israel. Nothing suggests that this is a final or universal judgment. Indeed, the reference to wailing heōs aiōnos (literally “as far as an age”) points to a judgment within history, the consequences of which will be felt for a long time to come. I think that what is envisaged is a punishment of the nations through military-political means. The lurid details are characteristic of apocalyptic symbolism.

Andrew -

In the immediate context of John’s letter (4:16), it seems that abiding in love is what actually (and practically) gives one the confidence he speaks of. As you mention, this seems like a ‘works-based’ focus, and evangelicals will not like it. But confidence (practical confidence) comes through practically walking out the ways of Christ. And here in John, it is connected to abiding in and practicing love.