Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, by do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Romans 14:4,10-12.
I wonder if the concept of judgment seems outdated or intimidating to you. You may have been presented with a picture of the God of wrath punishing you for your sins. Maybe this was intended to motivate you into embracing Christianity. Maybe this was intended to show you the seriousness of your sins. Maybe this picture still haunts you in the recesses of your heart or maybe you’ve rejected this picture as representing something that doesn’t seem to square with, “For God so loved…”
Yet we live in a world where condemnation, judgment, and contempt are a way of life. A politician condemns the words or actions of his opponent. A journalist asks the president to condemn a fringe group. Protesters call for the police chief to be fired. A video captures a man with a mask verbally attacking someone who is not wearing one. A pastor condemns the music written by another church. A mother clucks her tongue as her daughter walks out the door. A husband blames his wife for their ongoing problems. These expressions of judgment are not exceptional. This is everyday life.
All these expressions of judgment are exercises in self-justification. The candidate defines herself against her opponents failings. The journalist pursues a specific frame for his portrayal of the news. A shopper can rationalize a responsible trip to the store. A pastor can justify his preference for old songs. A husband can explain his marriage while ignoring his own contribution. This kind of justification takes its toll on us though. Constant self-justification is a lot of work. If we get to the end of our day and find our own justification questioned, our whole conception of life can quickly unravel.
Perhaps that is why this idea of judgment still haunts us. When I get to the end of all my days, will I be able to justify how I have spent them? Will it be up to me to establish the standard as well as demonstrate its fulfillment? Or is there some authority outside myself that will grade me on each facet of my life, calling into question every standard and every effort? Or, and this might be worse, what if there is no final moment or authority to justify all my actions? What if I come before the bench and, looking up, discover that there is no judge and I am left to wonder if my life had any meaning at all? What do I make of my efforts at self-justification then?
In Romans 14, Paul offers a picture of judgment that challenges our understanding of judgment, challenges the way we relate to each other, and gives us hope in this life.
Paul sees the temptation to judge. He is not talking here about exercising wisdom and discernment. Instead, he is describing a believer in Christ despising a fellow Christian. Despising is closely related to contempt. This happens when we hate someone in a way that puts us above them. We look down on them and we justify it because we see our own position or status as more valuable, more lofty, or more righteous. They are below us. And this is exactly what Paul describes. He sees a man trying to climb up on the judgment seat and look down at other people. Family, commonality, and sympathy are eliminated.
It is interesting that Paul confronts this temptation, not by saying, “Wait until the Lord condemns this person.” Instead he says, “This person you are trying to condemn will actually be exonerated and welcomed by the real judge.” He says that in the day of judgment, the Lord will uphold him because the Lord is able to make him stand. Paul reminds us that, in condemning our brother or sister, we are trying to apply self-justifying categories to them. However, remember how much effort Paul spent arguing for justification by faith in Christ. Because of this, Paul paints a picture of the judgment as a welcoming moment in which all Christ’s work on our brother’s behalf comes into focus. Our brother will stand in the judgment because Jesus Christ died for his sins, lived again, promised his presence, poured out his Holy Spirit, and prayed for him throughout his life. In other words, the moment our brother stands in the judgment will be a moment celebrating everything Jesus has done for him. How can we then stand presently in judgment?
Paul also confronts this temptation by reminding us that, just like our brother, each believer will also stand before the judgment seat of God. But does this mean that our brother will get welcomed and we will get condemned? No. Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23 to point to a moment of bowing and confessing that demonstrates our loyalty and adoration for Jesus. Each of us, as Christians, in that moment will give an account of our life that makes it clear that we found our justification by faith in Christ and not in anything we did apart from him. To say it another way, no one who stands before the Lord on the day of judgment will be saved by his own account of himself. As if we finally figured out a way to justify ourselves after all. Rather, every believer’s account will demonstrate that Jesus has done everything to save us, through every facet of our life on earth.
We will stand, shoulder to shoulder with our brother and our sister, celebrating everything Jesus has done for us to bring us to that moment and open up a door into the next life. Instead of us lifting ourselves above our brother, we will see our brother and sister lifted up by Christ while we bow down in worship and celebration of Jesus. This confronts us in the here and now by reminding us to give up the judging and condemning practices we are so familiar with in this world. Those patterns and practices are part of the night that is passing away, while this celebration we are looking toward is part of the new and eternal day that is dawning (see Romans 13:12).
If we can see that, suddenly the idea of standing before the judgment seat of God becomes relevant to our everyday as believers. That final judgment is less intimidating and more exciting. Living our lives in light of that eventuality motivates us to demonstrate the love of God to each other and to a world that is so bent on condemnation.