Judgement texts can and have been over-literalized so that a picture is painted where absolutely every thought, every motive, every attitude, every word and every deed we have ever done will be brought up. Overly sensitive followers of Jesus can go into an deaths spiral over this and quickly feel overwhelmed, unsaved and worst of all—without hope. Disciples can approach judgment with assurance and confidence (1 John 2:28, 4:17-18). We must always keep in mind our goal isn’t just to know what the texts say, it is to understand what they mean.
God tells Ezekiel in regard to Jerusalem, “I will do to you what I have never done before and will never do again” (5:8-9). That’s in reference to the judgment He brought on the city through Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. In speaking of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Titus and Romans in AD 70 Jesus said, “There will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now” (Matthew 24:21). Well, which one is it because they both can’t be literally true! But that’s exactly the point. We’re only pushed into choosing if we feel the need to take these texts in an absolute, literal sense. If we understand them as simply being a way of saying something is bad beyond belief, there’s no problem to resolve. Figurative speech like this occurs throughout Scripture so we need to make up our mind how we will deal with it.
God’s not a drooling dog who wants to dig up all of the bones of our past—especially as it relates to people who have confessed and repented of these things longs ago! Judgment won’t be about that! But it will be about the grand direction of our life. It will about whether we chose a long obedience in the same direction. It will be about whether we persistently put one foot in front of the other on the road of righteousness. “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, He will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).
Notice, it’s He will “give.” No one earns anything. There’s no self-salvation. There are two glaring errors people can make in this regard. One is to think you can earn your way into life and the other is to think that how we live doesn’t make any difference. The truth lies in between those two extremes. Faith has to be fleshed out or it’s not real faith but if it is genuine faith it is the obedience of faith rather than faith in our obedience (Romans 1:5, 16:26). It’s a lifestyle that allows God’s grace to work in our lives.
In a much different context than Paul was dealing with in Corinthians, John tells his audience they can be “confident and unashamed” when they see Jesus (1 John 2:28). Disciples of Jesus don’t need to casual about judgment or bullied into endless anxiety over it. The biblical witness is full of assurance for the follower of Christ, wrath for the rebellious and a wake call for the indifferent. Apply accordingly.