by Philip Neal


Jesus’ bride is being made ready for His return. Peter recognized

this when he wrote that the church is now under “judgment” (I Peter 4:17).

But what exactly does this mean? What does God need to know—about

you and about me—in order to render this judgment?

            What is uppermost in God’s mind? What matters most to Him, right now? A good answer would be: the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth. But perhaps it could be reasonably argued that God is most immediately focused on one thing: getting the bride of Christ ready. Because until His wife is ready, Jesus cannot return to this earth to establish His father’s kingdom.

            With that in mind, what God needs to see right now is evidence that the bride is indeed making herself ready. “ ‘Let us celebrate with joy and give glory to God, for the Lamb’s marriage is about to take place. Indeed, His bride has made herself ready!’ And she was arrayed in fine linen—pure and bright—which represents her righteous works” (Rev. 19:7-8).1

            It seems the bride of Christ has some work to do: She must make herself ready and she must demonstrate her righteousness—not the “forensic righteousness” that comes by being reconciled to God through Jesus’ blood, but the personal righteousness that comes by works (Rom. 2:13; James 2; Deut. 6:25). While such works earn us nothing in terms of salvation, they do allow God to see what kind of followers we are becoming. Ultimately, they provide the evidence He needs for judgment.

Now on the church—judgment

Writing from Babylon around 55-60 AD, the apostle Peter warned the scattered church of God that the time had come for “judgment, beginning with the house of God” (I Pet. 4:17). Why would he make such a statement? Peter obviously felt a sense of urgency: In his mind, Jesus’ return was imminent, and those Christians still living were being uniquely judged by God.

            Stop here and think: If the popular idea of “once saved-always saved” is true—that your salvation is assured the moment you “accept Jesus”—then there would be no need for any kind of “judgment” on the body of Christ. What would be the point? Your “entry into heaven” is a done deal, based solely on your profession of faith. On the other hand, the very notion of a church-wide judgment implies that salvation has all along been conditional—that our final “kingdom status” hinges on the outcome of this judgment, on God’s final decision about each one of us.2 After all, it appears that the bride of Christ is rather limited in size; not everyone gets to be part of the bride, not even every so-called “Christian” (Matt. 7:21-23).

            What is this judgment? The Greek root used in I Peter 4:17 means to “make a separation or distinction”—i.e., a decision, a choice. We see this even in Western usage: When a judge hands down a “judgment,” he renders a decision, a verdict, even a sentence. Here, Peter’s “judgment” seems to be a process unique to the close of the age. But the fact is, as Christians we are always “under judgment.” In no way does this conflict with being “under grace”—the vast umbrella of God’s merciful favor under which we live and learn, sin and repent, grow and change—made possible by Jesus’ work of reconciliation. Nor does it mean being under condemnation, as Paul emphatically says of those who are genuinely in intimacy with Christ (Rom. 8:1).

            For Christians, being “under judgment” simply means God is trying to “make up His mind” about us—come to a decision about our “kingdom status.” It is a process, typically taking place over a person’s lifetime. But it cannot go on indefinitely, as the end must come. Hence Peter’s urgency.

            This ties in with the bride of Christ making herself ready. It’s something we must do. Just as John the Baptist demanded evidence of repentance (Luke 3:8), we must bring forth evidence (remember the “fine linen”) upon which God can make His judgment. Simply put, this “judgment” is a selection process—based on tangible evidence—that will determine who gets to be part of the bride, and who gets left out.

            The key here is tangible evidence. Sure, God knows your heart and your good intentions; but as I will show you, God needs to see something. More to the point, He needs to see how well each of us as individuals measures up under specific circumstances—under various trials and tests, some of which may be uniquely designed by God for this very purpose.

Your Moriah moment

The idea that God just “looks on the heart” is a nice sentiment.3 But nowhere does the Bible say that God judges us based on what’s “in our hearts.” Of course, God is most definitely concerned about our hearts: our intentions, our motivations, our outlook. But God’s judgment is always based on our actions—because He knows that our actions reveal our hearts (Mark 7:21). For example, God caused Israel to wander for 40 years in the wilderness to test them—to expose what was in their hearts (Deut. 8:2). He put them in various situations to see how they would respond—see what they would do. How does God know you love Him? Not because you tell Him so. Rather, “Jehovah tests you, to know”—by watching what you do—“if you really love Jehovah your God with all your heart and all your being” (Deut. 13:3). Indeed, if you love God you will be doing what He says (I John 5:2-3).

            David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me so you will know how I think” (Psa. 139:23). He wasn’t asking God to just “look on his heart” in some nebulous sentimental way. David knew God would be testing him and watching—looking at his actions in order to know what was truly going on inside his head.

            Generations after David, King Hezekiah of Judah was tested so God could know what was “in his heart” (II Chron. 32:31). As a righteous king, Hezekiah had done well in obeying God; and the nation of Judah was abundantly blessed as a result. But Hezekiah had a problem with pride and vanity (verses 25-26). When Babylonian ambassadors visited Judah, God used the occasion as a test: He “left Hezekiah to himself in order to test him, to know all that was in his heart” (verse 31). God withdrew from Hezekiah, giving him some “rope”—to see how righteous he really was.

            And God will absolutely do the same thing to you and to me. In fact, he already is.

            In the opening chapters of Revelation, we see that seven churches are being evaluated by Jesus. A letter is addressed to each church, and each letter opens with, “I know your works.” Works are things people do, and works are the ultimate criteria for God’s judgment. Near the end of the same book we see depicted the final “judgment” of all who have lived and died—also based on works (Rev. 20:11-15; Heb. 9:27).

            Judgment on the church is ongoing: God is trying to “make up His mind” on us—on our “kingdom status.” And for a prime example of this, we can look to the father of the faithful, Abraham. Many years after God called Abraham and the two had developed a close relationship, it was still necessary for God to establish, once and for all, Abraham’s “kingdom status.” Actually, much more was at stake: Abraham was qualifying for a one-of-a-kind role as both the father of the Hebrew nation of Israel and as the spiritual forerunner of all those God would call to a life of intimacy with Him through the Messiah. God had come to truly know Abraham (Gen. 18:19). But He still put Abraham through the crucible of requiring him to give up his only son, the son of promise. We all know the story: Abraham obeyed and God intervened to stop the sacrifice of Isaac. And then God said these profound words to Abraham on the mount called Moriah: “Now I know that you really do fear me, seeing that you did not withhold your only son from me” (Gen. 22:12).

            Genesis 22:1 plainly says God set out to test Abraham. He needed to see something for himself. Afterwards, Abraham named the place Jehovah-yireh (verse 14)—meaning Jehovah sees. Moriah has the same meaning: seen by Jah. (Interestingly, David later chose the same mount for the Temple.) The point is, God will do what He needs to do in order to see what He needs to see.

            But God knew Abraham’s heart (Gen. 18:19)—wasn’t that enough? Apparently God needed to see more, to know. And while the tests are different for everyone—and none of us will be tested to the degree Abraham was tested—God will require no less of you and me. In terms of our “kingdom status,” He must be able to say, “Now I know.” So God puts us through various trials and tests designed to show Him things about us—show Him what He needs to see.

How—and on what—are we being judged?

No doubt God is looking for any number of “qualities” as He judges His people. But, by now, we should all understand that redemption and eternal life are gifts that we cannot earn. They are the result of God’s favor and loving-kindness—made possible by the Messiah’s sacrifice and ongoing work in our lives (Rom. 5:10). But at the same time, we must demonstrate to God that we are in some way “worthy” of His kingdom. Christ said as much when He warned us in Luke 21:36 to “pray that you may be deemed worthy to escape the things [certain end time events] that will soon take place, and be found worthy to stand before the Son of Man [in His kingdom].” Paul, too, said we should hope to be “counted worthy of the Kingdom of God” (II Thess. 1:5). None of us could ever be truly “worthy” of that kingdom. But from God’s perspective, we’re either going to be an asset to His kingdom, or a liability. And He needs to know.

            Perhaps we should look first at what we’re not being judged on. For starters, God isn’t judging us on doctrine, or how well we understand certain points of Scripture. (Most of us would be hard pressed to explain much of what Paul wrote.) He’s not concerned, really, with whether we can explain the prophecies of Daniel or Ezekiel or any other prophet. (Most faithful believers would have trouble here too.) It’s not about having the “right” form of church government; nor does our being found “worthy” really revolve around our being in the “right” group or following the “right” leader.

            Now, don’t misunderstand—doctrinal accuracy is important. And we must be found faithful in our use of God’s word, always growing in our understanding of His plan. Doctrine is important, and we must never be complacent about “proving all things” (or rechecking doctrines we may have carelessly “proven” in the past). But nowhere does the Bible suggest that we are being eternally judged based on our “doctrinal correctness.”4

            So what are we being judged on? The answer is both simple and profound. Works, righteous character, outgoing love—those are all good answers. But I like to sum it up this way: We’re being judged on how well we’re developing a Christ-like mind. “Learn to look at things the way Jesus the Messiah did” (Phil. 2:5).

            Learning to think like Christ—simple, yet profound.

            So how does God know how we think? He puts us in various situations and sits back and watches. As mentioned above, that’s what He did with Israel—it worked then, and it works now. He led Israel through the wilderness for 40 years—putting them through one test after another—so that He might “know what was really in their hearts” by seeing whether they would “follow His teachings or not” (Deut. 8:2). Without question, God will “search the heart” and “test the mind” of each and every one of us (Jer. 17:10). God is making up His kingdom leadership, so He has to know.

            Let’s look at a few passages from both the Old Testament and the New Testament to get a better understanding of just what it is God is looking for.

“The least of my brethren”

In Matthew 25, Jesus gives vital instructions on how He will judge when He returns. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and the holy angels with Him, He will sit on a glorious throne. All peoples will be gathered before Him and He will separate them one from another—just as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at His left” (Matt. 25:31-33). Exactly how this “judgment” will play out is unclear. But it’s the principle behind this passage that we want to focus on.

            Continuing, Jesus says to those righteous sheep at His right hand, “You are most blessed of my father! Come and inherit the kingdom that has been in preparation since the foundation of the world.” Why? What did they do to be “worthy” of the kingdom? “When I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. As a stranger, you took me in. When I was naked, you gave me clothing; when I was sick, you visited me; and when I was in prison, you came to see me.”

            Perplexed, the righteous respond by asking, in short, “When did we do any of that for you, Jesus?” He answers, “Be assured that to the extent you did any of these good things to even the least of my brethren, you did it to me” (verses 34-40).

            What criteria is God using as He judges us? From this passage, it’s pretty clear what really matters to God, isn’t it? Nothing here about doctrine. Nothing here about being able to predict end time events. Nothing here about being in the “right” group or organization. Nothing here about where God has or hasn’t “placed his name.”

            Just bare-bones, down-to-earth Christ-like living.

            If we’re not careful, it’s all too easy to become distracted by the cares of this world—or to become sidetracked by this or that pet doctrine—or to become caught up in “church politics.” Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, are we too sometimes guilty of having “neglected the weightier matters of the Torah: judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23)? Has our “church experience” become so narrowly focused that we too have overlooked the obvious?

Practicing “pure religion”

In Isaiah 58, God gives a stinging indictment on those Israelites who practiced a “form of religion”—as if they were “a nation [church] that practiced righteousness” (verse 2). Even their pious fasting was in vain (verses 3-5). The prophet goes on to describe the “fast” that God really desires. Not only were they to repent of their sinful ways of living (practicing sin) and their oppression of the poor, but—and notice how similar this is to Matthew 25—he told them to “share your bread with those who are hungry” and to “bring the poor and the outcast into your home” and to “provide clothing for those who need it” (verses 6-7). Isaiah had already warned the people to “learn to do good, to seek justice, to rebuke those who oppress others, to defend the fatherless, and to plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:17).

            Like Matthew 25, these passages leave no doubt as to what’s important to God—“hands on” religion. Indeed, authentic religion that is pure and undefiled before God is simply one that practices outgoing love toward others—one that comes to the rescue of “orphans and widows in their time of trouble or need”—and avoids becoming corrupted by the ways of this evil society (James 1:27).

            Interestingly, once again, a person’s “religion” is not defined here in the book of James by a set of doctrinal beliefs, by affiliation, or by organizational boundaries. Don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that anything that goes by the name “Christian” is in fact of Christ. We know better. Nor am I saying that doctrine is not important in helping to define the true faith once delivered (Jude 1:3). Again, it’s not that those things are unimportant, but that, ultimately, we’re not being judged on such matters. Rather, we’re being evaluated on how well we’ve learned to think like Christ—which will primarily manifest itself in works of righteousness.

            Notice I John 3:17: “Imagine a man who has an abundance of material goods and knows that his brother is in need, yet he shuts up his heart from helping him. How can the love of God possibly abide in such a person?” John goes on to say that we are not to “merely tell others that we love them”—but demonstrate our love by “heartfelt actions” (verse 18). By doing so we will “know that we are of the truth” and have confidence before God (verse 19).

            How will people know we are Jesus’ disciples? By our doctrine? By the “exclusive” nature of our group? By our being in the “right” group where God has “placed his name”? By following the “right” calendar? John says they’ll know “by this”—by the love we show for one another (John 13:35)—a genuine love of the brethren out of a pure heart (see I Peter 1:22).

            James says we are “justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24). What is your “faith”—what do you really believe? If it isn’t backed up by works, James says it’s of no profit—and is, in fact, dead faith. He asks, “Can such faith alone save you? If a brother or sister is in need of clothing or food and you say to them, ‘Go in peace, stay warm and be satisfied’—but you do nothing to help them—what good have you really done?” (verses 14-17).

            Can we begin to see that God isn’t nearly as interested in our “belief system” as he is in the way we relate to one another?  

            With urgency, the apostle Paul says to you and to me: “Live worthy of the calling you’ve been given”—how?—“with humility and gentleness, patiently putting up with one another in love, working for the unity and peace possible through God’s spirit” (Eph. 4:1-3).

            Elsewhere Paul says: “Don’t do anything out of selfish ambition or pride, but in lowliness of mind think of others as better than yourself. Look beyond your own needs and be concerned for the needs of others.” And, “Learn to look at things the way Jesus the Messiah did—who … gladly denied  His own needs and assumed the role of servant, and … ultimately humbled himself even to the point of death” (Phil. 2:3-8).

            How we treat each other reveals everything to God about how we think. Stop and consider for a moment—does any part of your body offend or hurt another part of your body? Then why should any of us hurt or offend another member of the very body of Christ? “Let’s earnestly pursue things that produce peace and things by which one may edify [build up, encourage] another” (Rom. 14:19).

            We must each be a living, contributing member of Christ’s body. If we’re not serving and helping other members of the body of Christ in some significant way—be it physical or spiritual—then what on earth are we doing? Our purpose now—today—should be to help others get through the difficult days ahead and into God’s kingdom. “So whenever you have an opportunity, do good things for others—especially the brethren, who are part of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).

            Perhaps like never before, it’s time to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). (Again, why the “fear and trembling” if we’re “once saved-always saved”?) The heart of the bride is being tested—God has to know! The bride of Christ will make herself ready—“And she was arrayed in fine linen—pure and bright—which represents her righteous works” (Rev. 19:8).

1. This cannot be "righteousness" that comes by justification—because this righteousness (plural in the Greek) is of the saints; nor is it righteousness that has been mysteriously "imputed" to the believer because of Jesus' own personal righteousness. That righteousness is His; it was credited to Him because of His works. Deuteronomy 6:25 says, "If we are careful to follow God's teachings, just as He has instructed us, it will be credited to us as righteousness." So this righteousness belongs to her; it is credited to her because of her works. Yet she produces this righteousness through an intimate relationship with Jesus—the source of her motivation and strength. All modern translations acknowledge this rendering: "The fine linen represents her righteous actions"—or something similar. I chose works—that word most dreaded by nominal Christians.

2. Without question, salvation is a free gift from God. There is no way you could ever earn salvation. But you must meet certain conditions. What millions of Christians fail to understand is that even a free, unmerited gift can be predicated on conditions. Look no further that Acts 2:38, where Peter instructs would-be converts to repent (condition) in order to receive the gift of the holy spirit. The gift comes with a condition: repentance—change in the way one lives. Misapplying often-quoted isolated passages such as "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31) can lead one into serious error. We must consider all relevant passages on any given subject in order to arrive at the truth. And the truth is, salvation is conditional. Consider Hebrews 5:9, where Jesus is said to be the "author of eternal salvation" for those who obey Him—not those who simply "profess His name." Do you really think God will give you salvation if you prove yourself unwilling to obey Him? After all, Jesus gave the formula for "entering into life" as "keeping God's commandments" (Matt. 19:17). Definitely conditional. Calling on Jesus as "Lord, Lord" is insufficient: one must do the will of God (Matt. 7:21). Once a "convert" enters into a relationship with God through the reconciliation made possible by Jesus' sacrifice, he or she must go on to prove themselves. They can still fail, fall away, abort, etc.—lose salvation (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-27). Note these critical passages: Salvation hinges on holding fast (I Cor. 15:2); it is possible to drift away from God and neglect our salvation (Heb. 2:1-3); we remain members of the household of God only as we hold fast to the end (Heb. 3:6, 14); we receive the promise of God (eternal salvation) after we have "done the will of God" (Heb. 10:36); we must overcome (our sinful nature, Satan, the world) and continue to do the "works of Jesus" to the end (Rev. 2:26); we must hold fast or risk losing our crown (Rev. 3:11). Even Paul acknowledged that it was possible for him to become disqualified for salvation (I Cor. 9:27). Yes, conditions must be met—right up to the end. "Salvation" is clearly a process: we are first reconciled to God through Jesus—then, ultimately, saved by His living in us (Rom. 5:10), which changes us.

3. This popular sentiment—that God just "looks on the heart"—results in the sidestepping of personal responsibility for works (as well as sin). Thus, God's judgment is erroneously assumed to be based on intent alone.

4. Again, basic doctrine is vitally important to the Christian way of life. After all, we are to worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Of course, not everyone has the same understanding, partly because we are all at different levels in our spiritual growth. Still, we will be held accountable for what we know (James 4:17). In Romans 2, Paul makes the point that those who know the Torah will be judged by the Torah. Thus, at least for some, doctrine becomes an important aspect of God's judgment.

—Philip Neal