Among Christians, there is a lot of discussion about judgment. There are warnings that individuals are going to be judged for sin, and warnings that countries are about to be judged for sin. In modern times, there has been a shift away from the view of judgment in which God Himself inflicts harm as punishment. Many Christians warning of judgment today have a different view, in which judgment is the loss of God’s help and protection as a result of persistent disobedience.
Some Christians seem to be comfortable with the concept of judgment because they feel assured that they are right with God and are safe. But other Christians feel less secure and worry about judgment. What I will propose in this article is that, many Christians who are worried about future judgment, might already be living in a type of judgment (and have been for a long time), but they don’t recognize it because their minds are thinking about what the future holds.
Let’s look at Romans 8:12-13 – We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
I believe this passage applies in two different ways. Passages like this are often used to say that if you persist in living according to your own desires rather than living for God, then you will experience judgment manifested in either literal death or a figurative type of death such as illness or various crises. And while I think that is a valid interpretation, there is another application of this passage that is not talked about very much.
First off, what does “the flesh” consist of? Since flesh is contrasted with spirit in the passage above, I take it to mean that flesh constitutes all non-spiritual (i.e. biological) aspects of a person. So, a person’s organs, chemistry, and psychology are all part of the flesh. Many commentaries equate living in the flesh with living in sin. That may be a valid interpretation, but I believe it is only half of the story.
So, what is the other half of the story? To understand it, we need to consider the way we feel about ourselves when we do various acts. I believe it is normal to feel good when we do good things, and to feel bad when we do bad things. God made us to be that way; otherwise, there would be no incentive to do what’s right.
But I believe the problem is when we let the presence of that good feeling resulting from good works dictate whether we can feel good about ourselves as a person, or how we feel about our relationship with God. I believe this is a type of living according to the flesh, because our lives revolve around maintaining that positive sensation in our minds.
When we have that positive feeling, we feel good about the future. We think that we’re on the right path and that we’re making progress, so God isn’t going to let misfortune happen to us. In the midst of this bright feeling about ourselves and the future, temptations can be suppressed for a season. That positive feeling can even be a motivation to do good works, because we want that feeling to last.
But even though temptation might be confined to a small corner of one’s brain, it is still alive. Over time, temptation slowly starts reclaiming territory in the back of our minds, but we don’t realize it because the front of our minds are still shining and optimistic. And since we still are not sinning necessarily, there is nothing we have to worry about according to conventional religious logic.
But then there comes a point where, we start to feel the growing presence of temptation. For a while, resisting was a matter of just saying NO to temptation and moving on. But now, it takes more effort to say no, even though we’re still saying it. Our conscience seems to be putting heavier demands on us, and we seem to lack the willpower to meet those demands.
At this point, although we’re still confident that we are living right, and thus feel good about the future, the bright, positive feeling in our minds starts to subside. Then, without that tailwind in our minds, fighting temptation gets really hard. At this point, we may start returning to habits that we thought we had kicked a while back. Or, we might continue to resist those temptations, but lose the motivation to do certain good deeds. Maybe prayer starts to feel burdensome as we lose confidence about our spiritual state.
You see, that good feeling we once had was generated by the flesh in response to the good that we saw ourselves doing. It’s like watching an instrument that gauges your performance and trying to keep the meter rising. This is just as exciting to one’s mind, and just as addicting, as any kind of sensual pleasure. But we then started living for that positive feeling, and when the feeling slipped out of reach, the drive to continue our progress weakened.
Then we’re worried about judgment again. Now, when people talk about impending judgment upon the nation or individuals, it hits close to home because we’re not so sure what God thinks about us at this point. The bright, positive feeling we once had gets replaced with a sense of dread and anxiety. This dread or anxiety is a type of death, and a form of judgment resulting from living in the flesh during the season when it appeared that everything was going right, morally and spiritually. Furthermore, the anxiety can cause us to fall into habits such as lack of sleep or unhealthy eating habits that can cause health issues or other problems in life. Thus, ironically, by worrying about judgment, Christians can end up facing the same problems in life that they worry are about to come upon others because of sin.
I believe that Christians who are struggling with guilt need to realize that, ultimately, they are right with God regardless of what their performance meter is doing, and they need to let go of the vision of mastering their lives and keeping their meter rising in order to finally become a good Christian who is safe from judgment.
The Apostle Paul wrote that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20).
But here’s a critical observation. Romans 5:20 is not an experiential reality. Even though it is a true statement, it is never going to “feel” true in our own lives. In other words, committing sin does not cause us to feel an even greater presence of grace.
Some Christians try to test out Romans 5:20 to see if it’s really true. I’m not saying that I recommend doing that. But to satisfy the curiosity, I’ll go ahead and say that it doesn’t bring a feeling of grace or peace. Even though God’s acceptance of someone doesn’t waver as they go through the experiment, what they feel is even more inward angst. Furthermore, testing out this principle actually takes a lot of effort. It makes you feel tired.
On one hand, we need to realize that Romans 5:20 does not fail upon application. If we think it will fail when tested, we go back into performance meter fixation. But when we realize that Romans 5:20 is a robust principle, we find a new motivation for doing what’s right. That motivation comes from the fact that putting grace to the test just causes more tension than it’s worth. This realization comes from the Spirit’s work in us. Likewise, doing good works isn’t about trying to become a good Christian. Rather, it is about wanting to see something uplifting and beneficial coming from our lives.
So, to summarize everything, the key point that I have become convicted of is that, anxiety over judgment is actually a type of judgment. It is the Biblical message of grace that sets people free from this judgment and enables them to become what God has made them to be.