Bob Gonzales, Dean
Reformed Baptist Seminary
Death is not the end. Human souls do exist beyond the grave, and one day their bodies will be raised. That day will introduce another great event: the Last Judgment. This future event will mark the turning point between the present evil age and the age to come. The Baptist Confession, following the Westminster and Savoy,1 summarizes the biblical teaching concerning this event in the scope of three paragraphs, which highlight its sober reality, ultimate purpose, and practical effects.
I. The Sober Reality of the Last Judgment (32.1)
God hath appointed a day wherein he will judge the world in righteousness, by Jesus Christ; to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father; in which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon the earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds, and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil.
Together, general and special revelation portend the sober reality of an eschatological judgment. To begin with, all men possess an innate sense that their sin is worthy of divine judgment (Jonah 1:7, 10-16; Acts 28:4; Rom. 1:32; 2:15). Since, however, divine justice is not fully meted out in this life (Job 21:23, 24; Psa. 73:4, 5; Eccl. 3:16; 8:14; 9:1-3; Luke 16:19-22), the hearts of men are prepared to receive the special revelation of a future judgment. This future judgment was first revealed to Adam and Eve in the promise of Satan's final demise (Gen. 3:15). According to Jude, Enoch, the fifth from Adam, warned his contemporaries of this event (Jude 14, 15). The universal flood provided a foretaste of this final judgment (Gen. 62Pet. 3:5-7). Additionally, David and Solomon speak of this day (Psa. 9:17-20; 37:37-38; 49:12-15; Eccl. 12:13, 14).2The most explicit OT prophecy of this future event comes through Daniel in a vision:
I watched till thrones were put in place, and the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, and the hair of His head was like pure wool. His throne was a fiery flame, its wheels a burning fire; a fiery stream issued and came forth from before Him. A thousand thousands ministered to Him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him. The court was seated, and the books were opened (Dan. 7:9, 10, NKJ).
During His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus Christ not only spoke of judgment day, but He also identified Himself as the agent through whom God's judgment would be mediated (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:22, 27). According to the Apostle Paul, Christ's bodily resurrection confirms His future role as supreme judge (Acts 17:31). There are a number of other key NT references that speak of this coming day (Rom. 2:6-16; 2Thes. 1:5-10; Heb. 9:27; 2Pet. 3:1-13; Rev. 20:11-15).
The Confession clearly gives a universal scope to this judgment: “in which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon the earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ ....” A consideration of the major passages dealing with the final judgment confirms the presence of both the righteous and the wicked (Matt. 16:27; 25:31-46; Rom. 2:6-16; 2Cor. 5:10; 2Thes. 1:5-10; 2Pet. 3:1-13). This fact, together with the fact that either eternal life or eternal death are the outcome (see paragraph 2 below), would seem to preclude premillennial views that normally divide the final judgment into several stages involving different parties.3 Nevertheless, both Puritan and modern premillennialists have subscribed to the Confession.4
The Confession also, following Scripture, identifies the criteria of the last judgment as men's “thoughts” (Eccl. 12:14; Rom. 2:16; 1Cor. 4:5), “words” (Matt. 12:36), and “deeds” (Rom. 2:6-10; 2Cor. 5:10; Rev. 2:11-15). This raises two important questions regarding the judgment of believers: first, if salvation is not by works but by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9), how can the believer's deeds function as the criteria for his judgment? Sam Waldron provides a helpful answer: “Judgement proceeds on the basis of deeds, because our deeds, taken as a whole, manifest our character and our character manifests our relationship to Christ and the presence or absence of faith in him.”5 In other words, the presence of good works will confirm the presence of genuine faith. We might add, the presence of genuine faith will confirm the reality of saving grace.
The second question raised by the language of the Confession (and Scripture) has to do with the believer's sins. According 1 Corinthians 4:5, the Lord will “bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts ....” We can understand if the evil deeds, words, and thoughts of the wicked would be exposed on the last day. But what about the Christian's evil deeds, words, and thoughts? Will the believer's sins be exposed on the Day of Judgment? Before we answer that question, we should remember that the Bible encourages believers to view the prospect of a coming judgment as source of comfort, not dread (Matt. 25:21, 34; John 5:29; Rom. 2:10; 2Thes. 1:6-10; 2Pet. 3:13-14). Thus, we should not answer the question in a way that gives rise to an unhealthy fear of judgment day. According to Richard Lenski, “No inquisition will or can be made into any believer's sins. In their place will be found only Christ's blood and righteousness.”6  Waldron agrees with Lenski and argues, “Only the life-style of righteousness which vindicates his faith will come to view.”7  On the other hand, Anthony Hoekema believes the failures and shortcomings of believers will be exposed. “But,” adds Hoekema, “the sins and shortcomings of believers will be revealed in the judgment as forgiven sins, whose guilt has been totally covered by the blood of Jesus Christ” (emphasis his).8 The thought of our sins being revealed at the last day would serve to deter us from sin (see paragraph 3), and the realization that they are all under Christ's blood would serve to keep us from fear.
II. The Ultimate Purpose of the Last Judgment (32.2)
The end of God's appointing this day, is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the eternal damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient; for then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and glory with everlasting rewards, [`refreshing'-WCF] in the presence of the Lord; but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast aside into everlasting torments, and punished with everlasting destruction, from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
In his famous treatise entitled, The End for Which God Created the World, Jonathan Edwards argued that God's chief end in His works of creation and providence was the manifestation of His own glory.9 The entrance of sin and divine judgment into the world has not altered this ultimate goal. God's purpose in salvation and in damnation remains one with his original intent for creation. As the Confession explains, “The end of God's appointing this day [of judgment], is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of this justice, in the eternal damnation of the reprobate” (cf. Isa. 60:1-3; 19-21; Rom. 9:22-23; 11:33-36; Rev. 4:8-11; 5:12-14; 19:1-6; 21:22-26). Thus, the glory of God's mercy will be eternally displayed in heaven, and the glory of His justice will be eternally displayed in hell.
This ultimate end will be realized in history when “the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and glory with everlasting rewards in the presence of the Lord; but the wicked, who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast aside into everlasting torments, and punished with everlasting destruction, from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power” (Matt. 25:31-46; Mk. 9:43, 48; 2 Thes. 1:9; Rev. 14:10, 11; Rev. 20:10-15). This portion of the Confession addresses two important issues: the rewards of the righteous and the eternal punishment of the wicked.
The Baptist Confession follows the Savoy in maintaining the prospect of “rewards” in heaven. Some theologians reject the idea of believers receiving differing degrees of reward since in their mind it detracts from the gracious nature of salvation. For example, Craig Blomberg has argued,
I do not believe there is a single NT text that, when correctly interpreted, supports the notion that believers will be distinguished one from another for all eternity on the basis of their works as Christians. What is more, I am convinced that when this unfounded doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is acted upon consistently—though, fortunately, it often is not—it can have highly damaging consequences for the motivation and psychology of living the Christian life.10
While Blomberg's concern about the abuses of the doctrine is laudable11 and while he does demonstrate that some texts commonly used to support the idea of varying degrees of eschatological reward can be interpreted otherwise, his attempt to overthrow all the texts commonly employed as a basis of future rewards falls short (see especially Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-26; 1 Cor. 3:14-15; 1 Thes. 2:19). If we are to give honor to whom honor is due this side of glory (Num. 12:7; Luke 19:15-19; Rom. 12:14; 13:7; 1 Tim. 5:17), there's no reason why the same ethic cannot operate in the age to come.12 Strictly speaking, these rewards will be granted not on the basis of merit but grace (cf. Luke 17:7-10). Therefore, the prospect of varying rewards need not degenerate into a merit-motivated Christianity since all genuine believers are motivated by love and gratitude, not by selfish greed (John 14:15; 21:15-17; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Thes. 1:4; 1Pet. 1:8; 1 Jn. 4:19).13
The second important issue concerns the eternal punishment of the wicked. A number of modern evangelicals have joined the ranks of liberals and cultists in denying the historical doctrine of eternal punishment and advocating the view of Annihilationism.14 According to this view, the wicked will be punished with cessation of existence, not endless torment. Clark Pinnock, an advocate of this view and professing evangelical theologian, has been bold enough to assert,
Let me say at the outset that I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in body and mind an outrageous doctrine, a theological and moral enormity, a bad doctrine of the tradition which needs to be changed. How can Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful they may have been? Surely a God who would do such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God, at least by any ordinary moral standards, and by the gospel itself.15
Three brief responses may be offered to Pinnock's objection. First, the doctrine of endless punishment is not the projection of sadistic Christian theologians. Rather, it is a doctrine of Scripture. Not only does the Bible teach a future, final, retributive punishment of the wicked, which includes shame and torment (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 5:23-26; 8:12; 18:34-35; Luke 13:24-28; Rev. 20:14), but it also clearly portrays the duration of this punishment as endless (Matt. 25:46; Mark 9:44, 46, 48; Heb. 6:2; Rev. 14:11; 20:10).16 Second, Pinnock's objection assumes that the doctrine of endless punishment is inconsistent with the concept of a loving God. In fact, the opposite is true! The fires of hell will provide an eternal display of God's passionate love for His own honor and for the happiness of His people (Rev. 19:1-6).17 Third, Pinnock is in grave danger of blasphemy in that he has compared the God who punishes eternally to Satan! As Millard Erickson cautions, “A wiser course of action would be restraint in one's statements, just in case he might be wrong.”18 In conclusion, we must maintain the doctrine of endless punishment as biblical and reject Annihilationism as a dangerously false teaching.19
III. The Practical Effects of the Last Judgment (32.3)
As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin, and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity, so will he have the day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come, and may ever be prepared to say, “Come Lord Jesus; come quickly.” Amen.
The third paragraph notes the practical effects of the doctrine of final judgment. On the one hand, the inevitable reality of a future judgment serves “to deter all men from sin,” including those who profess faith in Christ (Matt. 5:29, 30; 1 Cor. 6:9, 10; 2 Cor. 5:10, 11; 1 Thes. 4:6; Heb. 10:26-31; 2 Pet. 3:11, 14).20 Furthermore, its certainty serves “for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity” (Matt. 25:21, 34; John 5:29; Rom. 2:10; 2 Thes. 1:5-7).21 On the other hand, the uncertain timing of the future judgment motivates men to “shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful because they know not at what hour the Lord will come.” According to this last statement in the Confession, it would seem the Puritans believed in the imminent return of Christ. This is true if by “imminent” one means no more than the possibility of Christ's return within the lifetime of any generation of believers. However, the modern Dispensational view of an “any-moment” imminency is inconsistent with both Puritan beliefs22 and New Testament teaching.23 In any event, the Confession definitely discourages date-setting—“so will he have the day unknown to men”24 —and clearly encourages expectancy among believers—“Come Lord Jesus; come quickly.” And God's people said, “Amen!”
- There is practically no difference. The Baptist Confession follows the Savoy in changing the phrase “refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord” (para. 2) to read, “glory, with everlasting reward in the presence of the Lord.”
- Solomon cannot be referring to a merely temporal judgment since he has already concluded that a universal and complete judgment does not happen in this life (Eccl. 3:16; 8:14; 9:1-3).
- Classical Premillennialism divides the final judgment into at least two distinct stages: first, the resurrection and judgment of the righteous which occurs at Christ's Second Coming before the millennium; second, the resurrection and judgment of the wicked which occurs at the end of the millennium. Dispensational Premillennialism commonly divides the final judgment into four distinct stages: first, the resurrection and judgment of Christians at the Bema Seat of Christ at the rapture prior to the Great Tribulation (2Cor. 5:10); second, the judgment of Israel at the end of the seven-year Great Tribulation (Ezek. 20:33-38); third, the judgment of the nations at Christ's Second Coming to inaugurate His millennial reign (Matt. 25:31-46); fourth, the Great White Throne judgment of the wicked dead at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:11-15). See the New Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 1036-37, notes on Matt. 25:32. Robert Gundry, who follows a more classical Premillennial scheme, attempts to uphold a general judgment by arguing that the resurrection of believers prior to the millennium will not constitute their final judgment and reward. That judgment will await the end of the millennium when believers will join unbelievers at the Great White Throne Judgment. The Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 169.
- Thomas Goodwin, one of the Westminster Assembly divines, was a premillennialist. See his “A Glimpse of Zion's Future Glory” and “The World to Come” in vol. 12 of The Works of Thomas Goodwin (1861-66; reprint, Eureka, CA.: Tanski Publications, 1996). Old Testament scholar, J. Barton Payne, furnishes a modern example of a Reformed premillennialist. See his book, The Imminent Appearing of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962).
- A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 2nd ed. (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1995), p. 417.
- The Interpretation of St. Paul's First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians (Columbus: Warburg Press, 1946), 1016.
- Modern Exposition, 419.
- The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 259. See also Cornelius Venema, The Promise of the Future (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 402.
- John Piper has recently republished this treatise along with his own commentary and reflections in God's Passion for His Own Glory: Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1998).
- “Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35 (June 1992): 16o. Blomberg sees the Parable of the Laborers in Matthew 20:1-16 as a “leveling” text that precludes any doctrine of varying rewards in the afterlife. I'm inclined to agree with D. A. Carson, however, who notes, “The point of the parable is not that all in the kingdom will receive the same reward but that kingdom rewards depend on God's sovereign grace.” “Matthew,” in vol. 8 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Zondervan, 1984), 428.
- Blomberg rightly objects to the teaching that posits a kind of two-tier Christianity-those who exercise saving faith but bear no fruit (and as a result, make it to heaven but get no rewards) and those who both believe and bear fruit (and, as a result, not only gain entrance into heaven but collect a bundle of rewards to boot). This kind of teaching undermines the doctrine of perseverance and can potentially lead individuals into entertaining a false sense of assurance based on a superficial profession of faith.
- Space does not permit a detailed rebuttal of Blomberg's exegesis and defense of the more traditional interpretation of the “reward texts” so I'll have to direct the reader to Venema, The Promise of the Future, 405-418, and Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 262-64.
- Especially helpful are Jonathan Edwards' “Miscellaneous Remarks” concerning heaven where he notes, “Now the holier a man is, the more he loves the same degree of the image; so that the holiest in heaven will love that image of God they see in the least holy more than those do that are less holy; and that which makes it beyond any doubt that this superior happiness will be no damp to them, is this, that their superior happiness consists in their great humility, and in their greater love to them, and to God, and to Christ, whom the saints look upon as themselves. These things may be said of this, beside what may be said about every one being completely satisfied and full of happiness having as much as he is capable of enjoying or desiring; and also what may be said about their entire resignation; for God's will is become so much their own that the fulfilling of his will, let it be what it may, fills them with inconceivable satisfaction (emphasis his). The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834; reprint, The Banner of Truth, 1974), 2:618. Elsewhere, Edwards compares the varying degrees of reward experienced by the saints to vessels that are all full but that differ in capacity: “Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others; and there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign through the whole society. Those who are not so high in glory as others, will not envy those that are higher but they will have so great and strong and pure love to them, that they will rejoice in their superior happiness; their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it.” “Sermon VIII,” in Works, 2:902
- Noteworthy examples include, John Stott, Philip Hughes, and Clark Pinnock.
- “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4.2 (1990): 246-47, cited in Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995), 161.
- No wonder Jesus said regarding the man who was to betray Him, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). If Annihilationism were true, Jesus' statement would be invalid.
- It should also be added that our doctrine of God's love should never be pitted against our doctrine of His holiness or justice, as if these were incompatible attributes. In fact, they are perfectly harmonious and complementary.
- The Evangelical Mind and Heart (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 152, cited in Peterson, Hell on Trial, 179, f.n.
- For a fuller defense of eternal punishment and refutation of Annihilationism, see John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell? (Durham: Evangelical Press, 1993); Harry Buis, The Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1957); John Gerstner, Repent or Perish (Ligionier, PA.: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990); Robert Peterson, Hell on Trial (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1995); Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Nelson Publishers, 1998), 1068-85; Cornelius Venema, The Promise of the Future, 420-53.
- As the passages noted indicate, a lack of holiness and/or apostasy subject an individual to the prospect of future punishment. This possibility, in turn, is sometimes employed by the Scripture writers as a motivation to perseverance. See also the discussion above under the first paragraph concerning the exposure of the believer's failures and sins at the last judgment.
- So the 52nd question of the Heidelberg Catechism appropriately asks, “What comfort is it to thee that Christ shall come again to judge the quick and the dead?” The answer: “That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the self-same One who has before offered himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed from me all curse, to come again as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me, will all his chosen ones, to himself, into heavenly joy and glory.” Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 6th ed. (1931; Baker Books, 1990), 3:323-24.
- Iain Murray shows that many of the Puritans believed in a future worldwide outpouring of God's Spirit that would result not only in the conversion of many Gentiles but also in the conversion of ethnic Israel. The Puritan Hope (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1971).
- Robert Gundry has demonstrated that the NT concept of Christ's imminent return does not require an any-moment expectancy but allows for intervening events. The Church and the Tribulation, 29-43.
- Christians should be wary of date-setters, including those that claim to be Reformed, such as Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio. For a refutation of Camping's books, 1994? and Are You Ready?, see Cornelius Venema, The Promise of the Future, 95-109.
Robert R. Gonzales Jr. has been a pastor since 1997 and currently serves as one of the pastors of Covenant Reformed Baptist Church. He is a graduate of the Reformed Baptist School of Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also holds a Master of Arts degree (M.A.) in Theology and a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University. He is an Associate Editor of and contributor to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review (RBTR) and a member of the Evangelical Theological
Society (ETS). Bob and his wife, Becky, have five children.
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