Today’s New Testament lesson (Revelation 20:7-15) describes the “ultimate judgment” that takes place before the Great White Throne of God. Like most scenes from Revelation, this one has been the topic of endless commentary, debate and speculation; and so, I can’t begin to claim that I understand all its ramifications. What I can say, however, is that this scene has usually been presented to me in one of two ways: either it has been a reason for great fear and trembling, since books get opened and each person gets judged according to what they have done (verses 12-13); or it has been a reason for great comfort, since all those whose names are found written in the book of life are spared the lake of fire.
Now, it might be wrong for me to pry the lid off this “theological can of worms,” but I wonder: rather than thinking about these options as “either/or”, should we be looking at them as “both/and”? Both of these “assessments,” if you will, give expression to ideas that seem to rest at the heart of biblical faith. On the one side, we are saved by grace and not by works. If our names end up in the book of life, they won’t appear there because of any the noble things that we do — but because of the redeeming thing that Christ has done. On the other side, however, what we do matters. One simply can’t read the gospels without getting the impression that our concern for the least of these, our desire to serve, our willingness to extend forgiveness — in short, our embrace of Christ’s way — figures dramatically in terms of how our eternity unfolds. Perhaps we should be thinking in the way that one author I’ve read describes it: “Salvation by grace; judgment by works.”
Of course, this means thinking about “judgment” not just in terms of whether we’re “in” or “out” of heaven — but also in terms of the “judging/assessing/evaluating” of our lives so that everything which is holy and Christ-like can be retained, and everything which is not can be purified. And while I’d be hard-pressed to point to a specific biblical passage in which we see such “sifting” taking place, it does seem consistent with the promise that “the One who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it.”
In the end, of course, I think that our true hope rests in the fact that the Judge who will open both the “books” and the “book” is the same God who loves us, who died for us, and who even now is working within us to make us whole. May we not fear His ultimate verdict; but instead — trusting in His grace — may we open ourselves today to His transforming power — so that the “book” will bear our name — and the “books” will bear the record of our joyful obedience.