It is common to think of the Christian’s future—either when we die or when we are resurrected—as commencing with a solemn and fearful judgment before God’s throne, a moment when we stand in the dock before God. For example, we may sing of Satan’s recurring accusation and God’s judgment, reminding ourselves that Jesus is “my only hope, my only plea.” It is commonly thought that we will have to verbalize this plea some future day when we stand before God’s throne as a sort of ticket to entry. This is not without good reason: confession and repentance and faith is indeed the attitude with which we as Christians, as so many Mephibosheths and Esthers, must approach God at all times. And it is not without scriptural justification: consider the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20, or Satan’s heavenly accusations of the righteous Job. We must give an account to God (Hebrews 4:13).
There is a kind of fear of God we are to have at all times (Deuteronomy 6:13, etc.), and there is a kind of judgment-evaluation that all men will experience (e.g., Psalm 96), and which will come as a surprise to some (Matthew 7:21-23). But it is worth considering God’s own situation and attitude as his people approach him, especially since Jesus has been raised for our justification and is now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. This will help us to better understand the kind of fear we are to have and the kind of judgment we are to expect.
The first thing we must recognize is that the Western courtroom, where we stand in the dock and where there is judge and witness and accuser and advocate, does not fit the heavenly model. God is a judge, to be sure, but he is a judge by virtue of his being king. A kingly courtroom is a place not only for passing judgment, but also for receiving audience, receiving honor and tribute, hearing petition, giving instruction and reward and commission, and feasting. We see this confirmed in the arrangement of the tabernacle, the arrangement of the temple, the types of Christ such as David and Solomon and Ahasuerus, and in the churchly-heavenly models of approaching God (Hebrews, Revelation) that are given to us in the new creation. So the mental picture that we have of a contemporary Western courtroom does not adequately represent the setting and atmosphere that we will experience with God.
More importantly, as we approach God in his heavenly court, we must remember that the Christian has already been justified by faith in Jesus (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, etc.). Not only that, but our justification-adoption has been publicly announced by God through his church by our baptism, which symbolically identifies us with Jesus (Romans 6, Colossians 2:12-13, Titus 3:4-7) so that we very clearly share in the Father’s baptismal declaration over him that he is “well pleased” with us (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). There is no need for us to be re-justified before God in this sense.
We must also remember that the Christian’s accuser has already been cast down from the heavenly court (Revelation 12:10-12). There is quite simply no accusation lodged against us in the heavenly court, nor can there be for those who have been justified (Romans 8:31-39) and adopted as sons. Taken together, this completely changes the tone of our appearances before God. It is true that those who are only masquerading as sons will be readily discovered and dealt with in their meeting with God. False sons experience a judgment unto wrath. But it is not true that the Christian’s meeting with God begins with the tone of what is essentially yet another paternity test to verify we are still sons. We stand tall as true sons, returned from a mission, to be evaluated and then praised or even chided and disciplined, yet with the actual purpose not of being evaluated but of being received in fellowship. Even in discipline God is, in the best sense, for us and not against us. God is inseparably both judge and Father, but there is much more the Father than the judge as we enter the heavenly court. “There’s my son; isn’t he a fine son?” (Matthew 3:17, Job 1, etc.) Note well: we have this standing only in Jesus. But, praise God, we really and truly have it!
We see a clear picture of this in how the prodigal son returns to the prodigal father (Luke 15). The son does rightly to walk in humility, confessing and repenting. But how glorious the father’s response: both sonship and repentance play into the exuberant reception, but far more the sonship. Repentance is simply one of the things that sons do; you could say that it is in one sense a kind of test or proof of sonship, but it is not at all a kind of admission exam to the feasting table.
This is important for us to keep in mind not only as we look ahead to our death and resurrection, but also day in and day out. To petition God in prayer at any time is to come before his throne. We do this “in Jesus’s name,” and we may come bold and confident (Hebrews 4:16) to a Father who is eager to see us and to hear our requests. In an even more heightened sense, the Lord’s day corporate worship of the church is an audience with king Jesus, where we stand and sit before him at his throne and at his table. Here it is quite proper to begin with confession of our sin. And our confession and repentance must never become perfunctory. But neither must it be a terror, and we need not imagine it to be a terror to keep it from being perfunctory.
Our confession on entrance into Jesus’s presence follows his own invitation to assemble before him, and we may be confident from his invitation, disposition, and promises that he receives us in the spirit of a king holding feast far more than a king sitting in judgment over criminal cases. Our confession and repentance are a way of keeping a short account with our Father and King, a sort of washing our hands before we join him at the table. It is to his glory that we stand tall wearing his robes of righteousness rather than sackcloth and ashes as we gather around him (Matthew 22:11-13, Proverbs 14:28), and in fact we are commanded to stand before him with joyful hearts and faces rather than grieving over our sin (Nehemiah 8:9-12). The prodigal son changed clothes as he sat to feast with his father. And that feast is telling of the father’s heart; our weekly invitation from and feast with Jesus is another proof that he is already favorably disposed toward us.
We must also consider that our own role in God’s heavenly court is not to serve as the subject of the court’s deliberation, but to participate as junior judicial members of the court. We are seated with Jesus (Ephesians 2:6). We will participate in judging the world (1 Corinthians 6:2), and will even judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). The new creation brings about what we might call the prophethood of all believers (Acts 2:17), which places us in God’s heavenly council (Amos 3:7). Just as Abraham, Moses, Habakkuk, Amos, and other prophets pleaded with God in council to shape his plans, the church may now participate in God’s evaluations and judgments.
All this—our settled adoption and our participation in God’s judgments—means that, amazingly, we may freely call upon God to judge us: not on the basis of any kind of perfection or righteousness or deserving in ourselves, but because we have already been judged and found to be sons. The sons are free (Matthew 17:26), both in the heavenly court and in the world at large, except as God calls us to special missions of sacrifice and deprivation for the sake of our growth and for the sake of his kingdom.
Another way to put this is to say that the evaluations and judgments and justifications that we have yet to experience—each time we meet for worship or on the last day—have nothing to do with the kind of justification whereby we receive righteousness from Jesus and have perfect standing before God. That is finished, in the past, a permanent change of status. Instead, what we experience in part each week, and will one day experience in full, is a judgment, a declaration, even a species of justification, that publicly vindicates us rather than changing our status. We are not waiting to hear whether God will accept us; that is sure. We are waiting for all the world to see that we were right to trust in Jesus and his promises, that it was not, after all, a fool’s errand, but that through our patience and faith and suffering we have inherited the world.
It is true that some will be surprised at God’s evaluation on the last day (Matthew 7:21-23). But the Christian need not fear this, and must instead look forward to being publicly vindicated before the world for trusting in Jesus. The great white throne judgment is from one perspective a kind of judgment. But much more it is the cotillion ball at which the débutante church is set apart to be admired by all as she joins the society of the king and prince.
Christian, it is true that you need not fear God’s judgment because of your union with Jesus. But more than that, you do not even have in your future to stand in the dock in a kind of judicial courtroom, again because of Jesus. All such courtrooms exist only for those who reject the king, and the only courts you have to look forward to are audiences and meals with the king. Be sure that you continue to approach with humility and repentance, but be equally sure that you approach with faith and confidence in your rightful place at God’s table.