Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
I had occasion to give special consideration to this subject in connection with preparing a sermon on this aspect of our Lord’s return. Both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, in their articles about the return of the Lord, focus on this aspect of the Lord’s return almost exclusively.
What comfort is it to thee that Christ shall come again to judge the living and the dead? That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered Himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as judge from heaven: who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall translate me with all His chosen ones, to Himself into heavenly joys and glory (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 19).
The well known theme of the Heidelberg Catechism of the Christian’s only comfort in life and death that he belongs to His faithful Savior Jesus Christ shines through in its article on Christ coming for judgment. The wicked have every reason to contemplate with great terror the return of the Lord in judgment. The judgment of the Lord will be for them a day of terrible darkness and dreadful calamity. Those who belong to Christ will have unspeakable comfort when He comes for the judgment.
Article 37 of the Belgic Confession is certainly one of the most beautiful statements regarding the return of the Lord found anywhere outside of the Bible itself.
Finally we believe, according to the Word of God, when the time appointed by the Lord (which is unknown to all creatures) is come, and the number of the elect complete, that our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, corporally and visibly, as He ascended, with great glory and majesty to declare Himself the judge of the quick and the dead, burning this old world with fire and flame to cleanse it. And then all men will personally appear before this great judge, both men and women and children, that have been from the beginning of the world to the end thereof, being summoned by the voice of the archangel, and by the sound of the trumpet of God. For all the dead shall be raised out of the earth, and their souls joined and united to their proper bodies, in which they formerly lived. As for those who shall then be living, they shall not die as the others, but be changed in the twinkling of an eye, and from corruptible, become incorruptible. Then the books (that is to say the consciences) shall be opened, and the dead judged according to what they shall have done in this world, whether it be good or evil. Nay, all men shall give an account of every idle word they have spoken, which the world only counts as amusement and jest: and then the secrets and hypocrisy of men shall be disclosed and laid open before all. And therefore the consideration of this judgment, is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly, but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and elect: because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labor and trouble which they have borne. Their innocence shall be known to all, and they shall see the terrible vengeance which God shall execute on the wicked, who most cruelly persecuted, oppressed and tormented them in this world; and who shall be convicted by the testimony of their own consciences, and being immortal, shall be tormented in that everlasting fire, which is prepared for the devil and his angels. But on the contrary, the faithful and elect shall be crowned with glory and honor; and the Son of God shall confess their names before God His Father, and His elect angels; all tears shall be wiped from their eyes; and their cause which is now condemned by many judges and magistrates, as heretical and impious, will then be known to be the cause of the Son of God. And for a gracious reward, the Lord will cause them to possess such a glory, as never entered into the heart of man to conceive. Therefore we expect that great day with a most ardent desire to the end that we may fully enjoy the promises of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
AMEN. Even so, come, Lord Jesus (Rev. 20:20).
Once again notice the beautiful element of comfort expressed in this confession of the Reformed believer. The Reformed believer looks for the return of the Lord “with ardent desire.” How much is this true of us?
There are many wonderful aspects of the Lord’s coming that we could occupy ourselves with. We will limit our comments to the statements of these confessions regarding the judgment with which the Lord will come. We will write a second article about the expectation of the coming of the Lord. The character of this expectation will of course be entirely determined by what we believe concerning the nature of His coming. Few churches today preach the distinctive truths contained in the above quoted confessions.
Even the fact as such that the Lord will come in judgment upon this wicked world is something commonly denied in the church at large today, and increasingly so in Reformed churches. From many corners the teaching of universalism is being promoted. Many even today imagine that this present world is getting better and better. According to the teaching of many churches today most if not all men will be saved. This is the consequence of the prevalent heresy of our day that God loves all men. The Word of God clearly teaches that the Lord will come to judge the ungodly with terrible judgment. He will come to make righteous discrimination between men. He will come to execute terrible vengeance on His enemies. The Lord will come to burn up this wicked world with the fire of His holy wrath.
The Scriptures are very plain regarding these truths of the Lord’s coming. The Old Testament prophets spoke of this repeatedly. The coming of the Lord will be a day of great and terrible wrath. The day of the Lord’s return is called the day of vengeance. (See Isaiah 63 and Joel 2 for example.) The New Testament is full of the same language. (See Hebrews 10 and 12; II Peter 3; Jude 14 and 15; and so much of the book of Revelation.) The nations of the world are enemies of the living God of heaven and earth. The vast majority of the men on the earth are the enemies of God and followers of the evil one. Rather than teach that God will in the end save the vast majority of mankind, the Scriptures teach the very opposite.
Until the very end, most of the world’s population will remain heathen. It will also be the case that near the end of the world, when the Lord comes again, most of Christianity will have become apostate. The fierce anger of the Lord will be poured out on those who have denied the name of Christ and crucified the Son of God afresh. The apostate church will be judged for joining forces with the wicked world against the true church as enemies of God. The true church will be but a small remnant in the last days. She will be hated, despised, and persecuted in the last day.
This world cries out for judgment. Wickedness abounds in the earth. Every day the news media in our land portray the evil times in which we live. The fiasco our nation is going through with its incumbent president, the gross immorality of other of our leaders, the impenitent wickedness of those involved in the scandals of our day, the nonchalant attitude of much of the American public—all of this cries out to high heaven for judgment. The wickedness produced daily by Hollywood and Broadway, the glorying of these organizations in the transgression of all of the holy commandments of God, the jesting about what is abominable to God, the filling of the world with the vilest of adultery and fornication, and worst of all the brazen blasphemy of the name of God promoted in our land will all some day be judged in the fierce and holy wrath of God.
The apostate church that has denied virtually every fundamental article of the faith, and that tolerates the grossest iniquity in her midst, all in the name of love, will find in the day of judgment that the Lord is angry with her with terrible judgment. All her glorying in herself, all her boasting about love and tolerance and magnanimity, all her pride in the huge numbers that follow her teachings and praise her for accommodation to the prevailing philosophy of the time, for all this she will come into judgment. She will be judged as having hated the truth and righteousness of God and for having gloried in herself rather than in the sovereign, righteous, holy, and infinitely glorious Lord of heaven and earth. The faithful church of Jesus Christ in true love for God and for His glorious sovereignty and righteousness must faithfully preach and warn men of this world both within and without the church about the coming judgment.
Jesus will come personally to the judge the earth. He will come literally and bodily as the incarnate Lord. This too is denied by many theologians in the church. They teach the heresy that there will really never be a literal return of the Lord at all. The truth of the Lord’s return only means that He returns in spirit whenever men speak about Him in the church, and His spirit is revived among His followers. This world will continue on indefinitely. As the ages go by, it will get better and better, so that there will be no need for a final judgment by a personal and literal return of the incarnate Lord.
But the Lord will return personally as judge for the sake of His beloved saints. The same Lord who died on the cross to justify His saints shall appear in that last day to judge them to be righteous.
The Bible indeed teaches that the Lord in His first coming did not come to condemn the world but to save it. Yet already when He was on the earth and when He went everywhere preaching the truth concerning Himself, the judgment of God was revealed. Those who believed on Him were given the hope of eternal life, and those who did not believe were declared by the Lord to be condemned already. All men will be judged for what they have done with the Christ and for what they have done with His truth.
Jesus Himself declared that He would judge all men. “The Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son…. And hath given Him authority to execute judgment also because He is the Son of God” (John 5: 22 and 27). The inspired apostle testifies, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (II Cor. 5:10). It is because of this great truth that Paul in the next verse says, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest unto God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences” (II Cor. 5:11). With these words also agrees the statement in Romans: “But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10).
The return of the Lord for judgment will be the revelation of His glory. He will be glorified as the one whom God appointed and who has the authority and power to judge all men. The righteousness of the Lord’s judgment will be the revelation of His glory. The day of His judgment will be the public justification of His elect. The righteousness of the cross will be exalted as having covered forever the guilt of all of His chosen ones. This will be the exceeding great glory of the judgment. But the glory of Christ will also be revealed in the just vengeance that He will execute on His enemies.
The judgment of Christ will be in connection with the victory of the cross and the righteousness that He accomplished there. That is exactly why it is so fitting that Christ will be the final judge. Christ will appear as judge in order to reveal the justice of His cause. This cause is despised by the wicked world. It is defended and preached by His faithful church. The true church is persecuted and hated in this ungodly world because she represents and boldly preaches the righteousness and truth of the cause of the Lord. The most grievous persecution that the church receives for representing the cause of the Lord comes not from the heathen world but from the apostate church. This apostate church will be overwhelming in number, presence, and power in the last days before the Lord’s return. The apostate church commonly mocks and ridicules the faithful church for what she preaches about the Lord. But in the day of the Lord’s judgment it will be clearly revealed that this church and she alone has truly represented the cause of the Lord. The Lord will reward His church for her faithfulness.
The coming of the Lord for judgment will be an objectively real event. There is indeed in this present age a judgment of God in the consciences of every man. Even the wicked can sometimes already in this world have great torment of conscience. The saints of God on the other hand have a pure conscience. They have the peace of knowing that they are justified in Christ before God. But there will in the last day be an objectively real judgment. There are many things about how exactly the judgment will take place which we cannot know now. We must remember that the last judgment will be a great wonder, even as all the works of God in Christ are wonders of God. But we must maintain the objective reality of the judgment. The many visions concerning this judgment found in the Scriptures make this very clear. (See for example Matthew 25:31ff.; II Corinthians 5:10; and Revelation 20.)
All men that ever lived, from the beginning to the end of time, must appear before the judgment seat of Christ. The heathen who never had the gospel preached to them will also be judged. They will be judged for their idolatry. This idolatry will not be recognized as a sincere searching after God or as an innocent alternative name for the worship of the true God. It will be judged because it is the fruit of denying and opposing the truth that God clearly revealed in His creation concerning His own eternal power and Godhead. It is denied by many modern-day mission endeavors that the heathen will be judged. This has caused the church to lose her reason for preaching the gospel of Christ. The Word of God in Romans 1 is very clear. The heathen will be without excuse.
But those who have known the truth and have departed from it will receive a double punishment. The apostate church in the last day will be judged to be the great whore portrayed in the book of Revelation. She will receive the punishment prophesied there. It will be worse than the punishment of the heathen who never had the gospel preached to them.
We cannot help but realize that the articles of the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession referred to above were written in the context of the great Protestant Reformation. The lines in those days were clearly drawn by the Reformers. Apostate Christianity in our day has blurred the lines. It is even being said that Protestantism should join again with Rome, even though Rome is as apostate as she ever was and continues to show the signs of being the foreshadowing of the Antichrist. In the days of the Reformation many faithful saints suffered great persecution because of their love for the truth of Christ. Many thousands died as martyrs. Even in our day the faithful church is despised and ridiculed. The time will come again before the Lord’s return when the faithful church will be severely persecuted by the apostate church. She will be hated in the world for the Lord’s sake. The great comfort of the church under the cross is the truth that the Lord shall appear as the final judge in the end to reveal who has truly stood for His Word and His righteousness. He shall appear to save and deliver and to glorify His faithful church.
The consequences of the judgment will be everlasting. The wicked will be sent away into eternal darkness and the terrible fire of the judgment of God. This too is much denied in our day. It is argued that a God of love will never find pleasure in the eternal burning of His creatures in hell. It is argued that eternal punishment is far too severe a judgment for sin that was done only in the short moments of time. But all this is nothing more than humanistic argumentation. Such humanistic arguments have little regard for the seriousness of man’s sin. This sin is so serious because it is committed against the most holy majesty of God. The arguments of the humanists have little regard for the fearfulness of God’s infinite, perfect, absolute holiness and righteousness. The apostate church cares more for man than it does for the glory of God. It is striking how often our Lord Himself spoke of the coming of the judgment. He spoke of the eternal destruction of the wicked. He gave some of the most terrifying descriptions of the judgment of hell as being the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth and the place where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched? Do these words come from the Lord who is love?
The saints will be personally rewarded for their works, for their faithfulness, for their suffering, and especially for the persecution which they endured in the world. Great shall be their reward. The deepest cause of the reward of the saints is God’s sovereign gracious election of them. Of this our Reformed confessions speak repeatedly in describing the coming judgment of the Lord. The reward of the saints will be a gracious reward, merited for them by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Christ Himself, who by His amazing sacrifice of love on the cross atoned for the sins of the elect and justified them by His cross, will personally appear in the day of judgment. He shall justify His saints before the whole world. That is the reason why the saints “expect that great day with a most ardent desire to the end that they may fully enjoy the promises of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.” Therefore the constant prayer of the church as she suffers persecution in the world is, “Come, Lord Jesus, Yea, come quickly.”