It appears from a broader reading of the New Testament that believers remain under judgment. The good news of Jesus’ ministry is that we gain access to a freedom and a knowledge that inspires us to pursue the good that is unknown by those outside the Christian community. Even so, the believer can turn away, with potentially disastrous consequences, and therefore must work diligently to keep our hearts and minds focused on God.
The methodology of this paper flows from some deeply-held convictions about the use of the biblical witness. These flow from a central belief, that the God is the ultimate author of the New Testament canon through the agency of the Holy Spirit using humans, with all of their inherent flaws as instruments of communication. The following principles flow from this foundation of belief. First, the entire New Testament canon should be consulted on issues of general concern to the Church. Second, when done in the context of the Christian community and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, interpretation from the surface of the text can provide access to the Word of God for God’s people. Third, specialized study of the context of the New Testament authors can provide insight into the meaning of the biblical text, but must be understood as provisional, as is all human scholarship.
In this paper, I will pose the following questions to the various authors of the New Testament: What does God require of believers and what are the penalties for falling short of the mark? In what way are Christian believers under judgment? These questions will be put to a conference table of the New Testament authors as identified by G.B. Caird. The evaluation of all the books of the New Testament, and the treatment of nearly all of them in the body of this paper meets the objective of attempting a full canonical evaluation.
Caird also suggests that the conference have a presider and that ground rules for interaction be adopted. For this exercise the presider will be a member of the Johannine school. The method for enforcing that the Johannine point of view is borrowed from popular culture: the “completion backward principle” It seems that a natural error that occurs in a typical exercise of biblical analysis is beginning with the Gospels, working through Acts, Romans, the Corinthians and Galatians and then running out of time. By starting with Revelation and working backwards through the canon, the work of John and his followers achieve prominence. That which is first will be last; and last, first. In this way, the Pauline letters, Acts, and the Gospels will be made to respond to the views developed by the Johannine school, and the authors of the Petrine letters, James, Hebrews, and Colossians (as example of a letter that may not have Pauline origin).
This approach puts the pastoral theology of Galatians, the Corinthians and especially Romans in a new light. The “back” of the Bible, in concert with the Synoptics, paints a picture of a God of both grace and judgment. Those who believe the testimony of Christ’s saving action have access to new life. Those who apostatize, who sin in full knowledge of God’s graciousness, or who lead to the downfall of others face the wrath of God. In the words of a charismatic preacher, one must beware of “sloppy agape.” The righteousness and wrath of God did not cease with the coming of a new covenant. God still requires God’s people to reflect the love of God in heart and mind and action. The innovation of the life, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we, humanity, now have a Way, that is access to the very heart of God. If we can humble ourselves utterly and open our hearts to the terrible and glorious truth of the death of Jesus at Calvary, we can participate in the life of God by the indwelling of the Spirit. This access is permanent, but it is not, pardon the expression, a card to get out of jail free.
The book of Revelation is the starting point on the journey to evaluate how God may judge individuals in the community of believers. The majority of the book of Revelation describes an eschatological chronology of judgment conveyed in terms of elaborate imagery. The author, ostensibly John, ascribes the messages collected in the book of Revelation to the lips of an apocalyptic Jesus. It is the Jesus figure that speaks in the first three chapters to seven early Christian churches. The message of condemnation and praise is much more literal than the material that follows it.
The clearest instances of condemnation directed at specific Christians can be found in the book of Revelation. In the early chapters of Revelation, the author, who is identified as John, reports a vision of the apocalyptic Jesus. These chapters recount the approval and judgment of seven early churches. Two of the seven churches receive a substantial degree of condemnation. The selection from Revelation 3.1-6 reports the condemnation of the church of Sardis. The fact that a community identified with the early Christian church is under judgment creates a strong impression that all face eschatological judgment. The text of Revelation recalls that the church of Sardis had previously received the Word of God (Rev., 3.3), but has fallen away. Judgment comes on the basis of works. Although a part of the body of Christ, the behavior of the church members in Sardis lead to the conclusion that they were Christian in name only and that they were not doing works worthy of that name. (Rev., 3.1) This failure of action leads to a call for repentance: “Wake up and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.” (Rev., 3.2) The threat of punishment for this failure to act in accord with Christ’s standards is clear.
Accountability will come with the return of Jesus: “‘Remember then what you received and heard; obey it, and repent. If you do not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come to you.’” (Rev., 3.3) Though Jesus appears prepared to discipline even believers, Jesus is also prepared to forgive those who turn back to Him and to treat them the same as those who have not fallen away: “‘If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot out your name in the book of life….’” (Rev. 3.5) Even with this offer of forgiveness comes a restatement of the penalty for turning away from God: to be condemned to eternal death.
What are the crimes that imperil the lives of the congregation at Sardis? Three other churches are reproved in this section. The nature of their shortcomings may illustrate the types of behavior that demand judgment. Some members of the church of Pergamum stand under judgment for putting a “‘stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.’” (Rev 2.14) An otherwise faithful church in Thyatira is criticized for tolerating a false prophet who “‘is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols.’” (Rev 2.20) Although the innocent are cleared of guilt, “‘those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings.…’” (Rev 2.22) The voice of Jesus makes clear to these churches that is it both heart and works that form the basis for judgment: “‘And all the churches know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.’” (Rev. 2.23) Like the church at Sardis, the church of Laodicea is under condemnation, they are condemned for indifference. The voice of judgment states: “‘I know your works; you are neither hot nor cold. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.’” (Rev 3.15-16) The membership of several of the churches, many of whom profess faith or at least have received the Gospel, are under judgment for acts of turning away not only physically but also in terms of heart and mind. (Note similar judgment in Mark 7.20-23)
In the book of Revelation the oracle of John shares a vision of the Jesus who is to return, and issues a warning to the early Christian churches. John’s revelation carries the unmistakable message that believers and unbelievers alike will stand with their works before the judgment of Jesus during the end times: “‘Let the evildoer still do evil, and let the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.’” (Rev. 22.11-12) The promise of judgment for sinners is vivid and absolute. Those who fall short will suffer in the torment of the lake of fire: “‘But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.’” (Rev. 21.8) This passage of condemnation directly follows a passage (Rev. 21 1-7) describing how “those who conquer” immorality will drink from the “water of life” in a new earth where “death will be no more.” The impact of this juxtaposition is amplified if we reflect back to the fate of those in the seven churches mentioned early in the book of Revelation. Although the members of these churches have been believers, they have fallen away and have put themselves under judgment. Thus the threat of the lake of fire extends even to those Christians who have turned their backs to God and are engaging in the acts of apostasy and sinful recidivism, especially those that cause others to fall.
The letters of John convey an understanding that the actions of the believer must reflect the content of belief. Those who fail to follow God in their works lack true belief. The failure to obey calls into question the fundamental relationship between God and human. Those who profess faith and yet are disobedient are so inconsistent that they are called liars. (1 John 2.3-4) For example, if a person claims to have faith but still hates another, that person is considered to be outside the circle of light. (1 John 2.9) Further, the betrayal of those who have left the community calls into question whether these former members were ever a part of the community enjoying the promises of Christ. (1 John 2.19) Those that deny that Jesus is Christ are liars. From Revelation and the Synoptics, we know the torment that awaits liars and those who fail to bear witness to the glory of God.
The First letter of John captures an important temporal element in the economy of salvation. The relationship with Jesus is dynamic and requires human response. Belief and action consistent with God’s righteous instructions permits a continuing relationship with the living God. But humans can turn from God, fail to follow God’s instructions, fail to bear witness and perhaps speak against God’s purposes. It is not actions but rather a fundamental orientation of the heart that is in question. The text indicates that those who sin have never known God: “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness…. No one who abides in him sins, no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3.4-6) What of the fallen, those who have had faith but have fallen away from God? John seems to be saying that those who sin after professing never knew Jesus. At a minimum those who fall away have lost the primary orientation toward God and therefore find themselves under judgment. In this sense, these temporal actions bring judgment. It is difficult to conceive that a person who has God in their heart could sin. Therefore, the fallen are conceived of as being without God. This is consistent with the Gospel of John because a God of love (1 John 4.8) and the commandment to love demand human response.
The opening of the Second letter of Peter reflects concern for how believers might prevail over the corruption of the world and how to ensure entry into an eternal kingdom. The promises of Jesus Christ offer the believer as a means of “becoming participants in the divine nature” thus overcoming the “corruption that is in the world because of lust….” (2 Peter 1.4) It is through a process of sanctification, of concerted human action that can keep one from stumbling. It is this stumbling that is seen as a potential threat to gaining entrance to the “eternal kingdom.” (2 Peter 1.5-11) Indeed, a believer who falls away faces heavier penalty: “For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them.” (2 Peter 2.21) Although Second Peter reflects the hope for universal salvation, the author acknowledges that no one knows when the day of judgment will come. (2 Peter 3.9-10) This promised judgment is described using the familiar “come like a thief” which also appears in Revelation and the Synoptics.
First Peter balances the threat of judgment with the positive responsibilities of the Christian community. The trials of the world are a means of demonstrating genuine faith. What is important is how this faith is found to be praiseworthy when Jesus returns. Salvation of souls, the outcome of faith, is thus conditioned on how faith holds up in response to adversity. (1 Peter 1.7-9) The focus is on discipline. The hope of eschatological grace should motivate an orientation of the mind away from worldly desires and toward childlike obedience. (1 Peter 1.13-16) But saving grace is not a benefit guaranteed by present faith. Because God “judges all people impartially according to their deeds,” disciples are admonished to “live in reverential fear….” (1 Peter 1.17) On the positive side, new life in Christ brings a purification that makes possible a selfless love. (1 Peter 1.22-23) The responsibility of Christians is to live honorably as an attractive example to those outside the faith. (1 Peter 2.11-12) The implication of First Peter is that faith ultimately will be judged by whether it engenders self-giving love that extends the promise of salvation to others. A phrase closely following seems to challenge the Pauline view of Christian freedom: “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.” (1 Peter 2.16). First Peter seems to be advising believers not to be a stumbling block and instead to provide a witness to believers and non-believers alike.
The Epistle of James exhorts the reader to concrete action for overcoming the temptations of this world. Human actions, indeed the actions of Christian believers, are subject to judgment with death as the punishment. (James 5.19-20) But in James, obedience is not an empty act of ritual. Those who passively hear the Word of God without reflecting their faith in action are fundamentally in conflict with themselves. (James 1.22) This conflict leads to a downward spiral ending in death. Even those who have a claim on salvation can fall victim to the progression of desire, sin, and death. (James 1.12-16) However, the net of judgment is cast beyond the condemnation of simple desire. Those who confess belief with their mouths, but fail to live out the full implications of this faith in all facets of their lives are all condemned. (James 4.17) The book of James points out that Christian praxis extends specifically to the care of the least fortunate in society. The author says that faith and platitudes alone lead to death: it is works of love that save. (James 2.14-17) Such action is not a matter of accruing merit. Instead, it flows from a transformed heart. (James 4.4-8) As we shall see in the treatment of Romans, it is this transformation of the heart that makes possible the ethical achievement demanded by James in this letter.
The letter to the Hebrews reflects deep concern over those who fall away after having been sanctified by Jesus’ sacrifice. The author of Hebrews states that because this sacrifice has cleared the sin of the sanctified for all time (Hebrews 10.14), “it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened… and then have fallen away….” (Hebrews 6.4-6) Continuing in sin despite knowledge of and sanctification from Jesus is an affront to God because it denies God’s saving sacrifice. To do so is to invoke punishment for knowingly rejecting and therefore disparaging the sacrifice of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Spirit. (Hebrews 10.29) Rejecting the agency of the Spirit receives such condemnation because doing so damages the faith of others and may lead them away from God. In Hebrews, the punishment for such apostasy is even more serious than that of ordinary sinners. By continuing to sin after coming to know God through Christ, the fallen Christian is once again subject to the “fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Hebrews 10.27) For those who might consider denying God by living sinfully, the letter to the Hebrews sounds the warning: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10.31)
The letter of Paul to the Colossians captures both sides of the equation in the economy of Christian life. On the one hand, he exhorts those who are now Christians to abandon their former sinful life. (Col. 3.5) The urgency of this message is the reminder that God will return to judge the disobedient. (Col. 3.6-7) On the other hand, Paul encourages them to a higher form of Christian love. (Col. 3.12-17) The believer has attained a new life by dying with Christ. (Col. 3.1-3) It is in this transformation that we have the power and responsibility to overcome sin. However, victory over sin is provisional. The believer is reconciled with God “provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith….” (Col. 1.23)
As we have seen, concern for the disposition of believers who might fall away motivates a whole literature of exhortation to behavior in keeping with Christ’s teachings. This is also evident in the “authentic” writings of Paul. A reading of the Pauline letters in the context of a broader evaluation of the New Testament canon suggests that salvation through Christ is not once and for all. Access to the Spirit provides the means for living a sanctified life free from sin. But sanctification requires not only justification and inspiration but also human effort. All will face judgment with the return of Jesus, and though we cannot predict His return, we can certainly prepare. This belief is evident reading backward through the Pauline material, and leads us finally to read Romans, for example, with the understanding that ultimate salvation requires not only faith but also diligent effort toward transformation.
The letter of Paul to the church of the Thessalonians strongly echoes Christ’s warnings in the Synoptic Gospels that one should be prepared to face God’s eschatological judgment. Paul focuses this admonition not on condemned Jews nor on heathen Gentiles, but instead reminds that even believers must face the same standard and may be found wanting. Paul calls for sanctification, living a holy life that avoids fornication, lust and the exploitation of others. (1 Thes. 4.3-6) Paul indicates that God avenges lust and exploitation as rebellion against God’s authority. (1 Thes. 4.6-8) Paul adopts the familiar image of God coming as a thief in the night and then uses the metaphor encouraging believers to stay awake, a phrasing familiar from the Synoptics. (1 Thes. 5.2) Paul applies these two rhetorical devices in describing behavioral requirements for Christians. This confirms that such words of warning and judgment in the Synoptic Gospels apply not only to both Jews who deny the Lordship of Jesus and to Gentiles, but also to the community of believers. It must be noted that the letter to the Thessalonians contains references to how members of the Christian church are “destined” in some way. The fact remains that Paul expresses concern about the destination of believers if they fail to live righteously.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians suggests that Paul understands salvation to be contingent. Even Paul, a man responsible for planting churches across Asia Minor, did not consider his own salvation to be certain. (Philippians 3.10-12) Instead, he saw an ongoing obligation of activity. (Philippians 1.27-30) Paul proposes an ethical standard of absolute selflessness. (Philippians 1.27-30) In order to “live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1.27), one must “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2.3-4) The abandoning of self-interest is central to Paul’s message. Against those who would follow Christ selflessly are those whose “minds are set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3.18-19) Those who “live as enemies of the cross of Christ…. Their end is destruction.” (Philippians 3.18-19) The letter to the Philippians does not focus on the theme of judgment but rather develops the positive responsibility of selfless life in service to Christ and humanity: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2.12-13)
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul argues against those who would replace faith with a return to the requirements of the law, specifically circumcision. At this conclusion of this polemic, Paul calls for believers who might fall away to return. Paul’s concern is quite specific: “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5.21) By contrast, using the analogy of sowing, Paul demonstrates that the Spirit-led life of serving the good of others leads to eternal life. (Galatians 6.7-10) Living faith is pivotal: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5.6)
Second Corinthians describes a ministry aimed at breaking through the blindness of the world (2 Cor. 4.4) and testifying to the forgiveness and reconciliation with God offered by Christ. (2 Cor. 5.18) Disciples find freedom in the Spirit and are transformed to meet the rigors of this ministry. (2 Cor. 3.17-4.2) Rather than being measured in external behavior, this transformation is inscribed on the heart. (2 Cor. 3.3) Yet all face judgment by Christ: “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5.10) Paul’s resolution of a dispute illustrates how even among the justified, a change of heart relates to salvation: “your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief…. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret….” (2 Cor. 7.9-10) Paul calls for all involved in the disagreement to open hearts wide to one another. (2 Cor. 6.11-12) Others have fallen short in concrete ways and have failed to repent: “I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced.” (2 Cor. 12.21) Paul is calling for an internal and perpetual cleansing of the heart and the mind in obedience: “we take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Cor. 10.6) The test is active and continuous: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13.5) In his faith, Paul is living minute to minute, relying on God’s promises for assistance and reassurance, but not resting on the assurance of salvation.
Paul addresses some of the ambiguity of judgment and salvation in the “First” letter to the Corinthians. The hermeneutical context helps to explain how Paul seems to speak to both sides of the issue. Paul defines himself and his audience as “among the mature” who attempt to get at God’s wisdom “though it is a wisdom not of this age…” (1 Cor. 2.6) Rather Paul speaks of “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden,” that “God has revealed to us through the Spirit….” (1 Cor. 2.7-10) As he drafts the letter, the distinction between worldly wisdom apparently remains a factor for Paul. The warning against putting too much faith in human theologizing is repeated explicitly in the third chapter: “Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor. 3.18-19) This may condition how we are to read Paul’s theologizing as well.
Paul seems to take the stance that those who have faith do not stand under judgment. A metaphor seems to suggest that even those whose work is judged negatively will be saved: “If what is built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3.14-15) This interpretation of the passage is less viable if the foundation is interpreted to be Paul’s Gospel, and the work of others is seen as ministry. This alternative interpretation notwithstanding, another passage supports the idea that those with faith are not under judgment. Paul states, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial.” (1 Cor. 6.12) This view is provisional under the caveat of God’s wisdom invoked by Paul earlier.
The view that faith leads to inevitable salvation is contradicted by Paul within the very same letter. Paul is very clear about how he assesses his own faith walk: “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” (1 Cor. 4.3-5) The basis for Paul’s earlier statement proclaiming all things legal derives from his understanding of God’s judgment. God judges the heart. Therefore Paul expresses the necessity to keep his heart on God’s purposes. If one first assesses a set of possible actions through the filter of God’s loving purposes, all options that remain would certainly be legal or approved by God, and, oddly enough, that which is not beneficial would be rejected.
With language similar to the Synoptics, Paul provides a limited framework for evaluating the congruence of various categories of activities in terms of the divine will. In these endeavors, we are to exercise self-control. (1 Cor. 9.24-27) Overall, selflessness is a key measure of Godly behavior, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” (1 Cor. 10.24) In this it is critical that the believer does not interfere with those coming to belief or struggling in their growing faith: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” (1 Cor. 8.9) The ultimate standard is that all be done in love. Paul calls the believers to vigilant discernment: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be in love.” (1 Cor. 16.13-14) This focus on love can be contrasted with the doublemindedness of those who seek approval from both the world and from God: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or are we provoking the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?” (1 Cor. 10.21-22) The God of Paul’s Gospel is a God of love and of judgment. Paul is calling each of us to make a decision in each moment of our lives to reflect the love of God in all that we do.
Paul’s letter to the Romans shares a concern that the believers face serious consequences if they turn to a life of wickedness. Although Paul reassures the reader that Christ gives us access to saving grace, the believer must be vigilant in order to remain true to the Christian calling. Both the necessity for this effort and the means for effecting it are captured in the exhortation of Romans 12.1-2.
The letter to the Romans reflects a conviction that God has the power both to reject believers who fall into sinful ways and to return them to the body should they repent. In Chapter 11, Paul uses the analogy of grafting onto an olive tree to demonstrate God’s freedom. Paul cautions believers: “So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you.” (Romans 11.20-21) The threat of judgment and punishment even for those already accepted is anything but subtle: “Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity to those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you will be cut off.” (Romans 11.22) This judgment can be rescinded with a change in heart: “And even those of Israel, if the you do not persist in unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again.” (Romans 11.23) The orientation of God to an individual is very much a function of the state of that individual’s heart. By turning from God we condemn ourselves.
The possibility that disobedient behavior could lead to being cut off from God leads to the urgent question: how might a believer grow in faith, love and obedience to gain assurance that they might not stray? To summarize: justification provides the introduction or access to God’s love that “has been poured into our hearts.” (Romans 5.5) It is God’s love that provides the endurance that builds character. (Romans 5.4-5) With the access to God’s love in the heart of the believer, an ethical transformation is possible. Believing in Jesus Christ causes a radical transformation in us. By identifying with the death of Jesus, we die to the influence of sin. In grace we have the choice to choose righteousness or wickedness, a choice previously denied in our captivity to sin. (6.2-4, 6, 11) Therefore, we are called to present ourselves not to the service of sin but to the service of God. (6.12-14)
Paul exhorts the believer facing temptation and adversity to make full use of the new faculties that God provides. In Romans 12.1-2, Paul appeals directly to the believers in the Roman church. First, Paul encourages us to see the Christian walk as acceptance of rebirth in Jesus Christ that demands a rejection of the sinful standards of the world. Second, with this powerful transformation of mind and body, the believer can then seek God’s good and perfect will. Paul urges us to move from depravity to redemption, and then from redemption to right behavior as a natural response to liberation from the power of sin.
It is shocking that one of the most urgent and graphic examples of God’s judgment of believers who fall short comes not in the canonical outpost of Revelation but rather in the book of Acts. The story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 4.32-5.11) stands as a stern warning of the rigor of God’s commandments to believers of the promises of the New Testament.
The passage suggests that this couple is included within the apostolic community. Setting the boundaries of the passage is critical for highlighting the possible level of belief of the main figures, Ananias and Sapphira. The passage is situated early in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit has already come. There are healings in earlier passages. Immediately preceding the selection, the embryonic church has completed a prayer seeking to speak God’s word with boldness. In response to this prayer, they are “filled with the Holy Spirit….” (Acts 4.23-31)
The couple appear to be part of an utopian Christian community living out the commandment to love one another selflessly. The passage describes an era in the apostolic church when property was held in common. Believers sometimes sold property and brought the proceeds to benefit the community. But the two conspire to deceive the community and therefore the Holy Spirit which instituted it. The husband and wife sold a piece of property and withheld some of the revenue. When the couple was held accountable by Peter, each in turn falls down dead. The conviction and instantaneous death of the couple shocked the community of believers, and stands as an object lesson for us today. The eschatological judgment promised by Christ came early for Ananias and Sapphira: they were unprepared.
After washing the disciples’ feet and issuing a new commandment, “‘that you love one another’” (John 13.34), Jesus addresses the inner circle and provides the analogy of the vine to describe His requirements. Jesus is speaking not to a the crowd but to a group selected for their belief. He reminds them, “‘I chose you.’” (John 15.16) Even so, this chosen group remains under judgment. In imagery similar to the olive tree of Romans 11, Jesus explains that “‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’” (John 15.6) On the negative side, failure to stay with God meets with severe punishment. However, the affirmative side of that requirement, that is to “‘love one another as I have loved you’” (John 15.10-12), is a light burden when read in the context of the spiritual transformation promised in Romans.
The theology of John shows the importance of behavior in the economy of salvation. Unbelief is the source of condemnation, faith the source of life: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3.18) But John takes a realistic view of human nature: we believe in what we do. Those who do evil believe in the rightness of their actions and therefore reject God: “And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (John 3.19) Yet, Christ’s mission is optimistic: “Indeed, God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Salvation comes from belief, and belief has outward signs in the form of works: “‘Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works I do and, in fact, do greater works than these….’” (John 14.12) These works are not merely keeping the dead letter of the law. Rather, the ability to serve God in faith is supported by the Holy Spirit. (John 15-16)
Is the language of eschatological judgment an innovation in Revelation or can similar language be found elsewhere in the New Testament? Revelation warns the those who fall away to repent because they cannot know when Jesus will return in judgment. Where else does this appear? The theme of eschatological judgment is widespread throughout the New Testament. For example it appears in each of the Gospels. This leads to a reevaluation of the context of these passages. Were they evangelical—that is, were they directed primarily outward toward the Jew who is bound up in the law? Or was the warning of coming judgment directed at the growing community of believers surrounding Jesus? The presence of such warnings in the book of Mark suggests that this language is directed to the believing community. This is because Mark takes great pains to avoid giving outsiders the clues necessary to stumble into saving action.
We turn now to examining the Synoptic Gospels for an indication of how believers are to be judged. In the Synoptics, it is sometimes difficult to sort out the intended impact of the words of Jesus because they are uttered in the context of a public ministry, a mixed audience of true believers and scheming enemies. It is helpful to examine how Christ speaks of eschatological judgment to the inner circle of the apostles. Just prior to his arrest, Jesus is providing instructions intended to carry this group of believers through difficult times. Even these hand-selected followers cannot be assured of their salvation: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13.13, Matthew 24.13, also Luke 21.19) In describing the distress of the last days, exhorts the disciples to be diligent—to “‘Keep awake.’” (Mark 13.37) Similarly, in Matthew, Jesus reminds the disciples “‘Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’” (Matthew 24.44) Matthew extends this admonition into the parable of the wicked slave who will be “cut to pieces and put… with the other hypocrite where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 14.47-51) Put in more positive terms, Jesus reminds us in the Lucan version that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required….” (Luke 12.48) What sort of behavior does Jesus have in mind with these stern warnings?
Some of the themes well developed in the Synoptic literature include warnings against apostasy and becoming a “stumbling block” to others. Matthew, Mark and Luke each make clear that God will respond reciprocally to both confession and apostasy: “‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.’” (Matthew 10.32-33) Jesus encourages sharing the Good News. It is denying Jesus that draws condemnation. This admonition to affirm the Gospel relates to an even more sharply worded warning against causing others to stumble that is present in each of the Synoptics: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (Luke 17.1-2 also Matthew 18.6-7, Mark 9.42) This is the destruction of souls wrought by the hypocrite. Those outside the faith or weak in faith cannot but be pulled down by the apostate, the backslider, the hypocrite. By creating conditions that lead others to fall, the offenders bring extraordinary judgment upon themselves.
Creating conditions for unbelief and the destruction of souls is the ultimate offense. As Christ teaches about social requirements in Chapter 25, the responsibility not to cause another to stumble finds a dramatic context. Jesus tells how our treatment of the least ones is indeed our treatment of Him: “‘for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’” (Matthew 25.42-43) Those under affliction may lack the strength, the ability to know the word of God. By ignoring the needs of the powerless and weak, we may deny them the opportunity to know, or rather to experience through our giving, the love that God has for each of us. It is no surprise that Jesus condemns in very specific terms those who would leave the hungry, sick and imprisoned in their misery: “‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’” (Matthew 25.41,46)
The New Testament canon is challenging. It lacks the nuances of a modern systematic theology. It tells a story that is demanding for the listener. We are called to leave behind all that we are and follow Christ. If we can make that step, in Christ we have the ability to overcome sin. We are called to pray continuously for assistance in living up to the demand that we live lives worthy of the calling. To use a mathematical analogy, the moment of salvation brings a clearing of sin that defines a point in time. God calls for a continued righteousness of heart and mind. Even one who believes can fall away—and return again. However, the “thief in the night” motif reminds us that those who are caught without a chair when the music stops face the possibility of a severe penalty.
The fact that Paul must appeal to his brothers and sisters to present themselves to Jesus and not to be conformed to the world suggests that, even among the justified, some were choosing a worldly path. Sanctification, the continuing walk with Christ, offers the believer an unending series of choices. We can in each moment turn to the Spirit for guidance in moving continually toward a transformed existence living in realized and eschatological hope. This is the Good News of Paul’s theology. We are freed from the power of sin, and we can walk with God in victory over the temptation of a fallen humanity for the rest of our earthly lives.
 This point of view is well developed in Martin Kahler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).
 See Kahler.
 G.B. Caird, New Testament Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 18-19. These are “the four evangelists, Paul, the Pastor, the authors of Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter and Jude, and John the Seer.” Caird also suggests the author of the author of the Johannine letters, and the author(s) of the disputed Pauline letters. All of these will be treated except, for the sake of brevity, Jude and the Pastor will be omitted, the Synoptic Gospels will be treated as a group, and the Johannine letters will be combined for consideration.
 This term is from an album by the same name from the rock group, “The Tubes.”
 Portions of the third and fourth paragraphs in this section appeared in a term paper for NT 101.
Matthew 24.42-51, 24.42, 25-1-15; Mark 13.33-37; Luke 12.35-48, 21.34-36; John 13.4-5.
 Depending on the Gospel author, the following is either: part of a private discussion with Peter, James, John and Andrew (Mark); with the disciples more generally (Matthew); or with “some” (Luke).