The Gospel and Our Judgments

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : 1 Corinthians 4:3-5

But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby 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. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 4:3-5, rsv

ALL STEWARDS

Have you ever thought of the fact that you, along with every other person you know, are a steward? That means that you are a kind of trustee. You have been entrusted with certain talents, certain tasks, certain relationships, a certain network of influence. And now you are responsible for what you do with all that. You and I have a trust to fulfill – a divine trust. We are God’s stewards.

Remember how Jesus emphasized that over and over again in His teaching? Think of all those parables in which He describes the master of a household going away on a long trip and leaving his servants with certain tasks or specified resources. The whole point of those parables is that the master will return some day and require an accounting from his staff. Each will report about his or her activities and especially what has been done with the trust. How did this servant use what was placed at his or her disposal? What kind of stewards were they all?

It’s easy to see that about someone like a minister of the gospel. Here’s a person called by God to fulfill a particular service. The minister is entrusted with a message and a mission. Some day he will face a reckoning. Was this minister faithful? Did he or she communicate God’s Word faithfully? Did this servant of God go where he was sent? Do what he was commissioned to do? Care about the people around him? Serve as unto the Lord?

But, friends, I hope you feel today that this is true not only for ministers. It is true for you. Perhaps the most profound thought you can ever have about your life is to see it as a stewardship. The very fact that you and I exist is a sheer gift from God. All the abilities and energies you ever have, all the people around you, all the opportunities that come your way, isn’t all of that a trust? I don’t know what your circumstances are like. You may have been born into affluence or into poverty. Your family upbringing may have nurtured or scarred you. You may be attractive or plain, multi-talented or severely limited. But whatever your life is, whatever the hand which you have been dealt, that is your stewardship. That is your trust.

WHO IS FAITHFUL?

Now what I want to do especially today is explore the question of how we’re doing at that stewardship. Am I being faithful to the trust that God has put in my hand? Are you? How can we answer that question about ourselves or about the people around us? How can we be fair and accurate judges?

I get a lot of help on that from the apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4, beginning at verse 2. Listen:

It is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court.

Notice here first that Paul doesn’t think that anyone else is qualified to make this kind of judgment about him. To him it was a very small thing, a trifling matter, something of no significance, that he should be judged by his fellow Christians or by any kind of human tribunal. What did he mean by that?

It’s obvious that in some respects we can be judged by our fellow human beings. And their judgments do make a difference. The teacher can assess how well we do on a specific test in school and give us an appropriate grade. That makes a difference to us; at least it should. It may determine whether or not we pass that course, get a degree, qualify for a position.

The civil authorities can usually judge whether or not we are guilty of a specific crime. They examine the evidence, hear the case, and come to a verdict. And that can make a great deal of difference to the person on trial. It may mean the difference between acquittal or a stiff fine, between freedom or imprisonment, even between life and death.

Didn’t Paul know all that? Of course he did. He wasn’t writing here about judgments of that kind. He knew as well as you and I do that we are legitimately subject to many kinds of judgment from our fellow human beings, and that what they decide about us has real importance.

But the apostle is talking here about this matter of stewardship, about whether or not a person has been faithful to God. Has he or she kept the trust? Given my total situation, or yours, have we done what we could with what we had? Have we kept faith with the One who gave us life and breath and all things?

What Paul is saying here is that no one else really knows that about him. For one thing, they don’t know fully the background from which he came and the things he’s had to struggle against. They don’t know what kind of potential God has placed in his life. They don’t know what providential happenings have shaped him and what inner limitations may have held him back. They can’t see the world as he sees it. They haven’t walked in his shoes.

Further, how can they tell exactly what God has in mind for Paul’s life? How do they know what the Spirit has spoken to this man’s soul? Can they read with clarity the mysterious design the Almighty may have had for this persecutor turned apostle? Obviously not. Sometimes Paul went against the advice of his close friends. Sometimes he resisted the overtures of people who genuinely cared about his welfare. He knew he had a race to run, a course to fulfill. His companions couldn’t always see as clearly as he did just what that was.

And, most profoundly, how could they know what was in Paul’s heart? They could weigh his behavior up to a point, but how could they assess his motives? How could they be sure if he was endeavoring to be faithful or not? How could they tell with certainty why he did what he did and chose the path he followed? It was as though the apostle had said to all the world: Think what you will about my faithfulness or lack of it. You have a right to your opinion. All I’m saying is that your judgments about me don’t finally matter, so they aren’t going to weigh heavily with me. You may think I’m the most faithful servant of God in the world but that doesn’t make it so. And if you judge me a fraud or a failure, that doesn’t prove me one, does it? If I should be universally condemned before the judgment seat of popular opinion, I could handle it, Paul seems to say, and it wouldn’t really get me down.

In fact, the apostle goes on, “I do not even judge myself.” Again, there were many things about Paul’s life that he could and did measure. He knew enough about himself to claim the title “chief of sinners” or “less than the least of all saints.” He also could say soberly, matter of factly, that he had labored more than any of the other apostles and probably suffered more than they had also. But how was he doing as a steward? At this point in his life, at least, he couldn’t be sure.

“I am not aware of anything against myself,” Paul continues. In other words, he wasn’t at that moment aware of any sin he hadn’t confessed. There was no part of his life he was consciously holding back from God. As far as he could tell, he was on the right track, doing what God had called him to do, seeking to be faithful. That’s pretty remarkable in itself, wouldn’t you say? How many of us could make a claim like that without some inward unrest?

But, according to Paul, that doesn’t settle the issue. He says that doesn’t justify him. The fact that he thinks he’s okay, that his conscience is clear, is a good thing, but he knows that he could be wrong. Paul knew better than most of us that he could be self-deceived. He could think of himself more highly than he ought. If there’s any skill at which we’re all adept, it’s that of justifying ourselves. We manage to cast a favorable light on even the shabbiest of our ways. That’s why it’s so dangerous to insist on our own self-estimates as infallible. The wise proverb says it bluntly and well, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.”

ONLY GOD CAN TELL

That leaves only one person qualified to make the judgment. Paul says, “He who judges me is the Lord.” That’s the verdict I’m waiting for, he says. That’s the one that really makes the difference. He knows the whole story of my life and everything that goes on inside me. He alone knows precisely what he had in mind for my life and how close I’ve come to realizing it. Paul says it’s the Lord who keeps on judging him. The verb for “judging” here is in the present tense. “He’s reading me like a book all the time, watching my way, in on my plans, party to my thoughts, the constant observer. He won’t miss a thing. He’ll be able to make the final assessment with perfect knowledge of all the relevant data.”

Now the apostle has some conclusions to draw from that and some advice to give. “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes . . . “ Do you want to know when you should pass judgment on another person’s faithfulness? Do you want to know when you should evaluate their stewardship or your own? When should you say “this one was faithful to God” or “that one was not”? Only when it’s time, only when the Lord returns at history’s windup. That could be quite a long wait. Apparently, unless the Lord returns while we’re still alive, we ought not to do this – ever. It’s not our business. We have neither the knowledge for it nor the heart nor the right. Leave it to God. At no time in history is it going to be appropriate for you to make a final judgment about the stewardship of any brother or sister.

As we saw last time, each Christian is building something on the one foundation, Jesus Christ. Everyone is erecting some kind of monument, as it were. It may be gold, silver, and precious stones. It may be wood, hay, and stubble. You can make your observations about it. You can have your opinions. But never presume that those have final authority. When the fire tests his work, or hers, or yours, there could be surprises all around. So instead of judging, wait. Wait for the Lord to come. When he does, Paul writes, he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” Those are the things impossible to us that He can and will do. All of us, I suppose, have areas of our lives now “hidden in darkness.” There may be things which we have deliberately tried to conceal – guilty secrets we have shared with no other, shameful things we have carefully covered over and tried to forget. He will bring them to light. Or the “hidden” things may be unseen ministries of mercy, unnoticed kindnesses, moments of heroism which no one has ever applauded. The beautiful as well as the ugly shall stand forth in His light.

And more, He will disclose the purposes of the heart. That will be His crowning revelation. He will make evident the deepest springs of motivation in each one of us. What were the things that prompted us to live as we did? What were the driving aims beneath the surface of our best accomplishments or our most awkward stumblings? What no one else knows about us and what we but dimly discern, He will make abundantly plain. “Then,” says Paul triumphantly, “every man will receive his commendation from God.” Or as the Greek word order puts it, “And then the praise shall be to each from God.” The first word and the last are both emphasized. Then, not now, God, not people. Paul is evidently saying here that God will have the last word. He will make the final evaluation. His verdict will pronounce things to be just as they are. But here is the good news in this passage. Here we see our stewardship in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. On that last great day, that overwhelmingly awesome time, the great Lord of heaven and earth, who knows the secrets of every heart, will have some word of praise for each of His children.

We all feel thankful for the people we know who can discover a little bit of precious grain amid the chaff of what we do. We’re always happy to be around the kind of person who can see a glint of gold in the common ore of what we are and then call attention to it. Those people, God bless them, are the ones most like Him. For at the last, no matter how badly we’ve bungled, or how many opportunities we’ve lost, He will find in all who have trusted in His mercy something to praise! Marvelously, about something at least in our stewardship, He will be kind enough to say, “well done!”

PRAYER: Lord, teach us the blessed art of reserving judgment. Help us to leave ourselves and others in Your hands. Amen.