First of all, let me try and put it this way: When we are justified, we are justified with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
What that means–if you can begin to take it in–is that when you stand before God you are able to say, “I am as righteous before You as Your Son Jesus Christ.” Now that can sound very arrogant. But if you then ask, “Well how is that?” the answer is, “Because the only righteousness with which I’m justified is Jesus Christ’s righteousness.”
There is an absoluteness about the perfection of that righteousness. There is an absoluteness about its completeness and finality. We are all equally justified.
The New Testament also teaches that God assesses us as we actually are.
For example, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive what is due to us for what we have done in the body.” And there are a number of New Testament passages that indicate, yes, there will be an assessment of our lives.
Paul, for example, looks forward to receiving the crown of righteousness. He knows he is justified, but he’s looking forward to receiving the crown of righteousness. I think one might say that every believer may look forward to the crown of righteousness, but each crown may be differently shaped.
I personally have found the parable that Jesus tells very helpful in this respect. Here are these servants, and their master gives them a certain sum of money, and they all do different things with them (Luke 19:11-27). When they come to give account to the master, there is a relationship between the master’s assessment of their lives and the service they rendered him.
Say you’ve been given five minas, and you made five more. What’s the assessment? Well, he says “How about me making you mayor of ten cities?” That’s the language Jesus uses, putting people in charge of ten cities. The only relationship between the minas and the cities is the number, which I think is a little indication that you need to connect these two things. But what really strikes me is that the result of the assessment is out of all proportion to any service the individual renders.
So I imagine ourselves standing before the judgment seat of Christ—so there’s you and myself, Nathan—and the Lord assesses our lives. Then He puts you in charge of Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra. You say, “Lord, what did I ever do? I mean I know I did great things for Ligonier, but what did I ever do to deserve this?” I envisage Him, theologically at least, saying, “Nathan, will you never understand it is all entirely of my grace?”
I would say, especially to a Christian who is nervous and fearful about that final assessment, that we should always remember that just as our justification is by grace, that assessment will also be by grace. And if there’s any moment of embarrassment I envisage, I think I might be inclined to say, “Lord, if I’d really understood this, I would have wanted to serve you even better.”
So it’s grace from beginning to end. But like the question, “Why then do we pray?” remember what Paul says: “I worked harder than everyone else, but it was the grace of God working in me” (1 Cor. 15:10). So we never escape His graciousness in the way in which we fulfill our responsibilities.