I’ve been reading through Revelation, and today came through a few chapters close to the end. This is where the great whore goes up in flames and becomes sport for her own crows… er… a feast for those who profited from her. Great, gory stuff.
But the thing that continually pops out at me when I read through these concluding segments are the places where we discover that our works are far from incidental for the eternity ahead.
Let’s start with the dress of the Bride. In my deeply Pauline circles, people often talk about being clothed in the righteousness of Christ. That’s an apt metaphor for union with Christ: “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ” and all that.
But what is the Bride wearing? Is she wearing the bright, spotless righteousness of Christ? No.
“It was given to her that she might be dressed in pure, pristine linen–for the linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Revelation 19:8). The church, the bride of Christ, shines with the glory of what God’s people have done on earth.
Earlier in the book there had been a word of comfort spoken concerning those who “die in the Lord”: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the spirit, in order that they might rest from their labors–for their works follow with them” (Revelation 14:13). Why don’t they work anymore? Because their works enter in after them.
The really scary stuff, of course, comes at the very end. With the judgment.
“The dead were judged by what was written in the books–according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12).
“…Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each one was judged according to his deeds” (Rev. 20:13).
“Behold! I am coming soon! And my reward is with me to pay each one according to what he has done” (Rev. 22:12).
One of the challenges besetting post-Reformation soteriology is coming up with a robust place for our works in the big picture of both what God is up to in the world and our own eternal future. We shrink back from passages such as these that seem to tie our eternal state with what we do here on earth. We often retreat to Paul for counter-testimony to overturn what otherwise would seem clear.
I think we need to get over it.
The assumption throughout Revelation is that God’s people are distinguished from the world by being faithful witnesses of God and of the Lamb. We are distinguished by not participating in the violence, immorality, and abuse of persons that defines “the world,” as well as by our faithful service to God rather than God’s adversaries.
In other words, the point of Revelation is that Christians should take comfort in the fact that God looks at the ways that they are set apart from the world and will vindicate them for it in the end. If the idea of being judged according to our deeds, or having our deeds be the eternal adornment of the church, is not a source of comfort to us, I’d humbly suggest that the problem is not that this is theologically incorrect.
Instead, the problem is how we’re living (or not living) in faithfulness to the lives to which we have been called.