THE QUALITY OF MEN’S WORKS DISCOVERED IN THE DAY OF JUDGMENT
1 Timothy 5:24-25, Some men’s sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.
AN attention to the context is of the greatest importance in explaining the Holy Scriptures: for there is not any error into which we may not run, if we overlook the connexion in which every different expression stands. Yet it is possible to err even on that side: for the inspired writers are not so fettered, but that they sometimes pass from one subject to another without any connexion except what existed in their own minds, and sometimes with an easy, though not a logical, transition. Many able Commentators, through an excessive attention to the context, would limit the words before us to the admission of persons to the ministerial office, of which the Apostle is speaking in the foregoing verses. But I am persuaded, that they ought not to be so limited. They arise indeed from that subject; but they carry the mind beyond it; and were intended to encourage Timothy to execute with fidelity the trust reposed in him: he must “not lay hands suddenly on any, lest he become a partaker of their sins:” but if, after all his care, he should be deceived, he shall not be deemed guilty on that account, since God alone can see the heart: and the mistakes which are made respecting the characters of men in this life, shall all be rectified in the life to come.
Taking the words in this sense, they will be found to express the very same idea, and in the very same connexion, which the same Apostle has suggested in other places; to which, in the progress of our subject, we shall have occasion to refer [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:9-15; 1 Corinthians 4:2-5. In both of these places the Apostle is speaking of the ministry of the word: in the former, he refers to the clay of judgment as determining the quality of the fruits produced by it; and in the latter, as deciding upon his character as to fidelity in the discharge of his ministerial office. Indeed so intimate was the connexion between the ministerial office and the day of judgment in his mind, that he scarcely ever mentions the one without referring to the other.].
Fully persuaded in my own mind that the words do ultimately refer to the day of judgment, I shall proceed,
I. To mark the truths which are here declared—
These relate to all the different works of men;—to,
1. Their evil works—
[Many sins are so flagrant, that, as they render a person manifestly unfit for admission to the ministerial office [Note: The reader will observe, that the more limited sense of the words is not lost sight of, though the more enlarged sense is decidedly preferred.], so they leave no doubt respecting the judgment which will be passed upon him in the last day. Nor do we include in this number those only which are of the grosser kind, and which are stamped with infamy by even the better kind of heathens, (such as fornication and adultery,) but those also which, though they bring with them no stigma in the estimation of mankind, are decidedly reprobated by the word of God. Amongst the foremost of these we must mention a worldly spirit, which as decidedly proves a person to be destitute of true religion as any other sin whatever: for to serve God and Mammon too is impossible [Note: Matthew 6:24.]. The true disciple of Christ is no more of the world than his Lord and Master was [Note: John 17:14; John 17:16.]. A disregard of the Gospel too is another of those sins which will infallibly bring condemnation upon the soul: for “if judgment begin, as it surely will, at the house of God, what shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of God [Note: 1 Peter 4:17.]?” How is it possible that any should “escape, who neglect so great salvation [Note: Hebrews 2:3.]?” We might mention a variety of other sins, which, though they are accounted light and venial by the ungodly world, stamp the character so clearly and manifestly, that no one who believes the Scriptures can doubt one moment what the issue of them will be in the day of judgment [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21.].
But whilst these “go before to judgment,” others of a more secret and dubious nature “follow after.” There are many sins in the heart, which, though harboured and indulged there, escape the eye of men, and are known to God alone. It is no uncommon thing for men to stand well both in their own eyes and in the estimation of others, and yet to be hateful in the sight of the heart-searching God. Their works may externally be good, and yet not be perfect before God [Note: 2 Chronicles 25:2.Luke 8:14.]. Men may “have a name to live, and yet in reality be dead [Note: Revelation 3:1-3.].” They may have much religion in appearance, and yet “all their religion be vain [Note: James 1:26.]” But it is not till the day of judgment that their real character will be known: and, when disclosed by God, and visited with merited displeasure, it will cause the utmost surprise in all who once knew and admired them upon earth [Note: Job 20:5-7. What language can convey all the pathos that is implied in that expression, “Where is he?”]. Then, if not before, “their sin will find them out.”]
2. Their good works—
[Some men are so eminently holy, that no one could hestate to pronounce them fit to be employed in the sacred ministry of the Gospel: nor can any one doubt respecting the safety of their state when they die. It is said of mariners, that, though the most experienced may sometimes mistake a cloud for land, the most inexperienced never mistakes land for a cloud; there being in the land something which carries its own evidence along with it. Thus vital godliness, when exhibited in bright colours, and in an uniform consistent tenour, commends itself to all who behold it: it is a light, which needs nothing else to testify of it, or to set it forth: its own effulgence is the most convincing evidence of its existence. The ultimate happiness of those who possess it, is foreseen with an assured confidence by all who mark its course.
But there are some whose piety, in consequence of the slenderness of their attainments, or the privacy of their situation, or the insuperable diffidence and reserve of their minds, is concealed from public view. External circumstances too may sometimes occasion the light, though real, to be obscured; as was the case with those “seven thousand men in Israel,” who, though unknown to the Prophet Elijah, had never bowed their knee to the image of Baal. Indeed, it is of the nature of true religion to affect secrecy. The sighs, and groans, and prayers, and tears of the real penitent are poured forth in secret: and the consciousness of being seen or heard by any mortal man, would be sufficient to stifle all. The inward affiance of the soul too is unknown to any but God; as indeed are also all the sublimest workings of the affections towards God. None but “He who searches the heart and tries the reins” can discern that entireness of heart which constitutes a man “an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” But God does see, yea, and mark also, those more secret and refined exercises of the soul, which are hid from all besides. It is not for those only who speak often one to another that God records his approbation in the book of his remembrance, but for those also who in modest silence “think upon his name [Note: Malachi 3:16.];” and though those thoughts were altogether hidden from their earthly friends, he will bring them forth at the last day as evidences in favour of those who fostered them in their bosoms, and will recompense them with testimonies of his warmest approbation [Note: Revelation 14:13. “Their works do follow them.”]. “The hidden man of the heart” is that which constitutes our brightest ornament in this world [Note: 1 Peter 3:4.], and which most insures his plaudit in the world to come.]
Such being the truths contained in our text, we go on,
To deduce from them some important observations—
In the view of the future judgment,
1. We should diligently acquaint ourselves with God’s rule of judgment—
[The written word of God is the rule of our conduct: and it is that also by which we shall be tried in the last day. We are told, that “in that day, when the judgment is set, the books shall be opened [Note: Daniel 7:10; Revelation 20:12.],” for the express purpose “that all may be judged out of them;” and though there may be various other books, as the book of providence, the book of conscience, and the book of life, yet we are sure that the book of the Scriptures must be one. Now that book changeth not, nor accommodates itself to the wishes of any: and it is in vain for us to complain of it as too strict, or to say respecting any thing in it, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” It is in vain to reduce its demands to any standard of our own. Whatever we or the whole world may say, God’s requirements will be the same, and his judgment will be in perfect correspondence with them. We should not therefore be inquiring, What the opinions of men are in relation to these things, but What God speaks in his word. We should study that word with care: we should bring ourselves to it as a touchstone [Note: John 3:21.]: We should pray over it, with an earnest desire to understand its true import, and with a full determination of heart, through grace, to follow it in every particular. We should beg of God to “write his law in our hearts,” and to “cast our souls, as it were, into the very mould of his Gospel:” for, when “truth exists in our inward parts,” we need not fear but that “the Lord, the righteous Judge, will confer upon us a crown of righteousness in the great day of his appearing [Note: 2 Timothy 4:8.].”]
2. We should contentedly refer ourselves to his judgment—
[Let our conduct be ever so pure, and ever so wise, it will not be possible for us to escape the reproaches of an ungodly world. Even those who profess godliness are not always candid in their judgment: on the contrary, they are very apt to put an unkind construction on the conduct of others, especially when it militates in any degree against their wishes or interests. Who would have thought that even the Apostle Paul should be traduced as a time-serving man, whose views, and aims, and habits, were altogether carnal? Yet thus was he judged, even by many who professed a great zeal for religion [Note: 2 Corinthians 10:2.]. Who then can hope to escape the censures of men? Who can hope so to walk as never to be misrepresented by those who see his actions only, but are unacquainted with his motives and principles? It may be that even the heaviest charges may be brought against us without any foundation; and that we may be persecuted, as David was by Saul, with unrelenting fury, when our conduct has been as discreet and blameless as the most consummate piety could inspire. Well, if such be our lot, let it not weigh too heavily on our minds: let us say with Paul, “It is a small matter with me to be judged of man’s judgment;” for God will, ere long, “bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the heart; and then shall every man” who has deserved it, “have praise of God [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:3; 1 Corinthians 4:5.].” The expression here in the original is remarkable; “It is a small matter to be judged of man’s day.” Man has his day: but God has his also. And man’s day consists of but a few hours: but God’s shall endure for ever. Therefore we may well commit our cause to God without anxiety, and wait with patience the time of his coming, when “he will bring forth our righteousness as the light, and our judgment as the noon-day.”]
3. We should however be jealous over ourselves with a godly jealousy—
[As our conduct may be misrepresented by others, so may it also be misjudged by ourselves. Self-love is very apt to blind us, and to make us form a favourable opinion of ourselves, when we are in reality widely deviating from the path of duty. How little did the Apostles imagine that they were actuated by a sinful principle, when they would have called fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village! They gave themselves credit for a holy zeal, whilst they were altogether under the influence of pride and revenge. And what our blessed Lord said to them, is but too applicable on many occasions to ourselves, “Ye know not what spirit ye are of.” We should bear in mind that we are partial judges in every tiling that relates to ourselves; and that excessive confidence of our own innocence is replete with danger, not only as preventing a careful self-examination, but as creating in us an unhallowed boldness before God: for “not he that commendeth himself shall be ultimately approved, but he whom the Lord commendeth [Note: 2 Corinthians 10:18.].” The Apostle Paul himself, though he was unconscious of any thing amiss within him, would not venture too confidently to assert his innocence; but commended himself to the judgment of the heart-searching God: “I know nothing by myself,” says he; “yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:4.].” Thus we also should cultivate within ourselves a holy fear, lest some hidden “evils, which went not before to judgment, should follow after,” and “find us out,” when they can neither be rectified nor forgiven. There is “a fire that shall try our every work:” and that only shall be approved which stands the test of that day [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:13-15.]
4. We should act to God in all that we do—
[It is in vain to act to man, or to seek the applause of man: for his judgment, whether favourable or unfavourable, will not affect our future state: the judgment of the whole world will not influence our Judge: he will “judge righteous judgment;” and either acquit or condemn, according as we are found conformed to him in holiness, or destitute of his blessed image. Man’s rule of duty is so defective, that we shall greatly err, if we satisfy ourselves with that: yea, it is in the most essential matters so erroneous, that “if we seek to please men, we cannot be the servants of Jesus Christ [Note: Galatians 1:10.].” Our great object must be, to approve ourselves to God; and then we need not be much concerned whether our actions be followed by an “evil or good report” from the partial judges that are around us. I mean not by this that we should be inattentive to the opinions of men, or that we should disregard their censures: for, as far as we possibly can, “we should provide things honest in the sight of all men:” but it is God’s word only that we should take as the rule of our conduct, and him alone whom we should strive to please: and, if men be not satisfied with us for serving God according to his written word, we must be content to suffer obloquy from them, and determine to “obey God rather than man.” However we may be “judged according to men in the flesh,” we need fear nothing, if “we live according to God in the spirit [Note: 1 Peter 4:6.].” We shall “enjoy the testimony of a good conscience,” as Hezekiah did [Note: 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2 Kings 20:3.], “and have confidence before God now, and not be ashamed before him at his coming [Note: 1 John 2:28; 1 John 3:19-21.].”]