“The subject of the sanctuary and the investigative judgment,” Ellen White first wrote in 1884, “should be clearly understood by the people of God” (The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 312; see also The Great Controversy, p. 488).
How much do we hear about the investigative judgment these days, though?
I must admit: I haven’t talked about it, preached about it, or written about it much. In fact, this past Sabbath, in a sermon entitled, “Heaven’s Wiretap,” I preached about it for the first time in my eight years of pastoring (and the first time in all my days of preaching, which goes back to before I was in college).
It’s not that I don’t believe in the investigative judgment. I do. It’s just that – I guess – I never saw the incredible importance of talking about it, nor how it goes hand-in-hand with the gospel.
But then two things happened – no, three.
First, as I’ve been studying more of our Adventist history recently, I’ve noticed how Ellen White and Jones and Waggoner, and any other heralds of the gospel in those days, talked a lot about the investigative judgment. For a while, I thought this was odd. After all, the idea that we are being judged seems to undermine the message of justification by faith, leaving the impression that we are saved by what we do rather than what Christ has done and does.
And yet, as I said, I keep coming across testimony from Adventist history – precisely at the height of our emphasis on justification by faith – that talks repeatedly about the investigative judgment. S. N. Haskell, for example, in recounting the incredible revival meetings that took place in South Lancaster in January of 1889, where Jones and Ellen White spoke, talked about how “all” those who attended “seemed to realize that we are in the Investigative Judgment, and that everything should be made right with God and with our brethren” (Review and Herald, January 29, 1889).
Jones and Waggoner themselves talked frequently about this very theme, with Ecclesiastes 12:14 – “God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” – as a favorite passage (see, for example, Waggoner’s Christ and His Righteousness, p. 50; also, “The Gospel the Power of God,” in The Present Truth, October 8, 1891 [p. 329], etc.).
Then, of course, there is the biblical witness that I somehow either overlooked, ignored, or didn’t see as relevant. Together with Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes, Christ Himself declared that there “is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that is should come to light” (Mark 4:22). Elsewhere, the great expositor of the gospel – the Apostle Paul – soberingly declared that there will be a day when “God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:16), calling such a thought the “gospel.”
Such an idea is echoed in places like Hebrews 4:13 and 1 Corinthians 4:5 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 – and on and on it goes. Scripture is clear: everything, absolutely everything, we do, think, desire, want, covet is recorded and brought into judgment. And if you respect the ministry of Ellen White at all, it’s hard getting around her chapter in The Great Controversy called “Facing Life’s Record.” It’s quite an eye-full. “Every man’s work passes in review before God,” she writes, “and is registered for faithfulness or unfaithfulness. Opposite each name in the books of heaven is entered with terrible exactness every wrong word, every selfish act, every unfulfilled duty, and every secret sin, with every artful dissembling” (The Great Controversy, p. 482).
Until recently, I didn’t know what to do with such material – both the biblical witness as well as Ellen White’s testimony (which, try as many have to dispute it, stands in perfect harmony with the scriptures I’ve cited). For whatever reason, even though I firmly believed in its authority and inspiration, I had a hard time reconciling such sentiment with what I understood the gospel to be all about.
But then the third thing happened. For the last few months – again, for whatever reason – I have had an increased sense of my utter helplessness. This has touched all areas of my life – professionally, personally, relationally. I have been overwhelmed with an incredible sense of my inability.
But this has actually been a huge blessing because it has produced an incredible dependence on Christ in my life. Now, when I’m faced with just about any task or situation, I immediately feel this overwhelming need to fall to my knees and cling to Christ’s righteousness and power, realizing it is from Christ alone that I can attain strength.
One would think, then, that this idea of the investigative judgment would just lead to greater discouragement in my life. After all, the thought that everything in my life is being recorded and judged and analyzed would seemingly lead to greater despondency, since I already feel incredibly inadequate.
But that’s just the point: it does, in fact, lead to greater despair, serving as the precise mechanism by which I experience even greater dependence on Christ. Facing the judgment – knowing that every part of my life is being judged, even my deepest secrets – helps me recognize that my case is hopeless if I am dependent on my own righteousness. I’m dead meat! I won’t be able to muster up enough willpower or good deeds or good works on my own to either atone for my past mistakes or maintain a spotless record going forward.
I need Someone else’s righteousness! I need Someone else’s good works!
Thus, the investigative judgment leaves me so overwhelmed that I go running to the cross where I receive Christ’s love, forgiveness, righteousness and grace.
This is the precise point E. J. Waggoner made in an 1895 Present Truth article. “Everyone knows by his own experience that the law is a living thing,” he wrote, “discerning even the thoughts and intents of the heart. Therefore it is that in the day of judgment every secret thing will be brought to light.” After noting the truth about the reach of God’s law, and how the judgment relates to this, he then brings home the point: “The only place of safety is in Christ Jesus,” he declares, “His power and life working in us to cleanse from transgression and bring into subjection our wicked hearts. Knowing this way of escape, the believer can only urge men to seek the refuge provided.”
Indeed, the judgment helps me see that the only way of escape, and the only place I can find refuge, is in the arms of Christ. I can then run boldly to the throne of grace, where I will find Christ with His arms wide open, beckoning me to “obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16; note that this critical verse comes just a few sentences after Paul announces that “there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account,” v. 13).
It’s interesting: as I wrote a few months ago, one of the reasons we don’t talk much about the investigative judgment anymore is precisely because we have not accepted and proclaimed the message of Christ’s righteousness. People thus don’t want to hear about the guilt-inducing message of the judgment if there is no relief from that guilt that comes only through the message of Christ’s righteousness.
And yet, it’s like a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: we don’t appreciate the message of Christ’s righteousness as much today because we don’t understand the nature and scope of the investigative judgment. Why do I need Christ’s righteousness, why is it so soothing to my soul, if I am not really being presently rescued from anything?
Sure, I make mistakes, and I appreciate that God forgives me, but such vague recognitions can only result in a vague response of love. When I understand the extent of my inability, and the extent to which I don’t measure up, the thought of Christ’s righteousness produces within me an unparalleled response of gratitude.
So let’s preach the investigative judgment, and let’s preach the righteousness of Christ – the law and gospel going hand-in-hand.