In America we’re hearing a lot about subpoenas lately—legal demands for documents and summonses to individuals to appear before Congressional committees. The coming months will likely reveal the extend to which these demands will be honored or defied.
But if nothing else, these tests of privilege and power should remind the Christian—Seventh-day Adventists especially—of the ultimate legal tribunal before which all are summoned to appear, where humans of every station will be forced to face life’s record.
The Biblical Judgment
The Bible is clear that all are commanded—subpoenaed, if you will—to appear before God in judgment. The wisest man that ever lived affirmed this truth as his life drew to a close, in such verses as the following:
God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work (Eccl. 3:17).
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil (Eccl. 12:13-14).
Jesus made it clear that our words as well as our actions will be weighed by God in determining our ultimate destiny:
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned (Matt. 12:36-37).
In His parable of the sheep and the goats, in which the fulfillment of our duty to one another is articulated as a notable part of God’s standard of judgment (Matt. 25:34-46), the universal nature of the divine summons is again made plain:
When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory:
And before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats (verses 31-32).
Echoing the words of Solomon, the apostle Paul declares:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad (II Cor. 5:10).
The apostle James speaks of how total obedience to God’s commandments is required in order for one to pass the test of God’s judgment:
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. For He that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law. So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty (James 2:10-12).
Just as documented evidence is needed to facilitate the outcome of an earthly judgment, the Bible is clear that books of record perform a critical function in the heavenly judgment. Speaking of the final judgment at the close of time, the book of Daniel speaks of how “the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (Dan. 7:10). Those delivered from their enemies in the last days are described by Daniel as those “found written in the book” (Dan. 12:1). This is the same book mentioned by Moses when he pled with God on behalf of Israel (Ex. 32:32-33), which is described elsewhere in Scripture as the book of life (Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 13:8; 20:12,15; 21:27; 22:19).
But Daniel speaks of more than one book being opened in the judgment scene he describes (Dan. 7:10). The Bible speaks of another book—the “book of remembrance,” which “was written before Him (the Lord) for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name” (Mal. 3:16). Putting all these texts together, it becomes clear that both these books will assist in the judicial proceedings noted by Scripture as taking place at the end of time (Dan. 7:10; Rev. 20:12).
Ellen White Affirms the Biblical Judgment
Some years ago, a book by a former Adventist pastor attacked the investigative judgment doctrine, quoting at one point the following Ellen White statement: “Our acts, our words, even our most secret motives, all have their weight in deciding our destiny for weal or woe” (1). The ex-Adventist pastor then asked:
Who could meet this test? Whose motives are one hundred percent right all the time? . . .
This is not the gospel, it is condemnation (2).
But our survey of Bible passages on what God will scrutinize in the final judgment make conclusive the case for Ellen White’s plagiarism—she copied her judgment theology straight out of the Bible (Eccl. 12:13-14; Matt. 12:36-37; II Cor. 5:10; James 2:10-12). The dispute of those who resist the notion of their salvation being decided by their words, actions, and secret motives is not with Ellen White, but with Solomon, the New Testament apostles, and the Lord Himself.
The following Ellen White statements affirm the Bible doctrine of God’s universal summons—the divine subpoena—to all humanity in the ongoing heavenly judgment:
When the judgment shall sit, and the books shall be opened, and every man shall be judged according to the things written in the books, then the tables of stone, hidden by God until that day, will be presented before the world as the standard of righteousness. Then men and women will see that the prerequisite of their salvation is obedience to the perfect law of God. None will find excuse for sin. By the righteous principles of that law, men will receive their sentence of life or of death (3).
Each one in the day of investigative judgment will stand in character as he really is; he will render an individual account to God. Every word uttered, every departure from integrity, every action that sullies the soul, will be weighed in the balances of the sanctuary. Memory will be true and vivid in condemnation of the guilty one, who in that day is found wanting. The mind will recall all the thoughts and acts of the past; the whole life will come in review like the scenes in a panorama. Thus every one will be condemned or acquitted out of his own mouth, and the righteousness of God will be vindicated (4).
By our words we are to be justified or condemned. When in the final judgment we stand before the tribunal of God, it is our words that will justify or condemn us. Much more than we realize is involved in the matter of speech. . . . Let your lips be touched with a live coal from the divine altar. Utter only words of truth. Watch and pray, that your words and deeds may ever confess Christ. Let your words be seasoned with wisdom and purity (5).
The time will come when all must stand before angels and before men, revealed in their truth light. As the artist reproduces upon the polished plate the features of the human countenance, so their characters are being transferred to the books of heaven. . . . In the judgment every man will stand revealed just as he is, either fashioned after the divine similitude or disfigured by the idolatrous sins of selfishness and covetousness (6).
In the day of judgment the course of the man who has retained the frailty and imperfection of humanity will not be vindicated. For him there will be no place in heaven. He could not enjoy the perfection of the saints in light. He who has not sufficient faith in Christ to believe that He can keep him from sinning, has not the faith that will give him an entrance into the kingdom of God (7).
The world is soon to meet the great Lawgiver over His broken law. Those only who turn from transgression to obedience can hope for pardon and peace (8).
The only question asked in the judgment will be, “Have they been obedient to My commandments?” (9).
Some who receive subpoenas in today’s world may fool themselves—and others—into thinking they can evade justice. But none can evade the scrutiny of the ultimate Judge. In the modern prophet’s words:
At the final day, we shall be approved or condemned according to our works. The Judge of all the earth will render a just decision. He will not be bribed; He cannot be deceived. He who made man, and whose are the worlds and all the treasures they contain—He it is who weighs character in the balance of eternal justice (10).
But let us never forget that only through the justifying, sanctifying righteousness of Jesus, blended with our cooperative and consecrated effort, can we meet the standard upheld in both Scripture and the writings of Ellen White. The following inspired statements underscore this truth:
It is while men are still dwelling upon the earth that the work of investigative judgment takes place in the courts of heaven. The lives of all His professed followers pass in review before God. All are examined according to the record of the books of heaven, and according to his deeds the destiny of each is forever fixed.
By the wedding garment in the parable is represented the pure, spotless character that Christ’s true followers will possess. To the church it is given “that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white,” “not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing.” Rev. 19:8. This fine linen, says the Scripture, “is the righteousness of saints.” Eph. 5:27. It is the righteousness of Christ, His own unblemished character, that through faith is imparted to all who receive Him as their personal Saviour” (11).
Through the grace of God and their own diligent effort [the saints] must be conquerors in the battle with evil. While the investigative judgment is going forward in heaven, while the sins of penitent believers are being removed from the sanctuary, there is to be a special work of purification, of putting away of sin, among God’s people upon the earth. . . . When this work shall have been accomplished, the followers of Christ will be ready for His appearing (12).
Conclusion—The Divine Subpoena
Again, in the words of the apostle Paul: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (II Cor. 5:10). This verse, along with its Old Testament antecedents (Eccl. 3:17; 12:14), explode the popular illusion is certain circles that “saved” Christians will not come into judgment. This illusion is often based on a misreading of John 5:24, which in certain modern translations states that believers “shall not come into judgment.” But the word translated “judgment” is the same that is often translated “condemnation,” the latter being the word used in John 5:24 by the King James and New International Versions.
Context and the inspired consensus tell us whether the use of this word in any setting refers to examination or to condemnation. The following passages from Revelation use the same word for judgment as John 5:24, and both verses clearly involve the righteous as well as the wicked:
And the nations were angry, and Thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and Thou shouldest give Thy reward unto Thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear Thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth (Rev. 11:18).
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things that were written in the books, according to their works (Rev. 20:12).
As these verses speak of God’s “servants the prophets,” “the saints,” “them that fear His name,” and the “book of life,” it is obvious that the righteous are being evaluated and rewarded here.
God’s faithful followers will indeed escape condemnation; the Bible declares that “there is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But according to the New Testament, to be “in Christ” means the following:
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature; old things are passed away: behold, all things are become new (II Cor. 5:17).
And he that keepeth His commandments dwelleth in Him, and He in him (I John 3:24).
The Bible knows of no “in Christ” moniker which assumes a legal covering for continuous, presumably “unconquerable” shortcomings. According to the New Testament, to be in Christ means to be a new creation and to keep His commandments through His power.
In short, every human being, righteous and wicked, is summoned—subpoenaed—by the Sovereign of heaven. Evasion and stonewalling may work in certain human settings, but not with the Lord. Our only refuge is the forgiving and transforming righteousness of Jesus. The third stanza of one of my favorite early Advent hymns comes to mind:
The solemn moment is at hand, when we who have His name confessed
Each in his lot must singly stand, and pass the final searching test.
Jesus, we hope in Thee alone, in mercy now upon us look
Confess our names before the throne, and blot our sins from out Thy book (13).
1. Ellen G. White, Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 4, p. 311.
2. Dale Ratzlaff, The Cultic Doctrine of Seventh-day Adventists: An Evangelical Resource * An Appeal to SDA Leadership (Sedona, AZ: Life Assurance Ministries, 1996), p. 236.
3. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 225.
4. ----Review and Herald, Nov. 4, 1884.
5. ----The Voice in Speech and Song, pp. 21-22.
6. ----The Truth About Angels, p. 292.
7. ----Selected Messages, vol. 3, p. 360.
8. ----Ibid, vol. 2, p. 402.
9. ---- Gospel Workers, p. 315.
10. ----Signs of the Times, Oct. 8, 1885.
11. ----Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 310.
12. ----The Great Controversy, p. 425.
13. Roswell F. Contrell, “O Solemn Thought!” Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, No. 417.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.