Heidelberg 52: When The Final Judgment Is Good News

…when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rom 2:15–16.).

The world gospel means good news. The verbal form of the noun (εὐαγγέλιόν) Paul uses in v. 16 in secular Greek “is always used in a context of joy, at least from the point of view of the messenger: “I bring good words, happy news (logous agathous pherōn euangelisasthai) that I want to be the first to announce to you … they wanted to crown me for the good news (euangelia)” (Aristophanes, Eq. 643)….”1 That same idea is present in Isaiah 52:7:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (ESV)

The Greek text of the v. 7 uses a participle of the same word (εὐαγγελιζομένου) for announcement of good news. In Isaiah 52 the announcement is peace, happiness, and salvation. This is the best news.

Sometimes, however, Paul’s language in Romans 2:15–16 is understood to mean that “gospel” can also mean bad news. It is true that the word gospel can be used in a broader sense and that may be the case here but we should look at this passage more carefully before we conclude that the good news can sometimes be bad news. Even if the word gospel can be “bad news” for some, even this passage tells us that it is always good news for believers, those who have been given news life by God’s Holy Spirit, who have been given the gift of faith (Eph 2:8:–10) and who, by the Spirit, through faith, have been united to Christ.

In context, beginning in 1:18, Paul has been explaining the nature and function of God’s law. He has been prosecuting the entire human race for its sin and the consequences of sin namely corruption and death. Because the law was given before the fall, because it is revealed in nature, because it is imprinted on the conscience of every human (1:20; 2:12–14) we are all without excuse. We voluntarily, freely (without any external compulsion) and mysteriously chose to disobey God. We chose to break the covenant of works (or the covenant of nature, covenant of life, or commandment of life.2 We had the ability before the fall to obey the law. We were “created in righteousness and true holiness that we might rightly know God our Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal blessedness.”3 Adam before the fall Adam was “good.” After the fall, that original goodness was corrupted. He, and we all in him (Rom 5:12–21) became bad by nature and therefore subject to the promised judgment: “The day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). We became fugitives. We covered ourselves pitifully with fig leaves and lied to our maker. Therefore, we should not be surprised when Paul, as he preaches the law to the congregation in Rome and to us now, should announce the coming judgment.

Our Lord Jesus repeatedly proclaimed the coming judgment:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire ( Matt 5:21–25; ESV).

Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town (Matt 10:15; ESV).

But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you (Matt 11:22; ESV).

But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” (Matt 11:24; ESV).

The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here (Matt 12:41; ESV).

…and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:29; ESV).

Just before our passage Paul said,

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day…. (Rom 2:6–16; ESV).

The final judgment will be universal. It will judge those who had the law of Moses (Torah) and it will judge those who had the law of nature, the moral law “written on their hearts.” The moral law is the same law in both publications. The standard is obedience to that law. That is why Paul says, it’s not hearers who are justified but “doers” (ποιηταὶ) who shall be justified. There’s nothing in this passage, by the way, to suggest that it is believers, aided by the Spirit, who are, in themselves, the “doers.” This passage is not announcing the future acceptance of believers on the basis of their sanctification. This passage is announcing condemnation for all those who are not perfectly righteous, perfectly conformed to God’s holy law. For those who do not believe, that judgment is indeed bad news. For those who believe, however, the judgment is not bad news but good news.

How can this passage possibly be “good news” or gospel in the strict sense? Did I not just say that it is announces nothing but condemnation to those who have not perfectly obeyed every syllable of God’s holy law? Yes. I did. That is not good news of course, because we all have not obeyed and none of shall obey the law perfectly, not even with the help of the Holy Spirit. Even the Apostle Paul confessed that he did not do what he wanted to do and even as a believer sometimes despaired (see Rom 7). Why then does Paul say “according to my gospel” (κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου)? The clue is in the next phrase, “through Christ Jesus.” We may translate Paul thus:

“on the day when God judges the secrets of men according to my announcement of Good News through Jesus Christ.”4

Those who believe in Christ have, in Christ, by virtue of his obedience for them which has been credited to them and received through faith alone—Paul will go on to explain these truths in Romans chapters 4–6—so that the final judgment is not a source of terror for us, as it is for those who seek to stand before God on the basis of their own obedience or their own sanctity or even on the basis partly of Christ’s righteousness imputed and partly anything else (e.g., Spirit-wrought sanctity). For those who are in Christ Jesus, i.e., united to him by his free favor, by the work of the Spirit, and reckoned righteous in him, the judgment is Good News because it announces to the world what has already been announced in the gospel:

And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Rom 4:5; ESV).

God justifies the unrighteous. Paul explains in chapter 5:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation (Rom 5:6–11; ESV).

Not only did Christ die for the ungodly, which—contra Pelagius—he used as a synonym for “unrighteous”—but even more scandalously he justifies those who are, in themselves, intrinsically, unrighteous. Not that they should remain unrighteous, not at all. No, Paul makes clear that, having been declared righteous for Christ’s sake alone, we ought to grow in sanctity and righteousness because we have been declared righteous. We know too that there are not two-stages of justification, initial and final. No, believers are as totally justified now as they shall ever be. At the judgment, however, we will be vindicated. It will be declared to the whole world what we were, in Christ.

Thus, in Heidelberg Catechism 52 we confess:

52. What comfort is it to you, that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head, I look for the selfsame One, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven, who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.

The judgment is a comfort to us, it is good news to us who believe, because the one for whom we look is not our judge as much as he is our Savior, our Friend, our Mediator, our substitute. He has borne in his own body the judgment that we deserve. The righteousness he accomplished for us in his life and on in his death is ours.

The wrongs we have suffered in this life, whether mocking or martyrdom shall be made right. We need not and should not fear the judgment. “Now is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31). Our Lord Jesus declared this gospel:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (John 5:24; ESV).

Believer, we are not condemned men, waiting for the guard to unlock the cell. We are not dead men walking to judgment. We have been declared righteous! The righteous man cannot fear judgment because it has no hold on him.5

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.


1. Ceslas Spicq and James D. Ernest, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 82–83.

2. See Westminster Confession chapters 7 and 19; Westminster Larger Catechism 20, Belgic Confession art. 14)

3. Heidelberg Catechism 6.

4. The NA28 ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ὅτε κρίνει ὁ θεὸς τὰ κρυπτὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου διὰ Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ.

5. Of course the justified, i.e., believers have a reverent fear of God. Paul teaches this in 2 Cor 7:1 among many places.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for this, Dr. Clark. There are some in the Protestant camp–even in the Reformed camp-who teach on rewards in a way that diminishes this comforting news. Thank you for standing for the Gospel.

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