I recently got my hands on a sermon intended for teens that included a portion of text from a book (which I’ll leave unnamed) with an illustration about an accountant who gets to heaven and stands before God. God calls for “Robert the Missionary,” but the man doesn’t step forward. After God calls again for “Robert the Missionary,” the accountant reluctantly steps forward and tells God he was “Robert the accountant.” God then chastises him for not fulfilling his true calling to be a missionary. The man replies that his ministry on earth saved hundreds of souls, but God again corrects him by saying he could have reached thousands if he had become a missionary.

I’m not one to get overly excited about anything good or bad, but I was appalled by this caricature of God. I’d like to see the Scriptural support for when God makes us feel guilt and shame in heaven or belittles a profession where the individual is still involved in ministry. There are so many theological issues with this fictional story as it stands, I couldn’t believe that it was included to emphasize the point (and my main issue with the message itself) that we will be judged by our potential, or by what we could have done.

It was alarming because it wasn’t the first time I had heard this preached. I heard a preacher once say the same thing in front of a crowd of students during a message on giving – we will be judged by what “we could have done.” I’ve tried to always pay attention when listening to sermons and see if it lines up with Scripture. I approached the preacher after that particular service and asked for Scriptural support for his statement. The only Scripture was the same that the author of the previous sermon also quoted – the parable of the talents/gold in Matthew 25.

Let me first say that if you’re going to present the topic of judgement from the pulpit to manipulate encourage people to do more for God, then you better be ready to preach an entire series with intense small group support to tackle this effectively. It isn’t something that you can just throw out there with an extremely loose interpretation of Matthew 25.

Amazingly absent from this theology is the grace by which our faith stands. Anyone who would thoroughly think through the idea of being judged by our potential would quickly realize that if that’s true, then we are all screwed, pastors who miss the mark in preaching included.

It also fails to recognize two important truths from the Matthew 25 parable. The first being that two of the men lived up to their potential, conveniently left out. The second being that the context of Matthew 25 makes it clear that this parable is intended to make the distinction of judgement between knowing Christ and not knowing Christ… not saying that we will be judged by what we could have done. The unfaithful servant got thrown into the darkness where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth (shame and guilt usually reserved for hell, not heaven as our authors imply). This is a similar fate of the five virgins in the previous parable and the goats in the following parable.

At best the idea of being judged by our potential relates to a challenge on how to live on earth. Though a stretch, it could also relate to the varying degrees of heavenly rewards in the afterlife that the Bible talks about. Even in that scenario, we will celebrate our accomplishments, not live with regret lamenting what we could have done like Oscar Schindler.

The theology of final judgement is complex, but one thing is clear:

There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

He is our advocate in judgement and through a relationship with Jesus, we are welcomed into his house and saved by his grace. Strive to live up to your potential and carefully obey when the Lord speaks. We are promised rewards for what we’ve done in this life (not what we could have done) so stay faithful. Rely on Scripture and don’t blindly accept what you hear from the pulpit. Take a cue from the Berean Jews of Acts 17 when it comes to listening to sermons who “received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Get in the Word!

Author Matt

I'm a husband, father, leader, and geek whose time is wrapped up in faith, family, film, and travel. I guess I'm a little like the equivalent of a utility player in baseball. I'm happy with not being the best at something as long as I'm always trying to get better.

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  • jill says:

    I agree.
    To say that we will be judged according potential is somewhat illogical, and in the sermon you mentioned (I’ve also read it), there’s a shameful lack of something I look for in sermons. Scriptural basis. If someone wants to make such a strong statement, to reshape Who God is, then carry with that heavy message an even heavier batch of scriptural basis.
    I can’t imagine carrying out such an action. Having two little boys, I don’t think about how they could do everything perfectly, but I rejoice when they do something good, when they obey, when they’re kind and loving. It wouldn’t occur to me to judge them with such an extreme measure. Do we not already fall short of the glory of God? Is it not enough for us to try to live in a way pleasing to Perfection?
    To present a message such as this to teens, who already put great amounts of pressure on themselves to make the “right” or “perfect” choice for their future -in which school to attend, career path to follow, person to date, and on and on, we’re going to create a generation of neurotic second-guessers petrified rather than taking action because Big Bad God is up there watching to see if we make the “best” blind choice for our potential -blind because we, unlike God, can not see the long term outcome of said choices. If this was the God I was presented with as a teen He’d seem like a passive aggressive jerk to me. “Missionary Robert? Uh… Missionary Robert? Are you here? Oh, I’m sorry, you-fell-short-of-your-potential Robert, that’s who I meant…” I like to think God will see us and maybe smile -if that’s something He does, and rejoice that we chose Him, that this Robert knows Him, loves Him, and did SOMETHING for him. On mother’s day I don’t look down on the gift of macaroni necklaces and home made cards because they aren’t gold necklaces and spa gift cards. I rejoice that my children love me and thought of me and just did SOMETHING for me.
    And we’re back to the talents. The guy who did the most with them was rewarded accordingly. The next guy who multiplied them a medium amount, was entrusted with that much more -not punished for only having done that much. The only person judged was the one who did NOTHING with them. He didn’t just do “not his potential”, he did nothing at all.
    Accountant Robert did something with what he had. Accountant Robert did pretty well, if you ask me. He’s in heaven, having reached hundreds. I think it’s a poor example and a dangerous message to float out to impressionable teens with no real study or scripture to back this theology that will SHAPE THEIR VIEW OF GOD.
    People already well-grounded in their faith can hear such messages and judge for themselves, weight it, compare it to scripture, and come to their own decisions. But to send this out to thousands of impressionable and “just shaping their view of God” teens is irresponsible.
    How important is it to get money or service out of a teen, or anyone else, that we will recklessly send messages out there like this one.
    If we’re judged on our potential, then let me be judged on the bad I could have done. Maybe I had the potential to be a swindler, a crook, or the next dictator to annihilate thousands- but I DIDN’T, so good job me! Okay, this might seem overboard, but it makes as little sense to me to judge harshly according to our potential for good if we don’t also take into account the potential we have to do bad things.
    In presenting messages to those who are JUST building their foundation of faith in God, I think we’re responsible to present them with what the scriptures say, not condemnation (as far as I can see, created just by man) in order to guilt them into service.

  • […] a spiritual principle, but the habit can lead to bad theology. The most recent example is a loose interpretation of the parable of the talents¬†which is floating around. It’s presented in a¬†manner to motivate people to do more with […]

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