Are believers really judged for every word?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: I was wondering about something I have heard several different views on and just needed to try and get a solid answer. According to some verses in the Bible, and what some pastors/teachers say, we (Christians) will have to give an account for every word, deed, thought, etc., good and bad, before the Lord at the Judgment. But what troubles me is that if Christ died and paid the penalty for my sins, saving me from wrath and cleaning my slate, why will God bring these sins back up for me to give an account for? Because my account was credited to Jesus Christ, so I don't understand why the sins will be brought back up again unless it's for humiliation or something. I need to know what your view on this is, it is very troubling to hear this and it's certainly not something for myself, as a believer, to look forward to. I appreciate any input you have on this subject. Thank you and God Bless you.

Answer: Don’t worry, friend. As long as you are behind me in that judgment line, Jesus will never get to you. (Just kidding about the line, of course.)

Thankfully, neither of us will have to go through that particular judgment because your instincts are correct. Our sins, past present and future, have been annihilated at the cross — and this includes any “careless” words. Furthermore, I like your observation that, with the cross’s judgment in view, what motivation other than humiliation would be likely in any ostensive future heavenly judgment of our words? Furthermore, how would that serve the Kingdom? I also agree (and I claim personal guilt here) that these verses are used very loosely, and that an earnest believer like yourself could be troubled by them. My main job today is to fix that for you.

As a first consideration, it is easy to forget (because it is often our Lord himself speaking) that when we are reading the Gospels, we are never Jesus’ primary audience (and by primary, I mean the immediate target of the original discourse). Why not? Because we are Christians, a category of person that did not exist until after Pentecost in Acts chapter two. This is not to say that we are second-class citizens in any part of God’s word. This is to say that since we are not always the primary audience, we should interpret all passages with that in view — and perhaps save ourselves some angst. Let us look at the verse in question to solve your dilemma.

“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36–37, ESV)

Since no Christians were around when Jesus spoke these words, who did he have in view when speaking? Who fits the attribution, “You brood of vipers” from verse 34? Certainly not his disciples. Look at the previous passage in verses 22-31 because the audience had not changed. These were the Jews who committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit! It was they who, in spite of clear and continuing evidence, persisted in hardening their hearts against Christ. These Jews were condemned — and this is the category of person who will have to account for their careless words, the condemned. John showed us this future event.

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” (Revelation 20:12, ESV)

Since we believers are the ones who have our names written in the “book of life,” we do not participate in the bad portion of this judgment, but this does not mean that we will not be judged at all. We must appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ. But is that the place where we will have to account for every careless word? Let us investigate.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV)

In this verse, we Christians are indeed the primary audience. So, although we will not have to account for every careless word in the same manner as do the people in Matthew chapter 12, we still must account for our performance as Christians, and as we look forward to this, how could this not cause some angst? After all, any accounting of stewardship has some emotional peril — and this one will be to Jesus himself! But this verse lacks detail, and we must resist the temptation to fill in the blanks for God. Does this passage say that we will account for every careless word? No. Then why bear that burden because of it? However, that same lack of details means we might indeed have to account for our words. We just don’t know for sure. But if this happens, it will not be because of Matthew chapter 12, Revelation 20, or because many people taught it convincingly in spite of its weak biblical warrant.

All that being said, the Bible does indeed teach us to be careful about our words: Do not lie, do not vow, let your yes be yes and your no be no, etc. Therefore, it is entirely reasonable to expect Jesus to ask us for an account for these behaviors. It is also reasonable for us to teach about the accountability of words... but should we teach at all from Matthew 12:33-37? Sure! No Bible verses are “off-limits” for a Christian. This passage still shows us what God values — and that is always important. Besides, we can often make a legitimate application beyond the primary audience. What are our responsibilities in these teachings? If there is any question as to the audience, context or genre of a passage, resolve those first, and be cautious in your application.

As a final thought, although we Christians are free to live our lives as we wish, we should live them as though we had to account for every careless word. It’s the right thing to do…but only if we are rightly motivated. A love for Jesus Christ should drive us — not the fear of some future judgment. Because that is exactly the kind of thing he saved us from at the cross (Romans 8:1). Fear is the tell of legalism, while love is the tell of God.

“For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15, ESV)

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