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During the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, a papal representative was about to lead an attack on a city where certain heretics lived, when a soldier asked, “How will we know who among the people are our friends and who are our enemies?”

“Kill them all,” the papal representative replied. “God will sort out His own.”

His words—callous and cavalier as they are— echo a crucial biblical truth: God has promised to execute a judgment in which He will, indeed, sort out His own. He’ll do the sorting in the momentous judgment that occurs in heaven before Christ returns and renders a reward to all people according to their deeds (Revelation 22:12).

Daniel 7 contains what is perhaps the clearest passage depicting this judgment. That chapter speaks of a terrible religio-political power, symbolically portrayed as a little horn, that persecutes God’s saints until a heavenly judgment results in their being delivered into God’s eternal kingdom: “ ‘As I watched, this horn was waging war against the saints and defeating them, until the Ancient of Days came and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom’ ” (Daniel 7:21, 22).

A few verses later, Daniel describes the same event, beginning with a depiction of the little horn: “ ‘ “He will speak against the Most High and oppress his saints and try to change the set times and the laws. The saints will be handed over to him for a time, times and half a time.

“ ‘ “But the court will sit, and his power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him” ’ ” (verses 25–27).

Physical and spiritual attacks

Revelation 12 depicts Satan’s fall from heaven and subsequent activity on earth, and it parallels some of the events prophesied in Daniel 7, particularly Satan’s attack on God’s people. Satan has carried out much of that attack through various forms of physical persecution during the 2,000 years of Christian history. However, his attack is not just physical. It’s also spiritual. Revelation calls him “ ‘the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night’ ” (Revelation 12:10).

Here’s where the judgment plays a crucial role in the final, ultimate deliverance of the saints. There’s no question that Satan is the accuser of God’s people. Because he himself was thrown out of heaven due to his sin, he argues that no human being should be allowed in heaven either, because all humans are sinners too.

Jesus once called Satan a liar (John 8:44). But Satan doesn’t have to lie about the sins of those who profess to follow Christ. Indeed, one of the foundational truths of all Scripture, a teaching upon which much Christian theology rests, says that people’s sinfulness is inherent. All human beings, from Genghis Khan and Josef Mengele to Mother Teresa and John the Baptist, are sinners. No one, ever, is exempt. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Satan may lie and present the sins of the Lord’s elect in the worst possible light, but that hardly matters. Our lives, by their very nature, exclude us from heaven, even without the help of Satan.

The good news of the great pre- Advent judgment depicted in Daniel 7, however, is that all of Christ’s true followers have a Substitute in the judgment—One whose perfect life and perfect obedience to the law has been credited to them by faith. That’s why, ultimately, the court rules “in favor of the saints.” In other words, this judgment ends, once and for all, Satan’s accusations and attacks against God’s people.

The book of Zechariah reveals what will happen in this judgment. In the passage that follows, Joshua, the high priest, symbolizes God’s people, whom Satan is accusing before the Lord:

“He showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, ‘The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?’

“Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’

“Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.’

“Then I said, ‘Put a clean turban on his head.’ So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by” (Zechariah 3:1–5).

Charges of disqualification

So, in this final judgment, Satan accuses God’s people of breaking His holy law. He points to the defects in their characters, their unlikeness to Christ, and the many ways in which they have dishonored their Redeemer. He claims that their failings disqualify them for Christ’s atonement and that; consequently, they belong to his kingdom, not Christ’s.

However Jesus argues their case. He doesn’t excuse their sins but instead He shows their penitence, their faith, and their trust in His merits. And He claims the forgiveness that He has obtained for them by His life of perfect obedience and His substitutionary death. He fulfilled the demands of the law, and He offers that fulfillment to any and all who will accept it. Standing before God the Father, Jesus lifts His wounded hands—hands bearing the scars of the cross—and says, “I know them by name, I have engraved them on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16).

Thus, Christ’s followers are clothed in His perfect, sinless righteousness, and He presents them to the Father “as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).

The devil’s accusations are silenced. They are silenced not because of any merits of professed Christians but only because of the merits of Jesus, whose perfect obedience to the law of God is credited to His followers. This verdict is rendered once and for all in the great pre-Advent judgment. So, the devil is defeated, and, as Daniel says, “ ‘The Ancient of Days . . . pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom’ ” (Daniel 7:22).

No question about it: Satan has opposed God’s people and continues that opposition today. The book of Revelation warns about a resurgence of the physical persecution that occurred early in the church’s history. But Satan’s most vicious attack is the spiritual one in which he seeks to claim as his own those who, though sinners, have claimed the blood of Christ as their hope of salvation.

The papal representative will have to answer for the death of the innocent. But he did have one thing right: God will, indeed, sort out His own in the judgment.

When God Sorts Out His Own

by Clifford Goldstein
From the September 2010 Signs