your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;
11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”
12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
In 1875 William Ernest Henley wrote a short Victorian poem that came to be titled “Invictus.” The first stanza has these lines:
For my unconquerable soul.
And the fourth stanza closes with these famous words:
I am the captain of my soul.
The poem expresses Henley’s indomitable spirit at age 26 when he was recovering from amputation of a diseased leg. His courage is commendable and his poem continues to inspire many to face life’s challenges. But Paul’s wisdom is better. No one can read Paul and come away thinking he or she is the captain of an unconquerable soul and master of his or her fate.
For whom do we live?
Like Henley, we might think we live for ourselves and control our fate, but Paul has already said in verse 7 that “none of us lives to himself.” So the idea that we live free of any ultimate accountability is illusory. Someone is watching and taking note of how we live. In the end we will discover that we have been living to the Lord who, when we die, will decide our fate.
In verse 9 Paul said that Christ’s Lordship over every human being—both living and dead—was established by the fact he “died and lived again.” He is Lord because of his death on the cross and his resurrection, historical facts that trumpet the truth Paul now proclaims: Each person will stand before the judgment seat of God and give an account of himself to God.
Judging others invites judgment
Recall that the unity of the church in Rome was disrupted by two groups getting after each other. In verse 10 Paul addresses each group by reference to its sin tendency. One group, those weak in faith, was guilty of passing judgment on their brothers who did not practice abstinence from certain foods. The other group, confident in their freedom to eat anything, looked down on their weaker brothers.
Both you who judge and you who despise, says Paul, will be judged by God. So to avoid shame at the divine judgment seat, you should stop judging or despising your brother. And why even bother judging someone whom God is going to judge anyway, far more perfectly and justly than you can do.
Gossips take note: The judgment seat will not be an opportunity to tell God everything we know about what other people have done. We will answer to God for how we have treated others. If someone offends us, we ought to release them to God for him to decide the matter.
Volunteer your allegiance now
Verse 11 is a quotation from Isaiah 45:23. In that chapter God asserts his sovereign authority over all creation and all people. Here God speaks through the prophet:
22 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (Isaiah 45:21–23)
At the judgment seat everyone will bow the knee and swear allegiance to the Lord. Paul cites this passage also in Philippians 2:10–11, where it is clearly the Lord Jesus Christ to whom everyone bows. God does not force allegiance to his Son during people’s lifetimes on earth. That changes when they see him as Judge.
Turn to him and be saved, God beckons. Volunteer your allegiance now when it counts for salvation rather than be compelled to bow the knee later and still be condemned. You do have control of your fate to the extent that your decision now governs your destiny later. If you think of yourself as captain of your soul, steer your ship to the safe harbor of God’s welcoming grace.