Question: "What does it mean that judgment begins at the house of God?"
Answer: Judgment is a recurring theme throughout the Bible (see Psalm 82:8). God’s plan includes a final judgment on the wicked and all who reject the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as payment for their sins (Matthew 10:15; Romans 2:2; Hebrews 9:27; 10:26–27). A cursory reading of 1 Peter 4:17 seems to suggest that Christians may face God’s judgment, too: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Is the “judgment” that begins at the house of God the same as the judgment of the wicked?
The context of 1 Peter 4:17 explains more about the judgment that begins at the household of God. In this chapter Peter is exhorting the church—the house of God—which was facing persecution, to persevere. The believers were also struggling to separate from the former worldly sins that had once enslaved them (verses 1–4). Peter reminds them that the wicked will face God’s judgment (verse 5) but that believers in Christ must hold themselves to a higher standard than they once did. The “fiery trials” that they were facing were to help refine them like gold (verse 12).
God allows difficulties and suffering in the lives of His people to purify them. When we are persecuted for the cause of Christ, we share in His sufferings (1 Peter 4:13–14). And when we share His suffering, we know Him a little better (Philippians 3:10). Paul echoes this theme in Romans 8:17: “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Part of God’s judgment upon sin is physical suffering. When His own children experience such suffering, it is not for our harm but to make us more like Jesus. “Judgment” for the children of God can be considered discipline (Hebrews 12:4–11). It is designed to purge the sin from our lives and teach us obedience.
A loving father does not discipline the kids down the street, because they are not his. A father disciplines his own children. Likewise, the discipline of our heavenly Father begins at His own household, with His own children, the church. He is reserving for the wicked an ultimate, final judgment that His children will never experience (Romans 8:1). Scripture makes a distinction between God’s purifying discipline of the church and His ultimate condemnation of the wicked: “When we are judged . . . by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:32).
In this present age, God allows painful circumstances in the lives of His own household, not to condemn but to mature, convict, and bring repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Through suffering we learn patience (James 1:2–4). This kind of judgment is to encourage us to abandon selfishness and draw nearer to Him (James 4:8). The ultimate, final judgment for unbelievers will be eternal separation from God, from life, and from all that is good and beautiful (Matthew 8:11–12; Revelation 21:8).
The judgment that begins at the household of God also includes church discipline. Church discipline is not for unbelievers but for believers: “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). Believers are commanded to take responsibility for other followers of Christ who may be slipping or headed toward sin (James 5:20). First Corinthians 5:11–13 commands us to avoid fellowship with anyone claiming to be a brother or sister in Christ but who insists on maintaining a sinful lifestyle. Jesus lays out the process for church discipline in Matthew 18:15–17. Someone who has been confronted multiple times and warned that the choices he is making are in opposition to God needs to repent. If he refuses to listen to the church, we are to turn away from him in the hope that this drastic action will bring about repentance (see 2 Corinthians 2:7 and Galatians 6:1). As believers, we are to pursue holiness and encourage each other to pursue it, too (1 Peter 1:15–16). We are to judge ourselves as God’s household (1 Corinthians 11:31). In this way, judgment begins in the house of God.
There will be another kind of judgment for all those who have been redeemed by God’s Son. Second Corinthians 5:10 says, “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” (cf. Romans 14:10). This judgment for those who are “in Christ” is not to determine eternal destiny but to give rewards for godly service and faithfulness (Matthew 16:27; Revelation 22:12). Jesus commanded us to store up treasure in heaven (Luke 12:33). This treasure will be revealed at the judgment seat of Christ. This glorious day will be more like an awards ceremony than a trial, because everyone present has already had their eternal fate secured when they were born again (John 3:3). Jesus Himself will give us crowns and treasure to enjoy for all eternity according to what we have done with all He had entrusted to us (Matthew 25:21).
God’s desire is that His people learn to walk in holiness and fellowship with Him (Romans 8:29). As any loving parent would do, God will bring unpleasant consequences upon His children for rebellion. He expects the ones He has redeemed by the blood of His Son to set the example for the rest of the world. If the church is not in pursuit of holiness, the world sees no need to change its allegiance. So judgment begins in the household of God, with His own children, as He teaches us to live like Jesus.