In the 2006 Martin Scorsese movie, The Departed, Jack Nicholson’s character, mob boss Frank Costello, walks past an associate in a bar and asks how his mother is doing. The man replies, ruefully, “She’s on her way out.”
“We all are,” says Costello without a trace of sympathy, “act accordingly.”
It’s a telling insight into the character. The murderous Costello is not a man who believes he’ll live forever. He knows he’s going to die, but his monstrous actions reveal a disbelief in any sort of reckoning for his behavior. There’s no final judgment on Costello’s horizon — and so he acts accordingly.
But we know better. Or do we? Do we act as if we believe we must give account? We confess as much in the creed, that Christ is coming to judge the living and the dead. We see it in Matthew 25 when Jesus questions those who come before him and then divides the sheep from the goats. And we read about the great white throne of judgment in Revelation 20.
Scripture presents the matter of a final judgment gravely and assumes we’ll take the warning seriously. Writes Paul to the church at Rome:
[D]o you presume upon the riches of [God's] kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury (2.4-8).
And to the Corinthians:
[W]e must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor 5.10).
So do we believe and act as gravely as many such passages warrant? Often enough, to my shame, I do not. Other times I do, and frankly it has been God’s mercy to realize that his patience is meant to lead me to repentance, as Paul says, not excuse my wrongdoing. If I thought I were getting a pass, my walk would look differently — to my everlasting chagrin, no doubt.
Sometimes our morality is really just a social morality. We’re more concerned about whether our neighbors or friends might catch us in sin, less that there is really something objectively wrong about what we’re doing. We suppress that thought. But we must give account in the end nonetheless. It may be unpopular, but it’s not imaginary.
The Bible shows us the image of a loving and forgiving God who desires and promises to forgive the sins of which we have repented. But as Paul says in Romans, God suffers our sins with mercy and patience to provide us time and room to put those sins behind us. We are to disown them.
We fall, yes. We fall often, also true. Not a day goes by that I’m not faced with just how sinful I really am. But I dare not indulge those sins because there really is a day of judgment coming, whether Frank Costello thinks so or not. And I, like all of us, need to act accordingly.
So may the whole day pass that neither lying tongue, nor hands, nor straying eyes commit sin, nor any guilt stain our body. There is One that stands by watching from above, who each day views us and our doings. . . . He is witness, He is judge; He looks on every thought the mind of man conceives, and this judge none can dupe.
– Prudentius (Daily Round II: A Morning Hymn)