How to pass the most rigorous of exams

The anxious wait for exam results is over, and students are either celebrating or sympathising in the wake of the A Level and GCSE results. It can be a disturbing thought to contemplate that many young people’s entire future careers hang on whether they make the grade that is needed to open the door to their chosen university or desired profession.

For those who miss out, the disappointment will only be exacerbated by the controversial claims that a more rigorous standard of marking has been employed this year, resulting in the first fall in pass rates for GCSEs since 1988. For some, there remains the option of a re-sit, but for many there remains the sadness of dashed hopes and unfulfilled dreams.

Our society places enormous store on exams as the way of determining if a person is ‘good enough’ to succeed in life. Destiny is what it’s all about. But that destiny is usually perceived in terms of a forty or fifty year working life. The Bible places ‘destiny’ firmly in an eternal context, and makes it clear that if we had to sit an entrance exam to qualify for heaven, then the pass mark is so extremely rigorous that none of us would succeed. The regular comment that teachers put on my termly reports many years ago – “Needs to try harder” – would be pointless. No amount of effort would be sufficient. Any attempt to qualify by means of “goodness”, character, religious practices or an impeccable lifestyle are all doomed to failure, as we all, without exception, “fall short” (Romans 3:23) of God’s standard of perfection.

Only Jesus lived the perfect human life and would pass that exam. The purpose of exams is to reveal the truth – they are a form of judgement, that exposes who and what we really are, and God is the Great Examiner, from whom nothing can be hidden. And when we take seriously what the Bible says, the unavoidable conclusion is that there is a final exam that we all face: “We will all stand before God’s judgement seat… Each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10, 12).

The question that we will all be asked on that day, and the account that we will have to give is, however, based not on what we know, but on who we know. Referring to that day when Jesus returns as judge, the Bible states: “He will punish those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8).

My wife, who is a lecturer, informs me that one of the commonest reasons why candidates fail their exams is because they don’t actually answer the question. They write about something that is not asked for. And when I stand before Christ and He asks whether I really know Him, it will be no help to me if I answer by reeling off what a good life I have lived, and how many neighbours I have helped, or how many worthy charities I have supported. I am not answering the question. Even claims to have kept the Ten Commandments will cut no ice with God, if the obedience we are depending on has not stemmed from a relationship with Christ.

The issue at stake is whether we know Christ personally rather than knowing about him academically. A failure at this final exam has even more devastating consequences than a thwarted career or disappointed hopes. According to the Bible, those who cannot answer satisfactorily “will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). (When did you last hear a sermon on that verse?)

Fortunately, God tells us the exam question in advance because He loves us. He has gone further, and provided Christ to be our Saviour so that it’s no longer the case that I need to “prove myself” in terms of what I have done, but simply to acknowledge my failure and inability to meet the grade, and to accept and trust that Christ has graciously done it all for me, gratefully living a life of obedience to him as Lord. Then, when the Final Examination takes place, I will be accepted by being “in Christ” – as He alone has passed the test.

But, as with all exams, how vital it is to ensure that we are prepared in advance. School exams may shape a destiny in this life, but only in Christ is there guaranteed a life after the exam results on Judgement Day.

Tony Ward is a Bible teacher and evangelist who was ordained in Zimbabwe. He currently lives and ministers in Bristol.