Many people have the mistaken idea that there will be one great day of judgment in which all people will stand before God to be judged for their lives here on earth. The Scriptures speak of many different judgments, at different times, for different groups of people.
The judgment that concerns us, as members of the church, the body of Christ, is the judgment seat of Christ. Though many of God’s judgments are described in the book of the Revelation, the judgment seat of Christ is not mentioned there. The Revelation concerns itself with the fulfillment of God’s prophesied plans and purposes for His chosen nation, Israel. The judgment seat of Christ is described in the writings of the apostle Paul, to whom was committed the truth concerning the dispensation of the grace of God, a body of truth that was a mystery (or secret) until God chose to reveal it to and through Paul (Col. 1:24-27).
In the book of Romans, chapter 14, Paul addresses the problem of believers judging their brothers in Christ.
“But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: `As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Rom. 14:10-12)
All believers will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The expression “stand before” literally means “to be placed beside or near.” We will be presented to the Lord and placed at His disposal for judgment. Not only will we worship and honor Him by bowing the knee to Him and confessing Him with our tongue, but we will also give account of our lives and our service to Him.
What is the nature of this judgment that believers will face? One of the keys to answering this question is found in the term used for “judgment seat.”
The typical word for “judgment” in the New Testament is the Greek word “krino,” which is often translated “condemnation,” and often used in reference to judging sin. For example, in Revelation 20:11-15, we read of the great white throne judgment, before which the unbelieving dead will be judged (Greek “krino”) according to their works. The final result of this judgment is eternal condemnation, for all who stand before this judgment will be thrown into the lake of fire.
The expression “judgment seat,” that Paul uses to describe the believer’s place of judgment, is from the Greek word “bema.” This word refers to a raised platform or seat, usually in an open court, on which a judge sits. The word is used in Acts 18:12,16 where the apostle Paul, while in Corinth, was brought to the judgment seat of Gallio, proconsul of Achaia. It is also used in Acts 25:6,10,17 where Paul, while being held in Caesarea, was brought to the judgment seat of the governor, Festus. This same word, “bema,” is also used to describe the judgment seat in Jerusalem, where Jesus was brought before the Roman governor, Pilate (John 19:13).
The fact that a different word is used indicates that the judgment seat of Christ is a different type of judgment. As believers in Christ, we will not be judged or condemned for our sins at the judgment seat of Christ. We read in John 3:16-18,
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
God’s purpose in sending Jesus Christ into the world, was not to judge or condemn (“krino”) the world, but to save the world through His substitutionary death on Calvary. Whoever does not believe in Him, already stands judged or condemned (“krino”), but, whoever believes in Him is not judged or condemned (“krino”). Paul states this in Romans 8:1,
“There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus …”
By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, God judged or condemned sin in the flesh. Romans 6:23 teaches that the wages or payment of sin is death, but Jesus paid the penalty for our sins when He died on Calvary (I Pet. 2:24).
The apostle Paul mentions the judgment seat of Christ again in II Corinthians 5:1-10. Here Paul, writing to believers, describes the new bodies that God has prepared for us, “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (vs. 1). This wonderful promise is guaranteed by the presence of His Holy Spirit in our hearts (vs. 5, compare Eph. 1:13-14). He stresses that as long as we remain in our earthly body, we are absent from the Lord, but as soon as we die, and are thus absent from our earthly body, we enter into the presence of the Lord. Based on these truths, Paul concludes:
“Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (II Cor. 5:9-10)
The King James version renders verse 9 as follows: “Wherefore we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him.” The expression “accepted of Him” has caused many people to believe that God’s acceptance of them, in regard to their salvation, is based on their labor or their works. The word “accepted” as used here in the King James text is from the Greek word “euarestos” which literally means “well pleasing.” It does not refer to God accepting us (i.e. salvation), but whether or not our lives, as saved individuals, are pleasing to Him.
We read in Ephesians 1:6, that God has “accepted” us in His beloved Son on the basis of His grace. The word for “accepted” here is a different Greek word altogether, “charitoo,” which means “engraced or favored.” It is used in Luke 1:28 where Mary, who was to become the mother of the Lord Jesus, was said to be “highly favored.” We are not “accepted” by God on the basis of our works, but on the basis of His grace, and the gift of His grace, the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:8-10).
The judgment seat of Christ does not determine whether we are saved or not, but rewards believers based on their service for the Lord. Going back to II Corinthians 5, verse 10 states that we must all “appear” before the judgment seat of Christ. The word “appear” means “to make manifest what has been hidden or unknown, to bring to light, to make openly visible.” This is what will happen at the judgment seat of Christ. Every believer, individually, will give an account of what he or she has done while here on earth, and it will be made manifest whether it was good or bad, that is, if it was well pleasing to God or not. Paul describes this day of judgment in I Corinthians 3:13-15,
“Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
When we stand before the judgment seat of Christ on that Day, the work we have done will become clear (i.e. evident, known). God will test each one’s work and reveal (i.e. uncover, unveil) every aspect of the work to determine “what sort it is.” Any work that endures will be rewarded. Any work that is burned up will not be rewarded, and thus the person will “suffer loss” of that reward. This Scripture makes it very clear that, even if a person’s work is burned and he suffers loss of reward, yet “he himself will be saved.” That person will not suffer loss of salvation.
There are basically two criteria that God will use to judge the believer’s works: (1) What you build and (2) How you build it.
What You Build — The Right Work
What you build is based on head knowledge. It involves knowing and doing the right work for God. I Corinthians 3:10-11 describes two requirements for building the right work.
“According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
The first requirement is that we must build on the proper foundation—the Lord Jesus Christ. This foundation has already been laid. Paul teaches that no one can lay “any other foundation.” The word “other” in this expression means “another of the same kind.” Many people try to lay other, different foundations and then build upon them, but God will only accept that which is build upon the foundation of His Son, Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter, during his ministry in Jerusalem, made a similar statement,
“Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)
The second requirement is that we must build according to the proper plans or blueprints. The apostle Paul describes himself in I Corinthians 3:10 as “a wise master builder.” Today we might call him “a wise architect.” He is wise in that he followed God’s plans. Paul was, and is, God’s architect for this current age or dispensation of grace. The truth concerning the dispensation of grace and God’s plan and purpose for the church, the body of Christ, was made known to Paul by revelation. It was a mystery or secret prior to this time. (Eph. 3:1-5). Paul is God’s steward or manager for this dispensation (Col. 1:25), thus Paul says that he “laid the foundation” (I Cor. 3:10).
Many people today are building upon the correct foundation, Jesus Christ, but are building according to the wrong set of blueprints. Many try to follow Jesus’ earthly teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, which was directed to the people of Israel (Matt. 15:24; Rom. 15:8). They are looking forward to, and some even trying to bring in God’s kingdom upon earth (Matt. 6:10), not realizing that our hope as believers today is not a kingdom here on earth, but a glorious home with Christ “in the heavenlies” (Eph. 1:3; 2:6; Col. 1:27). God will surely hold accountable at the judgment seat of Christ, those who fail to see and understand what God’s plan and purpose is for today, and try to build according to the plans for another age and another body of believers. Paul sums up both of the requirements for what we build in Romans 16:25,
“Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began.”
The foundation is “the preaching of Jesus Christ,” but today it must be “according to the revelation of the mystery.”
How You Build — The Right Attitude
The second criteria that God will use to determine the quality of the believer’s work is how you build. How you build is not based so much on head knowledge as it is upon heart and attitude. It involves working with the right motive. This is one of the key things that will be manifest at the judgment seat of Christ.
“Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God.” (I Cor. 4:5)
When we do our works here on earth, people can see what we have done, but they may not know why we did these works. Our heart, which is the source for our motive and attitude, is hidden to them. At the judgment seat of Christ, the “counsels of the heart” will be brought to light. That which might have been hidden before men, will then be fully seen and known. The word “counsels” refers to our “resolve, will, or purpose.”
The guidelines for what our motive and purpose should be are given in Colossians 3:22-25. Although these instructions are directed specifically at those who were slaves or bondservants on earth, they certainly apply to us as servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God. And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.” (Col. 3:22-24)
He first gives the guidelines from the negative point of view: “Not with eyeservice as men-pleasers.” Our service should not be based on what other people see. Our motive should not be to glorify ourselves or to please men, but to please God, “who tests our hearts” (I Thess. 2:4-6).
On the positive side, whatever we do, we are to do “in sincerity of heart, fearing God.” The word “sincerity” literally means “singleness.” It refers to that which is done totally without pretense and without hypocrisy. It speaks of a genuine and sincere attitude of heart. Our attitude toward God should be that of “fear,” not particularly being afraid of God, but having a reverence and respect for the awesome God we serve. In addition, we are to remember that we will receive the reward, not from men, but from the Lord, for we “serve the Lord Christ.”