When believers who are genuinely concerned for their own growth in Christ, and honestly know their own actions to be imperfect and struggle with the flesh, look at the judgment seat of Christ, they often shy away from it. There is a certain sense and hope that we won’t disappoint Jesus with our actions because, to a certain extent, we all know we have. And honestly, it isn’t taught much in modern day evangelical churches because as 21st century believers in Christ we don’t like the idea of judgement.
The reality is, however, that all believers – yes believers – will stand before the judgment seat of Christ when they die or if they are alive when Christ returns.
Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 3 and 4, and 2 Corinthians 5 –
“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.”– 2Co. 5:10 ESV
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”– 1Co. 3:11-15 ESV
“But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”– 1Co. 4:3-5 ESV
So we get judged? How? For sin?
Remember, this is a different judgment from the final judgment where the believers and unbelievers are separated for eternity (Rev. 20:11-15). This judgment is the one that is especially for believers. But it isn’t a judgment in the sense of judging us according to our sins.
Sin is already dealt with in our case, we are completely declared righteous in the sight of God for all of eternity by the atoning blood of Jesus Christ accessed by our faith in him, (Rom. 5:1-2; 6-11; 8:1-4; 10:4). God cannot judge the believer for their sins because he already put the entirety of his wrath and righteous punishment for those sins on the person of Jesus Christ on the cross – “who himself bore our sins in his body on the tree,” (1Pe. 2:24a). God judging us for our sins would be like saying that Christ’s blood wasn’t sufficient for our complete salvation. (Heb. 9:28)
So we know that judgment doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus judging us for sin – but that still doesn’t answer the question – what kind of judgment is it?
The Judgment Seat of Christ
Well if we take all the three sets of verses we quoted above together and draw some conclusions, I think we can get a good picture of what that judgment will be like –
- The purpose of the judgment seat of Christ is that “each one” (believers) “might receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or bad.”
- The idea here is that when they stand before Christ, believers will, “experience something on the basis of what that person has already done.” That’s the definition of the Greek word used for receive – komisatai. This is clearly Jesus giving us something in return for what we have done in this earthly body. And we know he will not repay us for our sins, therefore it must have to do with works approved by him.
- This is not salvation by works – this is heavenly reward based on faithfulness.
- Jesus was very clear that believers would be rewarded based on their faithfulness with the abilities that God had given to them – the prime example of this is the parable of the Ten Minas (Lk. 19:11-27). Here Jesus clearly says to the one who produces more minas with what he had, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities,” (Lk. 19:17).
- Whatever someone does in this life in service to Christ – that is gold and precious metal that doesn’t fade away. Sin will be burned up, but the believer will not be judged or condemned. The believer might not gain reward, but their relationship to Christ and status in him is untouchable. Sin is that which is the “wood, hay, straw” in 1 Corinthians 3 – it simply gets burned away never to be heard of again.
- Even the smallest heart inclination of worship to Christ will receive praise and reward from Christ at the judgment seat – “the purposes of the heart” will be disclosed and this will result in “commendation” not condemnation.
Beloved, this is a great encouragement to us. Christ has dealt with your sin; there is no more judgment for sin for the believer. Christ, when he returns or you go to meet him, will not judge you for sin, but he will reward you for every act of obedience and love that you ever rendered towards him.
We often fear standing before Christ – because we know we are sinners. We know we still struggle with the flesh, we know in our heart of hearts we have no perfect actions that could earn us anything. But these passages, instead of scaring us into obedience, are meant to give us genuine hope that “God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything,” (1Jn. 3:20). When our own hearts condemn us, we know that our sins have been atoned for by Christ, and we turn to him, to love and serve him afresh even after we have fallen, and those things we do are put in us by Christ through the Spirit to glorify him and to grant us eternal reward.
The author of Hebrews yet again encourages us with this hope of reward from Christ – “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in the serving of the saints, as you still do.” (Heb. 6:11 ESV). God will not overlook your work – working, loving, and living for Christ will produce heavenly reward! We don’t deserve it, but God has ordained in his gracious power to give heavenly rewards to those who love and serve him.
He has wiped away our sins, he has drawn us to himself, he works in us to obey and love him, and then he even gives us unearned rewards for that love that he put in us! What an amazing, glorious, merciful God we serve!
Brothers – be encouraged that God is keeping track of every prayer of love, every cup of cool water given to a brother or sister, every act and thought inclined in loving manner to Christ. None of it escapes him and all of it is pleasing to him through Jesus Christ.
So with Paul we say, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1Co. 15:58 ESV).
And with the author of Hebrews we wait eagerly for the coming of our Lord
“So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb. 9:28 ESV).