The Judgment Seat of Christ
The New Testament is explicit that a day is coming when believers “must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). There could hardly be a more sobering reality. Indeed, Daniel Webster, a famous 19th-century American statesman and orator, once said, “The greatest thought that has ever entered my mind is that I will have to stand before a holy God and give an account of my life.” Scripture often appeals to the reality of that day as an incentive to godliness and growth and as a warning against carelessness and spiritual sloth. Thus it behooves believers to contemplate carefully all God’s Word has to say about the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Time. Christ will judge the living and dead “at his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:1; cf. Mt. 16:27; Lk. 14:14; 1 Cor. 15:23; Rev. 22:12). More specifically, Revelation 19:8 indicates that when the Lord Jesus descends in glory at the close of the Tribulation period, His Bride (the church) already will have received her reward. In the phrase righteousnesses of saints, the noun righteousnesses is plural, indicating the righteous acts of the saints. The reference is not to imputed righteousness but to those elements of believers’ lives and service that God has tested in the fire and found acceptable—those elements with which the Bride adorns herself in the triumphal march to the marriage banquet. Thus the Judgment Seat occurs in the heavenlies during the interim between the Rapture of the saints (1 Th. 4:13–18) and the descent of the Lord Jesus in glory (Rev. 19:11–21).
Participants and Purpose. The New Testament is explicit that the “judgment (bema) seat of Christ” is exclusively for believers (1 Cor. 3:15; 2 Cor. 5:10). This fact also appears in the allusion to the bema seat. In the world of the New Testament, the bema was a raised platform, usually mounted by steps, and used to make public pronouncements and to award prizes. In the Grecian games, the umpire or referee sat on a bema seat; from that seat, he rewarded the contestants who had run well enough to obtain prizes (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24). The seat usually was not a judicial bench but a prominent elevation from which honor was awarded or withheld. Paul uses the term in this sense (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10).
Thus the issue at the Judgment Seat of Christ will not be the eternal destiny of those being judged. All will be believers who came to God, not based on their works (Eph. 2:8–9; Ti. 3:5) but on personal faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Such faith results in a standing of perfect righteousness before a thrice holy God (Rom. 4:4–5). Jude asserted that God is able to present us “faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy” (Jude 24, emphasis added).
The issue at the Judgment Seat of Christ will be the awarding or withholding of believers’ rewards (Mt. 5:12; 6:4; 10:41; 16:27; 1 Cor. 3:14; 2 Jn. 8; Rev. 11:18; 22:12). Indeed, our individual works will be the basis of our judgment (1 Cor. 3:12–15; Rev. 2:23). Some people will “suffer loss,” but they themselves “shall be saved, yet as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15, suggesting a narrow escape from the flames). No doubt, they will be “ashamed before him at his coming” (1 Jn. 2:28).
Identity of the Judge. The Lord Jesus asserted that the Father had committed all judgment to Him (Jn. 5:22). The apostles acknowledged Jesus as “the righteous judge” (2 Tim. 4:8), “ordained by God to be the Judge of living and dead” (Acts 10:42) “without respect of persons” (1 Pet. 1:17; cf. Isa. 11:1–3; Jn. 5:26–27) and in perfect truth (Rom. 2:16; Heb. 4:13; cf. Prov. 15:3; Lk. 12:3). Indeed, He alone is perfectly qualified to sit in judgment. Because He was God from eternity, He can judge with perfect authority. And because of whom He chose to become when He emptied Himself, became obedient to the point of death (Phil. 2:7–8), and learned “obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), He can judge with perfect sympathy.
The Basis of Judgment. The criteria of judgment are most specifically defined in 2 Corinthians 5:10, where Paul states,
We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.
The verse affirms that the purpose of the bema seat is to reveal the true heart of each believer. (The verb appear means “to be made manifest, laid open for all to see.”) The term translated “bad” in this verse is unusual; it denotes not moral corruption or intrinsic evil but that which is useless, vile, hopelessly good for nothing.
In his earlier Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul characterized such worthless works as “wood, hay, stubble,” which the fire of divine scrutiny certainly would consume (1 Cor. 3:11–15). He contrasted such works to “gold, silver, precious stones,” which such a fire would refine. The point is, the Judgment Seat of Christ will demonstrate that some works, though superficially noble and selfless, were born of wicked motives, animated by the desire for self-aggrandizement, and/or empowered by fleshly devices (1 Cor. 4:5). These will be discarded as worthless and ignoble.
In this regard, some confusion exists as to whether every believer’s unconfessed sin will be displayed at the judgment seat. Will a mammoth movie screen be stretched across the heavenlies, so that an astonished world can sit and watch as all the wicked thoughts and deeds done in the secret of a man’s heart and life are replayed as a means of judgment? Absolutely not! God has declared that the sins of believers have been forgiven and forgotten (Ps. 103:12) and that He will remember those sins no more (Heb. 10:17).
But let there be no pernicious solace in this fact for the careless Christian. Such wickedness in the mortal lives of believers will produce shame (1 Jn. 2:28), not because the deeds will be rehearsed before a leering multitude but because believers will have wasted their opportunities to serve and honor their Redeemer. Unfortunately, once squandered, such opportunities can never fully be regained (Lk. 19:20–26).
Partial, specific criteria for judgment may be found in the “crowns” that are identified in the New Testament: (1) the incorruptible crown for those who run the race of life acceptably (1 Cor. 9:25), (2) the crown of life for those who resist temptation (Jas. 1:12), (3) the crown of rejoicing for those who reach others for Christ (1 Th. 2:19), (4) the crown of righteousness for those who anxiously await the coming of Christ (2 Tim. 4:8), and (5) the crown of glory for the faithful undershepherds (1 Pet. 5:4). The word for “crown” in each of these passages is stephanos, the victory wreath given either to signify triumph in the games (1 Cor. 9:25) or as a public honor for a distinguished act of courage. Such a crown is not valuable in itself; it is precious, however, because it reveals the delight of the judge who awarded it. By contrast, diadem (also translated “crown” in most English versions; cf. Rev. 19:12) speaks of a kingly crown. The crowns promised to faithful believers—those seen on the heads of the worshipers surrounding Yahweh’s throne (Rev. 4:4) and which those worshipers ultimately cast before the throne of the Lamb (Rev. 4:10)— are stephanoi, laurel wreaths granted faithful believers by a righteous and loving Judge.
For many Christians, the concept of the judgment seat presents a difficulty. They feel that the notion of striving for rewards—of struggling toward maturity for the sake of being honored and rewarded at the bema seat—is intrinsically and irretrievably self-serving and thus an ignoble and unbiblical concept. I would respond to such a concern with three simple propositions.
First, the Bible is explicit: There will be a day of accounting; some will receive rewards while others will suffer loss (i.e., not receive the rewards they might have received [1 Cor. 3:14–15]). Furthermore, Scripture appeals to those rewards many times as incentives to faithful, Christian living (Mt. 5:12; 6:4; 10:41; 16:27; 1 Cor. 3:8; Col. 2:18; 3:24; Heb. 11:26; 2 Jn. 8).
Second, the issue is not competition but faithfulness (1 Cor. 4:2). The “runners” in this race are not competing against one another; they are struggling against a common enemy determined to frustrate every attempt to run according to the rules (1 Cor. 9:27; 2 Cor. 4:4). One believer does not strive to defeat another. We take no joy in the fall of our brethren. The objective is not to excel beyond all others but to please the One who will sit on the bema seat at the conclusion of the event.
Third, the rewards believers seek are not baubles to be displayed in some celestial trophy case; they are a greater capacity to serve and honor God in the Kingdom to come. This is suggested in Revelation 4:10 where the victors’ crowns are cast at the feet of the Lamb. Clearly, the crowns do not glorify the recipient; they glorify the Giver. Further, Jesus made this point directly in the parable of the nobleman and the stewards (Lk. 19:11–27). The faithful stewards did not receive trophies to display; they received charge over a number of cities (vv. 17, 19).
The popular misconception of heaven as a place of uninterrupted indolence and slumber contributes to the consternation that arises from the perceived selfishness of any sort of reward program. If the eternal life promised to believers were only a place to parade medals, it would be difficult to conceive of any selfless reason to strive after those medals. The life to come, however, is a busy, productive Kingdom, ruled over personally by Messiah Jesus. Faithfulness in the life we are now living will produce maturity and selflessness and thus qualify us for greater responsibility in that eternal Kingdom. Sin will have been removed from the human experience, so there will no longer be jealousy or resentment. But there will be various capacities to serve and honor the King. A true heart of love for that King should cause us, in this mortal life, to long for and strive toward serving Him to the best of our abilities, so we will be unashamed when He returns and can receive bountifully from His hand at the bema seat.