In Romans 14, as Paul was teaching about the reality that believers can come to differing convictions as to what honors the Lord on some of the issues that are non-essential to the gospel, he dropped this little bomb.
10Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14.10-12 ESV)
One of the reasons believers are not to judge their brothers and sisters in Christ on matters of opinion is that it is not our role to judge. That role has been exclusively reserved for the Master, and each one of us will give an account of our own convictions and choices before the judgment seat of God. And one of the things we will give an account of on that day is whether or not we “despised” our brothers and sisters or “passed judgment” on them.
This idea of standing before the judgment seat of God is not unique to Romans 14. The apostolic writings of the New Testament are littered with discussions about the day of judgment.
…on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2.16)
Now if anyone 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. (1 Corinthians 3.12-15)
It is the Lord who judges me. 5Therefore 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. (1 Corinthians 4.4-5)
10For 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. (2 Corinthians 5.10)
5Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, 6not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servant of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, 7rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, 8knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (Ephesians 6.5-8)
7For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2 John 7-8)
The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” (Revelation 11.18)
12“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” (Revelation 22.12)
And of course, Jesus addressed the day of judgment more than once. Consider just a couple of His words,
36I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12.36)
23Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. (Matthew 18.23)
That we shall all (believers and unbelievers) stand at the judgment of Christ seems to be the clear teaching of Scripture (see 2 Corinthians 5.10), but what happens at the “judgment seat” for a believer? Are believers rewarded on that day? Are believers punished on that day?
In trying to wrestle with these questions, it seems that there are basically three ways to look at it.
The Christian Is Both Rewarded And Punished
There are some who would say that the believer is both punished and rewarded on the day of judgment based upon his works.
Though the believers’ eternal destiny has been secured by grace through faith, they will still stand before God on judgment day to give an accounting to God for their lives (see Romans 14.12) and to receive what is due, whether good or bad (see 2 Corinthians 5.10).
Some suggest that the hidden sins of everyone will be revealed on that day (see Romans 2.16), perhaps by the whole world watching video clips of our lives where each sin is brought into the light. Others suggest that believers will only be punished for each un-confessed sin. But regardless, this position insists that there will be punishment meted out on believers on the day of judgment.
One preacher has gone so far as to suggest that believers will experience the “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” for their sins during the thousand year reign of Christ. While the Messiah rules His earthly kingdom, the wicked, lazy, and unprofitable Christians will be sent to outer darkness for 1000 years where they will weep and gnash their teeth. (Sermon quoted by Samuel Hoyt in his article, “The Judgment Seat of Christ in Theological Perspective” in Bibliotheca Sacra, 1980.)
But, if Christians are to be punished on the day of judgment for their sins, then what happened on the cross?
“This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (Hebrews 10.16-17)
9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1.9)
If we are going to be punished on the day of judgment for our sins, then Christ really did not make us clean or forget our sins.
But this position distinguishes the broken fellowship that sin causes here on earth from the eternal punishment of unredeemed sin in eternity. Just like our sin breaks our fellowship with the Father here on earth, even though we are redeemed and reborn, in the same way, the fellowship will be broken on the day of judgment as we each receive our due, both good and bad.
The Christians Are Rewarded and Suffer Loss
Another position says that Christians will given an accounting to God on the day of judgment. However, their sins have already been atoned for and cancelled out. Therefore, the only thing to be judged are their good works.
According to this view, this is the emphasis of Paul in 1 Corinthians 3. The fire of judgment day will burn up all that is worthless, but the good works will remain. Those who have nothing left, after the fire of judgment has burned away all the bad, will still enter into heaven but he will “suffer loss” (see 1 Corinthians 3.15). This is why John warns the believers not to lose what they have worked for (2 John 8). The servants, prophets, and saints are rewarded (Revelation 11.18), and those who rendered good service to the Lord will receive back from the Lord his or her reward (Ephesians 6.8). On judgment day, the believer only receives commendations from the Lord (1 Corinthians 4.5) or the loss thereof.
This position tries to take seriously the impact of the atonement on the sins of a believer but to also affirm the biblical teachings of giving an account to God on judgment day and of rewards. However, by defining the “loss” of judgment day as only the absence of positive rewards, this position does not seem to be totally faithful to the “good and evil” of 2 Corinthians 5.10, the words of Jesus about giving an account for every careless word in Matthew 12.26, nor the basic meaning of Romans 14.12 where the fear of judgment is seen by Paul as a motivator to not pass judgment on another believer.
Christians Receive the Same Reward, Not Rewards
Still others see that the believer will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, but the only question that really matters is “Have you been saved by grace through faith?” If a believer can answer “yes” to that question, then he or she receives the eternal reward, to enter the new heaven and new earth where righteous dwells (see 2 Peter 3.13).
Whereas the unbeliever is judged on the basis of his or her works, as listed in the book described in Revelation 20.12, and whereas no one can be saved based upon their works (see Ephesians 2.9), the believer is judged based upon whether or not his or her name is written in the book of life as described in Revelation 20.15.
The works of the believer are not the reason for their salvation on the day of judgment but are a demonstration of their redemption. They are not the reason for their salvation but are the evidence of their salvation. In effect, the book of works will demonstrate that a believer’s name does belong in the book of life because they have in fact been redeemed.
While this position takes seriously that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, it does not fully reflect the thinking of the apostles. The apostles were using the day of judgment and rewards as a form of motivation to faithful service. If all “rewards” are the same, and if all rewards are “lost” on the day of judgment because they disappear in the flood of God’s grace, then why would a believer be motivated to not pass judgment (see Romans 14.12), to not speak careless words (see Matthew 12.36), or to sacrifice their life to receive a prophet’s reward (see Revelation 11.18)?
Putting It All Together?
So, how can we describe the day of judgment that affirms the full and complete atoning work of Christ, that affirms that some believers will be rewarded, that affirms that some believers will suffer loss, but that affirms that there will be no tears, mourning, crying, or pain in heaven?
More on that later.