For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14.10).

Paul made this statement while teaching the believers in Rome not to judge one another on matters of opinion. On some issues, Christians will come to different convictions about what it means to honor the Lord in faith, and we are to welcome one another and pursue peace with these fellow believers. Not only is it not our job to judge their convictions, for that role is the exclusive right of their Master, but we must also remember that we will stand before the Lord ourselves and give an accounting of ourselves to God. And on the day of judgment, we will have to answer to God for judging our brother or sister in Christ and for despising them.

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)

Obviously, Paul was using the reality of this truth to motivate them to welcome each other in the Lord and to resist the temptation to judge. The fact that we will stand before God and give an account was to be motivation towards doing the right thing.

But this idea of believers standing before the judgment seat of Christ and giving an account of their lives is more than just a throwaway line in Paul’s argument for church unity. In fact, the New Testament is replete with this teaching, starting with the words of Jesus Himself.

But what happens at the judgment seat of Christ? How does this judgment relate to our salvation? Will believers be punished for their sins? Will believers receive rewards based upon their good works? And how does knowing the answer to these questions change how we live our lives today?

Judgment Seat of God

Paul used a term in his letter to the Romans, and elsewhere in his writings, that was very familiar to first century Christians. The Greek word is bema, and it referred to the judgment seat in two very different settings. The bema seat was the official seat of a judge in the Roman court of law. It was before the bema seat that Paul appeared when he was arrested in Corinth.

But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal. (Acts 18.12)

The word translated “tribunal” by the ESV is the Greek word, bema. Gallio sat on the bema seat as he passed judgment and issued his ruling on the charges brought against Paul.

Jesus appeared before the bema seat of Pilate (see John 19.13), and Paul appeared before the bema seat of Festus in Jerusalem (see Acts 25.6). Herod was struck down by an angel as he sat on the bema seat (see Acts 12.21).

But the word was also used in the context of the Grecian games in Athens. In those Olympic like events, the umpire sat on a raised platform in the arena where he oversaw the games. When the contests were over, he would reward the winners from the bema seat.

And this was the word that Paul used when he spoke of the day when all believers would stand before the Lord to give an account for their lives.

For we will all stand before the judgment seat (bema) of God; (Romans 14.12)

10For we must all appear before the judgment seat (bema) 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)

Preachers have a nasty habit of drawing extensive conclusions from one verse of the Bible while neglecting the other verses in the Bible that also speak to the same issue. One of the most basic of all principles of interpretation is “Scripture interprets Scripture.” So, before we can answer the question of what happens at the bema seat of Christ,” we must take into account all of the biblical material on the issue to make sure we are standing on truth.

So, let me make a few observations from the fuller biblical witness concerning the judgment of the believers at the bema seat of Christ.

1. Believers Will Appear At The Bema Seat Of Christ

At the risk of restating the obvious, the New Testament teaches that it will be believers who will stand before Christ to give an accounting for their lives. There is a judgment for the unredeemed (see Revelation 20.12-15), but this is not the judgment of 2 Corinthians 5.10 or Romans 14.12. In both of these verses, and in the ones that I will quote in a moment, the context is very clear that it is believers who will appear at the judgment seat of Christ.

And, notice that “all believers” shall stand before the Lord and given an accounting. Not just some. Not just the bad ones. No, we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. No one will escape.

2. The Bema Seat Judgment Is Not About Salvation

The context of both Romans 14 and 2 Corinthians 5 shows us that believers will not be judged in respect to salvation at the bema seat of Christ. This is a crucial and essential element of the entire gospel. Through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, and through our faith in Christ as Savior and Lord, the sins of a believer have been forgiven, cancelled out, wiped clean, and forgotten.

11And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. 15And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, 16“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,” 17then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” (Hebrews 10.11-17)

Through Christ’s work, we are made right with God by grace through faith (see Romans 1.16), and Christ took our sins upon Himself so that we may receive the righteousness of God (see 2 Corinthians 5.21). Believers will enter into heaven because their name is written in the Lamb’s book of life (see Revelation 20.15).

 8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2.8-9)

We will stand at the bema seat of Christ to given an accounting of our lives, but not to determine whether or not we shall enter into eternal life. That question has already been answered by the redeeming work of the Savior. That is why Paul wrote that some believers will stand before the bema seat of Christ and not fare so well, but they will still be saved.

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. 14If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3.13-15)

Even if anyone’s work is burned up, the believer will be saved because salvation is by grace through faith and not by works.

3. The Bema Seat Judgment is About Rewards and Losses

If believers will not appear before the bema seat of Christ to determine whether or not they will enter into eternal life, then what happens at this “accounting”?

10For we must all appear before the judgment seat (bema) 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)

Believers must all appear so that they can receive what is due for what they have done in the body. At the bema seat, the work of a believer will be tested, and what remains will result in a reward.

The context of 1 Corinthians 3 is that Paul was teaching the Christians in Corinth that each of us “works” to build upon the foundation of Christ. Because we are each called and gifted in various ways by the Spirit, our particular work might be different. One might plant, another might water, and still others might harvest the fruit, but all are working.

Shifting from an agriculture analogy to a architectural one, he described our work as building upon the foundation of Christ in various ways. But, we are to take care how we work and build upon the foundation of Christ because the day will come when our works will be tested. Those who have built upon the foundation of Christ in good ways will be rewarded, but those who have built upon the foundation of Christ poorly will suffer loss.

Less we get too nervous about the idea of receiving rewards from God, Jesus Himself spoke of rewards quite often.

11“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5.11-12)

1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 6.1)

 41The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10.41-42)

35But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (Luke 6.35)

12“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done. (Revelation 22.12)

And speaking about Jesus when He returns, the angels will say,

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)

So, it appears that when believers stand at the bema seat of Christ, they will give an account for their lives and be rewarded for their good works that remains after they are tested.

But then what is the “loss” of 1 Corinthians 3.15? Or more important, what is “due” to the believer at the bema seat of Christ for the evil done in the body (see 2 Corinthians 5.10)?

Some teachers and preachers insist that the believer will be punished for the evil done in the body on the day of judgment. This might be in a time of purgatory, as the Catholic Church teaches, or might be a time of weeping and gnashing of teeth during the 1000 year reign of Christ, as one preacher insists. But how can believers be punished for sins forgiven, forgotten, and fully atoned for?

Which is why the majority of scholars believe that the “loss” that believers will experience at the bema seat of Christ is the loss of possible rewards as they watch their worthless works burn in the fire of judgment. Perhaps this is what John was writing about when he wrote,

 8Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2 John 8 )

If believers are not careful, they can build upon the foundation of Christ with wood and stubble and risk losing the full reward. And on the day of judgment, they will be ashamed.

28And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. (1 John 2.28 )

One of the struggles that we have in accepting the reality of the bema seat judgment of Christians where we will be either rewarded for our good works or suffer loss of rewards is trying to reconcile the possible “loss” or “shame” of that moment with an image of heaven of pure joy.

 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21.3-4)

How can the Lord pass out rewards that differ according to our labors (see Revelation 22.12) and withhold some rewards from believers as they suffer the loss of worthless works (see 1 Corinthians 3.15) and cause some believers to feel shame at His coming (1 John 2.28) and at the same time wipe away every tear?

On the other hand, if every believer is rewarded equally at the bema seat of Christ, then why did Christ Himself try to motivate His disciples to give to the poor or love their enemy in order to get a reward in heaven? If there is no loss to suffer on the day of judgment, then why did Paul try to motivate the believers in Rome to not judge their brother because they will give an account before God?

As I look at eternal truth dimly, as through a veil (see 1 Corinthians 13.12), I recognize that some truths must always be held in tension due to inability of my sinful mind to fully understand divine truth. Just like I cannot explain calculus to my fifth grade daughter, God cannot fully explain these truths to me. There will come a day when I will see it clearly, but for now, I must hold these truths in tension.

For What Will The Believer Be Accountable At The Bema Seat?

If we know that we will be rewarded at the bema seat of Christ for our works, and possibly suffer loss for what we have worked for, then it might be helpful for us to pay attention to the things specifically mentioned in Scripture for which we will be held accountable. Just like it helps to know what you are going to be tested on at the Chemistry mid-term in college, it might be helpful to know what the Judge will be looking for at the bema seat judgment of Christians.

Below are just a few of the things that believers will be judge for that are mentioned in Scripture.

(1) Judging other believers (Romans 14.10-12)

Building upon the foundation of Christ poorly, which is Paul’s way of saying that we will be judged based upon how we exercised our spiritual gifts, talents, abilities, and other resources in the service of building up the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 3.10-15)

(2) Every careless word.

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 12.36-37)

(3) How we exercised a position of authority.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. (Hebrews 13.17)

(4) Whether or not we used our earthly riches to lay of treasure in heaven by being generous and ready to share.

17As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6.17-19)

(5) Loving our enemies.

35But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. (Luke 6.35)

(6) Giving money to the poor.

 3But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6.3-4)

And really, the list could go on and on.

Conclusion

So the Bible teaches us that we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of our lives. While our eternal destination has been secured by the redeeming work of Christ, the Lord will test the quality of our works and reward those who faithfully served the Lord on earth.

What are the nature of those rewards? The Bible does not describe the rewards, and for good reasons.

First, the rewards of heaven could only be described in human terms if our earth bound mind was going to understand them. But the treasures of this world are a pathetic comparison to the treasures of the Kingdom of God. So instead of getting us focused on bigger mansions or nicer cars or silly stuff that is destined to pass away with this world, the Scriptures left the rewards undefined.

Secondly, not knowing the specific rewards forces us to trust the heart of the Rewarder Himself. We cannot make an idol of the reward, for we know not what it is. But we can draw close to the One who will reward and delight in Him above and beyond any delight we might take in the reward itself.

May I leave you with a final question? If the Lord was to return today and to test the quality of your work, what would remain and what would be lost in the fires of judgment? And how does that answer change how you might live today?

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