The Judgement Seat of Christ
The doctrine of the judgement seat (in Greek: the bēma-seat) of Christ straddles not only soteriology (the teaching about salvation), but also ecclesiology (the doctrine of the Church) and eschatology (end times teaching). Despite this, why is there so little teaching about this important doctrine? Amillennial and postmillennial churches neglect this doctrine, because they see only one general judgement at the end. Others mistakenly believe that the doctrine of eternal rewards contradicts salvation by grace alone. Or it is sometimes thought that this doctrine of rewards leads to selfish motivations. While more reasons can be added (see Hixson & Fontecchio 2013:223-224), the point is clear: this Biblical doctrine is frequently neglected and sometimes even shunned. But this is unfortunate, for the Bible clearly teaches that believers can receive rewards when they appear before Christ.
The New Testament uses the word ‘bēma’ 12 times (ex: Mat 27:19; Jn 19:13; Acts 18:12, 16-17; 25:6, 10, 17). The word means a raised place that you mount by steps. In the Roman world, the bēma referred to an official seat of a judge. When Paul wrote his epistles, the ‘bēma-seat’ referred to a podium on which judges sat when officiating at Greek sporting events to determine which participants should be rewarded. Two New Testament texts specifically connect the bēma-seat to a judgment that Christ will perform:
- For we will all stand before the judgement 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 will give an account of himself to God (Rom 14:10b-12);
- For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
The Bēma-seat Judgement: Salvation or Rewards?
Believers have been saved by Jesus from the penalty and ruin of our sins. Jesus died a horrible death on the cross and shed his blood so that you and I need not pay for our sins. We can’t pay for our own sins anyway. Only Jesus (not the Dalai Lama, not Buddha, not Mohammed, etc.) could pay for our sins, because only Jesus was without sin and only Jesus died a substitutionary death for everyone. Believers have forensically and judicially been judged by God in Christ. Romans 8:1 teaches that there ‘is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. Since, this is so, why are believers going to appear before the judgment seat of Christ?
At the bēma-seat of Christ, believers’ works will be judged. This judgment is not to determine whether the believer is saved or not (the believer is already saved and there is now no condemnation – see Romans 8:1 again), but whether the works of the believer can be rewarded or be identified as worthless. The point is: how did the believer life his of her spiritual life? Hoyt (2011:92) summarises it well: ‘The purpose of the judgment seat of Christ is not to consider the issue of salvation. Neither is the purpose to render judicial punishment for the believer’s sins, whether they be pre-conversion or post-conversion sins, or whether they be confessed or unconfessed. To make the believers sins and their resultant punishment the issue at the judgment seat is to deny the sufficiency and efficacy of Christ’s death in paying the full penalty for all sin and completely satisfying God’s justice. …The believer’s life will be examined and evaluated in regard to his faithfulness as a steward of the abilities and opportunities which God had entrusted to him. … Thus the primary purpose of the judgment seat of Christ is to reveal and review the Christian’s life and service and then to reward him for what God deems worthy of reward’.
The above is not to say that sin in the life of a believer does not have consequences. As Hoyt (2011:72) highlights, sin in the believer’s life have both temporal (loss of fellowship with God; loss of power; and loss of opportunity to serve God) and eternal consequences (not loss of salvation, but potentially loss of reward). The purpose of Christ’s bēma-seat judgment is therefore, considered negatively, not to determine whether someone is saved or to punish believers for their sins after being born again. The purpose, considered positively, is to test believers’ works to determine whether they will be given rewards in the kingdom.
The Process of Testing
A foundational text for the doctrine of rewards at the bēma-seat appear in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15: ‘According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 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’.
Believers must build their spiritual life on Christ — not on our own arm of flesh, but upon the only true foundation, Jesus Christ. Every believer’s work will be evaluated and tested by fire. Wood, hay and straw will not survive the testing of fire but will be burned up. Gold, silver and precious stones, however, will survive the testing and impurities will be burned away. Those who wisely built on the foundation will be rewarded; those whose works were not built upon Christ will suffer loss of rewards, but they themselves will not lose their salvation (cf. 1 Cor 3:15b).
Christ is going to evaluate everything about our works, including the motivation behind it. What is the right motivation for works which God values? The purest motivation is love for God (cf. Mat 22:37-39), but other motives also exist. Believers want to be pleasing to God. We want to glorify God in what we do. We do works for God out of great reverence and respect for the Lord. All this should lead to faithful service and holy living. Therefore, in the future, at the bēma-seat, the true character and motives of the believer will be revealed when his/her works are judged.
The following questions may help believers. Why am I doing this? Is it done for the glory of God, or just for ‘me’? Is the work in accordance with the will of God (or my own)? What is the means for doing the work, is it done through the enablement of the Holy Spirit, or by my flesh? What is the quality of the service or work I am delivering? Am I being faithful to Christ?
The above may still sound too abstract to some. Does the Bible mention specific works that can be rewarded? The following is not an exhaustive list, but Hixson and Fontecchio (2013:215-221) mention that the following works may be rewarded:
- Enduring trials (Jam 1:12; cf. Rom 5:3-4; Rev 2:10).
- Diligently seeking God (Heb 11:6);
- Perseverance: believers are overcomers, but those who persevere until the end will be rewarded (Rev 2:26-27);
- Faithful in ministry (1 Pet 5:1-4);
- Longing for Christ’s appearing (2 Tim 4:8; cf. Tit 2:13);
- Leading others to Christ (1 Thes 2:19);
- Faithfulness to Christ (1 Cor 4:1-5);
- Diligence in Christian walk (1 Cor 9:24-27; Heb 6:11-12; 2 Pet 1:10-11);
- Stewardship (Luk 19:11-27);
- Enduring persecution (Mat 5:11-12; 2 Tim 2:12-13; Heb 10:36);
- Abiding with Christ (1 Jn 2:28);
- Benevolence towards the poor (Mk 10:21; Luk 12:32-33);
- Wholehearted service to Christ (Jn 12:26); and
- Ministering to the saints (Heb 6:10).
General Rewards and Specific Crowns
A logical question to ask is what rewards are mentioned in the Bible? God is the Giver of rewards and the greatest reward is ultimately Himself (cf. Hoyt 2011:108). Our reward in eternity will be a capacity to manifest and radiate forth the glory of God to the fullest capacity one has been given (1 Cor 15:40-42). Still, one can distinguish between general rewards and specific crowns.
Regarding general rewards, the Bible mentions varying degrees of glory (1 Cor 15:40-42), praise (1 Cor 4:5), honor (Jn 5:44; Rom 2:7; 1 Pet 1:7), abundant entrance (2 Pet 1:11), treasure (Mat 6:19-21), inheritance (Col 1:12-14; 3:24), privileged service (Rev 22:3) and reign in the kingdom (Mat 19:28; Rom 8:17; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26-27; 3:21; 22:5).
The Bible also specifically mentions five crowns which believers may receive:
- The imperishable crown: This is for believers who not only brought their fallen nature under control, but who also lived a life of great submission to Christ (1 Cor 9:25; cf. 2 Tim 2:3-5; Heb 12:1-2).
- The crown of rejoicing: This is for believers who witnessed to people about Jesus Christ and who prayed for unbelievers so that they will repent and come to faith in the Lord (1 Thes 2:19; cf. Prov 11:30; Dan 12:3).
- The crown of righteousness will be given to believers who eagerly and lovingly waited for the return (appearing) of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Tim 4:7-8). These believers live as pilgrims and sojourners on earth since their citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). They live holy and godly lives in accordance with texts such as Colossians 3:1-4. Perhaps this crown will be given to believers who are not ashamed of the doctrine of the rapture.
- The crown of glory: This will be given to pastor-teachers who faithfully served as under-shepherds of the chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:2-4; cf. Acts 20:25-28).
- The crown of life: This is for believers who successfully resisted temptations and who may also have died as martyrs for Jesus Christ (Jam 1:12; Rev 2:10; cf. Mat 5:10-12).
Much more can be said about this somewhat neglected topic (for example: when will this judgement take place, and who exactly will be judged), but to sum up: Without Jesus no one can be saved. Believers can only boast in the Lord Jesus Christ. But now that we have been saved by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, God wants us to work for Him (cf. Eph 2:10), building on the foundation that is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:11-12). According to God’s Word, such works will be rewarded. This is going to be grace upon grace, for every reward will really just be another way to bring glory, praise and honour to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hixson, J.B. & Fontecchio, M., 2013, What Lies Ahead: A Biblical Overview of the End Times, Lucid Books, Brenham.
Hoyt, S.L., 2011, The Judgment Seat of Christ: A Biblical and Theological Study, Grace Gospel Press, Milwaukee.
Share with others:
[apss_share networks='facebook, twitter, pinterest']