It’s an unfortunate truth that many of us often have the tendency to jump onto Biblical verses that support a feel-good message while ignoring others that don’t seem to agree. A recent example of this I’ve seen in the church is the Judgement Seat of Christ. What is the Judgement Seat, and how do we reconcile these passages with the doctrine of Atonement?
Many modern churches are placing an extreme emphasis on grace. By noting this, I am in no way forming a rebuke towards those wishing to emphasize the wonderful grace of God. However, what I am aiming to rebuke is neglecting Scripture as a whole, and I fear many modern proponents of the doctrine of grace are guilty of this. My study on the Judgement Seat of Christ (or Bema Seat as is the Greek translation) arose when one such teacher claimed that God will judge the lost, but Christians, whose sins have been forgotten, will not be judged.
Two verses sprung to mind as I heard this. Romans 14:10, which states that all will stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ, and Matthew 12:36, which states that all will give an account of every empty word they have spoken. These verses seem to indicate some kind of judgement at the final resurrection.
I believe the controversy stems from the use of the word judgement in the English translation. It’s understandable how this may cause some worry. Firstly, I want to make clear what judgment is not. Judgement, at the hands of Christ, isn’t the act of weeding out sins to determine what type of punishment we’re due before entering Heaven. Since we are represented by Christ on the cross, any punishment or shame we’re due is erased entirely. To claim there will be punishment for believers on judgment day directly contradicts the doctrine of Atonement. There is no condemnation in Christ, that much is indisputable.
But we must not stop there. We need to define what these passages mean when they mention judgement. Why mention a judgement seat at all if we’re not going to be tested in some way before acquiring eternal honor? The thought of being held accountable for every word we say is terrifying, yet we never hear a Biblical writer display a hint of fear at this. In actuality, we see quite the opposite. Paul waited with great expectation for the day where the church will receive its reward.
For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Are not even ye in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming? For ye are our glory and joy (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20).
This anticipation for Christ’s return and what it means for us is evident throughout the entirety of Thessalonians, even to the point of becoming the main focal point of the second book. We see this because the Judgement Seat of Christ isn’t a place where Christ will mete out punishment for sin. Rather, it is a place where Christ will determine our rewards for faithfulness and works. They are either given or withheld based on how we served our creator. Indeed, we hear this at the very end of the Bible in Revelation 22:12,
“And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”
One objection we can anticipate is the concern that the only reason for serving Christ is to gain rewards in the end. In other words, rewards are based on “merit”, not “grace”. But this objection misunderstands the nature of Christ’s judgement. The Judgement Seat doesn’t have salvation or sin in mind, its focus is faithfulness and rewards after we receive the gift of grace. To grasp the nature of the rewards we need to understand that the relationship Christ established is one based on reciprocity. God gives us grace and we, in turn, give faith and praise back. By His grace, God gives us the means by which to serve Him. He works in us both to will and to do the work He has called us to do, but the effort and the diligence to serve is our responsibility alone.
Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)
This faithfulness God rewards with more grace and love. As apologist J.P. Holding notes, this relationship represents a “circle dance” of reciprocity. Paul describes this relationship in 1 Corinthians 15:10,
But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
What then is the Judgement Seat of Christ? It is the place where our love is proven. It is the place where our faithfulness is seen. It is a place of rejoicing. There will be no condemnation. There will be no shameful revealing. Jesus sees only Himself in you. How could we not give thanks in return?