The Judgment Seat of Christ

it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment (Heb. 9:27)




A recent Lifeway Research poll cited that 62% of those surveyed believe there will be a time when Jesus Christ returns to judge all the people who have lived.[1]


However, because the final judgment is one of the great gaps in Christian knowledge, fear of the unknown has caused the understanding and anticipation of many to become skewed. Dispensationalism and popular evangelical thought have further damaged the ideas of this final judgment, leaving the average Christian in various states of confusion and even despair. Various authors have drawn mental pictures, of individuals standing before a heavenly “big screen” on which every sin is displayed for all the world to see.


Further, well-meaning pastors and teachers, in order to promote more intense Christian zeal, have supported an idea of a divine conveyor belt on which a believer will lay all their works; and as they pass through the fire, will bring forth either reward or ashes. Are these teachings true? Is this coming judgment simply a cosmic dentist appointment that the believer must endure before entering the joy of the Lord? An examination of biblical texts will take steps to show that these pop-culture-flavored ideas are simply not found within the pages of scripture.


The judgment seat of Christ will not be a place of fear or embarrassment for the saints of God.



And after this the judgments?


To begin, one can know with surety that historic Christian writings and biblical texts both speak of an eschatological judgment. This judgment can be found prophesied in the Old Testament (Dan 7:9, Joel 3:12)[2], spoken of by Jesus (Matt 19:28; 25:31), and recorded by John the Revelator (Rev 11:18).


Further, a survey of the texts that mention judgment seems to point to one final judgment where works of all who have lived are evaluated, and where heaven and hell are weighed in the balance.


This quite obviously brings a swift panic to the heart of those who have believed and who are not expecting to be judged for their works but rely on the active and passive obedience of Christ. Over the recent centuries, some have used the apostle Paul’s writings to help the frightened reader sidestep this fear with the hope of a bema seat (Rom 14:10, 2 Cor 5:10), where they will be judged separately from the unbelievers.


While it is true, as author Louis Berkhof argues, that scripture mentions both a great white throne and a judgment seat of Christ,[3] the use of all judgment texts outside of the apostle Paul points to judgment as a single event at the end of time. Berkhof further states, “The idea of multiple judgments would have been erroneous in many historical writings [and] the idea of a multi-form judgment day was formulated by “modern-day Pre-millenarians” who speak of as many as three judgment events.”[4]



Examining the Scripture


The idea of multiple judgments in the writings of Paul is found in his letters to the church in Rome, and the church at Corinth. Two of these texts speak directly of a judgment, or bema, seat (Rom 14:10, 2 Cor 5:10) while the third is only implied. (1 Cor 3)


Because this last, implied, judgment text is the foundation of this multi-faceted judgment, it must be addressed first, for, without it, the argument will begin to topple like a house of cards.


There are those such as author Kenneth Keithley, who would argue for the loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ found in 1 Corinthians chapter three[5]. However, an overview of the context from the section in 1 Corinthians will quickly leave the reader who wishes to see a judgment seat empty-handed.


In this text, Paul compares himself to a “skilled master builder” who has laid a foundation, which is Christ himself. (1 Cor 3:10) Others build on top of this foundation, and Paul likens their good works to gold, silver, and precious stones, and shabby work to wood, hay, and straw. As author Daniel Frayer-Griggs[6] explains, Paul’s use of a temple motif here is stating that the light of day and the fires of time will prove the validity of the doctrines preached, a view that is collaborated by many theologians before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


To quickly summarize the passage, the context demands that we understand Paul as speaking concerning the material that may, or may not, stand the test of time. Although this text may be used in defense of the gain and loss of rewards by fire, it does not bear the weight of this doctrine within its context, thus the argument for multiple judgments cannot be built upon this faulty foundation. Further, without a separate event that points to the gain or loss of reward for the believer alone, there is no reason to argue for a separate event at all. This places all of humanity and their works on a level plane at the judgment seat of Christ. As this house of cards begins to topple all other arguments for pale in comparison. To again emphasized author Louis Berkhof, the scriptures “always speak of the future judgment as a single event.”[7] Concluding with the scriptural evidence that there is one judgment, one is now left to reconcile the judgment with justification.



Final Judgment


This final judgment sometimes called the judgment seat of God (Rom 14) at other times call the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10), and in many other places simply referred to as the judgment is the place where all humanity must “give an account”. (Matt 12:36, Rom 12:36, 1 Peter 4:5, Heb 9:27)


Author and pastor R. Kent Hughes articulated that “Upon command, Christ had stood before the judgment seat (bema) of Pilate (Mat 27:19), and likewise Paul had stood before the judgment seat of Gallio (Acts 18:12). Beyond history, at the great resurrection, there will be compulsory attendance at the cosmic bema of Christ.”[8] At each of these tribunates, both Jesus and Paul are called upon to give account for what they had done, and in this heavenly tribunal, all must appear “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor 5:10)


So how is a reader supposed to reconcile that all humanity, including believers, must give an account for every deed, and even, every idle word (Matt. 12:36) in this day if scriptures teach that the debt of sin has been paid? (Col 3:15)


For the answer to this question, one needs to look no further than the doctrine of justification and the safety of the believer’s union with Christ. Why? Because a proper understanding of justification negates the notion that believers may be judged for their works.


If the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is the ground of a believer's justification, as stated by professor JV Fesko, then it would stand to reason that any unrighteousness cannot be called into question.[9] As the apostles explain, in numerous places in scripture, it was at the death of Christ on the cross where He took upon himself the sins of the world (1 John 2:3) and placed His perfect righteousness upon all who will believe. (2 Cor 5:21)


Woven throughout the epistle of Paul, one can see this thread of redemption that gives all those who believe the assurance that their sins have been pardoned and that their acceptance in the beloved is completely secure. (Eph 2:10) All this is done, on the bases of Christ’s work alone without any act or work from those that believe. No man or woman, by nature of their works may lay claim to this justification, because, as Paul states, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified." (Gal 2:16)


Even to switch gears, and view the other side of the argument of a judgment for works will come up short. The various religions and individuals that hold to a hope that their good works will outweigh their bad on this day of judgment will hear the echo of the words of the prophet Isaiah, that all good works are but ‘filthy rags’ in the sight of this heavenly Judge. (Isa 64:6) Thus, no argument can be made based upon any good works at this final judgment. To summarize this, scholar Sinclair Ferguson writes:


Paul does say that God did not count men’s sins against them. But it would be a fatal mistake to leave it at that. We need to read his words with greater care. Paul assumes that God does count men’s sins. He has already said that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to receive what we are due for what we have done, whether good or bad (v. 10). Sins will be counted. Notice, too, that Paul says God was making this reconciliation “in Christ.” Paul says: that God does not count sins against those who believe in Christ. Against whom, then, does God count sins? He counts them against His Son, Jesus Christ. This is the heart of the gospel. God’s Son became flesh so that He might then become our sin. As if He were Himself a sinner, Christ—who “knew no sin”—bore God’s judgment.[10]

Indeed, it is well, that God does not count the sins of those that believe against them, because as has been seen, even “good works” are ill-suited when placed under the scrutiny of the Father of Lights at this final tribunal.


In contrast to a judgment for works, author Dane Ortlund states that the scriptures point toward a judgment according to works, later clarifying that Pauline statements refuse to give works a role in justifying sinners[11] (Rom 3:20, 28; 4:1–8; Gal 2:16; 3:2–5; Phil 3:9).



Judgment According to Works


So, if their work will not be held against them, is there any purpose for the believer to be judged? They will obviously be judged, so what is the purpose?


The purpose of the judgment, then, is to be the vindication of the life and works that the believer was sanctified unto. (Eph 2:10)


The judgment, for the believer, is the time and place when the faith, once hidden to us and the world, becomes sight before all. It is an event of the vindication and validation of said faith.


So how is it that this vindication will take place?


Just as the judgment can be seen as one singular event, this vindication and the resurrection are one singular event.


This view brings harmony to the many texts through the writing of scripture concerning the inheritance of those who are found, not in their father Adam, but in Christ’s work on their behalf. To put it simply, as articulated by Professor JV Fasko, the final judgment is the resurrection[12].


Just as the resurrection of Jesus was the vindication of His passive and active work before the Father, and the validation of His work and word before others, the resurrection holds a similar place in the life of the believer.


This is the primary reason that Paul writes that Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18), the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8:29), and the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:20) A corrected understanding of these texts will clarify that Jesus was not created first, as to be called the firstborn, and further, He was neither the first that had risen from the dead.


Jesus Himself resurrected numerous individuals from the dead during His ministry. Could one conclude that Jesus had risen earlier than the ones that He, Himself, had resurrected? This would be illogical. However, with this resurrection motif in place, one can see that He was the first, and the most prominent to be resurrected in vindication of His work. Therefore, Paul writes that we have the first fruits of the Spirit that groan, awaiting the adoption of sons. (Rom. 8:23)


Is Paul declaring that we do not yet have an adoptive acceptance before God? Not at all! He is speaking of the resurrection of the body unto eternal life. To again reference JV Fesko, “Just as Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by His resurrection, those who are in Him will likewise be declared to be the sons of God at their resurrection.”[13] Those who are raised to life will be declared innocent of sin and righteous in the sight of God and will be witnessed as such by every being in the universe.


Now and Not Yet


Just as the full justification of man, as we have seen, is a now and not yet reality (Rom 6:4; 8:29, Eph 2:6), so is this resurrection and final validation. Paul, again, makes the distinction between an outer and inner man in his epistle to the Corinthians, stating that the outer man is awaiting the redemption of the body, to match the redeemed soul or inner man. (2 Cor. 4:16-5:5) The inner man has been raised (Rom 6:2) and this the outer man will be raised.


This view of the judgment coincides with the “already, not yet” understanding of justification, sanctification, and glorification, as stated by pastor DA Carson.[14] To examine the words of Jesus for proof of this point He says, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.” (John 5:28-19)


Thus the believer will be raised to life in a glorified body, while the unbeliever is raised condemned in their corrupted body. Although author NT Wright and various other authors argue that this judgment is on the basis and for a reward of good works[15], this just simply cannot be the case. The resurrection will reveal that those who are in Christ are righteous, not on any merit of their own, whether it be before or after conversion. The resurrection will bring forth what is "not yet" in to real-time.


Conclusion


The judgment, for the believer, cannot be separated from the justification made at the cross; and reward, or inheritance, cannot be separated from the resurrection.


Therefore, Paul says, “having been justified” and “there is therefore now no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1) and links this justification directly to glorification. (Rom 8:29)


As previously stated, it is because of the imputed righteousness of Christ that all those in Him are safe from fear of death in this life and in the next, and the first fruit of His resurrection gives calms the fear of embarrassment and disappointment at the final judgment.


It is true, that Jesus Himself will be the judge in this day, but this Judge is the same One who has died, risen, and who is now standing in defense, advocating for His people.


Will He defend us, only to accuse, and embarrass us? It cannot be! The believer can have steadfast and sure confidence that the day of judgment holds no fear because the love of Christ has cast out all fear. (1 John 4:18)




_______________________________________________________________________________________ [1] “2020 State of American Theology.” Lifeway Research, Nashville, TN (2020) [2] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced employ the King James Version [3] Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology, 2nd Edition. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2021), 789. [4] Ibid. 789. [5] Kenneth Keithley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 543. [6] Frayer-Griggs, Daniel, Saved Through Fire: The Fiery Ordeal in New Testament Eschatology, (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 225. [7] Berkhof, Louis, Systematic Theology, 2nd Edition. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2021), 811 [8] Hughes, R. Kent. 2 Corinthians, Preaching the Word Commentary. (Minneapolis: Crossway, 2012) [9] Fesko, J.V., “John Owen on Union with Christ and Justification,” Themelios 37.1, (2012): 9 [10] Ferguson, Sinclair B., By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me, (Orlando: Ligonier Publishing, 2010), 55-56. [11] Ortlund, Dane, “Justified by Faith, Judged According to Works: Another Look at A Pauline Paradox,” JETS 52/2. (2009): 323 [12] Fesko, J.V., “Paul on Justification and the Final Judgment,” Ordained Servant, released October 2007, https://opc.org/os.html?article_id=65. [13] Ibid. [14] D.A. Carson, “Partakers of the Age to Come,” in These Last Days, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Gabriel N. E. Fluhrer (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2011), 90 [15] Wright, N.T. Romans, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 580.

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