I arrived in my best attire. The courthouse was packed with busy people buzzing from place to place. I had not spent much time in the presence of law enforcement or court officials so the entire experience was more than a little harrowing, even though it wasn’t me on trial.
I had a very close friend who was accused of assault with a deadly weapon. It was a situation of self-defense but his lawyer convinced him to plead guilty and try for a lighter sentencing. He had resisted at first but there was more to be gained from a penitent posture than any other.
The tension in the room was palpable at every second of the trial. The witnesses took the stand and spoke terrible things about my friend. The prosecutor ground away at every ounce of credibility he had. The judge sat and listened with emotionless attentiveness as the details were laid bare in all of their filthy nakedness.
When the proceedings were nearly concluded it was time for my friend to stand and receive the reward for his part in the crime. The moment of sentencing had come with the not-so-distant jingle of the cold steel of waiting shackles. The knowledge that he could receive a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison sat on the court room like a heavy burden. It was solely up to the judge to determine the weight of his punitive duty to the state.
You could have heard a church mouse whisper as the judge quietly considered the present evidence. My friend’s body was as tense as a bow string. His counselor placed a hand on his shoulder to still his trembling. There was no confusion concerning who held the power in the room. We all knew the judge had absolute authority. With a single word he could eradicate the next quarter century of my friend’s life, or give him complete freedom. It was the most frightening real-life moment I’ve witnessed.
When you hear the word “judgment” what do you think of? If you’re like most, judgment conjures images of tear-filled courtrooms, crushing verdicts, and calamitous sentencing. The idea of judgment is frightening to say the least. A judgment which has an eternal consequence is enough to take your breath away.
Fortunately for those who have believed in Jesus, we don’t have to fear God’s white throne of fiery judgment. We know this because Jesus said it:
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”1
Believing in Jesus is equivalent to believing in the one who sent him.2 That means that anyone who believes in Jesus for salvation can be confident that these three things will happen.
First, the believer presently has eternal life.
Second, the believer will not come into a judgment of condemnation3 at any time in the future.
Third, the believer crossed from death to life at some point in the past—the moment they first believed.
It’s a beautiful promise. Jesus is so absolutely confident that salvation is a completed transaction that he explains the past, present, and future of the person who believes in him for eternal life. Although there is much that can be said about the verse, our focus is the promise Jesus makes pertaining to the believer’s future.
The one who “believes in him… shall not come into judgment…” has a familiar ring to something Jesus previously said a few chapters earlier.
“He who believes in Him is not condemned…”4
More than once Jesus promises that those who believe in him will not befall a judgment that leads to condemnation. Anyone who believes in Jesus will never be sent to Hell.
Though condemnation is not waiting for believers, an assessment of success is. Although eternal damnation has been taken off the table a life-evaluation awaits those who are in Christ. We know this because Paul said:
For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.5
He wrote his letter to believers in Rome. He says to those Christians that they all, including himself, will have to stand before Jesus to be assessed. Jesus’ promise that we will not be condemned still stands. The judgment seat of Christ is not an event that will result in people going to hell or any kind of condemnation. Something very different will happen there.
This brings up the question, “but what will be its result?” If our eternal destiny is set, what more is there to consider? Lots more, actually. In Another place Paul adds to the idea when he says:
Therefore we make it our aim… to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.6
The judgment seat of Christ is an event that will someday require your attendance and involvement. Remember, there’s no condemnation, since your salvation is already in place. So, what will you do there?
He gives the answer in the same verse when he says, “that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Since you became a believer, a tally has been running. Everything you’ve done since that moment is being recorded. On a coming day, you will have to stand before Jesus and give a performance report. The work you’ve done will be weighed out and considered by the judge. The judge will then repay you for the work you’ve done. So it’s a judgment, but it’s not a judgment that has anything to do with condemnation. It has to do with performance.
Maybe it would help to remember that there are different kinds of judges. There are judges in courtrooms but there are also judges in singing contests. There are judges for the supreme court but there are also judges for beauty pageants. There are judges in criminal cases but there are also judges for boxing matches. There are judges that decide penalties but there are also judges that decide who gets the award. When he’s sitting on his judgment seat Jesus seems to be playing the role of reward giver rather than punishment vendor.
I want to be careful here, though. Just because the judgment is not about condemnation, doesn’t mean it is going to be pleasant for everyone. I cannot stress this enough. You will want to be able to give a good report on that day. It would be a huge mistake for me to trivialize this event. It won’t be a cake walk for many. To see why, it might help to understand the setting.
“When and where will the Judgment seat happen?” you might ask. Jesus answered that question with no uncertain words when he said:
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.7
After Jesus was resurrected he hung around for a little over a month, spent time with his disciples, and appeared to a bunch of people. After that he went back to heaven. Before he left he made a very important promise, one that we are still talking about today. He promised to return to the Earth. His return will not be like his first coming, which was humble and quiet. His second arrival will be a loud obvious affair in which he will wrest control of the world’s governments from human hands. He will conquer all the enemies that stand against him. He will change the geopolitical landscape in a single day. He will be enthroned in radiant glory on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. After all of that, he has an appointment will little ole’ you. The most important and powerful person in all of history will meet with you to talk about how you did while He was out of town. Take deep breath. It’s intense.
As Paul continues with his description of what will happen at the Judgment seat of Christ he says:
So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.8
This verse adds an emphasis that should not be missed. It places the responsibility on the one who’s required to give account. Each person is accountable for his own life. You won’t be able to blame your poor performance on your disobedient children. You won’t get to shift the focus to a incompetent co-worker. You won’t be able to wiggle out of the hot seat if your work was sub-par. You will have to give account for it. You will have to look the King of the world in the face and tell him why you didn’t do what He told you to do. It’s going to hurt if you have been disobedient.
Now, there is a joy in this verse as well. For those who are faithful to Christ, it will be an immeasurably happy moment when they give their report. The obedient servant of Jesus will be brimming with enthusiasm as he eagerly stands before his King. The bold follower of Christ will be able to stand before the judgment seat with a confident smile knowing that the king is not only a savior of the outcast but also a rewarder of the faithful.
So whether the Judgement Seat of Christ is a pleasant or painful event will be entirely dependent upon on how you lived. If you’d like to see a glimpse into what I think that event might be like, I encourage you to read my short story At The Judgement Seat: A Fictional Imagining, on page <$p>.
Paul adds some details to what we know about this coming event in his letter to the church of Corinth. He said this:
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? …and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.9
In this we discover a gratifying truth. Each person has a different role to play. Paul and Apollos were both ministers. Some people in the church of Corinth considered Paul greater, whereas others considered Apollos greater. Apollos may have been a more entertaining speaker, where Paul was an academic and a theologian10. Paul challenges the idea by reminding them that both Paul and Apollos are just playing their part; a part that they would both be rewarded for accordingly.
In talking about himself and Apollos he gives us a lesson that can be applied more broadly. He says, “..and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” So even if your skill set is different than mine, the righteous judge will look deep into the life of each to determine what reward we deserve.
This leaves us wanting to know more. What will this event be like? What will be considered as we stand before the judgment seat of Christ? Fortunately, Paul does not leave us hanging. He goes on with an analogy. He explains it in terms that everyone can understand. He uses a construction site as an allegory for the Judgment seat of Christ. He says:
For we are God’s fellow workers, you are God’s field, you are God’s building... as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 11
He explains that there is a field on which a building is being erected. That field and building are a metaphor for the church at Corinth, and ultimately all believers everywhere. So the construction site represents the church in it’s various stages of growth. There are specialized construction workers that are working on this building. As in modern construction, there is a worker who specializes in foundations. That is Paul, who calls himself a master builder. The foundation represents Christ. What he means here is that it was Paul that introduced those in Corinth to Christ, and therefore him that laid the foundation.
He goes on to say that there are other construction workers who are on the job site as well. After Paul laid the foundation, by evangelizing those there, other workers took over the project. This is where Apollos, and others come in. It’s not just Paul’s building project, but a shared work site of all those who are part of the church. Paul then continues with this:
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.12
In this metaphor Paul teaches us that the quality of our deeds will one day be tested. They will be evaluated when we stand before the Judgement seat of Christ. All the work that we’ve done as a believer will be revealed, as by fire.
It’s as if everything you do from the moment you become a believer is a building phase which happens on this construction site. You can build with high quality flame retardant expensive materials or you can build with dry burnable stuff you find in the yard. What you decide to build with will determine how much you are rewarded on the day you stand before Christ.
So when a Christian performs good deeds for Christ, he’s building with gold, silver, and precious stones. However, when a Christian wastes time, is lazy, or neglects his discipleship he’s building with wood, hay, or straw.
One of the greatest dangers for city dwellers in the ancient world was fire. That’s because so many of the houses were built with cheap flammable materials, and every home had an open flame for cooking, heating, and illumination. This metaphor would strike them at their heart, since Corinth was a big city, and they had likely all witnessed house fires.
So that we can’t confuse what he’s talking about Paul throws in this important final line, “If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
He’s reminding us that the salvation of an individual Christian is an absolute promise even if that Christian is lazy, neglectful, and does no good deeds. Even the wicked lazy servant13 will be saved, but you’ll smell the smoke on them when they arrive in heaven. It’s as if he’s saying Christians who aren’t obedient to Christ during their life will enter Heaven without a cent to their name, and their hair singed. Still, there is a reassuring promise of life for all believers whether faithful or not, but a grave warning for disobedient believers.
The verse says that the Christian who was lazy and disobedient will “suffer loss,” but what does that mean? We can understand it in light of the previous verse. Paul says, “If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss…”
So the thing in view is reward. Those Christians who work hard, and stay committed will receive something very valuable. Those who are lazy and build with twigs will miss out on valuable rewards they could have had.
Can you imagine that? You could enter heaven with a house load of gold, silver, and precious stones, or you could enter heaven as poor as a beggar. It all depends on how you build now. If you spend every day of your Christian life seeking, obeying, and growing, you can bet you’re going to be rich when you get there. If you got saved and have done nothing of spiritual value since, you may be on the path to heavenly poverty. Just like someone who has their home burnt to the ground, you could suffer incredible loss if you don’t get busy.
The lesson is fairly simple. As we’ve already seen, Paul put it so well when he said:
Run in such a way as to get the prize.14
We could encircle it in all kinds of theological language, but the best metaphor for what we are to do is this:
In this chapter we’ve seen that once the free gift of salvation is given to the believer, there is no condemnation that can ever befall him or her. However, everyone must go through a life-evaluation. At that accounting, our work will be assessed and judged. For those who worked hard doing the deeds Christ commends there will be reward. For those who were lazy there will be loss.
In the next chapter we will discover more about this event and the different kinds of outcomes that each can expect as we investigate a parable of Jesus concerning the Kingdom of Heaven.
1 John 5:24
2 John 12:44
3 The word in Greek is κρίσιν, and can be translated as “condemnation” as it is in John 3:18. This context indicates that this judgment is that which comes with a negative outcome.
4 John 3:18
5 Romans 14:10
6 2 Corinthians 5:9-10
7 Matthew 16:27
8 Romans 14:12
9 1 Corinthians 3:5-8
10 This is speculation for the purpose of illustration.
11 1 Corinthians 3:9-11
12 1 Corinthians 3:12-15
13 Matthew 25:26
14 1 Corinthians 9:24-25