The Judgment Seat of Christ

John E. Todd, Chesterfield, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

After the games in ancient Greece, the successful athletes would file past the president of the games seated upon his raised dais {bema), each to receive a crown of leaves from his hand as the emblem of victory. The same Greek word bema is used of the judgment seat of Christ, before which each Christian will stand, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ", 2 Cor. 5. 10. The life of each believer will be examined by the Lord Jesus Christ and judged and rewarded accordingly.

The judgment seat of Christ is not to be confused with the great white throne of the last judgment, Rev. 20. 11. The Scriptures carefully distinguish between the two judgments in at least four important ways.

The Two Judgments. Firstly, only Christians will stand before the judg­ment seat of Christ. "Why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ", Rom. 14. 10. But no Christian will ever stand before the great white throne, as the Lord so clearly taught, "He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgement, but hath passed out of death into life", John 5. 24 R.v. For judgment upon the Christian's sin has already taken   place at the cross.

Secondly, it is the Christian's service which is to be judged; if the work which any man has built on the foundation (the Lord Jesus Christ, v. 11) survives, he will receive a reward, 1 Cor. 3. 14. But it is the sinner's sin which will be judged at the last judg­ment, "and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works", Rev. 20. 12. Herein lies the vital difference between the two judgments. At the judgment seat of Christ it is the Christian's service which is being judged, so as to assess its spiritual worth and worthiness of reward. Whereas at the great white throne it is the sinner's sin which is being judged.

Thirdly, at the judgment seat of Christ salvation is not in question; even if the Christian's service is found to be unacceptable and he loses his reward, yet his salvation is still un­changed. "If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved", 1 Cor. 3. 15. Whereas at the great white throne salvation is the only question, for if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was cast into the lake of fire, Rev. 20. 15.

Fourthly, the judgment seat of Christ will take place at the resurrec­tion of Christians, "thou shalt be re­compensed at the resurrection of the just", Luke 14. 14. This is before the millennial reign (the thousand years when Christ will reign over the earth), for those who share this first resurrec­tion will also share with Christ that thousand years of rule. "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection . . . they . . . shall reign with Christ a thousand years". Rev. 20. 6. But the resurrection of the rest of the dead to eternal judgment takes place after the millennium. "The rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished", v. 5. Thus the judgment seat of Christ and the great white throne are two entirely distinct events, separated by a thou­sand years of time.

The two judgments are for different people at different times and for different purposes.

The   Standards   of Judgment.

Our Lord carefully set out in His ministry the standards by which He judges the conduct of His people. By turning to the Scriptures we can learn of the standards by which our lives will be judged on that day. We need to know and apply these standards now, for at the judgment seat it will be too late. We shall not be able to retrace our steps into this life and take up afresh the neglected opportunities of service. The opportunities, the service and the reward will have been eternally lost. We must continually examine our own lives to see how they will appear in the sight of Christ at that day.

The parable of the talents. Matt. 25. 14-30, teaches us that the same reward, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant", vv. 21, 23, is given to the one who, having two talents, gained two more, as to the one who, having five talents, gained five more. It is not how much we achieve com­pared to others, but have we used our own opportunities to the full? The most gifted Christian, who uses his God-given abilities and opportunities to the full, will receive no more reward than a far less gifted and less favourably placed brother or sister who likewise uses his or her talents to the full. A full spiritual effort means a full reward.

But alongside this must be placed the lesson of the parable of the pounds, Luke 19. 11-27. The opportunities of service were equal, for each began with a pound; then the greater the quantity of service, the greater will be the reward. The one who made his pound into ten pounds more was rewarded with authority over ten cities; but the one who made only five pounds more was rewarded with authority over only five cities. Our Lord's commendation is in direct proportion to the use we make of our opportunities of service for him.

In the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, Matt. 20. 1-16, we learn that mere length of service is no guarantee of a greater reward. Despite the varying length of time spent in work, each labourer received one denarius. Each labourer received his reward because he exactly obeyed the instructions of the householder. The Christian's task is to obey his Lord and so each will receive a full reward. For a Christian who goes to be with the Lord early in life, or one who is converted late in life, each has the same opportunity of a full reward as one who has served the Lord for many long years. Indeed, we must not allow the advancing years of our service to cause us to grow com­placent and lax, "let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not", Gal. 6. 9. So the possibility of living well-pleasingtothe Lord is as much open to the wicked sinner who is converted late in life, as to the godly man who has walked with the Lord all his days.

The parable of the sons in the vine­yard, Matt. 21. 28-31, teaches us that it is not our good intentions and empty promises but our deeds that are acceptable to the Lord. One son said "Yes" to please his father, and then never did a stroke of work. The other son, more cautiously, did not promise to go, but finding he had the opportun­ity, then went and worked in the vine­yard. All Christians intend to do much for the Lord, but the Lord needs workers not talkers. "Little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth", 1 John 3.18. "Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone", James 2. 17.

The   widow's   two   copper   coins, Luke 21. 1 -4, show our Lord's delight in service which involves the giving of our all. The size of our "all" compared to others is irrelevant. It is the giving of our all which shows our true devotion to the Lord and earns his commenda­tion. "Present your bodies a living sacrifice . . . which is your spiritual worship", Rom. 12. 1 r.v. marg. "Ye are not your own ... ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body", 1 Cor. 6. 19-20.

It cannot be too strongly empha­sized that "greatness" by the Lord's standards is not exercising domineer­ing authority over others, but engaging in humble service. We shall be reward­ed for what we do ourselves, not what we tell others to do. "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet", John 13.14. How low we stoop in self-effacing service will determine how high the Lord will raise us in his eternal kingdom: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus . . . took upon him the form of a servant ... he humbled himself. . . Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him", Phil. 2. 5-11.

It is the spiritual quality and the devotedness of our service, not its apparent success, that is worthwhile in our Lord's sight, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant", Matt. 25. 21, 23. Our Lord's service was per­formed with perfect faithfulness. But by earthly standards it appeared to be unsuccessful, for the nation of Israel did not accept Him as their Messiah but rejected Him. But God uses faithful service as the channel of His blessing. True success is attendant upon God's blessing not our efforts, "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it", Psa. 127. 1.

The Reward. Of what will the reward consist? The Word of God speaks of crowns, the crown being the symbol of positions of honour and authority in the eternal kingdom. We read of

Imperishable crowns: Men do it to receive a perishable wreath (i.e. a crown of leaves), but we an imperish­able, 1 Cor. 9. 25.

Crowns of righteousness: the "crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing", 2 Tim. 4. 8.

Crowns of life: "be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life", Rev. 2. 10. "The crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him", James 1.12.

Crowns of glory: "when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away", 1 Pet. 5. 4.

A Christian will carry over from this world into God's eternal kingdom his own spiritual character, and that spiritual character will be allotted the place in His kingdom of which it is worthy.

Although we are plainly told that the Christian cannot lose his salvation, 1 Cor. 3.15, which is eternally secured by the blood of Christ, nevertheless a Christian can lose his reward. "I say unto you, That unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away", Luke 19. 26. "He shall receive a reward ... he shall suffer loss", 1 Cor. 3.14-15. "That every one may receive . . . according to that he hath done", 2 Cor. 5. 10. "Abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming", 1 John 2. 28. "Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward", 2 John 8. "Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown", Rev. 3. 11.

Of all the major doctrines of Holy Scripture, the judgment seat of Christ is perhaps the most neglected, and yet, because of its personal and eternal consequences, it is worthy of careful and continuous consideration.

AUTHOR PROFILE: John has been constributing articles to assembly magazines since 1986. together with his wife he began work amongst children that led to establishment of the assembly. Now he serves the assembly as an elder and in the ministry of God's word.