Mention the judgment seat of Christ, and don’t be surprised if Christians shudder and try to change the subject. Why? It’s because most Christians don’t understand what the judgment seat of Christ is and how to prepare for it.
The expression occurs only once in Scripture: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 14:15; 1 Cor. 3:11–15).
God will judge all people (Acts 17:31; Rom. 14:12), but only believers in Christ will appear before “the judgment seat of Christ.” “All” in 2 Corinthians 5:10 is used in a restrictive sense to mean all believers rather than absolutely every human. Contextual evidence from 2 Corinthians 5:1–9 supports this:
- “We” have an eternal house in the heavens (v. 1; cf. vv. 2–4).
- God “gave to us the Spirit as a pledge” (v. 5).
- “We walk by faith, not by sight” (v. 7).
- “We … prefer … to be at home with the Lord” (v. 8; cf. v. 6).
- “We also have as our ambition … to be pleasing to Him (v. 9).
Since these truths about “we” and “us” are limited to believers in Christ, what will be the believer’s recompense at the judgment seat of Christ for deeds “whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10)? The issue here is the deeds or work of believers — not their sins. Christ paid the recompense for all our sins (2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24–25), and we have been forgiven all our sins through faith in His blood (Rom. 3:22–26; Eph. 1:7; Col. 2:13).
Therefore, no sins will be punished at the judgment seat of Christ (Heb. 10:17). Still, sin can make an otherwise good deed into a bad deed. For instance, Christian giving done in love and secrecy is good and will receive heavenly reward (Matt. 6:1–4; 1 Cor. 3:14; 13:1–3), but hypocritical giving is bad (though it may benefit the recipient) and causes loss of heavenly reward for the giver (Matt. 6:1–4; cf. Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor. 3:12–13, 15).
Christ’s judgment of the Christian’s deeds is presented as an evaluation by fire: “Each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work” (1 Cor. 3:13). This judgment can have two possible results. First, acceptable service or good deeds are compared to gold, silver, and precious stones that can endure fire (vv. 12, 14). Good deeds remain and bring reward (v. 14). Second, unacceptable service or bad deeds are compared to wood, hay, and stubble that burn up (1 Cor. 3:12, 15). Bad deeds perish and bring loss of reward (v. 15); this is the recompense for bad deeds done in the believer’s body (2 Cor. 5:10).
Your work can be acceptable to Christ. How? Pass these four tests (cf. 2 Tim. 2:5): (1) love is your motive (1 Cor. 13:1–7), (2) faithfulness is your attitude (1 Cor. 4:2; cf. Matt. 25:21), (3) God’s glory is your goal (Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 10:31), and (4) the Holy Spirit is your power (Zech. 4:6; Rom. 15:19; Gal. 5:22–23).
Can reward be a worthy reason for serving the Lord? Yes, if we recognize reward as a means to glorify God and not an end to gratify us (1 Cor. 9:24–27; 10:31). If our “good works” on earth can glorify God (Matt. 5:16), how much more can our reward in heaven glorify Him. Just as the heavenly elders worship and glorify God by casting their reward-crowns at the feet of Christ (Rev. 4:10), so believers will use their heavenly reward to glorify Him (cf. Dan. 12:3; 1 Cor. 6:20). Think of our heavenly reward as a beautiful Hallmark card to Christ saying that we loved Him enough to give our very best in service (Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4:7–8).