This is the fourth segment of our series on what is called “the self” – who and what a person is at their core. You and I are unique selves, as are all who live, and have lived, on the earth. We exist individually, even though we are part of a certain cultural milieu that shapes our thinking and behaviors hugely, whether or not we realize the ways or degrees to which we are influenced. Within this cultural conditioning, each of us moves through life as a unique person – a unique Self who experiences a number of overlapping, subsidiary selves through time and into eternity.
This part of our series concerns genuine believers – the redeemed of all ages. These are now either (1) living in heavenly glory as intermediate selves, or (2) living on earth awaiting either (a) their entrance into the intermediate state through death, or (b) their translation (rapture) if they are alive when Jesus returns. If we are believers, our final two selves will be The Judged Self and The Eternal Self (using the same category names as for unbelievers). This essay concerns God’s judgment of his people.
THE JUDGED SELF: BELIEVERS
With regard to the judgment of God’s people, theologians have different opinions as to when believers will be judged and whether different groups of believers will be judged at different times, and on what specific bases. These are interesting questions to think about, but for our purposes here it seems best (because simplest) to consider all believers – past, present, future – under the broad category of the judgment seat of Christ. The two chief Bible texts on this topic are from the apostle Paul:
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor. 3: 10-15).
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5: 6-11).
Two Major Judgment Events?
It is common for preachers and writers to distinguish between the judgment seat of Christ and the great white throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15). Those who make this distinction emphasize that the former is for believers only, and is not a judgment to determine who will be saved, since those being judged here have all been redeemed and forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even if many of these lived before Christ’s crucifixion. They are being judged to determine rewards or loss of rewards based on how they lived and served the Lord since they came to know him.
Those judged at the great white throne judgment, it is said, are unbelievers, and are judged ultimately on the basis of their response to God’s revelation and grace shown to them while on earth, and how they lived in light of their overall attitude toward God, themselves, and others.
These two groups and two kinds of judgment activity are clearly taught in the Bible, even though the names for these two judgments do not necessarily indicate two separate occasions. It may be, of course, that these judgments will occur at two different times, with the focus of each as just indicated, but it is also possible that they may occur in one comprehensive last judgment – the great white throne judgment — with the judgment seat of Christ as part of this mighty event. At this immense occasion, the judgment of unbelievers and believers, as well as the judgment of the nations/sheep and goats (Mt. 25:31-46) and the judgment of the fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6) would take place.
After studying the numerous biblical passages on God’s future judgment activity, I have come to believe – but cannot insist – that there will be one final judgment event just before the beginning of the eternal state, with different emphases and focal groups in view.
I have wondered at times if “the judgment seat of Christ” is not only one big occasion for all believers gathered together after Christ returns, especially to receive rewards, but is also something that takes place sooner, privately, alone with our Lord, just after each child of God dies. Whether or not this will be so, I will surely be in awe if I ever hear – as I long to hear — Jesus say to me, while he looks intently into my eyes, “Well done, good and faithful servant; …. Enter into the joy of your Lord” (Mt. 25:21, NKJV).
Amazingly, on another note, we who trust in the Lord will, in some sense, assist him in the awesome responsibility of judging both humans and angels (1 Cor. 6: 2-3; also see Rev. 20:4). As the people of God, after our individual judgment (whenever that will be), we will personally assist our Lord in his work of judgment! We await the coming great “Day” (culminating activity) when we will be both judged and judges!
On What Basis Will Believers Be Judged?
We need not be concerned as to whether we will be qualified to judge (or rule) others rightly. God will see that we are! But we are to be concerned about our day in court, as individual Christians. This is rarely, if ever, preached on or mentioned in devotional literature or other Christian writing. Perhaps this failure is because we – Christian leaders, pastors, laypersons, and writers alike — focus so much on comforting the afflicted (ourselves and others) that we neglect to join with God in his serious work of afflicting the comfortable (ourselves and others), whether we experience God’s affliction during this life (Heb. 12:4-17) or when we stand before him in judgment, assuming (rightly, I believe) that we may speak of his merciful chastisement at that time as benevolent but necessary “affliction”.
Just because we cannot understand how God will, in part, judge his redeemed ones negatively, while at the same time (or thereafter) reward us and usher us into everlasting blessedness, does not justify the widespread avoidance of teaching on the relevant scriptures (see the following) and their implications. I am convinced that the loving sternness of God toward his precious children needs to be preached today, and can be preached and taught with the same combination of directness and mercy as Jesus himself would do if he were on earth today.
A close reading of Matthew 5-7 and Revelation 1-3 will instruct us on how Jesus blends these essential qualities beautifully in his work as the master teacher and pastor. I am convinced, in addition, that God’s Holy Spirit will lead us into the truth on this matter, discerning what God wants us to know not only theologically in general but also personally, concerning our present way of life in view of our coming individual judgment, when we sincerely ask him to do so (Lk. 11:13; Jn. 16:12-15).
God’s basis for our judgment as individual believers, as best as I can discern, will be our faithfulness to the total pattern of godly living and serving according to the whole of biblical teaching, as we learned progressively of this divine pattern throughout our individual life situations: the more we came to know the more we became responsible to follow. Included within this range of living and serving will be such matters as responsible stewardship of the talents and gifts we were given, fervent and consistent love for God, radical love and justice for our neighbors as ourselves, serious involvement in fulfilling the great commission, genuine forgiveness of those who have harmed us, and robust holiness of life: thoughts, words, and actions.
It is frequently said that true Christians will not be judged for their sins, since these were paid for at Calvary, but we will be judged regarding our works as believers. While this teaching has grounding in important biblical revelation (Jn. 5:24; 1 Jn. 2: 1-2), we cannot and should not try to isolate our sins as believers from our works as believers.
You may, for example, spend valuable hours each month volunteering at the local food pantry and used clothing store. This is surely good work because it helps many needy people. But if you do this primarily or even partially to avoid more difficult responsibilities at home, such as intentionally training your children in matters of Christian truth and Christian living, your sin of avoidance (omission) tarnishes your good work of helping the poor. Many such examples could be given.
The sins of believers are of major concern to God! They not only mar our good works, but they grieve God, and will be taken into account when we stand before him at the end of our earthly lives. Both our righteous actions, words, thoughts, and motives, as well as our unrighteous ones, will be brought into the full light of God’s courtroom when he judges his redeemed, as will our yieldedness and stubbornness toward God’s will in both the “little” issues of life and the “big” ones.
Sometimes God does not even wait for the ultimate judgment event of believers, but (in great sadness, for sure) takes action – even ending our lives – when we continue to live in disobedience to him. On this crucial point, please read, with great solemnity, alone, 1 Corinthians 11: 27-32 — one of the most shocking texts in the Bible regarding God’s hatred of sin in the lives of his people!
Furthermore, one sin that God must hate – and awaits his judgment — is the choice of preachers and Christians who know God’s word to deliberately avoid referring to such scriptures as the one just mentioned in order to “grow” their church, or not offend people, or not have friends turn away from them. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas. 3:1). “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
Urgent Scriptures on God’s Judgment
Some highly instructive Bible texts, in addition to those quoted earlier from I Corinthians 3 and 2 Corinthians 5, will be valuable for each of us to contemplate seriously as we ponder God’s judgment of believers, especially ourselves. Some of these passages apply to unbelievers as well as God’s children, but they are listed here mainly for their application to the people of God.
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil (Eccl. 12:13-14).
Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name. “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession” (Mal. 3: 16-17).
For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned (Mt. 12: 34-37).
For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done (Mt. 16:27).
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets (Lk. 6: 22-23).
Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, … (Jn. 5:22).
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. … You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’ “ So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (Rom. 14: 7, 10-12).
The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor (1 Cor. 3:8).
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God (1 Cor. 4:3-5).
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving (Col. 3:23-24).
[The] time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Heb. 9:27-28).
And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming (1 Jn. 2:28).
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love (1 Jn. 4: 16-18).
Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully (2 Jn. 8).
Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done (Rev. 22:12).
Some Concluding Thoughts and Personal Notes
Those who know and walk closely with Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord are the most blessed of all inhabitants of the earth. We have nothing to fear, either in this life or in the life to come. The above text from 1 John 4 states, “There is no fear in love.” If we live in the God who is love, “we will have confidence on the day of judgment.”
This confidence will not be based on our having lived sinless lives! Far from it! But it will be ours because we have, regularly and increasingly over the years, received God’s gracious paternal forgiveness and cleansing whenever he convicted us of wrongdoing and we confessed our sin to him (1 Jn. 1:5–2:2). It has been well-said that “the most important minutes in the life of a Christian are the five minutes after we sin.” Unconfessed sin, over time, will devastate a believer: body, soul, and spirit!
So much more could be said here about the judgment of God’s people – those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb for all eternity. What does it mean to “suffer loss,” for example? What are the “crowns” and “rewards” we will receive, and how should this major New Testament theme affect our daily lives? These are important questions that, I believe, should be on our minds regularly.
On a personal note, it has been only recently that the idea of being rewarded has affected me significantly. I rarely thought of it throughout most of my Christian life, because I didn’t understand why possible rewards, crowns, and other praises from God (whatever these would be like) on some future judgment day should motivate me to live and serve rightly. After all, the best of God’s servants are only doing what he expects of them and equips them to do. I was very thankful to be able to serve my Savior, and I was very happy doing it!
Recently, however, I have struggled considerably with discouragement about my service for God and others during the past several years. I ask myself, “Who cares what I am doing?” “Am I having any real impact on anyone?” “Why exert myself as I do at this time of difficult health issues?”
But then I visualize the smile of Jesus – both future and present – and I sense his present approval of my recent labors, and these thoughts propel me beautifully! In my best moments I need no audible words from Jesus or others to be encouraged. Yet – I regret to say – I have many moments that are not “my best.” I must remind myself regularly of this new motivating factor: If I am serving God with diligence, with full reliance on his wisdom and strength and with purity of heart and motives, then I know Jesus is approving of me and my work right now! I shouldn’t need any other affirmation, I tell myself. But I sometimes do (or think I do)! However, I ask God to keep me as balanced as the apostle Paul: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
On a further personal note, I love to think about my coming experience before the judgment seat of Christ, especially if this will involve a time alone with Jesus, as mentioned above. I anticipate this event highly! Yet my excitement has relatively little to do with specific crowns or rewards as such.
My enthusiasm has to do with being with Jesus – my Redeemer, Lord, Guide, Comforter, Teacher, and Best Friend for well over a half-century. I would not be as excited if I thought I’d be standing in a throng of billions or trillions waiting for my name to be read and hearing what is in my record. If that’s how it will be, however, I know it will be best, because God does only the best. But I think Christ’s judgment of me – and everyone – will be much more personal. After all, he has a personal relationship with each of his children during their earthly lives, so he knows us very well already!
There will be no pressure on Jesus to get through everyone’s appointment within a certain amount of time. I believe that with God and with us on that great occasion, there will be no sensation of the passing of time. At least, that is my thought and, admittedly, my desire. I want to see Jesus and commune with him forever. The judgment event will be the beginning of everlasting heavenly joy, awaiting all who look for him and to him daily.
(This document, as well as the first three parts of this series on the self, is available without cost on the website, www.gracequestministries.org. The final installment will, God willing, consider “The Eternal Self: Believers.” You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. May our gracious Lord and coming King be with you and keep you free from fear and hopelessness, until you see him face to face!)