“One day you will stand before the judgement seat, the books will be opened, and there will be a reckoning. If your good works outweigh your bad, you’ll be safe. But if your bad works outweigh the good, you’ll be toast.”
You may have heard a line like this, but it’s not in the Bible. It’s the age-old religion of bookkeeping, which Christ came to end.
So what are we to make of this verse:
For we must all appear before the judgment (bema) seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Cor 5:10)
How will we be judged and what are the good and bad things that are judged? Let scripture interpret scripture and the following becomes clear:
- We all have a date with Jesus. This includes babies who died young and unreached tribes. Every single one of us will bow the knee (Rom 14:11). Some bow in adoration and some bow grudgingly, but all will recognize that Jesus is Lord.
- Everyone receives something from the Lord, either life or death (John 3:16), righteousness or wrath (Rom 1:17-18). Righteousness is a gift, but death is a wage. Righteousness leads to eternal life, wrath leads to death. “Yes, wrath is for the sinner,” says the hellfire preacher. Actually, righteousness is for the sinner. God gives grace to the sinner (Rom 5:8). So who gets wrath? Those who don’t want grace.
- “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked the rich young ruler. There is no good thing you can do to inherit an inheritance. You only get an inheritance when someone dies and Someone did.
- So what are the good and bad things Paul is referring to? These are the useful or useless choices we make, the worthwhile or worthless works. All good work flows from trusting Jesus (John 5:24); all useless work flows from trusting self (Jer 17:5-6).
That’s a broad overview, but we can get a clearer understanding of Paul’s words about being rewarded for doing good or bad by reading what Jesus says here:
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 5:28-29)
Those who have “done what is good” meaning, those who “hear and believe” (v.24). Jesus has good news for us – “God loves you!” – and those who hear or hearken to these words will live (v.25).
Do you see? At the end of the day you are not judged on your resume or reputation. God is not counting the good and bad things you have done (although our actions surely have consequences). In the final analysis, there is only one choice or work that matters:
The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. (John 6:29)
Those “who have done evil” meaning, those who jam their fingers in their ears and refuse to hear the good things God has to say. They’d rather hear whatever bad news they’ve bought into and as a result they are missing out on the good stuff. Note that this has nothing to do with punishment, for apart from Christ we are dead already. The evil work is refusing “to come to me to have life” (v.40). It’s diving into the quicksand when you could be resting on the rock.
And who are these evildoers?
“It’s filthy, degenerate sinners,” says the moralizing preacher. Not so, said Jesus, the friend of sinners. An evildoer is someone who rejects Christ (John 3:36). This includes the religious person who studies the scriptures that testify of Jesus yet refuses to come to him (John 5:39-40). It’s the preacher who cries “Lord, Lord” while fleecing the sheep and prostituting the love of God (Matt 7:21-23).
An evildoer does something. He denies the Lord (Jude 1:4) and judges himself unworthy of life (Acts 13:46). He turns away (Heb 12:25) and goes astray (2 Pet 2:15).
The choice we all make
To do evil in a religious sense is to break the rules, but to do evil in a Biblical sense is to harm yourself by “thrusting away the word of God” (ie: Jesus) (Acts 13:46), “suppressing the truth” (ditto) (Rom 1:18), and “trampling the Son of God underfoot” (Heb 10:29).
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life. (Deu 30:19)
Everyone gets a choice and Jesus wants you to choose life. This isn’t rocket science. If you reject life, what are you left with?
I hope you can now see that the religious caricature of Judgment Day – the one where God tallies up your good and bad deeds or plays a videotape showing all your secret sins – has no basis in scripture. None at all.
And this brings us back to the judgment or bema seat. We could debate whether this is a literal or metaphorical seat, and we could argue over whether we’ve appeared before it or are yet to appear before it. But such debates would distract us from the larger point which is this:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them … We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:18-20)
Be reconciled, is the point. Today, is the point. Your sinful past and a future judgment should not hinder you from enjoying God now. (What about the fear of the Lord mentioned in 2 Cor 5:11? See my next post.)
- Religion says, “Beware the books,” but the gospel declares, “There are no books.” God keeps no record of your sin.
- Religion says, “Count your sins,” but the gospel declares “God is not counting your sins.” So why should you?
- Religion says, “Busy up your life with good works,” but Jesus says, “There is only one work that counts and I did it already. Rest in me.”
As with everything in scripture, the Bema Seat is only interesting because of who is sitting on it. The Bema Seat is not about you and what you’ve done or must do. It’s about Jesus who did it all so that you might truly live.