One of the most frightening concepts in the Bible is that of judgment. The word alone conjures up images of wrath, destruction, condemnation, and fear. We see the judgment of God as punishment for every mistake we’ve ever made, whether intentional or unintentional, known or unknown, big or small. The prophets of old issued long and detailed predictions of terrifying judgment and we tend to transfer these to ourselves. Question most people in a church and they will admit that the idea makes them uncomfortable, overwhelmed, or frightened. We don’t like to think about it because we all know, deep down inside, that we deserve being judged harshly and mercilessly.
Fortunately, that is not the fate of Christians. When taken in context and in whole, the Old Testament aspect of God’s judgment becomes complete and the New Testament result of Christ’s judgment holds something we should not dread. In fact, the Greek meaning of judgment, which is simply “the act of deciding a case,” gives us cause for hope, celebration, and immense gratitude.
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered,” Paul wrote. “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” (Romans 4:7-8) In Christ, sin is forgiven. Transgressions are removed. Iniquity is swallowed in salvation. There is a judgment that we will face – a judgment in the sense of God deciding our case – but because of Christ we are subject to grace, not wrath. This is good news!
The writer of Hebrews calls God “a consuming fire.”[i] (Hebrews 12:29) When John the Baptist foretold of Christ’s works, he said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11) Fire has a destructive role, but it is one of purification. Fire destroys the junk. Paul explains this dynamic by first establishing the unshakeable foundation on which we stand. Then he shows how we can build on that foundation.
“According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 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. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)
As believers, our souls rest on the foundation of Christ. Our works, however, will be weighed before what Paul calls the bema seat. It’s the same term used to identify where Gallio, Pilate, and Herod sat, sometimes translated “rostrum” or “tribunal.” It is the place where a decision is made by the governing authority. In Paul’s narrative, it is where only our works are judged, not our souls. Paul also said, “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 Corinthians 5:10) Again, the “judgment seat” is that bema seat. It is not the judgment Christ warned in His generation, which was krisis in the Greek. What they faced was different from what we will face.
When Paul says we will be “recompensed” for our deeds, the verb is not “to receive a payment for.” We will not receive the wages of bad deeds. The Greek word means “to carry, bear, bring to.” When our works are carried to the decision place of Christ, we will lose those “bad deeds” in the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. The “wood, hay, straw” will be eliminated in the purifying presence of Christ. That is a loss, but is it not a good loss? The only thing left will be “gold, silver, precious stones.”
The idea of the bema seat frightened me for years – until I understood it. Now it gives me hope. I don’t worry about the mistakes I’ve made. Like the dross removed from gold, it will be burned up and removed forever. Every outburst, every lie, every evil thing is carried to His place of authority where He will separate the junk and wash it away. Only gold will remain.
Our foundation is rock-solid. Nothing can move it. Now we can focus on “laying up treasures in heaven” through good deeds, which are those done in obedience to Christ, because the balance of our works will be purified and polished. For eternity, people won’t see our dross. Just the gold!
Adapted from the upcoming book The Age of Promise by James Randall Robison. Copyright ©2017 by James Randall Robison. Used by permission.