Those who take the natural, normal meaning of the biblical text believe that a judgment of believers takes place in heaven following the rapture of the church (2 Cor. 5:10). Every church-age believer will stand before the Judgment (Bema) Seat of Christ to be evaluated by our Lord. With this, most who believe in a pre-tribulational rapture would agree.
The disgreement among pre-tribulationalists has less to do about where and when the Bema Seat will take place, and more about the character of the judgment. Some believe that the Bema Seat is an evaluation of sin where Christians will be punished, or at least publicly humiliated for unconfessed sins. Others believe that the Bema Seat is an evaluation of the nature of a believer's works (whether good or worthless). The disagreement between these two sides is significant since it involves a person's view of the very nature of the atonement. So, what saith the Scripture?
The Teaching Concerning the Believer and Sin
The Bible is plain concerning what happens the moment a person receives Jesus Christ as Savior. His sins—past, present, and future—are all forgiven because of the blood of Christ (Col. 2:13). No longer does he stand before Him as a condemned sinner. The believer's sin was charged to Christ's account and He paid for it (2 Cor. 5:19, 21), and the righteousness of Christ is charged to the believer's account (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). As a result of the believing sinner's new standing, God is able to judicially declare him to be righteous (justification), and none dare bring a charge against him (Rom. 8:33)!
The late, J. Dwight Pentecost mentions how unbiblical it is to say that we will be held accountable for unconfessed sins at the Bema Seat:
This presupposes the fact that my sins have not been completely and perfectly dealt with by the blood of Christ. It presupposes that God is keeping a record of all my iniquities so that He can present them before me when I stand in His presence. Such is contrary to the holiness of God and to the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ.1
Hebrews 10:14; 17-18 states, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified....And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin.” The Christian's sins have been atoned for completely and forever. Nothing more needs to be done: “there is no more offering for sin.” The believer's sins will no longer be brought up against him, nor does he have to do anything to “re-atone” for them (not now, at the Bema Seat, or in eternity).
The Believer and Unconfessed Sin
The purpose of the believer confessing his sins as taught in 1 John 1:9 is not in order to keep himself “saved.” As Charles Ryrie wrote, “Our family relationship is kept right by His death; our family fellowship is restored by our confession.” (Ryrie Study Bible).
Samuel L. Hoyt expands these thoughts in the second of his excellent two-part article, “The Judgment Seat of Christ in Theological Perspective”:
Another argument which supports the position that the Christian’s sins will not be an issue at the βῆμα relates to the present effect of unconfessed sins. Unconfessed sins relate to fellowship in this life. Any unconfessed sin stands as a barrier to fellowship and growth in one’s present relationship to God. Confession brings immediate forgiveness and restoration of fellowship between the Christian and God. This is present-tense forgiveness and deals with “family” forgiveness. For example, 1 John is a “family” epistle addressed to the “born ones” or to τεκνία μου (“my little children”). 1 John 1:9 refers to “family,” experiential forgiveness: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The daily forgiveness of those who are within the family of God is distinguished from judicial and positional forgiveness which was applied forensically to all of a person’s sins the moment he believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul writes of this forensic forgiveness in Colossians 2:13: “And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses.” The point Paul makes is that the believer is completely forgiven legally before the sin is even committed. The question that arises concerning a believer’s sins is between the Father and a son, and not between a judge and a criminal. The legal side has already been settled. The question revolves around a contemporaneous relationship between the Father and a son. If there is a barrier which arises through a son offending his Father, there must be family forgiveness. It is not forensic forgiveness for that has been eternally granted and efficaciously applied the moment he became a son.2The scripture is clear. The purpose of regular confession is the maintenance of family fellowship in this life. The penalty for unconfessed sin is not humiliation at the Bema Seat of Christ, but loss of intimate fellowship right now.
The Teaching Concerning the Bema Seat of Christ
The Purpose of the Bema
The teaching of the Word of God is clear that the Judgment Seat of Christ is not for the purpose of bringing up the past sins of the believer in order to punish the Christian in some way (2 Cor. 5:10). The Bema Seat is basically a reward seat. The bema in the context of 2 Cor. 5:10 refers to the umpire's stand at the Isthmian games. During those games the contestants would compete for the prize while the judges carefully scrutinized the contestants to make sure that the rules of the game were followed. The person who followed the rules and won a particular event was led by the judge to the bema. At the judgment seat he was crowned with a laurel wreath as a symbol of victory (1 Cor. 9:24-25).
At the Bema the quality of each man's work will be tried. Faithful stewards will be rewarded and unfaithful ones will experience loss of rewards (1 Cor. 3:10-15; 1 Cor. 4:2). According to 2 Cor. 5:10 all those who have trusted in Christ as Savior will appear before Christ. The Greek word behind the word translated appear is much stronger than the English might suggest. The idea here is of being made manifest. The word refers to more than just our presence, but a revelation of who we really are. Attitudes and motives will be apparent at the Bema, as well as good qualities concerning our works that may have been misunderstood by others. The verse goes on to mention “the things done in [our] body.” Once again, this demonstrates that this judgment is an examination of our works whether they are good or worthless/substandard.
The Results of the Bema
Some have compared the Judgment Seat of Christ to a commencement. Everyone graduating is overjoyed to be moving on to new horizons. Some who are graduating have put forth real effort, utilizing whatever mental abilities that they have been given, and graduate with a great amount of satisfaction and reward for their labors. Others, who were not diligent students, will have a certain amount of disappointment and regret knowing that they could have done better in their academic careers. Overall, the emotion at a commencement is joy, not sorrow. Samuel Hoyt brings biblical balance to the subject when he writes, “To overdo the sorrow aspect of the judgment seat of Christ is to make heaven hell. To underdo the sorrow aspect is to make faithfulness inconsequential.”3
Those who were not faithful stewards of what God had given to them will suffer loss at the Judgment Seat (1 Cor. 3:15; 1 Cor. 9:24-27). Some will have lived so unfaithfully, that when their Lord appears they will “be ashamed before him” (1 John 2:28). Varying degrees of reward will also be featured at the Bema (1 Cor. 3:12, 14). The scriptures tell us in 1 Corinthians 4:5 that Christ will “both...bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts,” and that “every man [will] have praise of God.”
Although we can be assured that the rewards of faithful service are incredible, we really know very little about what form these rewards will take. The Bible portrays some of these rewards as crowns (which will be cast at the feet of Christ), yet the specifics are not mentioned.
So, How Should This Affect Us?
Christ's coming is imminent. He could come at any moment to snatch us up to heaven. We could very soon be standing before our Lord at the Bema Seat. Although our faithful service for Christ in this life may have gone unnoticed, or may have been misunderstood and mischaracterized, the Lord knows our hearts and will reward us fairly. We can be encouraged to know that, “God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name” (Heb. 6:10).
Be Ready; Be Faithful!
Be ready for His any-moment return in the air, because “every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). We need to make sure that we are being faithful with all of the things over which God has made us stewards: time, talents, spiritual gifts, money, possessions, and the gospel message. We need to heed the warning of the Apostle John in 2 John 8: “Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward.” Faithfulness will be rewarded and unfaithfulness will result in loss of rewards. We need to keep our eyes on the eternal, not on the temporal: “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
1 J. Dwight Pentecost, Prophecy for Today: An Exposition of Major Themes on Prophecy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), p. 153, as quoted by Samuel L. Hoyt in Bibliotheca Sacra 137, no. 545 (1980): 36.
2 Bibliotheca Sacra 137, no. 545 (1980): 37–38.
3 Bibliotheca Sacra 137, no. 546 (1980): 131.
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