One morning as a boss finished parking his brand new Ferrari in the company parking lot, one of his employees pulled up and began staring at his new wheels in obvious envy. Seeing this, the boss said, “You know, if you work overtime every week, skip coffee breaks, and even work weekends and holidays, by this time next year—I just might have another one of these babies!”
As you may know by painful experience, employers don’t always reward good work the way they should. But that’s not the case with the Lord Jesus Christ! He plans to reward us for any work we do that edifies “the church, which is His Body” (Eph. 1:22,23) when we stand before Him at “the Judgment Seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10).
Our Apostle Paul introduced his description of the Judgment Seat by remarking that he was the “masterbuilder” who had “laid the foundation” of the church (1 Cor. 3:10). He described how he and Apollos had been building on his foundation as “labourers together with God” (1 Cor. 3:9). But he made it clear that edifying the church wasn’t the exclusive privilege of “ministers” like him and Apollos (1 Cor. 3:5) when he added,
“If any man build upon this foundation… Every man’s work… shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:12-15).
As you can see, “any” believer can participate in this epic building project, and the Lord plans to reward those whose work can abide the fiery test He plans to give our work in that day.
But some grace believers have questions about the wording Paul uses here, questions that have even caused some to question the doctrine of the Judgment Seat itself. For example, some grace teachers hold that the very concept of rewards is inconsistent with grace. But in speaking of justification by faith without works (Rom. 4:1-3), our apostle wrote,
“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt” (Rom. 4:4).
That implies that there must be a reward that is reckoned of grace, or it wouldn’t make any sense to say that. And the reward that is reckoned of grace is the reward Paul promises we’ll receive if our work can abide the trial by fire the Lord plans to give it.
Of course, when it comes to how we judge our own labor for the Lord, most of us feel like the servants He talked about in Luke 17:10 who said,
“We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”
In and of ourselves, most of us wouldn’t expect to be rewarded for doing that which is our duty. We believe it is our spiritual and moral obligation to live for the One who died for us (2 Cor. 5:14, 15). Eternal life is reward enough! So when Paul tells us that God plans to reward us on top of everlasting life, we cry out, “I don’t deserve this!” And when we do, God responds, as it were, “You’re right, you don’t. That’s what makes it grace.”
The word “fire” (1 Cor. 3:15) has given other grace teachers pause, for they feel that fire is also antithetical to grace since Paul rarely uses that word in connection with the Body of Christ. But if we insist that a rare use of a word somehow negates its application to us, then to be consistent we would have to conclude that we have not “received the atonement” that Paul only once says we have received (Rom. 5:11). And if we don’t allow Paul to use the word fire to make a point, then we’d also have to conclude that we shouldn’t feed a hungry enemy, for Paul says that “in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head” (Rom. 12:20).
The fire in 1 Corinthians 3:15 is the fire of God’s Word (Jer. 23:29). What else would the Lord use to evaluate our work, since His Word tells us how to work for Him? But the fire of His Word won’t try us. We ourselves won’t be on trial at the Judgment Seat of Christ, only our labor for the Lord. And the fire cannot burn our work in the sense of making it as if it never happened. It will only “manifest” if our work is the “sort” that can be rewarded (1 Cor. 3:13). Once work is done, it can only be “burned” in the sense that it will cause the doer of the work to “suffer loss” of reward because it was work that didn’t contribute to the edifying of the church.
No Sin Tax
Still others are not comfortable with the notion of our work being judged, for they feel it implies our sins will be judged after Christ already paid for them. But our works won’t be judged in that day, only our “work” (1 Cor. 3:13,14,15). That is, our entire body of work as believers will be on trial, not our individual works. The “loss” of reward we will experience won’t be a sin tax. If our sins were to be brought up at all, it would only be in regard to how they affected our work. In other words, our sins wouldn’t be brought up because they hurt the Lord, but only because they hurt our work for the Lord.
If you’re not sure what I mean by that, let’s consider a verse that Christians think suggests we’ll be punished for our sins at the Lord’s Judgment Seat:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
You say, “That sure sounds like we’ll be punished for our sins!” But look at how the Bible uses that word “bad” in Numbers 13:1-20:
“…the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Send thou men, that they may search the land… whether it be good or bad… fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not.”
Now think about that. Land can’t be “bad” in the sinful sense. When God went on to tell Moses to see if the land was “fat or lean,” that’s what determined if it was good or bad—whether it was a fertile land filled with fruitful forests. That’s similar to how “the Badlands” in South Dakota aren’t called bad because sinful bad guys used to hang out there. The Lakota Indians called them bad because of the extreme temperatures in that area, the lack of water, and the rugged terrain.
We see this definition of “bad” again when Jeremiah wrote,
“One basket had very good figs… and the other basket had very naughty figs, which could not be eaten, they were so bad” (Jer. 24:2).
Figs can’t be bad in any moral sense. Sometimes they’re just not good to eat. God even called the bad ones “naughty,” another word we associate with sin. It kind of makes you wonder if your Fig Newtons are misbehaving before you open the package and expose their antics to the light of day!
Did you ever catch a sinful fish? If not, you might be wondering what the Lord meant when He said,
“…the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they… gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away” (Matt. 13:47,48).
Fishermen don’t throw fish away because they’ve been misbehaving in “school”! They throw them away because they’re not good to eat.
And that’s what Paul means when he talks about receiving for the bad we have done. He’s not suggesting we will receive some kind of punishment for our bad sins. He’s saying we’ll receive a loss of reward for the bad job we did in building the church.
If you’re not sure what the difference would be, imagine what would happen if an Olympic runner got heavily drunk the night before his event. His subsequent hangover the next day would preclude him from running his race well. But he wouldn’t suffer a loss of reward due to his drunkenness per se, only in that his drunkenness affected his performance.
When I was a tool and die maker, my boss would give me blueprints, and sometimes I’d follow them to the letter. When I did, my boss would tell me I did a good job. But there were other times when I’d machine the steel and miss the tolerance by a thousandth of an inch, and he’d say I did a bad job.
In those cases, I hadn’t done anything sinful. I just didn’t do a good job following the blueprints. And when it comes to building the church on the foundation of Christ that Paul laid, you can only do a good job if you follow the blueprints of what he wrote in his epistles. That’s the only way to build on the foundation Paul laid with gold, silver, and precious stones (1 Cor. 3:12).
If you do manage to do a good job building the church, the Lord plans to “reward” you (1 Cor. 3:14). The dictionary says that the word reward refers to something that is given in recognition of one’s service, and that’s how the Bible uses it in Numbers 18:31, where Moses told the priests,
“…it is your reward for your service in the tabernacle….”
Of course, our reward is different than the one described in that passage for Israel’s priests. God plans to reward our service with a “crown” (1 Cor. 9:25). And what kind of man wears a crown? A king, a man who reigns over others. That explains why Paul wrote,
“If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him: if we deny Him, He will deny us” (2 Tim. 2:12).
If you refuse to suffer for the Lord, He will deny you the opportunity to reign with Him. You’ll suffer the loss of that reward. He’s talking about how we have the opportunity to “judge angels” (1 Cor. 6:3) in the government of heaven for all eternity.
Do Your Level Best
But there are “stories in the heaven” (Amos 9:6), and not the kind that grandparents tell their grandchildren. That’s talking about the kind of stories we have in mind when we say the Sears Tower in Chicago is 110 stories tall. In using that word, God means for us to know that there are different levels in the government of heaven. And He wants us to reign with Christ at the highest possible level. That’s why He inspired Paul to write,
“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain… They do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible” (1 Cor. 9:24,25).
Now here, Paul is drawing some comparisons and contrasts to something we read about in secular history called the Isthmian games. The city of Corinth was located on an isthmus, and these games were Corinth’s version of the Olympics. In games like that, only one can receive first prize. But the reason Paul makes that comparison isn’t to suggest that only one Christian will be rewarded at the Judgment Seat. It is to encourage us to run as if only one of us will be rewarded. Now that’s incentive!
But aren’t you glad you’re not striving for the “corruptible crown” they ran for in the Isthmian games? History says that first prize back then was some kind of leafy laurel that they wore on their heads like a pretend crown that was doomed to wither and fade away. That’s another example of the comparisons and contrasts that Paul is making here, for we’re running for a crown, but a crown that will last for eternity.
And there’s another comparison to the Isthmian games that I believe Paul would have us envision. The kind of judges they had at those games were the kind that Paul had in mind when he says that the Lord will “judge” our work (1 Cor. 4:4,5). When prizes were awarded for the various sporting events, it was a joyous occasion, not a frightening one, such as we read about when John describes the Great White Throne judgment where the unsaved will be banished to the lake of fire to be punished for their sins for all eternity.
A Holy Terror
I say that because it is easy to misunderstand what Paul went on to say after describing the Judgment Seat of Christ as an event where
“…every one may receive the things done in his body… good or bad. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord…” (2 Cor. 5:10,11).
But now, do you really believe that we’ll have to stand before the Lord in abject terror, fearing what He is going to do to us for not serving Him better? Your Savior is not a terrorist. He isn’t now, and He won’t be when you stand before Him at His Judgment Seat. The “terror” here is the kind the people of Israel felt in Exodus 20:18-20:
“…the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and… the mountain smoking: and… they… stood afar off…And Moses said… Fear not.”
The people of Israel were afraid, but they weren’t afraid that God was going to kill them here—not after they saw God rain terror down on the Egyptians, and then part the Red Sea so they could escape them. They were just in awe of His great power and majesty. That is, they “were afraid by reason of the fire” (Deut. 5:5), but they weren’t afraid that they’d be harmed by the fire as a punishment from God. If you study that event, you will see that they hadn’t even done anything wrong! God wasn’t even angry with them.
So when they said they wanted to send Moses to talk with God rather than speaking with Him personally “lest we die” (Ex. 20:19), their fear of death stemmed from the rightful fear that all men would have in the presence of Almighty God. It’s what Paul means when he says that even saved and secure believers like us should possess a healthy measure of the fear of the Lord (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:21; Phil. 2:12). We don’t have to fear that God will harm us—not after He rained down terror on the Lord on the cross to help us escape the judgment of our sins. But we must never forget the awesome glory of His power and majesty that we would surely remember if we were standing in His presence.
If you don’t understand this, and you don’t possess an appropriate fear of the Lord now, you will when you stand before Him in that day. And “knowing therefore the terror of the Lord” that we’ll surely have then, “we persuade men” now to be saved and come to a knowledge of Pauline truth (2 Cor. 5:11; 1 Tim. 2:4). But you needn’t be terrified of any punishment you’ll receive of the Lord for your sins when your work is judged.
You say, “If that’s so, how come Paul said what he said about a man named Onesiphorus?”
“The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day…” (2 Tim. 1:18).
We’re not told what this dear brother did, but whatever it was, Paul hoped he would find mercy of the Lord at His Judgment Seat. But the “mercy” he was hoping he’d find wasn’t the kind he’d need to be spared punishment for his sins. It’s the kind we read about when the Jews were in captivity and God let them out after 70 years. Speaking of that release, Ezra wrote:
“…we were bondmen; yet our God hath… extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God” (Ezra 9:9).
Ezra says God had mercy on the Jews by letting them out of captivity to return home and rebuild their temple.
Do you know the difference between mercy and grace? Generally speaking, grace is when God gives us what we don’t deserve—a home in heaven for all eternity. Mercy is when He doesn’t give us what we do deserve—an eternal home in the lake of fire.
When we apply that definition of mercy to the Jews in Ezra’s day, we have to conclude that in using that word Ezra meant to say that they deserved to stay in captivity forever for their sinful disobedience to God. But God didn’t give them what they deserved, He had mercy on them instead and released them.
And when Paul used that word mercy in reference to the Judgment Seat of Christ, he is telling us that Onesiphorus deserved to suffer a loss of reward, but Paul was hoping that God would have mercy on him instead.
This is why the apostle compares the Judgment Seat of Christ to the judgment of the Isthmian games and not the judgment of the Great White Throne. When prizes were awarded at those games, contestants who were among those that finished last experienced sadness, of course. But in describing the day of the Judgment Seat, Paul assures us, “then shall every man have praise of God” (1 Cor. 4:5). While many will suffer a loss of reward in that day, “every man” will receive some type of reward. You have God’s word on it through your apostle Paul!
The Whys and Wherefores
“Pastor, are you saying that we should be motivated to serve the Lord by the thought of how He will reward us?” Well, Paul knew you’d be curious about that! That’s why he went on to say,
“Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord… the love of Christ constraineth us; because… He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor. 5:11-15).
We know the terror of the Lord, but it’s His love that constrains us to serve Him! The love He showed in dying for us should motivate us to live for Him, and to run that we may obtain the rewards that He longs to give us.
You see, God is tired of watching the Academy Awards and seeing all the wrong people rewarded for all the wrong reasons. He longs to reward all the right people for all the right reasons! And if it pleases Him to reward us, it should please us to receive His reward. Part of the challenge of the Christian life is to learn to think about things the way God thinks about them.
Finally, when Paul says that after our work is judged we ourselves will be saved “yet so as by fire,” it’s important to remember that even if nearly everything you’ve ever done is burned up because it is made of wood, hay and stubble, there’s something that won’t burn up because it can’t. And that is: the foundation on which our work is built. Christ is the foundation of the church Paul laid (1 Cor. 3:10,11), and foundations made of Rock don’t burn! So the fire that may burn the wood, hay, and stubble of your work won’t burn you. And that’s another thing that will make that day a joyous one.
When the medals are awarded in the Olympics, the only ones who feel less than joyful are the runners-up who say to themselves, “If I’d only studied my sport a little more carefully and trained a little more rigorously, I could have been rewarded a little higher.” And the only ones who will feel less than joyous than others at the Judgment Seat of Christ will be the ones thinking the same thing about their service for the Lord.
Oscar Schindler saved Jews from the Nazis in many different ways. One of those ways was by paying off Nazi officers. The movie depicting his life ends with a poignant scene. It shows him looking at his expensive watch and saying, “I could have sold this watch and saved more people!” He then turned his gaze to his extravagant car and said, “I could have sold this car and helped even more people!”
You don’t want to be like that at the Judgment Seat of Christ. You don’t want to have to say, “I could have saved more people if only I’d have studied God’s Word a little more carefully and learned to be a better ambassador for Christ! I could have helped more believers understand Pauline truth if only I’d worked a little harder to understand it myself, and edified the Lord’s church more in line with the blueprints found in Paul’s
If you’d like to avoid a poignant scene like that at the Judgment Seat of Christ, why not pray about it, right now.
You’ll be eternally glad you did.