‘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 Corinthians 5.10).
Will believers be included at the judgement seat of Christ? Will their sins be open and visible before all? Is there a moment of horror to come after death, even for the redeemed? Scripture certainly says – ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.’ In that day all outward sham will disappear, and our real character and our innermost motives stripped bare, even secret sins and hypocrisies. This will be true for all, saved and unsaved alike, for ‘neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do’ (Hebrews 4.13).
A separate judgement?
Many preachers and teachers recoil from this, adopting the view that 2 Corinthians 5.10 refers to a separate judgement of believers only. It is not the great final judgement of the wicked, but a special tribunal for believers, in which the purpose is not to decide righteousness or sinfulness (the believer’s sins having been purged away on Calvary’s cross) but to give special rewards to believers for their good works. This idea is very popular in our day. You will find it in most of the study Bibles, and you will see it in many commentaries. If believers are worthy of some special place, some special reward, some special remuneration, they will receive these things at this particular judgement, or so it is thought.
In Heaven, it is believed, there are differential rewards. There will be some super-saints who have greater blessings and position. Others middling saints, or less worthy saints – will have a lower place. All will know wonderful happiness, yet grades of blessedness will be assigned to them. Other verses are brought in from the parables of the Lord, which are thought to confirm different levels of reward in the eternal glory. The parable of the pounds, for example, in Luke 19, rewards investors with different numbers of cities, but the purpose of the parable is not to reveal differences of reward but to show that all that is done for the Lord is rewarded in Heaven. But if we are rewarded according to grace there will be no differences between us in the heavenly hereafter. There will be no structure of super-saints, middling saints and less worthy ones, for all will be filled with the fulness of Christ and everlasting joy, and he must fill all things.*
But to return to the text, we may be certain that 2 Corinthians 5.10 does not refer to a special tribunal for believers, because there will be punishments as well as rewards. Paul clearly says – ‘that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.’ He then confirms that he has the judgement of the wicked in mind here by saying, ‘Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men.’ 2 Corinthians 5.10 is obviously the final day of judgement. This leaves us with the fearful possibility that all our sin will be open to view on that dreadful day, even though it has been forgiven through the work of Christ. That alarms us. We hoped we, as saved people, would go only to happiness and bliss. Must we go through this awful doorway or portal of judgement, before the eternal bliss is felt? The answer is both yes and no, because the experience will be very different from what we may imagine.
To fully understand the remarkable passage of a saint through final judgement we must first grasp the basic principle of heavenly reward. Not a single believer can be received into glory on account of personal good works. Even though we are saved, bearers of a new heart and a new nature, and even though we may have struggled for righteousness and done many good things, at our very best, all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags in God’s sight. There is still the contamination of sin. No act of human righteousness is sufficient to purge away past sin or to earn Heaven and glory. Everything must be earned and deserved by Christ on our behalf.
Works of God within us
To go to Heaven by any work of our own requires the perfect keeping of the entire moral law. So what does Paul refer to when he says that our good works will be blessed and rewarded? What are these good works? The answer is, they are not our good works, they are the works of God within us, the things that he accomplishes in us.
When we first came to Christ, the Holy Spirit worked in regeneration, so that we came under conviction of sin, and knew shame and horror at what we had done and what we were by nature. We felt our need of divine forgiveness and new birth. That was a motion of the Spirit in our hearts. That was a good work, but not ours; it was the work of the Spirit of God. We were not capable of self-humbling, of self-awareness of sin, or of real shame and contrition. It was the Spirit’s work, and this is the kind of work that God considers in the day of judgement. He sees that here is a man or a woman who has a work of God in the heart, a work of the Spirit.
Then there is more. We began to strive for holiness. Disregarding the times when we left off striving and fell into sin or worldly temptation, God looks at the good works – the inner longing to repent and reform that was produced in us by the Holy Spirit, setting up our return to faithfulness.
Then there is another good work, but again it is the work of the Holy Spirit – our love for Christ. We love him who came from Heaven to die for us. We love him because of who he is, the Man of love who brought redemption and eternal life. We love him for his divine virtues, for what he gives to us, for how he cares for us, and we love him with a sincerity that has been ignited and fanned into a flame within us by the Spirit of God. It is a mighty motion in the soul, a work of grace, and this is what God sees, especially in the day of judgement.
And then, in addition, there are those moments of sacrifice for him, when we lay down our very lives and our all for him. But these are the outworkings of the new life, inspired, enabled and empowered by the Spirit. These are the things that God sees and God rewards. They are not our works, for these are crippled by meanness and selfishness, but the motions of the Spirit working in us which are so commendable to God. That is how we are to understand the words – ‘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.’
There are people even in the churches who do not have these manifestations of the work of the Spirit. They have never come under conviction, they have never known shame for sin, they have never had faith in Christ or love for him given to them, they have never had sacrifice and desire and striving. There are no signs of a work of God in their life. There is no ‘good’ to see in them, and for them comes condemnation.
So the verse is not a verse proclaiming special rewards for those who have done significant works after conversion. In any case, such works, if authentic, are also works of the Spirit. The verse must be understood as referring to the good works accomplished by the Spirit in our lives. And the Spirit accomplishes them on behalf of Christ. Only by Christ’s merits do we enter into Heaven.
This brings us to the practical question with which we began – ‘Will I be exposed in the day of judgement?’ Someone may say, ‘I have done some terrible things in my life. Even as a Christian I have fallen and have backslidden, and I have done things of which I am ashamed. Is all going to be paraded in the day of judgement? Am I going to be consumed by shame as everyone looks upon what I have done? Will the intense purity of the light of Christ threaten to destroy me, before the eternal pardon embraces me?’
We must certainly come to that moment when we see the whole of our lives, the good and the bad, displayed before us, but there is an amazing purpose. It will be so that we understand, as we go into eternity, how much we owe to Christ. I will momentarily see all my debt, all my dross, the failure, the unfaithfulness, and the vile. Will it crush me? No, it will not crush me, because I shall be seeing it in this context – how much Christ has done for me. He has borne away all this. He has suffered the punishment on my behalf, even the countless sins committed after I was converted, when I should have known better, and when I should have sought his help. I shall see not only what he bore away on Calvary, but also the size and scope of his own perfect works offered to secure my eternal blessing, and in that extraordinary experience, I shall be lost in wonder, love and praise. Even the potentially harrowing experience of judgement will in the end be an event to deepen my realisation, vastly beyond anything I ever felt on earth, of my indebtedness to my Lord.
In his famous hymn, Robert Murray M’Cheyne sees the ocean of indebtedness and love that transcends all on that last day:
When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon radiant sun,
When I stand with Christ on high,
Looking o’er life’s history:
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own;
When I see thee as thou art,
Love thee with unsinning heart:
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.
But we have still not answered the question: Will everyone see my sin? If all my life is to be exposed, will everyone know it? Will the sins I thought were long forgiven re-emerge at last? Yes, and yet, no. When we stand in judgement and see all our life, with the sin that Christ has atoned for, may I suggest we shall be so preoccupied and overwhelmed that we will not have the capacity to observe everyone else. Imagine (and this is hypothetical, and would surely never happen) if some other saint were to lean over and say to us, ‘Do you see what that brother over there did in his life? Did you see what that sister did in her life?’ We would reply, ‘I had no scope to give thought or attention to anyone else, for I was engulfed by my own case, and filled with love and praise for Christ, when I saw all that he had done for me.’
* Another text used to support the idea of a separate judgement for believers is Romans 14.10-12: ‘We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me…’ Paul’s quotation is from Isaiah 45.23, which is very plainly about the judgement of all people (Jew and Gentile), for it follows the famous appeal: ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’
The idea that the judgement seat of Christ (the bema in Greek) is different from the last judgement is pure speculation. It was devised mainly to create an occasion for Christ to give different levels of reward to Christians. Usually other texts are also quoted to support the idea of different rewards, but they never do. An example is 2 Timothy 4.8 where Paul says: ‘Henceforth…at that day.’ Note that the apostle then adds, ‘…and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.’ In this verse every believer receives the same eternal reward.
Whose Good Works – Ours or Christ’s?
Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, 16.3-6
3. Their ability to do these good works does not in any way come from themselves, but comes wholly from the Spirit of Christ.10 To enable them to do good works, alongside the graces which they have already received [at conversion], it is necessary for there to be a further real influence of the same Holy Spirit to cause them to will and to do of his good pleasure.11 But believers are not, on these grounds, to grow negligent, as if they were not bound to perform any duty [to strive personally] unless given a special motion [impulse or motivation] by the Spirit, but they must be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in them.
John 15.4-5. 11 2 Cor 3.5; Phil 2.13. 12 Phil 2.12; Heb 6.11-12; Isa 64.7.
4. Those who attain the greatest height which is possible in this life in their obedience to God, are still so far from being able to supererogate, and to do more than God requires, that they fall short of much which they are bound to do in their duty to God.
Job 9.2-3; Gal 5.17; Luke 17.10.
5. We cannot by our best works merit [deserve] pardon of sin or eternal life from the hand of God because of the great disproportion [the vast imbalance] between our best works and the glory to come, and because of the infinite distance which is between us and God. With our works we cannot profit or satisfy God concerning the debt we owe on account of our sins.14 When we have done all we can [our very best], we have only done our duty, and are still unprofitable servants. And in any case, in so far as our works are good they originate from the work of the Holy Spirit15 [and therefore the merit is not truly ours]. Even then, the good works [which God himself has originated] are so defiled by us, and so mixed with weakness and imperfection, that they could not survive the severity of God’s judgement.
Rom 3.20; Eph 2.8-9; Rom 4.6. 15 Gal 5.22-23. 16 Isa 64.6; Psa 143.2.
6. Yet, quite apart from the fact that believers are accepted through Christ as individual souls, their good works are also accepted through Christ.17 It is not as though the believers are (in this life) wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God’s sight, but because he looks upon them in his Son, and is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although it is accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.
Eph 1.6; 1 Pet 2.5. 18 Matt 25.21-23; Heb 6.10.
[Reproduced from The Baptist Confession of Faith, updated with notes by Peter Masters, The Wakeman Trust, London.]