What is the bema seat of judgment? How will God judge our works?
(This article is part of our series on eternal rewards.)
We’re all accustomed to receiving rewards based on our efforts. Most employers reward their employees based on job performance. Similarly, athletes in competitive games (e.g., the Olympics), receive rewards based on how well they compete.
In the same way, Scripture teaches that God will judge believers' works after we die. The believer's judgment, called the Judgment Seat of Christ in 2Corinthians, is a judgment for the purpose of assigning eternal rewards based on our service to Christ. Paul gives us detailed descriptions of the Judgment Seat moment in three different passages:
2 Corinthians 5:9-10 Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 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.
Romans 14:10-12 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 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.
Paul says God judges our works. The Greek for “judgment seat” is bema, and appears seven times in Scripture. In ancient times judicial decisions were typically handed down from an official seated on a bema seat, a raised platform on which a judge or magistrate would sit as he pronounced a decision in some matter before him.
For example, in Matthew 27:19 and John 19:13, Pontius Pilate sits on a judgment seat while judging Christ. Also, in Acts 18:12;16-18, we find the Jews bringing Paul to the Roman proconsul Gallio while seated for judgment. In these passages, the judgment seat indicated an official acting in his role to judge the guilt or innocence of someone.
It's important to understand that even though believers face a judgment, that moment will not be a judgment of sin or a question of salvation. Entry into Heaven (i.e., salvation) is only obtained by faith in Jesus Christ, not by works, so that once a person has placed their faith in Jesus Christ, they are promised to receive eternal life.
Scripture makes clear that Christians will not be judged with respect to our sin, for Christ paid for all of our sins, past, present and future. As a reminder, a few Scriptures make this plain:
John 3:18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
Here, judgment refers to eternal salvation but makes clear that we who believe in Christ will not be judged.
Romans 8:1 Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
If the judgment seat meant possible punishment, then this verse makes no sense.
Hebrews 10:11-12 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God
Hebrews 10:17-18 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins was offered once, for all time. In addition, God says once He has saved us, that He will remember our sins no more; He has forgiven us. Therefore, it logically follows that there cannot be any punishment for the Christian.
Therefore, the judgment believers will face is one intended to assign rewards. For comparison, we must look to another occasion in which a bema is present: the ancient Greek Olympic games. As one writer puts it, “This word [bema] was taken from Isthmian games where the contestants would compete for the prize under the careful scrutiny of judges who would make sure that every rule of the contest was obeyed. The victor of a given event who participated according to the rules was led by the judge to the platform called the Bema. There the laurel wreath was placed on his head as a symbol of victory.”
Paul occasionally made reference to Olympic games as an analogy to explain the believer's relationship to the bema judgment moment:
2 Timothy 2:3-6 Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops.
Here, we see the believer as a soldier, athlete and farmer. Notice we seek to please someone as a soldier (just as we seek to please God), we “win a prize” as we compete in the games, and we should expect our “share of the crops”. Not only does this refer to Olympic type games, but both the athlete and the farmer should expect something for their work.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
Again, Paul uses the language of “running a race to receive the prize”. Those who ran such races did so to receive a wreath, which was their prize. Just as an athlete disciplines himself so that he is not distracted in his training to win the race, so should a believer discipline himself as he serves the Lord, not being distracted by the things of this life, all with an expectation of receiving a reward.
Importantly, the prize or reward here is not referring to salvation. Salvation is never called a prize in Scripture, only a gift. Likewise, when Paul says he does not want to be disqualified, he is not talking about losing his salvation. How do we know? Very simply, because our salvation is not based on what we did or do. God has chosen us for salvation from before the foundation of the earth (Ephesians 1). Our salvation was accomplished by Christ’s life, death and resurrection: our sins were forgiven in Christ by His death on the cross, and we are counted righteous by His sinless life, all by faith (Romans 4 and 5).
Rather, disqualified here refers to not being able to receive rewards. Think about what happens to an athlete in the Olympic games. If he is disqualified, is he punished? No, but he cannot compete in the games and therefore cannot win the prize. So it is with the believer who does not live (run) in such a way as to receive rewards (the prize).
So when the Bible speaks of God judging a believer's works, it is describing a judgment (bema) similar to that of an athlete participating in Olympic type games. It is a judgment for the purpose of assigning rewards only. Therefore, if our work is pleasing to the Lord, we will receive a reward.
To get up to speed on this important area of Biblical truth, please read the following series of articles:
4. How will God judge our works?