I attended a conference in which a main session speaker said that the statement by Paul, “then each one’s praise will come from God” (1 Cor 4:5), shows that every believer will have some good works and will receive at least some praise at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Bema). I’ve heard that claim on many occasions, both by Free Grace and Lordship Salvation advocates.
Free Grace people sometimes use 1 Cor 4:5 to counter the charge that we believe some believers will perform absolutely zero good works in this life.ii They find in this verse proof that all believers will do something worthy of praise, even those who fail to persevere in faith or good works.
Lordship Salvation proponents use this verse to show much more. They suggest that only those who persevere to the end of their lives will be praised by Jesus. Hence if all believers will be praised, then all believers necessarily endure in faith and good works until the end of their lives.
Though I believe both of these views have some aspects of the truth in them, I don’t believe either is correct.
The Context Is the Bema
Paul begins in vv 1-2 to speak of Christian stewardship and the requirement that we be found faithful. Then in v 3, Paul says he considers it “a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by a human court [in the Greek, “human court” is hemera = day].” Paul is alluding to the day of Jesus Christ, i.e., the Bema. This is brought out in vv 4-5. Paul knows that the one who will judge him is the Lord, and this judgment will not occur “until the Lord comes.”
Space doesn’t permit a discussion of the Bema as the day of the Lord Jesus. I invite the reader to study all uses of this expression (1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10; 2:16; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Tim 1:12, 18; 4:8; 1 John 4:17. See also Heb 10:25.)iii
Believers Are in View
Both views mentioned above are correct in that born-again people are in view. Paul begins this discussion by telling people to “consider us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” Clearly the Apostle Paul and his coworkers were born again. This whole discussion concerns the future judgment of all servants of Christ. That includes all church age believers. (Of course, all OT believers will be judged as well. However, this passage concerns church age believers specifically.)
Comprehensive Judgment Is Pictured
Both views tend to ignore or minimize the words in v 5 which precede “then each one’s praise will come from God.” I believe this is done because the clear meaning of the passed over words is so sobering that we tend to either ignore them or explain them away. Paul said that when the Lord comes “[He] will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels [or motives] of the hearts.” This is the contextual key to understanding Paul’s point.
Do you believe that Jesus is going to bring to light “the hidden things of darkness”? Most do not. Most think that if we confess our sins, then our bad deeds and hidden motives will not be brought up at the Bema. While our sins will not be considered as sins, all our deeds, both good and bad, will be considered. Compare 2 Cor 5:10 where Paul says that we will all be recompensed at the Bema for the things done in the body, “whether good or bad.” Compare Matt 16:27.
Paul is saying that all our deeds and motives will be examined at this judgment. If so, would this not have a sobering impact on the way we approach our days? If we think that only our good deeds and motives will be evaluated, then we have little or no need to fear shame or rebuke. Yet other texts make it clear that both shame (1 John 2:28) and rebuke (Luke 19:20-26) are very real possibilities. The only way rebuke and shame can be received at the Bema is if bad deeds and hidden motives are evaluated.
The Expression “Each One’s Praise”
Doesn’t Mean All Believers Will Be Praised
An erroneous assumption is made when people read of “each one’s praise.” It is read as though it said, “each believer will be praised.” The phrase “each one’s praise” could either refer to 1) each believer’s praise, or 2) each faithful believer’s praise. In context, the latter is surely meant. Paul does not envision unfaithful stewards as being praised by Jesus! He specifically says in v 2 that “it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.” Required for what? Faithfulness is required to please the Lord and thus to receive His praise.
Not Even All Persevering Believers Will Be Praised
I confess that for years I thought that all persevering believers would be praised by Jesus. After all, Paul says, “If we endure, we shall also reign with Him” (2 Tim 2:12). I assumed, logically, that all who endured and would thus be future rulers with Christ would be praised. But I came to realize that is a wrong assumption based on faulty logic.
A believer can persevere in faith and good works and yet much of his works might be negated by man-pleasing or other base motives (Matt 6:1-18; 1 Pet 5:1-4), and he might not have been wholehearted in his service for Christ. Such a believer will rule, since he endured in faith and works, but he will not receive praise. Jesus chooses to restrict His praise to those persevering believers who were wholehearted in their service.
This is what we find in Luke 19:11-27 and the Parable of the Minas. Without going into an explanation of the entire parable, what we find is that two servants are given authority to rule with Christ in the coming kingdom, yet only one of the two is praised (compare Luke 19:17, praise [“Well done, good servant”] and rulership over ten cities, and Luke 19:19, no praise and rulership over five cities). All persevering saints will rule. But only saints persevering in wholehearted stewardship will be praised and receive maximum rulership.
First Corinthians 4:5 does not teach that each believer will be praised by Jesus at the Bema. It doesn’t even teach that each persevering believer will be praised. Instead, it teaches that each faithful steward will be praised by the Lord Jesus at the Bema.
Are you aiming for His praise? I hope you are. I didn’t aim for His praise until years after I was born again and learned the wonderful truths about the Bema. You need not wait as long as I did to learn of this powerful motivation. He loves you and wants to approve of you and your work for Him (1 Cor 9:27; 2 Tim 2:15; 4:6-8). Live in light of His soon coming. Remember that He is your Judge; people are not. If we are men-pleasers, then we can expect to miss out on Jesus’ praise at the Bema (compare Gal 1:10-11).