There are some people who have the mistaken idea that people in the OT received eternal life by works. Often, this erroneous view maintains that a person in the OT had to keep the Law of Moses. Of course, nobody believes a person could have kept the Law perfectly, but if a person in the OT was to be saved, they had to do a pretty good job of following it.
This view is thoroughly unbiblical.
Paul makes it clear in the book of Romans that nobody can keep the Law (Rom 3:20). In both Romans and Galatians the apostle points out that both Abraham and David received eternal life the same way people today do. It is by God’s grace through faith alone (Rom 4:3, 6; Gal 3:6). The difference is, believers in the OT believed in the coming Messiah, while we today believe in the One who has already come—Jesus Christ.
All of this, however, raises another question. How much did the believers in the Old Testament understand?
In this short article, I would like to look at the issue of the Judgment Seat of Christ. Specifically, I would like to know: did a believer in the OT understand that even though he received eternal life by faith in the coming Messiah, he would also be judged according to his works to determine eternal rewards?
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes indicates that believers in the OT did.
Solomon’s Judgment of Works
Both Jewish and Christian scholars have long held that Solomon was the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon concludes Ecclesiastes with this statement:
Fear God and keep His commandments: for
this is the whole duty of man. For God will
bring every work into judgment, with every secret
thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil
(Eccl 12:13-14, emphasis added).
Once we understand that, as Paul states, the OT believer was eternally saved by grace through faith, we know that Solomon is not talking about what a person has to do to gain eternal life. Instead, he is talking about a day when men and women, including believers, will be judged according to their works. Solomon understood that even though he was saved by grace apart from works, one day he would give an account of the works that he had done, even those done in secret.
The NT teaches a similar idea of a judgment that brings to light even our secret works, whether good or bad. It is found in numerous verses. For the Christian, the NT even gives this judgment a name.
The Judgment Seat of Christ
In the NT, there is a great deal of teaching on the Judgment Seat of Christ, where every believer will appear before Christ and give an account of the works he or she has done. Of course, these works do not determine whether a person enters into the Kingdom or goes to hell. Instead, these works determine the rewards the believer will receive and the role he or she will play in the Kingdom.
It is interesting to notice how the verses about the Judgment Seat of Christ remind us of what Solomon said at the conclusion of his book. The similarity in language strongly suggests that Solomon was thinking of a similar time. Notice the following four examples and compare them to the quote from Ecclesiastes:
“Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing
covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that
will not be known” (Matt 10:26).
“For there is nothing covered that will not be
revealed, nor hidden that will not be known”
Therefore judge nothing before the time, until
the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the
hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels
of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come
from God (1 Cor 4:5).
For we must all appear before the judgment seat
of Christ, that each one may receive the things
done in the body, according to what he has done,
whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
In these verses, both the Lord Jesus and Paul state that the disciples of the Lord will one day be judged according to the works they have done. Some of these works will be good and some will be bad. Even the things we think are done in secret will be brought to light.
It is striking how similar all of this is to what is said in Ecclesiastes.
While Ecclesiastes does not give us the name of the judgment, Paul calls it the Judgment Seat of Christ, and it is clear that both men saw a coming day when men and women would be judged according to their works.
There appears to be a good reason, however, why Solomon does not give a name to this judgment.
Some Distinctions in the Coming Judgment
Technically, the believer in the OT probably will not stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The Bible does not say exactly when OT believers will be judged according to their works. For the Christian, members of the Body of Christ, this judgment will occur after the Rapture. Evidently, OT believers will be judged at another time.
What is clear, however, is that the Lord, Paul, and Solomon all taught that all the people of God will have their works evaluated at one time or another. In fact, Jesus explicitly says that all men and women, including unbelievers, will have their works judged (Rev 22:12). And unbelievers both from OT and NT times will be judged at the Great White Throne according to their works (Rev 20:11-15). In some sense, even the experience of those in hell will be determined by their works (e.g., their degrees of punishment).
It is unfortunate that many have such a bleak picture of believers in the OT. They think these men and women saw their works as a way to gain eternal life, but that is not the case.
While it is true that today we have the light of God’s revelation in the NT, it is probably correct to say that we would be surprised at some of the things the saints in the OT understood.
Not only did these men and women understand that eternal life was a gift of God’s grace through faith in the coming Messiah, they also knew that good works are important.
One day, even people who are going to enter into God’s eternal kingdom will be judged by their works. God will reward good works and nothing will be hidden. Solomon understood that. We who have the light of the revelation of Christ and His apostles should understand that too.