By Lucas Kitchen
Chapter 11, Eternal Rewards: It Will Pay to Obey. Available in the bookstore.
I was speaking at a small church in South Texas one summer. The church had been flooded recently and was getting a much needed update. This meant that while I was preaching, some workers, who were not church attendees, were installing flooring in the back of the room. I don’t know why they needed to do this on Sunday morning during church service hours, but I’m glad they were there. In my sermon, I was talking about the kind of judgment that Christians will have to face. Apparently, one worker was listening because in the middle of my sentence he put down his glue trowel and stood up. Seemingly unconcerned about interrupting a church service to get his inquiry answered, he interjected a loud question from the back of the room. He blurted out, “A minute ago you said Christians won’t be judged, but now you’re saying they will be judged. Which is it?”
This was a great question, and it gave me a good chance to offer clarification. I gestured him forward so that we could have a dialogue in front of the congregation about this important subject. What a cool guy, so eager to understand the Bible that he would stop a sermon to find out what he wanted to know. I explained that Christians will not have to stand before the final judgment that sends people to hell. However, there is an appraisal at which they have to appear. Though condemnation is not waiting for believers, an assessment of success is. Although eternal damnation has been taken off the table, a life-evaluation awaits those who are in Christ. We know this because Paul said:
For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (Rom 14:10).
He wrote his letter to believers in Rome. He said to those Christians that they all, including himself, will have to stand before Jesus to be assessed. Jesus’ promise that we will not be condemned still stands. The Judgment Seat of Christ is not an event that will result in people going to hell or any kind of condemnation. Something very different will happen there.
If our eternal destiny is set, what more is there to consider? Lots more, actually. In another place Paul says:
We make it our aim…to be well pleasing to Him. 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 5:9-10).
The Judgment Seat of Christ is an event that will someday require your attendance and involvement. Remember, there’s no condemnation
since your salvation is already in place. So, what will you do there?
Paul gives the answer in the same verse when he says, “that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Since you became a believer, a tally has been running. Everything you’ve done since that moment is being recorded. On a coming day, you will have to stand before Jesus and give a performance report. The work you’ve done will be weighed out and considered by the Judge. The
Judge will then repay you for the work you’ve done. So it’s a judgment, but it’s not a judgment that has anything to do with condemnation. It has to do with performance.
Maybe it would help to remember that there are different kinds of judges. There are judges in courtrooms, but there are also judges in singing contests. There are judges for the Supreme Court, but there are also judges for beauty pageants.
There are judges in criminal cases, but there are also judges for boxing matches. There are judges who decide penalties, but there are also judges who decide who gets the award. When He’s sitting on His Judgment Seat, Jesus seems to be playing the role of reward giver rather than punishment dispenser.
I want to be careful here, though. Just because the judgment is not about condemnation doesn’t mean it is going to be pleasant for everyone. I cannot stress this enough. You will want to be able to give a good report on that day. It would be a huge mistake for me to trivialize this event. It won’t be a cakewalk for many. To see why, it might help to understand the setting.
“When and where will the Judgment Seat happen?” you might ask. Jesus answered that question with no uncertain words when He said:
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works (Matt 16:27).
After Jesus was resurrected, He hung around for a little over a month, spent time with His disciples, and appeared to a bunch of people. After that, He went back to heaven. Before He left, He made a very important promise, one that we are still talking about today. He promised to return to the earth. His return will not be like His first coming, which was humble and quiet. His second arrival will be a loud, obvious affair in which He will wrest control of the world’s governments from human hands. He will conquer all the enemies that stand against Him. He will change the geopolitical landscape in a single day. He will be enthroned in radiant glory on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. After all of that, He has an appointment with little ole’ you. The most important and powerful person in all of history will meet with you to talk about how you did while He was out of town. Take a deep breath. It’s intense.
As Paul continues with his description of what will happen at the Judgment Seat of Christ, he says:
So then each of us shall give an account of himself to God (Rom 14:12).
This verse adds an emphasis that should not be missed. It places the responsibility on the one who’s required to give account. Each person is accountable for his own life. You won’t be able to blame your poor performance on your disobedient children. You won’t get to shift the focus to an incompetent coworker. You won’t be able to wiggle out of the hot seat if your work was sub-par. You will have to give account for it. You will have to look the King of the world in the face and tell Him why you didn’t do what He told you to do. It’s going to hurt if you have been disobedient.
Now, there is a joy in this verse as well. For those who are faithful to Christ, it will be an immeasurably happy moment when they give their report. The obedient servant of Jesus will be brimming with enthusiasm as he eagerly stands before his King. The bold follower of Christ will be able to stand before the Judgment Seat with a confident smile, knowing that the King is not only a Savior of the outcast but also a Rewarder of the faithful.
So whether the Judgment Seat of Christ is a pleasant or painful event will be entirely dependent upon how you lived. Paul adds some details to what we know about this coming event in his letter to the church of Corinth:
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?…and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor (1 Cor 3:5-8).
Each person has a different role to play. Paul and Apollos were both ministers. Some people in the church of Corinth considered Paul greater, whereas others considered Apollos greater. Apollos may have been a more entertaining speaker, where Paul was an academic and a theologian (this is speculation for the purpose of illustration). Paul challenges the idea by reminding them that both Paul and Apollos are just playing their part; a part that they would both be rewarded for accordingly.
In talking about himself and Apollos, Paul gives us a lesson that can be applied more broadly. He says, “Each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” So even if your skill set is different from mine, the righteous judge will look deep into the life of each to determine what reward we deserve.
This leaves us wanting to know more. What will this event be like? What will be considered as we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ? Fortunately, Paul does not leave us hanging. He goes on with an analogy everyone can understand. He uses a construction site as an allegory for the Judgment Seat of Christ. He says:
For we are God’s fellow workers, you are God’s field, you are God’s building…As a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:9-11).
He explains that there is a field on which a building is being erected. That field and building are a metaphor for the church at Corinth, and
ultimately all believers everywhere. So the construction site represents the church in its various stages of growth. There are specialized construction workers that are working on this building. As in modern construction, there is a worker who specializes in foundations. That is Paul, who calls himself a master builder. The foundation represents Christ. It was Paul who introduced those in Corinth to Christ, and therefore it was he who laid the foundation.
He goes on to say there are other construction workers on the job site as well. After Paul laid the foundation, by evangelizing those there, other workers took over the project. This is where Apollos and others come in. It’s not just
Paul’s building project, but a shared work site of all those who are part of the church. Paul then continues:
Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned,he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Cor 3:12-15).
In this metaphor, Paul teaches us that the quality of our deeds will one day be tested. They will be evaluated when we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. All the work that we’ve done as a believer will be revealed, as by fire.
It’s as if everything you do from the moment you become a believer is a building phase which happens on this construction site. You can build with high-quality, flame-retardant, expensive materials, or you can build with dry, burnable stuff you find in the yard. What you decide to build with will determine how much you are rewarded on the day you stand before Christ.
So when a Christian performs good deeds for Christ, he’s building with gold, silver, and precious stones. However, when a Christian wastes time, is lazy, or neglects his discipleship, he’s building with wood, hay, or straw.
One of the greatest dangers for city dwellers in the ancient world was fire. That’s because so many of the houses were built with cheap flammable materials, and every home had an open flame for cooking, heating, and illumination. This metaphor would strike them at their heart since Corinth was a big city, and they had likely all witnessed house fires.
So that we can’t confuse what he’s talking about, Paul throws in this important final line,
If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (1 Cor 3:15).
He’s reminding us that the salvation of an individual Christian is an absolute promise even if that Christian is lazy, neglectful, and does no good deeds. Even the wicked, slothful servant (Matt 25:26) will be saved, but you’ll smell the smoke on him when he arrives in heaven. It’s as if Paul’s saying Christians who aren’t obedient to Christ during their life will enter heaven without a cent to their name and with their hair singed. Still, there is a reassuring promise of life for all believers whether faithful or not, but a grave warning for disobedient believers.
The verse says that the Christian who was lazy and disobedient will “suffer loss,” but what does that mean? We can understand it in light of
the previous verse. Paul says, “If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss…”
So the thing in view is reward. Those Christians who work hard and stay committed will receive something very valuable. Those who are
lazy and build with twigs will miss out on valuable rewards they could have had.
Can you imagine that? You could enter heaven with a house load of gold, silver, and precious stones, or you could enter heaven as poor as a beggar. It all depends on how you build now. If you spend every day of your Christian life seeking, obeying, and growing, you can bet you’re going to be rich when you get there. If you got saved and have done nothing of spiritual value since, you may be on the path to heavenly poverty. Just like someone who has his home burnt to the ground, you could suffer incredible loss if you don’t get busy.
The lesson is fairly simple. As we’ve already seen, Paul put it so well:
Run in such a way as to get the prize (1 Cor 9:24b).
We could encircle it in all kinds of theological language, but the best metaphor for what we are to do is this: Run!
In this chapter we’ve seen that once the free gift of salvation is given to the believer, no condemnation can ever befall him or her. However, everyone must go through a life-evaluation. In that accounting, our work will be assessed and judged. For those who worked hard doing the deeds Christ commends there will be reward. For those who were lazy, there will be loss.
Lucas Kitchen is a filmmaker and writer. His primary works have included writing and producing a number of independent documentaries and narrative movies. He lives with his wife in Longview, TX. Buy his new book, Eternal Rewards: It Will Pay to Obey in the bookstore.