Robert N. Wilkin
Grace Evangelical Society
God makes an amazing promise to anyone who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ: “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more” (Heb 10:17; cf. Jer 31:34). And again,
You, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross (Col 2:13-14).
The forgiveness of sins is one of the most blessed teachings of Scripture. Indeed, the more one matures in the faith, the more he or she appreciates this doctrine. For with increasing maturity comes an increasing awareness of our sins and shortcomings.
It is wonderful to realize that “He remembers our sins no more” and that “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12). He has hidden our lives with Christ (Col 3:3). We are perfected forever in God’s sight (Heb 10:10, 14).
Most people in Christianity today do not believe that the Judgment Seat of Christ (henceforth, the Bema) is a separate judgment for Christians to determine eternal rewards. Rather, they think the Bema (2 Cor 5:9-11) is another name for the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15).
For example, in a recent four-views books to which Thomas Schreiner and I contributed chapters, he criticizes me for distinguishing between these two judgments:
If his kind of dispensationalism collapses, so does Wilkin’s interpretation. I don’t have space to unpack all that could be said here. But it must be said that the dispensational reading offered [by Wilkin] is artificial and strained. When I first encountered solutions like Wilkin proposes regarding the judgment, I found it impossible to remember in the judgment passages whether the judgment of believers or unbelievers was in view.1
And most are convinced that at that judgment, which they call the final judgment, everyone will be judged according to their works and those whose works are good enough will obtain what they call final salvation. Schreiner says, for example,
Some worry that the necessity of good works for final salvation denies the grace of the gospel, but we must be careful that we are not more Pauline than Paul! Paul did not think that his words [in 1 Cor 6:9-11] contradicted the gospel of grace (see again Titus 2:11-12).2
Free Grace believers, however, see the Bema as a separate judgment. They are convinced that no Christian will be judged to determine his eternal destiny as the Lord promised in John 5:24: “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”3 Three promises are made here using three verb tenses. The believer has, present tense, everlasting life. The believer has passed, past tense, from spiritual death into everlasting life. And the believer shall not, future tense, come into judgment concerning his eternal destiny. All three of these promises concern eternal security. If a believer were to be judged concerning his eternal destiny, then the Lord lied in John 5:24.
Many Free Grace believers have concluded, from the verses dealing with forgiveness that I cited above, that when the Lord evaluates our Christian lives at the Bema He won’t take their sinful deeds into account. After all, He doesn’t even remember them. He couldn’t bring them up if He wanted to, for He no longer is aware they even exist. Forgiveness means no future accountability concerning bad deeds, they reason.
While we would all prefer that our bad deeds be excluded from evaluation, there is ample Biblical evidence that they will be considered. If this is true, then we ought to be aware of it and live in light of it.
My first two points (II and III below) do not prove that our bad deeds will be considered at the Bema. Rather, they show that it is not impossible that they will be considered. After showing it is possible they will be considered, we will consider seven proofs that they will.
II. FORGIVENESS DOESN’T EXCLUDE ACCOUNTABILITY
One way in which we know that it is at least possible that our bad deeds will be judged at the Bema is because forgiveness does not exclude accountability.
A. Forgiven People Need Forgiveness: 1 John 1:9
First John 1:9 is widely recognized as a key progressive sanctification verse.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Believers need to be honest with God concerning their sins if they are to remain in fellowship with Him. According to 1 John 1:9, only if we, as born-again believers, confess our sins do we receive forgiveness for those sins and cleansing from all unrighteousness (including sins which we are not aware of).
It is clear that the positional forgiveness all believers have doesn’t exclude the need to confess known sins to receive fellowship forgiveness.
B. Forgiven People Experience God’s Judgment for Their Sins: 1 Cor 11:30
The Corinthian church was made up mostly of immature Christians. Paul called them “babes in Christ” (1 Cor 3:1-3). Believers in that church were guilty of immorality, divisions, envy and strife, taking each other to court, and getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper, to name just a few of their sins. Concerning this latter matter Paul said, “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor 11:30). The word used here for sleep (koimaō) has a technical meaning in its figurative uses. Whenever it is used figuratively in the NT, it always refers specifically to the death of believers.4
Clearly God was aware of the sin of the believers in Corinth. After all, He had Paul record their sin permanently in Scripture for all to read! Surely it is impossible to say that forgiveness eliminates accountability here and now. And if God is aware of our sins and holds us accountable for them now, then it is at least possible that He will hold us accountable for them at the Bema.
Some hold the view that the sins of believers will be brought up at the Bema, but only unconfessed sins. However, that position, while appealing, lacks sufficient Biblical support.
III. CONFESSION OF SINS DOESN’T ELIMINATE ACCOUNTABILITY
A second way in which we know that it is at least possible that our bad deeds will be judged at the Bema is because confession of sins does not eliminate accountability.
A. Confession of Sins Doesn’t Eliminate Accountability Now
David’s confession of his sin of adultery and murder (2 Sam 12:13) did not eliminate temporal accountability (2 Sam 12:14–4:25). While confession can result in a lessening of the consequences, as it did in David’s case, it does not eliminate all consequences.
Let’s say a believer robbed a bank and confessed the sin to the Lord. But then he was arrested by the police for the crime. What would happen? He would be tried for robbery! Clearly the fact he confessed the sin to God would not eliminate accountability now. If there was enough evidence to prove he did it, then he’d be off to prison, even though he might well be in fellowship with God.5
And if confession doesn’t eliminate accountability now, it at least allows for the possibility that there will be accountability at the Bema.
B. There Is No Promise that Confessed Sins Will Never Be Considered at the Bema as Deeds (Not as Sins)
It has often been said to be impossible to prove a negative. How, for example, can a man prove that he never yelled at his wife? The best he could do would be to prove that he didn’t yell at her on a particular date when he was out of town and away from any phone.
In one sense it is impossible to prove that there is no promise that confessed sins will never be brought up at the Bema. To do that would require walking through every verse in the Bible.
However, the Bible is a unique book. Since Scripture cannot contradict itself, if there are indeed Scriptures that indicate that our bad deeds will be considered at the Bema, then this proves that there is no promise to the contrary. The analogy of faith guarantees it. As we shall soon see, there are a number of passages in Scripture that make it clear that our bad deeds, confessed or not, will indeed be considered at the Bema.
I have studied all of the supposed texts that might be brought forward as promises that our bad deeds will not be considered at the Bema. And there are none that stand up under careful scrutiny. I challenge each reader to reexamine any passage that they may have thought promised that our bad deeds won’t be evaluated at the Bema.6
Let’s now turn to the direct Scriptural evidence that the bad things we have done as believers, confessed and unconfessed, will be evaluated at the Bema. There are seven proofs (A-G below).
IV. DIRECT SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE THAT THE BAD DEEDS OF BELIEVERS WILL BE EVALUATED AT THE BEMA
I have divided the evidence into seven categories: 1) All things which have been done will be exposed, not just some; 2) The fact that some will experience negative emotions and a bad “grade” at the Bema could only be true if our sins were considered; 3) Warnings not to sin because the Bema is coming soon prove all our sins will be considered; 4) The fact that many sins are reported forever and publicly in Scripture proves that sins will be evaluated; 5) The nature of a bema, or judgment seat, proves that our sins will be considered; 6) The fact that everything we have done, “whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10), shows that our bad deeds will be considered; 7) The sowing and reaping principle requires that whatever we sow, that we will also reap (Gal 6:7).
A. All Things Will Be Revealed
The first proof is quite powerful. If everything which has been done will be revealed, then obviously our bad deeds will be evaluated.
Paul spoke of the Bema in 1 Cor 4:1-5. His concluding words there are quite revealing concerning the question before us. He says,
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 heart. Then each one’s praise will come from God.
The believers in Corinth were judging Paul, Apollos, and Peter. They felt they were qualified to evaluate these men. Yet Paul says that the judgment of the leaders, like that of all believers, awaits the Lord’s return. Until then the readers were to stop judging Paul, Apollos, and Peter. Alan Johnson comments, “So the Corinthians are to stop judging their leaders and comparing them to one another, boasting in one and despising another.”7
The Lord Jesus will bring to light the things hidden by darkness (my own translation). The things hidden by darkness need not refer to bad deeds. It refers to all which is hidden. But it surely includes bad deeds. Ciampa and Rosner write, “The judgment that will accompany that ‘revelation’ (1:7) will be far more searching than any human could ever hope to achieve.”8 And it is those things which He will “bring to light.” Paul is warning the believers in Corinth, and ultimately all believers. The things we do “in secret” will be brought to light by the Lord Himself when He comes. There are no secrets with God. He sees all. And He will one day reveal all as well. There will, of course, be praise at the Bema. Those worthy of praise will then receive it from the Lord Jesus. However, there will also be shame and rebuke, as we will soon see.
Paul’s teaching is based upon teaching by the Lord. For example, the Parable of the Four Soils is followed in Luke by a warning:
“No one, when he has lit a lamp, covers it with a vessel or puts it under a bed, but sets it on a lampstand, that those who enter may see the light. For nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light. Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him” (Luke 8:16-18).
Who is the one who lights the lamp and puts it out in the open, not under a bed? Clearly this is the Lord Himself. Believers need to take heed how they hear because “nothing is secret that will not be revealed, nor anything hidden that will not be known and come to light.”
Notice how absolute these statements are. Nothing is secret that will not be revealed. Nor is there anything that will not be known and come to light. There is no wiggle room here. All deeds, including sins confessed or unconfessed, will be revealed. That is why we need to take heed how we hear.
B. Negative Consequences at the Bema
The second proof is that there will be negative consequences at the Judgment Seat of Christ. If the only consequences at the Bema were positive, then it might be possible that our bad deeds would not be considered. However, if any of the consequences are negative, then this can only be because bad deeds are considered.9 There cannot be any negative consequences for good works we have done. That would be unjust of God. Only bad works can result in negative consequences.
1. There will be shame at the Bema.
In the theme verse of John’s first epistle, written to mature believers (cf. 2:12-14), John writes:
And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.
John pictures two possible experiences at the Bema. One is positive and is described by the word “confidence.” The other is negative and described by the word “shame.” A believer could not be ashamed before Christ because of his good deeds. He could only be ashamed because as a result of not abiding in Christ his deeds were sinful.
The Lord Jesus taught John this. After Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, he turned right around with a great blunder. He actually rebuked the Lord Jesus for saying He was going to Jerusalem to be put to death (Mark 8:32). Jesus took that occasion to teach the disciples about the costs and rewards of discipleship. He ended by saying:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”
At the very least, this includes believers. After all, these remarks are a result of believing Peter being “ashamed” of Jesus’ words regarding His imminent death. However, these words actually only include believers. For unbelievers cannot be ashamed of Christ and His words. Only someone who believes in Him and has kinship with Him could be ashamed of Him. In the NT, the Greek word epaischunomai always refers (excluding Luke 9:26, which is a parallel passage and hence open to question) to believers who are or are not ashamed of God (or their works) or of God Himself either being ashamed or not ashamed of believers (cf. Rom 1:16; 6:21; 2 Tim 1:8, 12, 16; Heb 2:11; 11:16). It is never used of an unbeliever.
2. There will be disapproval at the Bema.
The A in AWANA stands for Approved in the expression “Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed.” It is drawn from 2 Tim 2:15. One option for a believer is to receive the Lord’s approval (dokimos, Rom 14:18; 16:10; 1 Cor 11:19; 2 Cor 10:8; 13:7; 2 Tim 2:15; Jas 1:12), His “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17). The other option is that a believer will receive disapproval (adokimos). Paul feared this very thing: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified [adokimos]” (1 Cor 9:27). There cannot be disapproval for good works done. Disapproval can only result from sinful things that were done.
It should be noted that some would dispute that disapproval and shame can only result from sinful things that have been done. Some argue that a believer might experience shame and disapproval not because of bad deeds, but because of worthless deeds. Worthless deeds, they suggest, are either good deeds done with wrong motives or are morally neutral deeds (like hunting, fishing, golfing, and tennis).
John MacArthur takes this view:
The use of the word bad does not indicate that believers’ judgment is a judgment on sin, since all their sin has already been judged in Christ. The contrast between good and bad is not one between moral good and moral evil. Bad does not translate kakos or ponēros, the words for moral evil, but phaulos, which means “worthless,” or “useless.” Richard C. Trench writes that phaulos “contemplates evil under another aspect, not so much that either of active or passive malignity, but that rather of its good-for-nothingness, the impossibility of any true gain coming forth from it” (Synonyms of the New Testament [Reprint; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983], 317). Phaulos describes those mundane things that inherently are neither of eternal value nor sinful, such as taking a walk, going shopping, taking a drive in the country, pursuing an advanced degree, moving up the corporate ladder, painting pictures, or writing poetry. Those morally neutral things will be judged when believers stand before the judgment seat of Christ. If they were done with a motive to glorify God, they will be considered good. If they were pursued for selfish interests, they will be considered bad.10
The problem with this suggestion is that wrong motives are themselves sinful. Greed, jealousy, envy, covetousness, and the like are all motivating factors and all are sin. A pastor, for example, can work hard to prepare a good sermon because he is jealous of another pastor in town whose church is a bit larger. Or a televangelist might work long hours because he covets fancy houses and cars and even air-conditioned doghouses!
Or, some might say that believers will receive disapproval and shame because of an abundance of morally neutral deeds that result in the person having a paucity of good works. For example, it isn’t sin to read good literature, but a believer who reads the classics 18 hours a day will not have time left to assemble with other believers, pray, share his faith, love others, etc. That is true. But that is also sin. When we fail to do things God has told us to do, then we commit sins of omission.
3. There will be rebuke at the Bema.
Some regard the third servant in the Parable of the Minas as representing an unbeliever. After all, he is rebuked by Christ, hearing these words:
Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest? (Luke 19:22-23).
And then the Lord said, “Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.” This rebuke and removal of the mina suggest that this person was not a believer.
For example, John Martin writes concerning the third servant in Luke 19:20-26:
Matthew related that the third servant was thrown out of the kingdom (Matt. 25:30). This indicates that this servant really belonged to the group of people who did not want the king to reign over them (Luke 19:14).11
On the other hand, there are good reasons to see this man as a believer. He is called a servant (of God). Unbelievers are not servants of God. He is entrusted with money, representing talents, time, and resources, to invest for the Lord. Unbelievers are not expected to invest anything for the Lord. They lack the Spirit of God and can’t invest at all (John 15:5).
The judgment of the first two servants clearly pictures the Bema, where only believers are to be judged (2 Cor 5:10). Since the third servant is judged with them, so much so that his mina can be given to the first servant standing nearby, he too is at the Bema and is a believer.
And, contra Martin’s suggestion, he is contrasted with “those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them” (v 27). After the judgment of the third servant ends, we read these words, “but bring here those enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, and slay them before me.”
Clearly, the third servant is not one of those who is slain (representing eternal condemnation, evidently). Both at the start of this parable (cf. vv 13-14), and at the end, the third servant is set apart from unbelieving Israel.12
There can be no rebuke if bad deeds are not evaluated. Failure to invest one’s life for Christ at a minimum involves lots of sins of omission. Wasted potential is sin. Failing to produce good works that God intended involves sins of omission.
C. Warnings Not to Sin Because the Bema Is Coming
The third proof that the bad deeds of believers will be considered at the Bema is found in warnings not to sin. In Rom 14:10, Paul warns the believers in Rome not to sin because the Bema is coming:
But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.13
Paul then went on to say, “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God” (v 12). One reason we shouldn’t judge our brother is because that is the Lord’s job. Another reason is because we will be judged for showing contempt for our fellow Christians.
James makes this point clearly:
Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be judged. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! (Jas 5:9)
Now, if our sinful deeds are not to be judged at the Bema, then what is James’s point? His point is meaningless if only our good deeds will be considered.
D. Believers’ Bad Deeds Recorded in Scripture
The fourth proof is that the bad deeds of believers are recorded in Scripture.
If our bad deeds won’t be brought up at the Bema, then why are the bad deeds of some believers recorded in Scripture?
It is inconceivable that Ananias and Saphira will not be judged for lying to the Holy Spirit. Or Demas for having forsaken Paul in his time of great need. Or Solomon for ending his life as an idolater. Or David for committing immorality with Bathsheba. Or Nadab and Abihu for offering up strange fire at the inauguration of the Mosaic covenant. Why would these events be recorded forever in Scripture, yet not be considered in the judgment?
In my reading of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles it has struck me that the Lord made many summary judgments of the kings and put them in the Bible for all to see:
Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not fully follow the Lord, as did his father David (1 Kgs 11:6).
Go, tell Jeroboam…You have done more evil than all who were before you, for you have gone and made for yourself other gods and molded images to provoke Me to anger (1 Kgs 14:7, 9).
Asa did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did his father David (1 Kgs 15:11).
He [Nadab] did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father [Jeroboam], and in his sin by which he made Israel sin (1 Kgs 15:26).
And he [Jehoshaphat] walked in all the ways of his father Asa. He did not turn aside from them, doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Nevertheless the high places were not taken away, for the people offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places (1 Kgs 22:43).
He [Jehoram] did evil in the sight of the Lord, but not like his father and mother [Ahab and Jezebel]; for he put away the sacred pillar of Baal that his father had made” (2 Kgs 3:2).
While we might question whether some of these kings were regenerate, surely no one would question Solomon’s spiritual condition. He was the author of several books of Scripture. He was one of the greatest kings of Israel until his many wives led his heart astray.
It should be noted that the judgment is not merely good or bad. There are shades of both good and bad indicated.
E. Bema Refers to a “Judgment Seat”
The fifth proof is the meaning of the word bema. It occurs elsewhere in Scripture besides the two uses of the term for the future judgment of believers (in Rom 14:10 and 2 Cor 5:10). The first NT reference concerns Jesus’ appearance before Pilate at his bema.
Pilate’s judgment seat was certainly not a place exclusively reserved for the giving out of rewards. It was a place of judgment. Criminals were judged and sentenced by Pilate at this place. The Lord Jesus Himself was judged and sentenced to death by Pilate at his judgment seat.
Similarly, Paul appeared before Gallio’s bema (Acts 18:12). Paul had been accused by Jews of preaching a religion contrary to the Jewish law (Acts 18:13). Gallio judged Paul and found him not guilty. He decided that Paul was preaching a form of Judaism, not something antithetical to it.
Some have argued that the Judgment Seat of Christ will be like a rewards platform at the Olympics. Well, there will be rewards given out; that is true. However, it is misleading to think of it only in that light. Jesus’ Bema won’t merely be a time of rejoicing. There will be shame, disapproval, and rebuke too. Believers will be judged and recompensed according to their deeds, “whether good or bad.”
F. Bad Deeds Will Be Recompensed at the Bema (2 Cor 5:10)
The sixth proof is the most direct. In 2 Cor 5:10 Paul specifically said, “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.” Notice the words whether good or bad” (emphasis added). Tasker comments:
Some commentators stress the seeming inconsistency between the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of verse 10 that Christians, no less than non-Christians, will be finally judged by their actions. This stressing of seemingly opposite emphases is, however, of special value to the Christian and prevents him from underestimating his moral obligations.14
Kruse, in the most recent Tyndale commentary on 2 Corinthians, similarly says:
What then does Paul have in mind here when he speaks of receiving good or evil according to what a person has done in the body? It is a recognition that God will evaluate the lives and ministries of his children and reward those who have acted faithfully, while those who have not will suffer the loss of any reward.15
A paragraph later Kruse adds, “All this means that what believers do in this life has serious implications.”16
The word bad (or evil) here is seemingly insurmountable problem for those who believe we will not be accountable for our bad deeds. They must somehow eliminate the connotation that the deeds are bad.
The suggestion is sometimes made that the Greek word used here, phaulon, does not mean bad, but instead worthless. For example, P. E. Hughes says that worthless is “the proper meaning of phaulon.”17
Similarly David K. Lowery says, “Their good deeds will evoke one response (cf. 1 Cor. 4:5; Eph. 6:8) and the bad (phaulon, ‘worthless’) will evoke another (1 Cor. 3:15; Col. 3:25).”18 In this understanding of phaulon the contrast is not between good and bad deeds, but between good and worthless deeds.
In this view bad deeds will not be considered. Worthless deeds are not bad deeds. They are simply deeds that lack enduring value. For example, while our recreational activities may have limited eternal value, too much time spent golfing, hunting, skiing, fishing, watching television, and so forth can be rightly seen as worthless, but not bad.
There are two major problems with this view.
First, the Greek word here is probably not phaulon, but kakos. The Majority Text reads kakon. Not only do the majority of manuscripts read kakon, but so do leading Critical Text manuscripts B and p46. Kakos always means bad or evil in the NT. If God has preserved His Word in the majority of manuscripts, which is a reasonable assumption in my estimation, then there is no question but that the meaning of the word here is bad.
Second, even if the correct reading is phaulon, it still means bad in this context (indeed, as we shall see, in every NT use). The word phaulos in the NT always means bad, especially when it is contrasted with agathos or kalos. Outside of this passage, phaulos is used four times in the NT.
“Everyone practicing evil [ho phaula] hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20; compare v 19, “because their deeds were evil [ponera]”).
“And [they will] come forth—those who have done good [ta agatha], to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil [ta phaula], to the resurrection of condemnation” ( John 5:29).
In all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works [kalōn ergōn]…[showing] sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil [phaulon] to say of you (Titus 2:7-8).
“For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil [phaulon] thing are there” (Jas 3:16).
It can easily be seen that none of the other uses of phaulos in the NT is translated worthless. I found no translation that translates phaulos as worthless in these passages. The NASB, NIV, RSV, NKJV, KJV all have evil or bad in all four places, with the exception of the RSV which reads vile (which is hardly a softer translation) in Jas 3:16.
In fact, even though in 2 Cor 5:10 the NASB, NIV, and RSV are all translating the Critical Text, which has the word phaulon, they read either bad (NASB, NIV) or evil (RSV) here as well. If phaulon means worthless in 2 Cor 5:10, why is it that none of the major English translations have that translation in that passage, or in any of the passages where phaulos is used in contrast to agathos?
All of our deeds, good and bad, will be considered by Christ at the Bema. And this is completely consistent with the Biblical principle that “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap,” which we will now consider.
G. Whatever We Sow, We Reap (Gal 6:7)
The seventh proof that the bad deeds of believers will be considered at the Bema is the principle of sowing and reaping. In the concluding part of the applicational section of Galatians, Paul warned his readers in light of Christ’s imminent return not to “grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart” (Gal 6:9). Verse 7 is a powerful statement on accountability:
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.
In the context, the sowing and reaping do not refer to rewards and discipline in this life. Rather, as v 9 makes clear, Paul is thinking of the Lord’s return and the need to persevere to receive eschatological rewards.
If we do not reap any consequences at the Bema for all of the bad deeds we have done in this life, then this principle is not true. At that time, we will not reap anything for bad deeds we have done. We will only reap something for the good things we have done.
Paul makes it clear in context that he has both sowing to the Spirit and sowing to the flesh in mind. Concerning the latter he wrote: “For he who sows to the flesh will of the flesh reap corruption” (v 8a). Oppositely, “he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life” (v 8b). Anytime that everlasting life is spoken of as a possible future experience, then eternal rewards, that is, fullness of everlasting life, is in view (compare Matt 19:29). As Paul made clear in Eph 2:8-9, no one has everlasting life (as a present possession, Eph 2:5) as a result of works, that is, as a result of sowing.
V. APPLICATION: KNOWING THIS IS A POWERFUL MOTIVATION TO GODLINESS
If we know this to be true, then surely it should motivate us not to do things of which we would be ashamed at the ema. Most of us are kinder and more polite to our spouses, for example, in public than in private. Yet if we live in light of the fact that we are under scrutiny by God even in the privacy of the home or automobile, we will be better spouses. Imagine how our behavior would improve if we lived each moment in light of Christ’s soon return, knowing that nothing we do is truly private. There are no secrets with God.
I am aware of a psychological objection. Wouldn’t this cause people emotional problems? Don’t people need to have time when they can relax?
Well, relaxing is one thing. Sinning with impunity is another. Yes, God allows us time to rest. However, He tells us to make no provision for the flesh.
If accountability were psychologically bad for us, then the Bible wouldn’t teach accountability. But it does repeatedly. Accountability is psychologically refreshing. It is good to know that God cares. It is good to know that He is watching.
When I was a child, I knew that my parents cared very much how I behaved. I knew that I was accountable to them. When my behavior was bad, my parents judged me and I felt shame and the sting of rebuke. When my behavior was good, my parents judged me and I felt joy and the warmth of praise. I wanted to please my parents, not disappoint them. I wanted praise, not rebuke.
I remember sometimes doing things which I thought were totally in secret. Yet somehow my parents usually found out what I had done and called me on the carpet for it. I learned to live in private as though my parents saw all I did. Since I knew my parents loved me (and who loves us more than God?), I was not psychologically damaged by this accountability. Indeed, it gave me comfort because I knew what was expected of me. I knew the boundaries and was glad, most of the time, to have them.
What of the things we all have done in the past for which we are now ashamed? If we have confessed them (and made restitution if necessary), then we should be about laying up eternal rewards. We should not grow weary while doing good. Past sins are far from the whole story. Our good deeds will not be forgotten either!
There is not space to develop a theory of rewards and the Bema here. However, three points can be summarized.
First, all treasure we lay up in heaven is safe and secure. The Lord said that “neither moth nor rust destroys” treasure deposited there, and that “thieves do not break in and steal” such treasure (Matt 6:19-21). The moment we do a good deed with a right motive, our eternal trust fund grows by one deposit. No past or even future failures can change that.
Second, those who persevere in their Christian profession without disqualifying themselves with the sins of the vice lists (e.g., Gal 5:19-21), will rule with Christ forever (2 Tim 2:12). God highly rewards perseverance.
In December 1998, I attempted my first marathon, the Dallas White Rock Marathon. I finished and for my efforts received a special finisher’s medal and t-shirt. Since then I’ve completed four others, including one in December of 2014. I’m proud of having completed five marathons. I hope to complete more. But I still vividly remember one I did not finish.
In February 1999, I attempted my second marathon, the Fort Worth Marathon. However, a foot injury caused me to drop out after 10 miles. There was no shirt and no medal that time.
Only those who persevered all the way to 26.2 miles received the perseverance prizes. So it is in the Christian life. Past successes do not guarantee the perseverance prizes. Past failures don’t rule them out either (though they can diminish the degree of rulership and other rewards; compare Luke 19:17, ten cities, and 19:19, five cities). Finishing well is vitally important in the Christian life. It is never too late to return from the far country and get right with the Father.
Third, whenever we are merciful to others now, we store up mercy for ourselves at the Bema. Zane Hodges comments:
Mercy, of course, is equally important for the believer today. In fact, we may be called upon to learn this quality through times of stress and difficulty. But in the end, it will be worthwhile when we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. “For,” as James informs us, “judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (Jas 2:13). And although our eternal salvation is not at issue in any way at the Judgment Seat of Christ, no Christian who knows his own heart and life will want a judgment that is “strictly by the book”! But the only way to store up mercy for the Judgment Seat is this: we must be merciful.
We should therefore seize every opportunity that life offers us to show mercy to others. By so doing we will make the Judgment Seat of Christ an easier experience than it will be for Christians who are harsh, judgmental and unkind to their fellow human beings. A kinder, gentler way of life ought to be the goal for all of us who know and love our merciful Savior. And it is from Him alone, and not from any human friend, that true mercy can be learned.
As the Lord Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”19
While being merciful to others won’t eliminate our bad deeds, it will lessen their impact. On the other hand, if we have not been merciful to others, then we guarantee ourselves the strictest of judgments.
There really are no secrets with God. Our lives are open books to Him. The heart of eschatology is accountability. Christ is coming again not only as our Savior, but also as our Judge. May we live moment by moment in such a way that we will hear Him say, “Well done, good servant.”
1 Thomas R. Shreiner in Four Views on the Role of Works in the Final Judgment, ed. Alan P. Stanley (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 52. See also p. 60 where Schreiner specifically says that “the Great White Throne [Judgment] of God” and “the judgment seat of Christ” are “one judgment” and “both clearly have in view the judgment of believers.”
2 Ibid., 85.
3 Ibid., 25-50 (my chapter).
4 The other figurative uses of koimaō are Matt 27:52; John 1:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess 4:13, 13, 15; 2 Pet 3:4. The lone possible exception is 1 Cor 7:39.
5 A few years after graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary in 1982, I learned of a number of DTS graduates who were in prison in Huntsville, TX for major crimes. One fellow graduate joked, “There are so many DTS grads in prison in Huntsville that we could have alumni meetings there.”
6 I distinguish between sins and bad deeds because the NT does as well. While all sins are bad deeds, we are told specifically that our bad deeds will be judged at the Bema (e.g., 2 Cor 5:10). Nowhere are we told that our sins will be judged at the Bema. All our deeds will be judged, “whether good or bad.” In most cases, bad deeds are also sins. But at the Bema these deeds are not evaluated as sins. They are evaluated in terms of what the deeds did in terms of our relation with and service to Christ. For example, Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, was recently forced to resign his position with the organization as well as from his church in November of 2006 because a homosexual affair became public knowledge. If he is a believer, he will be judged for that work at the Bema. Since that work caused much negative press for the cause of Christ, it will surely be a bad thing/deed at the Bema.
7 Alan F. Johnson, 1 Corinthians, IVP Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 79.
8 Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, Pillar NT Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 173.
9 Some might argue that there could be shame if a believer had very little to show in the way of good works, even though no bad works were brought to light. Yet things we fail to do are called sins of omission. Thus if the Lord revealed that there were months or years when a believer had been out of fellowship with Him and had few if any good works during that time, He would be revealing that bad deeds had occurred, even if there was no mention specifically of what happened during that time.
10 See “Will God Punish the Evil Deeds of Believers? (2 Corinthians 5)” at http://www.gty.org/resources/print/bible-qna/BQ041813 (emphasis his).
11 John A. Martin, “Luke,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Grand Rapids, MI: Victor Books, 1983), 253.
12 What Martin did was reverse the analogy of faith. Luke 19:16-26 is clear and simple. Matthew 25:14-30 is not as clear and is not as simple. The outer darkness is the darkness outside the brightly lit wedding festivities. The Lord did not cast the unprofitable servant “out of the kingdom” as Martin suggests. Instead, He cast him out of the celebration. The analogy of faith would say that the third servant in Luke 19:16-26 is clearly a believer and thus so too is the third servant in the Parable of the Talents.
13 The majority of manuscripts read ta bēmata tou Christou, the Judgment Seat of Christ.
14 R. V. G. Tasker, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, TNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 83.
15 Colin G. Kruse, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, TNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 118, italics his.
17 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), 181.
18 David K. Lowery, Jr., “2 Corinthians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Grand Rapids, MI: Victor Books, 1983), 566, emphasis his. Lowery went on to add, “Salvation is not the issue here. One’s eternal destiny will not be determined at the judgment seat of Christ. Salvation is by faith (Eph. 2:8-9), but deeds issuing from that faith (1 Thess 1:3) will be evaluated.”
19 Zane C. Hodges, “The Life of David (Pt 6): Running to a Friend (1 Samuel 20:1-17),” Victory in Christ (Winter 1999), 6. Italics his.