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:
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:
Here, judgment refers to eternal salvation but makes clear that we who believe in Christ will not be judged.
If the judgment seat meant possible punishment, then this verse makes no sense.
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:
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.
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?