Attend a typical church building, or read a regular study or commentary and you will eventually come across the doctrine of the Judgment Seat (or Bema Seat) and rewards doctrine – which is typically explained as various “crowns” which people will receive (or not receive) based in some way on how they performed on the earth.
They say that there are two different judgments, one which they call the Great White Throne judgment… where those who do not know Jesus and are not in the Book of Life, will be “judged” (i.e. condemned) while believers will be sectioned-off for a second judgment to determine how many rewards (or crowns) we receive or don’t receive based on our life.
So in-essence, even though Jesus has totally and completely forgiven and removed all sin from us, and made us completely new creations in Him, you still must worry about your performance on some level, because your eternal rewards in Heaven, are still dependent on your performance. Or so this doctrine would have you believe.
In this study today, we will be taking a look at this common doctrine of the Bema seat, and Crown rewards, and see what the scriptures actually say about it.
Before we begin, a note of caution: as we proceed into this study today, I am going to ask some questions and make some statements… some may be difficult; and some may cause you to stop and think. If so, I encourage you to not shy away from this, because we should never be reluctant to honestly look at these things, and if necessary, to challenge the status-quo – especially when it comes to something as vital as seeing Jesus, and His finished work for us, as all of these studies endeavor to accomplish.
As we begin today, let’s start with the most basic of things first: are their actually two separate judgments? Because the entire foundation of this doctrine is that unbelievers face one judgment, while believers face another judgment. So if there are not actually two separate judgments, then the doctrine kind-of falls on its face from the start.
Both Romans 14:10-12 and 2nd Corinthians 5:10 are scriptures commonly used by promoters of the Bema Seat Rewards doctrine as showing that believers will have a second judgment relating to their works or deeds, or otherwise performance (depending on whatever variation they are promoting) in order to receive rewards.
They try to soften it by saying things like “Oh, this isn’t a judgment for getting into heaven itself, this is more like a rewards ceremony to determine how many crowns you receive.”
Basically they’re trying to say that this isn’t some sort of punishment, but at this same time, you’re still dealt consequences based on your merit, or lack-thereof.
It’s religious double-talk at its finest.
But here’s the thing… if we examine these verses mentioned, we can plainly see that in each one it very clearly says we must all stand before the judgment seat of God. And the word “all” there is very telling. It’s not just referring to believers, in those verses – but all men. There isn’t one single person who is going to escape without standing before Christ at the end. And that’s the point. This is not some special second-judgment where rewards or lack of rewards are doled-out, but this is the one single judgment that everyone will face – whether you are in Christ or not in Christ. That is the only thing that even matters. Let’s examine 2nd Corinthians 5:10-11, and this will become clear:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad.
Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest to God; and I trust also are made manifest in your consciences.”
Notice that Paul goes right from talking about this judgment seat of Christ (which we all must stand before), into verse 11 saying Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men…
Hmm, that’s a really interesting (and odd) thing to say if he’s talking about a rewards ceremony for believers, don’t you think? And this is why it’s so important to not build entire doctrines and theologies around singular verses. Because this is not talking about the Bema seat as we commonly think of it (indeed the Bema seat itself is not what we think it is… but we’ll deal with that a bit later in this study).
The “terror of the Lord” is what they don’t want people to face… that’s why they try to persuade men. These are not believers being spoken of here, but unbelievers; and the judgment seat of Christ is not some kind of crown rewards ceremony, but it is in-fact the judgment that all men must face, just as the verse says.
Now some people read that phrasing of “receive the things done in the body whether good or bad” – and their mind immediately jumps back to works performance. But again, keeping in-mind the entirety of scripture and not simply trying to digest this one verse in isolation and build a doctrine around it, consider Isaiah 64:6, and Romans 3:10-20 – which make it abundantly clear that our works, and all of our deeds, are insufficient to earn us anything; let alone any reward.
You see, we often fail to consider how corrupted that we are, save for Christ. It is His righteousness upon us, not our own. It is His goodness that we stand in… our own goodness is a fallacy to begin with.
And from the other end of the spectrum, Psalms 103:10, plainly says that we are also not rewarded according to our iniquities either (that means both positive and negative). Our iniquities are not the deciding factor in determining reward or lack of reward.
You see, those who promote the idea that our performance in any way determines our eternal rewards or status in Heaven, are making two very fundamental errors:
The first being that we can do anything that would earn or merit anything good.
And secondly, that God, who already knows how incredibly evil our flesh nature is, so much so that He sent His own Son to accomplish on the cross what we never could, would then decide to entrust your eternal divine rewards, to your fallen performance of your efforts.
And this again, brings us back to our first point: that the context of the verses which we read speaking of the judgment seat of Christ, are not talking about rewards for good behavior, but instead is talking about salvation.
The only truly good thing that anyone can do is accept Christ. Our only obedience is to be obedient to the faith. That is the truth of Christ. (Galatians 3:1, 1st Peter 1:22).
I know it’s difficult for people to accept that. People generally want to believe that there are other good things that they do. But even Paul, the so-called apostle of Grace says in Romans 7:18, that nothing good is in his flesh – meaning that he has zero capacity to do anything good of himself. We need to take that seriously to truly appreciate the marvelous work of Christ.
Keep that fact in the back of your mind as we move on with our study today, because it’s really going to drive home the point about the Bema Judgment Seat and what it truly is.
You see, most people, as has been stated, have been led to believe that the Bema seat of Christ is some kind of rewards ceremony. However the scriptures themselves do not support that position. Simply take a look at how the word bema (βη̑μα) is used consistently throughout scripture, and you will plainly see that it is not a place of rewards, but a tribunal, where innocence or guilt is decided. Some examples of this are Matthew 27:19 and John 19:13, where Pilate sat on the judgment (bema) seat as he was deciding the guilt or innocence of Jesus.
Acts 18:12-13, when Paul was brought before the judgment seat (bema) by the Jews in order to accuse him. And again in verse 17, where he was flogged in-front of that judgment seat, (bema again).
These are just a few examples, but they make it clear that the Bema is not a seat of rewards, but a place where innocence or guilt (and if necessary punishment) is decided. And if you remember what Paul himself said, his capacity to do good, or anything worthy of reward is insufficient (actually zero) anyway.
All of this combined paints a very clear picture that the Bema of Jesus, the Judgment Seat of Christ has nothing to do with rewarding believers for all of the supposed good that they think they have done… but it is in-fact the place where all must stand and give an account, as we have read; and that account is going to be one very important thing: are you in Christ? Or are you not in Christ?
That alone is the deciding factor, and that is why Paul said that knowing the terror of the Lord, he persuades men. Because he doesn’t want anyone to perish, just as Jesus doesn’t. He wants all men to be saved.
Like everything else, this all comes down to your spiritual identity. You are either in union with Christ, or not. Jesus Himself says this when He tells the parable of the Kingdom, in Matthew 7:21-23:
“Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works?
And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.”
And we have studied this before. They were doing what many people would call “good works”… they were casting out devils, prophesying, and many wonderful works, according to verse 22. But in verse 23, Jesus calls all of those things works of iniquity! And He does so for one simple reason… their identity. He never knew them. A king that walks the streets of the poor is still a king, and the pauper that enters the palace hall, is still a pauper. Works do not change your identity, and that’s why being born again – being given a new identity is required.
“But Jim, won’t we still be rewarded when Jesus returns?”
Yes indeed you will, and you already have been. Our reward, dear friend, is not the crowns, but it is something (someone) far greater. Our reward is Jesus Himself. You already have been given your reward, indeed you have Christ and His Spirit right now – have you been enjoying Him to the fullest? Your reward when He returns, will be seeing Him face to face and spending eternity with Him in Heaven. Does that excite you?
“No! Certainly that can’t be all! I’ve been doing so much for Christ!”
And there’s the works trap all over again. God told Abram way back in Genesis 15:1, that He (God) is Abram’s exceedingly great reward. Do we believe that is still true today? I would humbly suggest that if you do not see God as your exceedingly great reward, then you need to enlarge your perspective of how great God really is.
Romans 8:32 makes it clear that all things are given freely with Him.
And this right here cuts to the heart of the crowns and rewards part of this doctrine.
At the end of it all, you either have Christ (and by extension, everything) or you do not have Christ, and are without anything, including life itself. Jesus said that if you do not have Him, you do not even have life, in John 6:53 and in other scriptures as well.
Now I could go on and this study would easily go over two hours in length. But for the sake of time, as we close this study today, let’s take a quick look at crowns to put the final nail on the coffin of this performance-centered doctrine.
The Imperishable crown is mentioned in 1st Corinthians 9:24-25.
The Rejoicing Crown is found in 1st Thessalonians 2:19.
The Crown of Righteousness is in 2nd Timothy 2:8.
The Crown of Life is in James 1:12.
The Crown of Glory is found in 1st Peter 5:4.
Now, just from reading the names and descriptions of these crowns found in these scripture references, it should become immediately obvious that these are not rewards for the privileged few who earned them through performance. After-all, will there honestly be some poor fellow up in heaven who managed to get in, but doesn’t have the crown of Life, or the crown of Rejoicing? Will there be someone up in heaven who still is perishing because he doesn’t have the Imperishable crown?
What about righteousness? Tell me, if there is a single person up in heaven who has been eternally and completely cleansed by the body and blood of Christ with the righteousness of God upon him, who somehow managed to not receive the crown of Righteousness?
Furthermore, scripture absolutely refutes this merit-centered performance-driven idea entirely.
In Christ Jesus, we are given all of these things as a free gift. Not as a reward for performance, but as a gift based on His sacrifice for us. Romans 5:17 says that it is the abundance of Grace and the gift of Righteousness, that causes us to reign in life. And eternal life is also a gift from Him to us, as mentioned in Romans 6:23.
In Acts 13:52 it mentions that the disciples were filled with Joy when the Holy Spirit (another gift) came upon them.
And lastly, in John 10:28, it mentions that those who have Christ will never perish. We are imperishable. Not because we earned it, but it is again. His gift.
My friend, we are not earning rewards… we already have been given them all with Christ.
Likewise, we are not earning these crowns, they are given with Christ, and we will lay them at His feet anyway, in recognition that they are His crowns (Revelation 4:10).
So I encourage you today, let the burden of earning rewards and the relience on yourself and your own efforts fall away, as you simply rest in the finished work of Christ and enjoy what He has accomplished for you. He is your exceedingly great reward.