Looking Forward to the Judgment Seat
Several experiences in my life directly led me to look at the Judgment Seat in more detail.
“That we may have boldness in the day of judgment.” (1 John 4:17 NKJV).
Previously, I had held the traditional idea of the Judgment Seat being an event at which a believer’s life is forensically examined, motives read, choices evaluated, and a verdict made that would determine either eternal life in the Kingdom or rejection into “outer darkness.”
This view had been unconsciously absorbed by me, not so much from exposition and research, but mainly from off-handed comments heard in talks, plays at youth events designed to scare and motivate young people, and a general perspective that existed in the corner of the brotherhood in which I grew up.
The first break in this perspective goes back many years to when I undertook a detailed personal study of the Letter to the Ephesians. It is no exaggeration to say that the power of this epistle had a transformational effect on me. My view of what it meant to be a saint, to be a child of God, and a recipient of God’s spiritual blessings through Christ had a profound impact on me in such a way that I wanted to communicate it to others, shout it from the rooftops as it were. I had finally got it—I am saved by grace!
However, I found it very hard to communicate my newfound enthusiasm. I received a rather benign response to my exhortations and conversations. Why would this be? The power of Ephesians is there in plain black and white for anyone to read, but not many took the words as personally specific and could apply it to themselves as I had. It could not have been more apparent to me.
It was my own mother who identified for me where the dampening effect was coming from. After an exhortation I had given at my home ecclesia in which I repeated my now regular theme of assurance and confidence in salvation and the motivational power of gratitude and love that this should generate, my dear mother approached me. She said, “Yes, yes, it’s all very nice, but we all need to get through the Judgment Seat first.”
there is no “Judgment Seat” chapter in Scripture
This statement hit me like a hammer. Of course, under this schema, no one could possibly be excited about salvation and grace. No one would have any reasonable confidence to personalize any of this—it wouldn’t be until they hear the words “well done” at some distant time in the future that they can finally rejoice, knowing they are recipients of God’s grace and mercy. The penny dropped.
Genuine confidence and joy had been pushed into the unknown future. It couldn’t possibly have any emotional or transformational power now. “Now” basically means making sure we get through the future terrifying divine examination. No true gratitude or thankfulness dynamic is possible under this model.
This perspective did have a string of verses that seemed, on the surface, to support it. But for me, it contradicted the entire underlying sentiment (or “vibe” as we call it in Australia) of the New Testament. God loves us; we are saved by grace. Christ died for you—therefore, we respond (compelled even) by gratitude and love–our lives are transformed by this reality (1 John 4:19; Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 5:14).
How could I reconcile the reality of our sins having been forgiven (as far as the East is from the West), being sanctified and deemed righteous by the sacrifice of Christ, with a future tribunal-type examination that will determine and reveal to us then whether we are even part of God’s purpose or not?
I first noticed there is no “Judgment Seat” chapter in Scripture. Other doctrines often have a dominating chapter that explains the why and how, the mechanics and logistics of a subject. For example, Resurrection has 1 Corinthians 15. Baptism has Romans 6. Faith has Hebrews 11. Nothing like this exists for the Judgment Seat. In the New Testament, we only have snippets alluding to the Judgment Seat. These are often in the context of another issue being dealt with.
Next, I noticed that many expositions and illustrations of the Judgment Seat in our community come from Parables. As a long-time Bible missionary and a “Wrested Scriptures” aficionado, I knew this was problematic, and my research confirmed as much.
Take, for instance, using Parables to predict the proportion of believers that will be accepted. Using the Parable of the Ten Virgins, we could conclude 1:1. However, the Parable of the Talents indicates 2:1. The similar Parable of the Pounds has 9:1. The Penny a Day Parable has 100:0, and the Wedding Garment Parable indicates thousands are accepted with only one solitary man rejected.
A long-held Christadelphian interpretative principle is that the straightforward language such as is found in New Testament letters (including Ephesians and Romans) must guide us and, in some cases, even override the more conceptual ideas and literary devices used in Parables—subjects such as the devil, Satan, demons, evil spirits, hellfire, and the rich man and Lazarus.
Survey of The Brotherhood
In my research, I got my hands on every article, book, talk, and blog I could find that dealt with this subject in any way. Although there may have been a few “off the charts” and theoretical concepts, most came down to one of two positions. I have called these the Short-View and the Long-View.
The Short-View (based on the Parable of the Sheep and Goats) holds that the Judgment Seat will be a relatively quick affair. Passages supporting this view include boldness at his coming (1 John 2:28; 4:17), no condemnation (Rom 8:1; John 5:24), sins forgiven now (Heb 8:12; Psa 103:12), Saved by grace (Eph 2:8-9).
This view was more optimistic than the Long-View. It was supported by a substantial Biblical conceptual framework that resonated well with the atonement, justification by faith, and salvation by grace underpinning the New Testament. There was, however, something missing. The concrete references to a believer’s life are examined, and the concept of “giving account” that runs through the Judgment Seat passages was not satisfactorily dealt with.
The Long-View (which I had grown up with) focused on the Parable of the talents and emphasized the “giving account” aspect. It held the Judgment Seat to be a forensic review of one’s life. There is some uncertainty as to what this review was achieving. Some people held it was to determine if our faith was real–did our life actions demonstrate our faith (i.e., faith saves us, but actions prove our faith)?
Others suggest the tribunal deals with unforgiven sins and sins that we had not repented of. As the life review will uncover and reveal our motives and secret thoughts, one doesn’t have to try too hard to imagine how such an interrogation would terrify most of us, especially as, according to this view, it will decide our eternal destiny.
The Scriptures supporting such a view include: giving account (Rom 14:12; Heb 4:13), secrets revealed (Rom 2:16; 1 Cor 4:5), and life reviewed (Eccl 11:9; Matt 12:36).
Reconciling The Views
Can these two different views be reconciled in a way that includes both the life review and “giving account” of the Long-View and the New Testament emphasis on grace as the focus of the Short-View? I believe they can.
You may have noticed that the two views lean on a particular Parable in Matthew 25. Either the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, where the culling of the sheep and goats takes place quickly or the Parable of the Talents, where a “giving account“ longer process takes place first.
The Long-View draws on the adjoining Parable of the Talents. This Parable had been emphasized in my upbringing and that CYC plays and talks were based on. Two Parables, literally alongside each other, but giving two different perspectives.
The Order of Events
In the traditional view I grew up with, based on the Parable of the Talents, the Judgment Seat went something like this:
We give account.
We receive praise and/or admonition.
We are accepted or rejected.
If we switch the elements around, however, and follow the pattern of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (which is a Parable specifically illustrating the Judgment Seat), we see a different order emerging:
We are accepted or rejected.
We give an account.
We receive praise and/or admonition.
This Switch Changes Everything
For me, this new order made better sense of everything. A genuine believer is saved by grace through faith, which leads to immediate acceptance by our Lord. Subsequently, however, to fully refine us, and before we are granted immortality, including pastoral and political rulership, our life is examined to uncover incorrect assumptions, wrong perspectives, prejudices, bad habits, and faulty priorities. Our good values and behavior are rewarded and reinforced, and our flawed ones are acknowledged, rejected, and purged by our High Priest. (Heb 4:12-16; 1 Cor 3:15).
Many passages and examples in Scripture strongly support this perspective, but time does not permit us to explore them specifically now.
I believe the concept is captured nicely in Psalm 139:23-24 (RSV):
Gosford Ecclesia, NSW