back to Questions Readers Asked
In light of 2 Corinthians 5:10 a reader asked if we’re going to be judged by our works? The answer’s yes and no. Those who live lives of self-serving ungodliness (whether they’ve heard the gospel or not) will meet a Holy Father that judges all men impartially (1 Peter 1:17 and Romans 1:18-32, especially 32 and 2:5-11). Those who have heard the gospel and will not respond to it will meet a Holy Father that will reward them accordingly (2 Thessalonians 1:8). See Galatians 5:6-7, Ephesians 6:6-8 and many other texts that bring to expression what is everywhere understood in scripture.
Those who are elect in Christ and those in all ages that are covered by the redeeming work of Christ are those whose lives flow in the stream of righteousness. It will be the case that when the final declaration is made that we are God’s through Christ, that those who are claimed as God’s own, will be people that have patiently persisted in well-doing (Romans 2:6-7). There will be none in that number who made it their life’s choice to serve themselves regardless of God and others.
We cannot be right with God and ignore or despise personal righteousness! So will our lifestyle be a factor in determining whether or not we are right with God? Certainly! Obedience is an essential element in life of one that is right with God! Only a phobic reaction to possible legalism would lead us to debate on this matter.
While I believe all the above is true, there’s nothing in it that suggests we earn life with God; there’s nothing in it that suggests our good deeds outweigh our bad and therefore we gained our forgiveness or made God our debtor. There is no self-salvation, in any form! We can’t purchase life with God and we can’t win it by moral effort. What’s more, the Bible nowhere, ever, said that humans had to. Life is a gift, from start to finish. Not even the sinless Jesus Christ was called to earn life. The Spirit of God gave him life and he lived it out unto God in holy gratitude, adoration and service. (He was unique so his life went beyond flawless moral living—there was the matter of reconciling the world to God, which is an agenda that rises beyond morality, and this he accomplished.)
Speaking specifically to the situation of Christians, we need to bear in mind that our relationship with God is precisely that—a relationship, and not a legal status. And it is a faith relationship—no faith no relationship! This means that our lives reflect that we have committed ourselves to Jesus Christ and all that he means and all that he stands for. When we come to judgment claiming to be his, our response to righteousness will be an identifying marker. If we deny Christ here, he will deny us there. It won’t help to deny him here and when we arrive at judgment to say, "Lord, Lord..." (compare Matthew 7:21-23).
Is this what 2 Corinthians 5:10 means? "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body." I think so. I understand that we can read the verse to say that every word, deed or attitude we’ve ever said or done or had will be brought out and checked to see if it’s righteous. But I’m certain, in light of the NT’s grand central message that that’s not what this passage means.
Paul certainly believed that all humans will come before God in judgment but the "we all" in this text might be confined to Christians (he’s writing to those that professed to be Christians). So that Paul might be focusing on them and reminding them (some of whom are on the edge of the abyss or gone over--see 2 Corinthians 12:21) that their lifestyle matters! The idea that judgment is something like merely "making an appearance" is not how Paul felt about it (5:9-10). I tend to think we’re a bit too "jolly" about this coming meeting with God. (When Dante in his masterpiece met up with Paul, he saw the apostle as a mountain. As C.S Lewis has remarked, evangelicalism can be more than a bit too "cozy," don’t you think?) Just casually read through 1 Corinthians and see how Paul stresses the critical nature of the obedience of faith (for example 7:19 and 10:1-12, but all over the place, and then on into 2 Corinthians with the false teaching as prominent). He even speaks of himself in sobering terms in 1 Corinthians 9:27. He didn’t want to come to the end and experience a Moses-type exclusion.
He’s centrally and vitally concerned that the Corinthians live out their lives in faith (2 Corinthians 5:7). That is, that their faith-relationship with Christ be expressed in behavior and thought patterns that are shaped by that faith-filled surrender to Christ.
The things done in the body, good or evil, will be indicative of the grand drift of their lives. Paul doesn’t view life as a series of independent acts of right or wrong. Not only do such things not exist (specific deeds don’t appear in a vacuum), life is the direction we face, the purpose we purpose and the goal to which we move; it’s the road we choose to travel on. That—I believe—is what 2 Corinthians 5:10 has in mind and it should have a special focus for a Corinthian church that needs to wake up before it’s too late. The impenitent faces an entirely different judgment than the Christian whose life is shaped in a faith-response. And those of all the past ages that are embraced in the saving work of Christ though they aren’t part of the NT church—they too will have been characterized by a life of uprightness. But in whatever category we find ourselves—how we chose to live our lives will certainly be part of the judgment. And it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to suggest that the lax (and in some cases, rebellious) Corinthians are not in real danger. He later calls them (and whoever else) to be reconciled to God (5:20). Someone that needs that admonition has no right to presume he/she is among the saved. (The present imperative sharpens the point, I think. "Get yourself reconciled to God!")
So what does the above claim? It claims that the way we live our lives is an essential element in our being final justified before God. Obedience not only counts, it is also vital but it is covenant faithfulness and not simply moral uprightness! The above claims that the way Christians are to live their lives is a life of faith that in its essentials is imaging out the life of Christ as the corporate body of Christ, which is what we claim we are. It claims that when the final number of the saved hears God’s final approval there will not be a rebel among them. It claims that there is no self-salvation and that those who are in Christ Jesus, and embraced by his redeeming work, get God’s approval out of God’s free grace!
I suppose that we could think of 5:10 as speaking only of the rewards that are a sort of "add on" to the salvation freely given. Maybe. But if there are "add on" rewards in view there would be "add on" chastisements. Read the text. I think in the whole section (see 5:6-10) he’s saying, "The saved life is seen in faith-filled pleasing of God in Christ and that is what will be under scrutiny at judgment."
So, should those who are covered by the atoning sacrifice of Christ approach the judgment in cowering fear? Certainly not! Neither should they stroll in with their hands in their pockets as if they were going to meet an old "chum". 1 Corinthians 4:1-4.