What Happens When You Die? All Appear Before the Judgment Seat of Christ
For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
If you can make the leap of faith in the full blown creed of evolution that grips the minds of many modern people, then you will believe that what happens to you when you die is no more significant than what happens to a tree when it dies. It’s over. You go out of existence. You feel nothing, know nothing, have no consciousness. Your opinion would be that this sermon series is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with reality — what is really going to happen.
But if you find written on the tablet of your heart the truth that there is a Creator God, and that you are made to have a relationship with him, and that what separates you from whales and dolphins and chimpanzees is not mutations and chemicals, but personhood in the image of God, then you probably will lie awake at night and think about eternity — because, as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has put eternity in man’s heart.”
And if, like millions of others, you have met Jesus Christ in the pages of the Bible and have been persuaded that he is worthy of your trust, then you do not have to be unsure about what is coming when you die. He has told us many things, to encourage us and free us from the emptiness of evolutionary creeds and from the fear of death.
What We Have Seen So Far
What we have seen so far is that believers in Jesus go to be with him when we die. Verse 8: “We prefer to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” For those of us who trust Jesus as Savior and Lord “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21); “to depart and be with Christ is very much better” (Philippians 1:23).
The second thing we have seen is that there is more than leaving our body behind and going to be with Christ. There is also a resurrection of the body. That’s what we saw last week: “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). Christ will come and change our body of lowliness into one like his glorious body (Philippians 3:21). He does not mean for us to be disembodied souls forever. There will be a resurrection of the dead.
Four Simple Observations About the Judgment
Today we focus on a third truth about what happens when believers die. The verse we are focusing on this morning is verse 10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
Let me make four simple and obvious observations about this judgment and then tackle the problem of why Christians will be judged if in fact Christ has already been judged for us (Romans 5:8–9), and if there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
- All Christians will stand before Christ as judge. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” Not just unbelievers, but “we.” And not some of us, but “all of us.”
- Our judge will be Christ. It is God’s judgment too (Romans 14:10–12, “We must all stand before the judgment seat of God”), but God “has given him authority to execute judgment” (John 5:27). So God the Son and God the Father are one in their judgment, but the Son is the one who stands forth as the immediate Judge, to deal with us.
- Our judgment will be after we die. That’s implied in the text, but Hebrews 9:27 makes it explicit. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” We don’t need to be more specific than that this morning. We need only say that before we enter the final state of glory with our resurrection bodies on the new earth, we will stand before Christ as Judge.
- When we stand before Christ as Judge, we will be judged according to our deeds in this life. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” This is not an isolated teaching in the New Testament. Jesus said in Matthew 16:27, “The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and will then recompense every person according to his deeds.” And in the very last chapter of the Bible Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me, to render to every person according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12). In other words, the way you live is not unimportant.
What Is the Aim of This Judgment?
Now the more difficult question: Why is it important? Why are the deeds done in the body the evidence in this courtroom? Is the aim of this judgment to declare who is lost and who is saved, according to the works done in the body? Or is the aim of this judgment to declare the measure of your reward in the age to come according to the works done in the body?
I think the answer of the New Testament is both. Our deeds will reveal who enters the age to come, and our deeds will reveal the measure of our reward in the age to come. I will show you in just a moment why I think this, but let me mention the biggest problem for many Christians in saying this. It sounds to many like a contradiction of salvation by grace through faith. Ephesians 2:8–9 says, “By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God — not of works lest anyone should boast.” Salvation is not “of works.” That is, works do not earn salvation. Works do not put God in our debt so that he must pay wages. That would contradict grace. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:23). Grace gives salvation as a free gift to be received by faith, not earned by works.
How then can I say that the judgment of believers will not only be the public declaration of the measure of our reward in the kingdom of God according to our deeds, but will also be the public declaration of our salvation — our entering the kingdom — according to our deeds?
The answer in a couple sentences is that our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth in Christ’s courtroom to demonstrate that our faith is real. And our deeds will be the public evidence brought forth to demonstrate the varying measures of our obedience of faith (cf. Romans 12:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). In other words, salvation is by faith, and rewards are by faith, but the evidence of invisible faith in the judgment hall of Christ will be a transformed life. Our deeds are not the basis of our salvation, they are the evidence of our salvation. They are not foundation, they are demonstration.
Now let me show you why I think this.
Reward in Accord with Deeds
There is teaching both in Paul’s writings and in the words of Jesus that believers will receive differing rewards in accord with the degree that their faith expresses itself in acts of service and love and righteousness.
In Paul’s Writings
For example, in 1 Corinthians 3:8 Paul says, “He who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” And in Ephesians 6:8 Paul says, “Whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord.”
The Parable of the Talents
And most of us remember the parable of the talents (or pounds) in Luke 19:12–27. Jesus compares his going to heaven and returning to a nobleman who went away and gave to ten of his servants one pound each with the command to trade with them so that his estate would be advanced in his absence. When he returns, one had traded so as to turn his pound into ten. And the nobleman says that his reward will be to have authority over ten cities. Another had turned his pound into five. And the nobleman said that his reward would be to have authority over five cities. Another had just kept the pound and done nothing with it. To this one the nobleman said, “I will condemn you from your own mouth.” And he took the one pound from him.
Now what this parable teaches is the same thing Paul taught, namely, that there are varying degrees of reward for the faithfulness of our lives. But it also moves beyond that and also teaches that there is a loss not only of reward but of eternity for those who claim to be faithful but do nothing to show that they prize God’s gifts and love the Giver. That’s the point of the third servant who did nothing with his gift. He did not just lose his reward, he lost his life. Jesus says in Matthew 25:30, “Cast out that slave into outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Salvation Demonstrated by Deeds
That leads us to the second purpose of the judgment. The first was that the judgment makes a public demonstration of the varying degrees of reward that Christians receive for the exercise of their faith in obedience. The second purpose of the judgment is to declare openly the reality of the faith and the salvation of God’s people by the evidence of their deeds. Salvation is owned by faith. Salvation is shown by deeds. So when Paul says (in v. 10) we “will be recompensed . . . according to what we have done,” he not only means that our rewards will accord with our deeds, but also our salvation will accord with our deeds.
Why do I think this?
There are numerous texts that point in this direction. One is in Paul’s letter to the Romans (2:5–7) where he refers to “The revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” and then says (in vv. 6–8), “[God] will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality [he will render] eternal life; but to those who . . . do not obey the truth . . . [he will render] wrath and indignation.” In other words, just as our text says, the judgment is “according to what a person has done.” But here the issue is eternal life versus wrath.
“Faith Without Works Is Dead”
Several times Paul listed certain kinds of deeds and said, “those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 6:9–10). In other words when these deeds are exposed at the judgment as a person’s way of life, they will be the evidence that their faith is dead and they will not be saved. As James said in James 2:26, “Faith without works is dead.” That is what will be shown at the judgment.
Jesus put it like this — and he used exactly the same words for good and evil deeds that we have here in 2 Corinthians 5:10. He said (in John 5:28–29), “An hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” In other words, the way one lived will be the evidence whether one passes through judgment to life or whether one experiences judgment as condemnation.
He says this even though five verses earlier in John 5:24 he said, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who hears my word and believes has eternal life.” To hear and to believe is to have eternal life — it is by grace through faith. But when that faith is real — not dead — the life will change and Jesus can say, with no contradiction: the deeds of this life will be the public criteria of judgment in the resurrection. Because our works are the evidence of the reality of our faith. And it is faith in Christ that saves.
A Closing Illustration
Let me close with an illustration that I think makes clear how deeds will function in the final judgment. Remember the story of how two harlots brought a baby to king Solomon, each claiming that the baby was hers (1 Kings 3:16–27). They asked king Solomon to act as judge between them. He said that a sword should be brought and that the baby should be divided and half given to the one and half to the other. The true mother cried out, “O, my lord, give her the child and by no means kill it.” Solomon said, give this woman the child, for she is its mother.
What was Solomon looking for? He was not looking for a deed that would earn the child. He was looking for a deed that would prove that the child was already possessed by birth. That is the way God looks at our deeds. He is not looking for deeds that purchase our pardon in his judgment hall. He is looking for deeds that prove we are already enjoying our pardon. The purchase of our pardon was the blood of Jesus, sufficient once for all to cover all our sins. And the means by which we own it is faith — and faith alone.
That is what this communion is all about, and I invite you to prepare your hearts to remember and to savor the blood of Jesus.