The word “judgment seat” in Romans 14:10 is literally “Bema”. This refers to the elevated seat on which the judge of the Olympic contests sat. After the contests were over, the winners would assemble before the bema to receive their rewards or crowns of laurel leaves. Those who did not win or were disqualified received no rewards. It was not a judicial seat but only for rewards. Christ has already been judged for our sins. This is a judgment for our works after we received Christ. Eternal security does not allow the believer to live any way he pleases. What a believer does in this life has eternal repercussions.
We must understand the difference between salvation and rewards. Salvation cannot be earned by good works, but is something that Christ alone can provide through faith. Rewards, on the other hand, are earned after we have received salvation as a free give provided by Christ through faith alone.
Believers are both sons and servants. As his sons we have been saved and become sons through faith in Christ, it is something that Christ earned for us and we receive by faith. On the other hand rewards are through good works. Rrewards are earned: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize (I Corinthians 9: 24-27).
In verse 24 we are told that like athletes we must have a single mind on the goal line, determined to win.
In verse 25 athletes must have self-control. And discipline themselves by self-denial and hard work. Their goal is a mere crown of laurel-leaves that will fade away along with their earthly fame. But we will receive eternal crowns.
In verse 26 Paul tells us that he ran his race deliberately, without uncertainty. He knew where the goal line was, he pressed toward it with all his might. When he boxed he did not merely beat the air, but landed his blows where they counted, going for the knockout.
In verse 27 Paul says he keeps himself well conditioned, so that after training others to run the race, he himself was not disqualified from receiving the reward.
In I Corinthians 3:10-15, the believer’s life is compared to a building: “By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building upon it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames”.
Here in verses 10 and 11 the foundation of the believer’s life is Christ. There is no other foundation for the believer. All those on any other foundation will not appear at this judgment for believers, but at the great white throne judgment for the unsaved. By faith in Christ the believer rests eternally on the Foundation of Christ. This constitutes salvation. After salvation the believer is to build on this foundation.
In verse 12 there are two categories of building materials—-things that will burn— wood, hay and stubble, and things that will not burn—Gold, silver, and precious stones. In verse 13 the quality of the believer’s works will be made manifest on that day because it will be tested by fire.
In verses 14-15 the works that are acceptable to God will not burn and will receive a reward. Those whose works are burned up will suffer loss of reward as their works are burned up, but they themselves will be saved because they are on the true foundation of Jesus Christ. Those who receive no rewards will be saved “as one escaping through the flames.
This is a figure of a person who is asleep and wakes up and finds the house is on fire. The flames and smoke are so bad that all they can do is leap out the window to safety, while their loved ones and all their possessions will be lost. This pictures the believer who accomplishes nothing for the Lord. He doesn’t even win his own loved ones to the lord. He himself will be saved, but all else will be lost. His only reward will be shame and remorse.
Every believer is on equal ground when it comes to receiving rewards. Some have greater opportunities and abilities than others. But it is FAITHFULNESS with what WE DO HAVE that counts. “Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must be FAITHFUL” (I Corinthians 4:2).
Serving the Lord brings rewards now in the peace and joy in knowing we are serving the Lord, but most of these rewards are coming later. Serving God is often a thankless job and many are tempted to give up. But we are encouraged by the Word of God: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6: 9).
I Corinthians 15:58 exhorts us: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm, let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain”. The smallest reward at this judgment will be worth more than all this world.