How You Can Do Well at the Judgment Seat of Christ – Program 1

By: Dr. Erwin Lutzer; ©1998
Jesus will evaluate how we have lived for him. But what about those who were saved at the very last moment? Will they receive any rewards

Deathbed Conversion


Christians are told in Scripture, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.” [2 Cor. 5:10] But what is the purpose of this judgment? Didn’t Jesus pay the full penalty for our sins and God remembers them no more? If so, why will Christians still be judged by Christ? This judgment has nothing to do with salvation. Salvation is entirely the free gift of God and received the moment a person believes in Christ. We could never earn salvation by our good works.

But the Judgment Seat of Christ has to do with how we have lived for Christ after He saved us. Everything we have done for Christ will be evaluated and rewarded. As the Bible says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad.” [2 Cor. 5:10] We can understand being rewarded by Christ for the good things which we have done for Him, but what does the Bible mean when it says we will also receive what is due us for the bad? Could it be that the unfaithful Christian will not receive the same reward as the faithful Christian? Will there be tears at the Judgment Seat of Christ because of the way we have lived? Will there be a loss of rewards, honors and privileges that will determine our status in Heaven for all eternity?

If Christ is going to reward every Christian for every deed done for Him, what about those Christians who have been disabled by disease or confined to a wheelchair? What about the person who has had his life cut short by an accident? If someone does not live a long and full life, will he be able to receive a full reward from Christ? To help us answer these questions from the Bible my guest today will be Dr. Erwin Lutzer, senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois. We invite you to hear what Jesus will be looking for when He evaluates your Christian life and learn how you can do well at the Judgment Seat of Christ.

Dr. John Ankerberg: Welcome. The Bible says that every one of us as Christians will someday appear at the Judgment Seat of Christ. This is not a judgment of whether or not we will get into Heaven and how our sins are forgiven. That was all decided the moment we put our faith in Christ. No, this judgment will be where Christ evaluates how you have lived for Him since the time He saved you. If you have faithfully served Him, He promises to give you rewards that last for all eternity. If you have not lived for Him, you will see your life as He does and realize that you have lost the rewards you could have had.
Today in examining this topic, we’ll answer the questions: What if I live most of my life as a non-Christian and then at the end of my life I believe in Christ? If you find yourself in this circumstance and you have only a few years or even a few months to live for Christ, do you have any chance of receiving a reward from Christ? My guest today is Dr. Erwin Lutzer, Senior Pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, Illinois. Here’s how he answered these questions:
Dr. Erwin Lutzer: Well, you know, John, there’s a parable that used to puzzle me. I remember reading it as a child and I said, “You know, this doesn’t make much sense.” It’s in Matthew 20 and it has to do with rewards. And in context, you’ll remember, Peter asked Jesus, “We have left all things and what will happen to us?” [Matt. 19:27] And Jesus said, “Everyone who has left houses and brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for my sake shall receive many times as much and shall inherit eternal life.” [Matt. 19:29] Doesn’t it remind us of the fact that God is so generous. He is going to reward us more than we could possibly hope for, certainly more than we deserve. And yet He’s interested in doing that because He loves us and we are His children.
Then Jesus tells a parable and basically, the idea is this. He says that “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” [Matt. 20:1] Now, you think of the fact that here’s people waiting for something to do. He goes out at 6:00 in the morning and he hires these people and it says, “When they agreed for a denarius [that’s a day’s wage], he sent them into the vineyard.” Now, the same man went out again at 9:00 in the morning. He went out at noon, 3:00 in the afternoon, and even 5:00 in the evening. And everything shut down at 6:00. And these people said, “Well, whatever is right you’ll pay us” and they went into the vineyard and they served.
And now we pick up the story because it’s pay time. It’s after 6:00 and the vineyard owner says, “Bring those who came last and I’ll pay them first.” [Matt. 20:8] And so they’re standing in line and the Bible says that they each received a denarius, a whole day’s wage, for one hour’s work. Can you just imagine a man running home and saying to his wife, “You can’t believe how generous this vineyard owner is! We worked an hour and we got a day’s wage. We’re going to have steak tonight!”? We can almost see it, can’t we?
Now, when those who came first, when it was time for them to be paid, they were so excited because they thought to themselves, “If he gets a day’s wage for an hour’s work, what are we going to get? Maybe twelve denarii?” Well, it says when those who hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but they also just received a denarius. And when they received it, they did what often happens in the lobby of a church after a business meeting. The Bible says that they “grumbled at the landowner.” And they said, “These last men have worked only one hour and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.” [Matt. 20:12]
But he answered and said to one of them, “Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go your way. But I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with those who are my own? Or is your eye envious because I’m generous? The last shall be first and the first last.” [Matt. 20:13-16] Now, John, I think this speaks to the issue that we’re talking about, namely, “What about those who come in late into the Kingdom?”
Ankerberg: Well, let me ask you, are you serving the Lord without a contract or are you bargaining with God? Further, are you serving the Lord in submission without any sense of envy of how God is blessing other Christians? When we do, God is very pleased. But now we want to look at the question, what about a person who is in the hospital and comes to faith in Christ just a few weeks before he dies? Or how about a teenager who is cut down early in life and he didn’t have a chance to live a full life for Christ? Will he still be able to accumulate a lot of rewards from God or will he be penalized for living a short time? What you’re going to hear next is very important, so I want you to listen carefully.
Lutzer: Now, John, the question is, what do we do with this parable? How do we interpret it? I think it speaks directly to the issue that we talked about; namely, what about those who arrive in the Kingdom late. I remember leading a man to saving faith in Christ in the hospital. He died three weeks later. Does he have any chance for a reward? By the way, you know, there are those who interpret this parable to teach that everybody is going to be rewarded alike. There’s no possibility that could be the right interpretation because earlier Jesus said, in the same context He said, “Those who leave father and mother and houses and land, they are going to be rewarded many times over.” [Matt. 19:29] That can’t be the meaning of the parable.
Nor does the denarius represent salvation. I think that the key to this parable is the attitude with which the people served. You’ll notice that those who came early, it says in verse 2, “When they had agreed with the landowner for a denarius a day, he sent them into the vineyard.” Do you know what that means? There was some haggling that was going on. They wanted to say, “I will not step into this vineyard until I am told up-front exactly how much I’m going to be paid!” Interestingly, the others, they simply said, “We’re thankful for the opportunity to serve and we believe that you will do right by us.” And they were generously rewarded.
Now, think this through. A couple of ideas; first of all, we should serve the Lord in faith without a contract. What I mean is, let’s not bargain with God. Let’s not say, “Now, Lord, I’ll tell you what. If you bless my business, I’ll support ten missionaries.” Let’s not get into that. Let’s support those missionaries with generosity and joy and let God decide how He wants to treat us. Because then He’ll be generous.
I had a teacher of homiletics (that has to do with preaching) who said that one day his son came in after mowing the lawn and saying, “Dad, I’ve mowed the lawn,” which is to say, being interpreted, “Please pay me.”
So he said to his son, “How much do you think it’s worth?” And the boy would not give him an answer. The father kept pressing: “How much do you think it’s worth?” Finally, he said, “Why don’t you give an amount?” And the boy said, “Dad, I want you to make the decision because you are so generous, I know that you will give me more than I would ever ask for.” Well, that’s the way God is. You let Him make the decision, and He will be generous with you.”
There’s a second lesson, I think, not only in faith without a contract, but we should serve in submission, without any sense of envy. Did you notice the text I read a moment ago? It says, “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with those who are my own? Is your eye envious because I’m generous?” [Matt. 20:15] You know, Dr. Ryrie who wrote the notes of the Ryrie Study Bible said that one day he was on American Airlines and they asked some of the second class passengers, the business class, to move into first class, but he was not among them. And he was upset. But then this parable came to him and he read it this way, “Are you envious because American Airlines is generous? Cannot American Airlines do as it wishes with those that are its own? If it wishes to take someone who has a coach seat and give him first-class treatment, isn’t that okay? Is your eye envious because American Airlines is generous?”
Well, you know, that’s the way God treats us. Have you ever noticed that God sometimes blesses more people than He should and He blesses them with greater blessings than we think they should have? I smile when I say it because, of course, not a one of us deserves the blessings that God gives us. We are all unprofitable servants at the end of the day. But when we serve in submission, not envying those who have special privileges, why, it is then that the landowner is very pleased.
And finally, in this parable, I think, John, if I could just summarize it. Notice that the wage that was received was grace. It was not on the basis of duty or law. Those who showed up late, they were recipients of God’s grace and received in the parable an entire day’s wage for one hour of work. Do you know what the bottom line is? God is much more generous than we deserve. What about that person who is in the hospital and he dies after coming to faith in Christ just weeks before? As he did good works for Christ – and in this instance I’m thinking of a man who even in that condition began to witness to people who came to visit him – he’s going to be rewarded much more generously than he could ever hope for.
What about that teenager who is cut down early in life who loved Christ? My nephew, age 15, was killed in a car accident while memorizing Scripture in the backseat of a car. What about him? He didn’t have the opportunity to accumulate a lot of rewards, if we think of it as a wage. But that’s not the way God does it. He was faithful with what he had with as much time as God gave him. And that, I think, is really what is important. Always remember, God is so generous that He delights to give to those who love Him, and that’s the important thing.
I like to tell the story about a man who had a wife and a son whom he loved. The wife, the mother of the boy, died. He was left alone with this child and knew that he needed help to raise the boy. So he had a housekeeper come in and said, “Help raise the boy.” And she did that. And she loved this boy as she would have loved her own son. Well, the man died, and the son died, and she went to the auction not because she was able to buy the beautiful rugs and all of the things that this wealthy man had. All that she wanted was a picture of the boy, because interestingly, no will had been left. And so that’s why they decided to auction off the goods to the highest bidder. She bought the picture for a few cents. Nobody wanted it. She took it home and when she took it apart, she noticed a piece of paper fall out. And the will said, “I will all of my inheritance to anyone who loved my son enough to purchase this picture.”
I want to tell you today, God loves His Son. And if we love His Son, He will spare nothing! “He that spared not His own Son but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not also with Him freely give us all things?” I want you to know that every service that we can do for Jesus is remembered and it will count.
Ankerberg: There are many of you who are watching right now who have heard the terrible news from your doctor that you are terminally ill. Some of you may have been told you have only a short period to live. Others of you have not been given a date, but you know the end is not far off. What encouragement can we give to you today? Do you still have opportunity to prepare for the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ, no matter how short or long your life may be? The answer is, “Yes.” And the reason the answer is “Yes” is primarily because God is gracious and loving and is willing to reward us for service done for Him even in a short amount of time. Listen carefully to what Dr. Lutzer says next.
Lutzer: I want you to know today that if you are listening to this, you still have an opportunity to prepare for the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ, no matter how short or long your life may be. I may be speaking to someone who is terminally ill. Two things: first of all, make sure that all the matters that pertain to you in terms of the confession of your sin and the reconciliation as far as possible with others is taken care of. I remind you of the words of Paul who says, “If we judge ourselves, we will not be judged.” [1 Cor. 11:31]
Secondly, live the rest of your days for Christ and what you’ll discover is just like these people in the parable that God is generous. He will give you more than you could ever possibly expect. And even if we’re in a position where you aren’t able to serve – you know, you may be lying in a hospital bed or you may be physically challenged; you can’t do the things that we’ve been talking about – you can love Him, can’t you? Because He sees your heart and He sees your thoughts and even there you can begin to worship Him and to serve Him to the best of your ability. And the Scripture says you will not lose your reward.
And, of course, it is those forgotten deeds of kindness that God remembers. The cup of cold water given in the name of Christ, the word of encouragement that is spoken, a letter that is written to a friend who is discouraged, the prayers that are offered “made acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” [1 Pet. 2:5] Remember, you and I do have the opportunity, we have the opportunity to do well, to be faithful with what God has given us.
Ankerberg: Now, in examining what the Bible says about our appearance at the Judgment Seat of Christ, some people have asked, “What about the good deeds that I did before conversion, those deeds done before I was saved? Will I get any credit for those?” Listen:
Lutzer: You know, I always say that it is much better to be a good man than a bad man if you are not a Christian. Obviously, it’s much better to live next door to people who are kind and considerate rather than living next door to criminals. But I do want you to know this, that when it comes to the matter of standing before God and entering into Heaven, both the good man and the criminal will experience the same fate. Why? Because neither of them is good enough. You have to be as good as God and only Christ can make you that way when you receive His righteousness. So let us always be clear that if you have never received Him as Savior, you come just as you are. Like Charlotte Elliott wrote,
Just as I am, without one plea;
But that thy blood was shed for me
And that thou bidst me, come to thee.
Oh, Lamb of God, I come.
We bring nothing to the table except our great need. God supplies all of His grace. And then after you’ve come to Christ, then He begins to deal with you as with a son or a daughter; begins to discipline us, and He wants us to serve well as a test to see the rewards and the positions that we will have in the coming Kingdom.
Ankerberg: One of the rewards that Christians can gain by living faithfully for Christ is to be given the honor of reigning with Christ. What is this all about? Where does the Bible teach this? Dr. Lutzer explains.
Lutzer: Well, John, it is absolutely beyond our imagination that Christ would allow us to rule with Him. But He says in the book of Revelation, “He who overcomes, to him I shall grant to sit with me on my throne, even as I overcame and sat with my Father on his throne.” [Rev. 3:21] We will sit on the throne of God. Do we deserve it? Absolutely not. Are we somehow divine? No. All that it means is that God has graciously desired to exalt us and to give us a position that is actually above the angels. By the way, no wonder Satan is so angry with us! We will be above the position that he had before he fell. Because no angel can ever be a brother of Christ. No angel can be an “heir of God and a joint heir with Jesus Christ.” [Rom. 8:17] Now, we’ve been talking about rewards. What are these rewards? First of all, special privileges.
We don’t have time to look at all the passages, but I encourage you to read the first few chapters of the book of Revelation where repeatedly it talks about these special honors. “He who overcomes, to him I will give the tree of life which is in the paradise of God.” [Rev. 2:7] “He who overcomes shall have authority over the nations.” [Rev. 2:26] And on and on it goes. Now, there are some people who think that all Christians are overcomers. I don’t think so. Notice that the text always individualizes it: “He who overcomes.” Today, I’m speaking to people who are overcomers. I may also be speaking to Christians who are not overcomers. So let’s remember how personal this really does become.
And what is an overcomer? An overcomer is someone who has Christ-like responses to the circumstances of life. Somebody who is not sucked into the great temptations of the world. Somebody who cannot be seduced by money. Somebody who is willing to say, “Lord Jesus, whatever I am to the best of my ability”—and none of us does this perfectly but—“to the best of my ability I want to serve you and I want to love you no matter what.” That’s an overcomer.
Ankerberg: Isn’t it wonderful that our Lord promises to reward each and every thing that we have done for Him? But some Christians think that they will be given a crown for their service and then they will cast that crown at Christ’s feet. So ten minutes after the Judgment Seat of Christ, how good or bad they did won’t matter for the rest of eternity. The rewards are not significant. This is not true and Dr. Lutzer explains why.
Lutzer: Rewards, then, are special honors and privileges. They are not simply medallions. You know the old idea, “Well, we’re going to cast our crowns before Him anyway,” oftentimes implying it doesn’t matter whether we do well at the Judgment Seat of Christ or not. Let’s just be clear. It is true that Paul spoke about certain “crowns.” For example, he talked about “the crown of rejoicing,” [1 Thess. 2:19] “the crown of glory,” [1 Pet. 5:4] “the crown of righteousness.” [2 Tim. 4:8] In fact, he talks about “the crown of life” [Rev. 2:10] which is given to those who overcome temptation as well as martyrs who die.
Now, we can receive many crowns. I can be faithful in overcoming temptation. I can also look forward to Christ’s return and receive “the crown of righteousness.” [2 Tim. 4:8] You see, these are all symbols that the Bible is talking about. We should not think that each of us will have only one crown that we cast before Jesus Christ. The rewards that we have been speaking about are not these crowns, per se. They are these privileges of reigning with Jesus Christ in the Kingdom. Now, John, let’s just back up and give this some thought. We are told by the experts that the universe is about 20 billion light years across. There are more stars in the sky, we are told, than there are grains of sand on the seashores of the world. I can’t grasp it, but that’s what we’re told. Can you imagine that God would have created so much as one single star without a purpose to somehow radiate His glory?
When the Bible talks about us reigning, we have no idea what that could mean. It could be reigning over planets, over stars. The Bible even said in the book of Daniel, “He who is wise,” it says, “shall shine as the brightness of the firmament and the stars forever and ever.” [Dan. 12:3]
You know, when scientists discovered how great the universe was, many people thought that diminishes the role of man. That makes us very small because the universe is so great. I say, “No, the opposite is true!” It enhances the fact that we shall have the privilege of ruling with Christ over His creation. And think about how big those privileges will be.
Now, when you stop to think of it, this life is but such a small sliver. It is not even a hairline in terms of the length of all of eternity. I tell you today, what do you think, as you look back upon your life, you will someday wish you had done today? Do it now! Do it now. This is the opportunity to influence forever our relationship with God, our relationship in Heaven, and the privilege of pleasing the Lord Jesus Christ.

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