How do we reconcile Rom. 14:10c which states: "For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" with Jn. 3:18a: "He who believes in Him is not judged..."?
Before answering this question, let us remind ourselves of Rom 3:10, 11, 23 -
As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. ... for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
That is, the righteous are only righteous because of GOD's justification.
For those who do not accept God's free offer of salvation there is only the prospect of being eternally shut out from God (more on this shortly). For the righteous - those justified by God we have:
- Luke 18:1-8 - the parable of the importunate widow; God will execute justice on all the earth
- Deut 32:35 - Vengeance is Mine; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip; for their day of disaster is near, and their doom is coming quickly.”
- Isa 25:8, 9 - He will swallow up death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of His people from the whole earth. For the LORD has spoken. And in that day it will be said, “Surely this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He has saved us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited. Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.”
- Dan 7:21, 22 - As I watched, this horn was waging war against the saints and prevailing against them, until the Ancient of Days arrived and pronounced judgment in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for them to possess the kingdom.
- Rom 12:19 - Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written: “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, says the Lord.”
- 1 Cor 2:9 - Rather, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.” (Isa 64:4)
- Heb 10:30 - For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge His people.”
- 2 Thess 1:5-10 - All this is clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment. And so you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. After all, it is only right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are oppressed and to us as well. This will take place when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in blazing fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the penalty of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His might, on the day He comes to be glorified in His saints and regarded with wonder by all who have believed, including you who have believed our testimony.
- Rev 22:3, 4 - No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be within the city, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads.
- Rev 22:11, 12 - ... let the righteous continue to practice righteousness, and the holy continue to be holy.” “Behold, I am coming soon, and My reward is with Me, to give to each one according to what he has done.
Note particularly the contrast between (a) the righteous who are exultant to see the face of the Lamb (Rev 22:4) and (b) the wicked, who when they see the face of the Lamb on the throne beg for destruction (Rev 6:15-17).
That is, God's judgement not only punishes the wicked but rewards the righteous and rectifies injustice eternally. The primary reward of the righteous is to finally see the face of God and the Lamb on the throne. (Personally, that will be enough for me!)
English Standard Version Ephesians 2:8
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
2 Corinthians 5:10
“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.”
This judgment is according to what we have done, whether good or bad. This judgment is not related to our eternal life which is based on the grace of Christ. This judgment has to do with our eternal rewards/recompense.
Are Saints to be Judged?
The question was "How do we properly understand the passages: Rom. 14:10, 12, 2 Cor. 5:10, and 1 Pet.4:17 to apply to those who are saved?" Each of these verses appears to unequivocally demand that are the faithless as well as the faithful will stand in judgment. So, what will it be like to stand before God in judgment if one is "innocent," having been washed by the Blood of the Lamb?
If we have been baptized into Christ, have all our sins not been washed away just as we have been promised? Let us methodically deconstruct the preceding verses in contrast to many others that are relevant to the discussion.
Perhaps what we must first recognize (and something many fail to appreciate) is that upon His Resurrection in the first century A.D., Christ ascended into heaven in great glory and honor to become the King of all Creation (Mk 16:19, Acts 1:11, Heb. 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2). In Matthew 28, we read:
Matthew 28:18: And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth."
Supreme authority was granted to Christ as King of all the earth. That is the very definition of a king: all authority. If we can accept that which has been clearly stated, we should recognize that Christ now sits on His Throne governing everything that transpires on Earth. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15, Rev. 17:14, 19:6). Acting in this capacity, the entire world is subservient to Christ. That is, we are all standing before Christ’s Throne right now, although we may seldom view things from that perspective. We should, therefore, recognize that we stand before the (Judgement) Seat or Throne of Christ every moment of our lives -- so yes, that is indeed happening (cf. Rom. 14:10, 12, 2 Cor. 5:10).
Let us consider what the New Testament has to say about the faithfully obedient, in direct contrast to the unfaithful . Note the many times that God has proclaimed that while we walk in the Light, we are not to be judged:
John 3:18: “He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (emphasis added).
Here, it’s crucial to understand that “belief” is faithful obedience. Are we to view John 3:18a as mere hyperbole regarding the faithful? There is much more:
John 5:24: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who hears [obeys] My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (emphasis added).
Why would Christ ever make such claims as those emphasized in Jn. 3:18a, and 5:24? Well, He is addressing those who have exercised obedience to His Word. This is clearly differentiated from those who do not believe and, therefore, disobey scriptural imperatives. This is absolutely paramount because:
1 John 3:4: "Everyone who practices sin [disobedience] also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness."
Scripturally appropriate behavior in accordance with the entire Gospel is crucial. Let us consider another passage from the Letter to the Romans regarding judgment/condemnation:
Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (emphasis added).
Has Paul not clearly stated that there is now “no condemnation” to those who have “clothed themselves with Christ?” What does that mean? It means that there can be nothing to judge as long as we have obeyed God. This process begins with belief, then repentance, then confession, followed by water baptism in the name of Christ. It should be general knowledge that obeying God is the same as “walking in the Light” (cf. 1 Jn. 1:7).
Saints are Holy, Blameless, and Beyond Reproach
Of course even the best of us will stumble; we are frail human beings who need God’s forgiveness. He, therefore, gracefully cleanses us through prayerful repentance (1 Jn. 1:7). If there is judgment, some form of condemnation is inevitable. Those in Christ, however, should understand that they have passed from being slaves of disobedience to become slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18) as the children of God. Consider Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, which argues the point more emphatically:
Colossians 1:21-22: “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet [Christ] has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before [the Father] holy and blameless and beyond reproach…” (emphasis added).
Prior to faith in Christ, we were alienated and hostile to God. We were “engaged in evil deeds” just as the text reads in verse 21. That is how God sees everyone outside of Christ, irrespective of whether we consider them “good” or “bad.” That’s because, what we happen to think is irrelevant.
Has the apostle not just proclaimed that as we walk in the Light, we are reconciled before God as holy? Who stands in God’s righteous judgement when they are holy, blameless, and beyond reproach? If this is not true, how do words have meaning?
Elsewhere, the apostle Paul informs us of the moment of physical death, as we then spiritually join those saints who have preceded us:
1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
Is there any mention of judging saints in this passage? Are we to insert words that do not exist such as: “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up to judgment and later be together with them in the clouds…”? How does such reasoning not imply that we are to stand in judgment for sins that have been washed away? Would this not make void Christ’s unspeakable Sacrifice for humanity? Consider what the writer of Hebrews has to tell us:
Hebrews 9:28: “[So] Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him” (emphasis added).
How can anyone read this passage and not understand that Christ will appear a second time without reference to sin, just as the writer explicitly states? What does it mean to appear “without reference to sin”? Do judges adjudicate cases when there are no charges -- and no case? Of course, no human being is “innocent” before God – unless they are faithfully obedient to Christ’s commandments. Elsewhere, the apostle Paul reveals the destiny of the saints when absent from the physical body:
2 Corinthians 5:8: “[We] are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.”
Again, how can anyone be “at home with the Lord” while standing in judgment? Would our transgressions, those we are promised have been forgiven through obedience to the Gospel (cf. 1 Jn. 1:7, 9, below), not disallow this? In stark contrast, there is no question that the faithless stand condemned before God, just as one of the passage to the OP states:
2 Corinthians 5:10: “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.”
Prior to our salvation in Christ, we stood guilty before the Throne of Christ. We were lost, along with the rest of the unbelieving world. However, when we chose to appropriate salvation through faith, our circumstances changed dramatically: we no longer stood condemned because we were cleansed. This appears to be precisely what Paul wrote in his First Letter to the saints at Corinth:
1 Corinthians 6:11: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God!”
Note the words: “washed,” “sanctified,” “justified.” Naturally, we too must remain washed, sanctified, and justified, in the name of Christ. However, again, how is someone who exists in such a perfected state ever to stand in judgment? Does being washed, sanctified, and justified, not equate to spiritual perfection, or at the very least, the best that any human being can aspire to?
It follows without saying that those who have not been washed (baptized), sanctified (set apart, declared holy), or justified (removal of condemnation, guilt, and sin), are filling up the measure of their wrath before the Throne of God at this very moment. How do we know this? Observe another passage from the Letter to the Roman saints:
Romans 2:5: “[Because] of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God…” (emphasis added).
How should we understand this? Romans 2:5 is speaking to the faithless who are – present tense – “storing up wrath for themselves” because they have not been cleansed. They have refused salvation and are therefore incapable of pleasing God due to their sustained disobedience. They have refused His mercy and, in fact, have effectively been judged unless they repent and accept God’s grace. At the moment of their death, they stand guilty, and this is exactly what we read:
John 3:18b: “[He] who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed [obeyed, cf. Jn. 3:36, NAS] in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (emphasis added).
The faithless stand guilty before the Judgment Seat of Christ because they have lived their lives in opposition to His commandments only to perish in this condition. Christ is witness to every sinful act that has ever been committed. On the other hand:
Romans 2:10: "[There is] glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
This is exactly what we read in the Gospel of Matthew:
Matthew 25:34: “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”
Do we ever read the King saying, “Now, stand in judgment for all the deeds you have committed in the body”? While the wording differs considerably, this passage is reminiscent of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in its thrust where we are told that “[We] will meet the Lord in the air.”
In Matthew’s account, the “sheep” have been metaphorically separated from the “goats” (Matt. 25:32-33) – the “goats” being those who will face the Wrath of God (cf. Lk. 16:19ff) as articulated in Matthew 25:41 and Romans 2:8-9. On the other hand, the faithful will hear the words: “Come you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom!” The distinction could not be more pronounced.
Recapping Passages Regarding the Saints
We have observed at least ten sets of passages:
- John 3:18a;
- Romans 2:7 and 2:10;
- Romans 8:1, 4;
- Colossians 1:21-22;
- 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17;
- Hebrews 9:28;
- 1 Corinthians 6:11, 8;
- 2 Corinthians 5:8;
- Romans 2:7,10;
- Matthew 25:34.
Each one of these tell us the saints are to be rewarded while any mention of judgment against them is conspicuously absent (Jn. 3:18a and 5:24 explicitly tell us there is none). We first noted this above in John 3:18a. We then read of there being no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We learned that the saints are to be presented holy, blameless, and beyond reproach, before God (Colossians 1:22). Paul tells the saints still alive in Thessalonica they “will be caught up together with [those who have already ascended] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
Paul reminds his Corinthian audience that they had been “washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 6:11). The writer of Hebrews states that Christ will appear a second time “without reference to sin, to those saints who eagerly await Him” (Heb. 9:28). Paul comforts the Corinthian saints again in his Second Letter: “be of good courage” because “absent from the body” they will be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
Interestingly, the apostle appears to mention rewards to his Roman audience:
Romans 2:6-7: “[God] will repay each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality, He will give eternal life.”
However, the culmination of the passage is simply “eternal life” without any mention of further rewards. This makes sense because existence with God in eternal majesty and glory, indeed, sharing the Intellect and Mind of God, would be the greatest magnificence one could ever possibly hope to achieve.
The last passage in Matthew seems to sum up everything: “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). Nowhere is there the slightest hint of any damnable detour. Clearly, the saints will always be with the Lord while the faithless are the ones to be judged, condemned, and cast into the Lake of Fire (Matt. 25:41).
The point seems to be this: At the point of death, all the evidence indicates that we either stand innocent or we stand guilty before God – the totality of our lives having been weighed against the commandments of the Bible. If we have been, and remain, cleansed we are innocent.
What does Judging a Saint Look Like?
Imagine for a moment that this conclusion is incorrect. Suppose there is a judgment of the faithful as most people believe (as we have seen, they have good reasons for this). A man stands before God having lived a righteous, godly life in Christ. Suddenly, God asks the man, “What do you have to say for yourself about that lie you told?” (Note that this omits the countless other sins the man has committed.) Does he have any viable excuses that would satisfy God’s Divine Wrath? Would the man not immediately be sentenced, condemned forever to Hell? Is any sin acceptable before God? (For perspective, God sees all sin as an abomination, thus the brutal torture and death of Christ.)
Here, we should understand the distinction between “judgment” and “condemnation.” “Condemnation” is a consequence of judgment – not the other way around. Therefore, while there is judgment in this hypothetical encounter (contrary to Jn. 3:18a, Jn. 5:24), it may be argued there is no condemnation. If so, precisely what is the solution to this man’s dilemma? He is clearly not viewed as “holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col. 1:22) due to the charge against him. And, indeed, the slightest offense, the most insignificant “white lie,” would suffice.
Apparently his being “washed, sanctified, and justified in the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11) amounts to little since he is now facing the sin of lying before Almighty God. The man’s righteousness appears void despite his strict adherence to the Gospel. Is there some divine punishment other than eternal condemnation? What might that be? Could God ever offer some divine “slap on the wrist” – in direct contradiction to:
Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”?
Some may argue as follows: “Well, the man is not condemned to Hell. That is what is meant by ‘no condemnation.’” What then, does God’s judgment against the man look like? Were it merely a “slap on the wrist,” this would constitute an eternal blemish. However, we know from both Testaments that God doesn’t tolerate blemishes, so that doesn’t solve our man’s predicament.
Let us understand that those outside of Christ will be recompensed for the deeds committed in the body, all according to what they have done in this life – both good and bad. Observe, however, one fundamental problem: “Good behavior” is entirely insufficient in God’s eyes: He demands perfection. And, as lost human beings, we should understand how Scripture describes our “good works”:
Isaiah 64:6 (NIV): “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (emphasis added).
The actual translation of the emphasized text is especially graphic. Suffice it to say that God is woefully unimpressed with our behavior outside the blood of Christ. However, the saints are saved as long as they walk in the Light because Christ and His Sacrifice continually perfects us:
1 John 1:7: “[But] if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (emphasis added).
If there is any ambiguity in this proclamation, God appears to have anticipated it. Only two verses later, we read virtually identical words for emphasis:
1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (emphasis added).
Of what sin and what unrighteousness will the saints be cleansed? Based on these two passages, they are forgiven of all sin and all unrighteousness. These statements appear to be as plain as anything we might ever hope to read. The point of 1 John 1:7 and 1:9 is that Christ’s blood frees us, an act beyond mere human agency. In other words, while we are incapable of living perfect lives as flawed human beings, God purifies us. He made us all and is painfully aware of our limitations. We often stumble and must seek relief for our mistakes through prayerful repentance.
Even the slightest sin before God is unacceptable. That is why we should be overjoyed that He both hears and answers our prayers in Christ. The only condition is that we seek forgiveness and continue to live godly lives to the best of our ability. I have already demonstrated that Christ’s Kingdom was inaugurated on Pentecost. The Lord’s Prayer tells us to pray to God: “Holy be Your name, Your Kingdom come...”
The reason that we pray this is that, while the gates of the Kingdom were opened on the Lord’s Day in the first century A.D., the Kingdom has been coming since that time. Everyday, another person is baptized to become the latest citizen and there seems little doubt that when the totality of the Kingdom has finally arrived, God will bring the world to an end (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10).
Nonetheless, the gates of the Kingdom were opened long ago, and, as noted previously, we are all living our lives before the Seat of Christ because He reigns over all the Earth. Each time a person is saved, they have “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27, cf. Matt. 22:13) as a royal citizen (1 Pet. 2:9). All others remain slaves – slaves of sin (Rom. 6:16), their consciences continually bearing witness against them (1 Cor. 8:10, 1 Cor. 10:25, 29, , 1 Tim. 1:5, 1 Tim. 3:9, Heb. 13:18).
What About the Statement from 1 Peter 4:17?
Let us now address a final passage that was introduced by the OP in the matter of judgment:
1 Peter 4:17: “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
We must try to appreciate what this verse means. Imagine you are a police officer and your task is to maintain law and order while arresting criminals. With whom does the law begin? It begins with you, the law enforcement officer because you are a representative of the law. You are expected to know precisely what the law dictates and how it is to be discharged.
It is the same with the faithful. Yes, the judgment definitely begins at the household of faith. That is because, according to the words of the apostle Paul, the faithful are to judge the world through their righteous behavior, just as the police officer represents an orderly society as he enforces regulations:
1 Corinthians 6:2a: “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?”
How can saints judge the world? Well, we are accomplishing this very task every day of our lives in Christ. Based on the words of Scripture, we are expected to behave as “role models” to the rest of the world according to God’s “gold standard”: the Bible. If we do not do this, we are no longer walking in the Light and have become like the world, lost in our sins.
From the two preceding passages (1 Pet. 4:17, 1 Cor. 6:2a), we know the rest of the world is storing up wrath before God because our faithful conduct is the benchmark to which the rest of Creation is accountable, just as Noah condemned Earth’s Pre-Flood population:
Hebrews 11:7: “By faith Noah, … prepared an ark [obedience] for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.”
Christ’s words later in the Gospel of John are fascinating. He explicitly tells us who (what) judges everyone throughout the course of their lives:
John 12:48: “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke [the Gospel] is what will judge him at the last day.”
Contrary to common belief among skeptics, there are no contradictions in Scripture. To believe otherwise is to deny that an omnipotent, omniscient Creator is capable of properly delivering His vital Message to humanity. Is this not the same Creator that spoke all of physical reality into existence? How, then, is His Word not just as concrete and trustworthy as the physical world that He now sustains?
It is a mistake to ignore certain scriptural passages at the expense of others, especially when there is a clear preponderance of evidence against doing so: the lesser understood must yield to the greater. The Bible is the standard to which everyone is accountable. In that sense, we must monitor our own behavior – our conscience bearing witness either for us or against us, something analogous to a prosecutor in a court of law. If we are able to do this “firmly and steadfast” – and we certainly can with God’s help – then we will be presented before Him “holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col. 1:22). If there is any further adjudication, it will be strictly in reference to rewards.