You, Others, and the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-12)
The inescapable reality of the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) is a sobering thing. It takes hold of the heart and forces us to think about what we cherish and how we speak and what we do and the many and varied ways that we use our time and money and energy and gifts.
But what effect, if any, does it have on your responsibility toward others? It’s easy to become self-absorbed when thinking about judgment and recompense for deeds done in this life. But what about others? What effect does it have on your heart to contemplate your family and friends and fellow church members standing before the bema of Christ?
You are undoubtedly aware, as I am, of people who profess to know Christ that are languishing in spiritual mediocrity. There may be several with whom you are in close fellowship who appear unconcerned about the truths that Paul has articulated here in 2 Corinthians 5. When Paul spoke of his aim “to please” the Lord (v. 9), knowing that his life would soon come under the scrutiny of divine judgment, they seem only to shrug indifferently.
How do you respond to that? Do you casually dismiss their apathy, reminding yourself that you’ve got enough to deal with in your own life without getting involved in the struggles of someone else?
Paul’s attitude was altogether of a different order and dictated a radically other-oriented agenda for life and ministry. He writes:
“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart” (2 Cor. 5:11-12).
Let’s first be clear about what Paul has in mind when he speaks of “the fear of the Lord” (v. 11a).
This isn’t the fear that unbelievers should feel as they contemplate the eternal judgment that awaits them, but rather the fear of the Christian at the prospect of standing before the Lord to have his/her deeds scrutinized and recompensed. It is the fear of not pleasing the Lord, to which Paul earlier referred in v. 9. It is the fear of one’s works being assessed as “evil” (v. 10) and thus suffering the loss of that reward that would otherwise have come with obedience to the will and ways of God.
It is because Paul is gripped with this fear that he persuades men. But whom does Paul labor to persuade, and of what?
Often people simply assume he is referring to gospel ministry and his efforts to persuade the lost that Jesus is Lord (cf. Acts 18:4; 19:8; 28:23). Or, given the purpose of Paul in 2 Corinthians, he may have in mind his persuasion of the Corinthian church of his integrity as a man and his authenticity as an apostle (cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-6; 4:1-6).
But the word “therefore” with which v. 11 opens links Paul’s persuasive efforts to what he has just articulated in vv. 1-10, especially vv. 9-10. In other words, it is the Corinthians themselves (and of course all people by reasonable extension) whom Paul seeks to persuade to live in such a way that Christ is pleased and they are properly rewarded at the judgment seat. This interpretation is also confirmed by what Paul says in v. 15. There he affirms that Christ “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Consider this extended paraphrase of Paul’s argument:
“There is no escaping the judgment seat of Christ. All of us who profess to know him as Savior will one day give an account for every deed and every word. That is why we must strive, in his grace, to please him in everything we do. This is a sobering thought, but not because we fear that he will reject us eternally (let’s not forget Romans 8:1!). Nevertheless, we don’t want to squander opportunities for ministry or waste our lives in fruitless activities. The idea of standing before the Lord and being recompensed for the good and evil we have done is enough to instill within me a deep and abiding trembling and fearful awe of having failed to please him. Knowing this impels me to persuade you and others to live in holiness and obedience and whole-hearted commitment to please him in all things. Indeed, given the fact that he has died for us (v. 15a), ought we not to live for him rather than for ourselves (v. 15b)?”
Therefore, the “fear” of the Lord is not the fear of condemnation but of less than notable commendation when our deeds are assessed on that day.
This doesn’t mean that Paul’s primary goal is to justify himself before God (v. 11b). His life and ministry are already seen and known by the omniscient God before whom all things are laid bare. Nor is he justifying himself in the eyes of the Corinthians. After all, the authenticity of who he is has already been made known to their consciences (vv. 11b-12a; cf. 3:1-3).
Rather, Paul’s aim is to provide the Corinthians with whatever evidence they need to refute those in the church who are bent on questioning Paul’s integrity and thereby undermining his apostolic claims (v. 12). As Scott Hafemann has explained,
“Paul’s opponents took pride in their professional rhetorical prowess, their letters of recommendation from other churches, the payment they received for their ministry, their ethnic and spiritual pedigree, and their ecstatic spiritual experiences. These are the external things that ‘are seen’ (5:12); that is, they are on the surface (cf. 10:7). As in 3:2 and 4:2, here too Paul maintains that his opponents’ focus on such externals mask the true nature of their motives, whereas his own actions reveal the genuine nature of his ‘heart’” (238).
Let me conclude with an exhortation. When you’ve finished meditating on this passage and the divine scrutiny of your own life at the judgment seat of Christ, turn your thoughts to others. I have in mind those individuals you’ve conveniently ignored until now who have professed Christ as savior but seem spiritually indifferent. Perhaps they’ve slacked off on church attendance or haven’t shown up for small group in more than a month. It may be that they’ve yielded to the pressure of co-workers and have begun to turn their Christian liberty into license. Or perhaps they’re even contemplating an extra-marital affair.
Go to them, appeal to them, encourage and “persuade” them that the reality of the judgment seat of Christ cannot be denied. Offer yourself to them as someone who will labor side by side as an accountability partner. Commit yourself to pray for them daily. Meet with them often. Remind them, lovingly and firmly, that Christ died for sinners so that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (v. 15).
If indeed we know “the fear of the Lord,” how can we possibly do otherwise? James put it best, in saying: “My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20).