The Lord Alone Will Judge Each Believer
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God. (14:10–12)
The fourth reason Paul gives for every Christian’s accepting every other Christian is that the Lord alone will judge each believer. If each believer belongs to the Lord alone, and if “Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (vv. 8–9), Paul asks, why do you (the weak, see (v. 3b) judge your brother? Or you again, why do you (the strong, see v. 3a) regard your brother with contempt?
It is a terrible thing for men “to play God,” as it is often phrased. It is particularly inexcusable for God’s own people to intimate that presumption by judging and despising each other.
The work of Christians is to serve the Lord, not to usurp His lordship by self-righteously judging fellow believers. Our concern, rather, should be for being judged ourselves by the Lord, For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.
When we, along with all other believers, stand before the Lord on His judgment seat, His divine bēma, “each man’s work will become evident, for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:13–15).
As cited earlier, the apostle said of himself,
Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. But to me it is a very small thing that I should be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. (1 Cor. 4:1–5)
Reinforcing his argument for believer’s judgment with a quotation from Isaiah 45:23, Paul reminds his readers that it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall give praise to God” (cf. Phil. 2:10–11).
Our responsibility is not to judge, to despise, to criticize, or in any way to belittle our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will not be called on by our Lord to give an account of the sins and shortcomings of others, but rather each one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Answerable to God
You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we shall all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘Every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ ”
So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
In the fourteenth chapter of Romans Paul has been explaining why Christians must not be judgmental where the conduct of other believers is concerned, and one of the reasons he has given is that none of us exists in isolation. We belong to each other and need each other. Moreover, being Christians, we belong to God. So we must not spend our time putting the other Christian down but rather we must accept as brothers and sisters those who are also trying to serve the Lord as best they know how and try earnestly to build up those other persons.
Paul argued that “none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone” (Rom. 14:7). In the last study I cited John Donne’s “No Man Is an Island” to make that point.
But there is one situation in which a man or woman is isolated, and that is when he or she stands before the judgment seat of God, as we each must do. On that day there will be no pleading someone else’s responsibility for what we have done or blaming another person for our faults or taking another’s credit for our own. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). If nothing else is able to get us thinking about our conduct rather than someone else’s, it should be this extremely serious, awesome, and inescapable moment of personal accountability.
Christians Must Give an Accounting
Our text is referring to Christians when it says, “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (v. 10). It is true that unbelievers will also be judged at the final judgment, but that is not what Paul is writing about here. In this chapter he is reminding his readers that Christians will also be judged, since all must appear before God and give an accounting.
I am sure this does not seem right to many Christians, because they understand rightly that because they have trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior they have passed from a state of being under judgment or condemnation to one of being justified before God. Even more, they remember how Jesus said, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned [the King James Version said, ‘shall not come into condemnation’]; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). If that is true, how can a Christian possibly be judged? Or to think about Paul’s words in Romans 14, how can the apostle say, speaking specifically of Christians, “We will all stand before God’s judgment seat”?
The answer, of course, is that there are various judgments spoken of in the Bible and that the word judge is used in various ways.
Whenever we speak of the judgments mentioned in the Bible we are moving into the area of Bible prophecy, and this is an area in which Christians have very different views. (It is another area in which we need to be unusually understanding and accepting of one another.) However, as I read the Bible it seems to me that at least seven different judgments are mentioned: (1) a judgment of believers at the judgment seat of Christ (Rom. 14:10–12; 1 Cor. 3:11–15; 2 Cor. 5:10); (2) a series of judgments on the earth (Rev. 6–11, 15–16); (3) a judgment of the beast and the false prophet, at which time the devil will be imprisoned (Rev. 19:20; 20:1–3); (4) a judgment of the Gentile nations (Ps. 2); (5) a judgment of Israel (Ezek. 20:32–38); (6) the final judgment of Satan (Rev. 20:1–10); and (7) the final judgment of unbelievers at the Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11–15).
All these judgments except the first are judicial judgments: They involve God’s punishments of individuals or nations for those peoples’ specific sins. The punishments involve spiritual or eternal death and hell suffering. The first of these judgments stands apart from the rest, because it is a judgment of believers, which means that it is not for sin and does not involve spiritual death or suffering. Nevertheless, it is still a real judgment in which the followers of Christ are to give an accounting for what they have done in this life and are either rewarded or disapproved by God on that basis.
It helps to get a picture of what this involves by realizing that the phrases in Romans 14:10 rendered “God’s judgment seat” and in 2 Corinthians 5:10 rendered “the judgment seat of Christ” each contain the Greek word bêma, which refers not to the judge’s seat in a court of law but to the bench upon which the referees or judges sat at an athletic contest. It was the place from which those who did well in the contest and triumphed were rewarded with a laurel wreath and from which those who broke the rules were disqualified or disapproved.
This was a well-known concept for the ancient Greeks and Romans, and Paul drew on it more than once in his writings. Thus, although Romans 14:10 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 are the only two verses in which the word bêma actually is used, we find Paul alluding to this idea elsewhere as well:
- 1 Corinthians 9:25–27. “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.”
- Philippians 3:12–14. “I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
- 2 Timothy 4:7–8. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
The man who wrote Romans 8:38–39 (“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord”) is not worrying about his eternal salvation. He is not afraid that he may be sent to hell. But he is aware that he is going to have to give an account to God of every word he has spoken and everything he has done. And he is taking that moment of personal accountability very, very seriously.
You Must Give an Accounting
We can see how seriously he takes this by the way he writes about it in Romans 14:10–12. Notice three things. First, he emphasizes the word you by putting it in an emphatic position and repeating it twice. This is more obvious in the Greek text than in the English translations, but the New International Version tries to capture the idea by asking in verse 10, “You, then, why do you judge your brother?” Paul is referring both to the one whom he called weak earlier and to the one he called strong. That is, he is writing to you, whoever you may be.
Second, Paul brings in a quotation from the Old Testament, which he often does when he comes to the end of an argument:
It is written:
“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘Every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.’ ”
This quotation is taken somewhat loosely from Isaiah 49:23 (see Isa. 49:18), and it is a solemn reminder of how God has said that every person who has ever lived will appear before him for judgment. So we must not think that just because we are Christians, somehow we are going to get off without an accounting.
Third, Paul repeats his point in different words but with emphasis in verse 12: “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” This includes you and me.
Accountable for All Things
But for what will we be held accountable? This is a serious and very practical matter, so let’s look at some of the verses that tell exactly what we are accountable for.
- We are accountable for every word we have spoken. There are many verses in the Bible that tell us this. For example, Jesus spoke about how words come from the heart, a good heart producing good words and a bad heart producing bad words. He said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:36–37). In the letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Eph. 4:29) and “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving” (Eph. 5:4).
This does not mean that a Christian can never laugh or tell jokes. We do not have to be serious all the time. But it does mean that there should be a certain gravity about us as befits those who are aware of the gospel of the grace of God and of the fact that many are perishing because they will not turn from their sins and believe on Jesus Christ. And even if we laugh and tell jokes, which we will at times, we will not be telling dirty jokes. On the contrary, we will try to edify others even by our humor.
We will pay attention to the words we hear and read too. Donald Grey Barnhouse had some useful thoughts on this in his study of Romans:
I think it is fair and logical to conclude that if the believer must account for every careless word, this applies not only to what he says, but to what he allows himself to hear and read. If you spend several hours a week watching television, you can be almost certain that the thing has mastery over you; but if you watch it only occasionally and in order to relax after a long period of work or study, that is a different matter. I know people who are better acquainted with the comic strips than they are with the Bible. They say that they are too busy for Bible study, but they have at least fifteen minutes a day for the comics and another fifteen to listen to news broadcasts. I read some magazines from back to front, just to laugh at the cartoons, and throw them down without reading any of their articles or stories. However, I am not your judge, and you may not be mine. We are each answerable to the Lord.
There is a positive side to this, however. Although our idle words will be condemned, our public confessions of Jesus Christ and words that are spoken in praise of God to bring him glory will also be remembered forever. For the text in Matthew also says, “By your words you will be acquitted” (Matt. 12:37).
I have always been encouraged by what is said concerning the people of God who lived in the time of Malachi: “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name” (Mal. 3:16). This means that God hears our good, faithful, and true words too, and that he remembers them forever. I believe that no word spoken for Jesus or in Jesus’ name will ever be wasted or fail of its reward.
- We are accountable for the talents that have been given to us. We should remember the parable Jesus told in various forms in which a king or owner of an estate left cities to be managed by his servants or gave varying numbers of talents to them, returning later to demand an accounting. In one of these, he dismissed the manager, saying, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer” (Luke 16:2). In another he condemned the faithless steward for being “wicked” and “lazy” (Matt. 25:26) but praised the faithful servants, saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
Have you ever taken stock of the talents God has given you? I do not mean just your particularly strong points or strong skills, but everything you are. Have you ever done a complete inventory of who you are so that you may give it all to God for his service and glory?
I am a fifty-five-year-old white male whom God called to the ministry at an early age so I would be able to direct every stage of my education to that end. I was raised in a Christian home, taught the Bible from childhood onward, was influenced by strong men and women of God, and was placed in Philadelphia in a strong city church to teach the Bible to the people God sends to serve there. We are called to model city ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church, and we have done it. Everything that is good in me has come from God, and my responsibility is to take those good gifts and offer them up to God in his service, making them count for him in every way I can.
That is my inventory. It is that for which I must give an accounting. Your case is different. You have an entirely different background and entirely different training. You may have been called to be a teacher or a doctor or a secretary or the CEO of some company. You may be black or white or some other color. You may have a high IQ or a low IQ. Whatever you have, it has been given to you by God, and you are responsible to God for how you use it. Are you using it for him? If you do not know the answer to that question, you need to sit down quietly, take personal inventory, and ask God to show you what you can do that will make a difference for him in this life and for eternity.
- We are accountable for how we use our money. Nothing in life so mirrors our values and priorities as what we do with our money, which is why someone has said, “Let me look at your checkbook, and I will tell you what you are.” What you do with your money tells volumes about you.
This is why the Bible has so much to say about money. It is why Jesus spoke about it. Jesus said:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.… No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Money.
Matthew 6:19–21, 24
What would I discover if I were to examine your checkbook? You would have payments on the house, checks for the heating and electricity, money for food, hospital and doctors’ bills, perhaps education bills—and taxes, of course, lots of taxes. But what beyond that? Would I find more money being spent on a second home, a luxury car, the country club, or entertainment than for Christian work? What percentage of your income would I find given to the support of your local church? Or to missions? Or to help people you know who are in serious financial need? If you give anything to your church or charitable causes, you probably consider yourself to be very generous, a great philanthropist. But would that judgment hold up to a really objective scrutiny? Would God be satisfied with your priorities?
Earlier I mentioned Donald Grey Barnhouse. In his study he refers to a cartoon in which a farmer is sitting at a table with nine giant potatoes in front of him and a tenth potato, his tithe to God, sitting off by itself. The isolated potato is marked “The Lord’s portion,” and the caption expresses the words of the farmer who is saying, “I don’t see how any fellow could be mean enough to give less.”
True enough. The caption is meant to commend the farmer as a man with a surrendered heart. But I find myself thinking, “Nine for me and one for God? Is even that a strong enough priority? When we have been given so much and have such abundance, is that all we can do, should do, or would do if we really loved the Lord with all our hearts and minds and souls and were aware that one day we will have to give an accounting of how we have spent our money?”
- We are accountable for how we have used our time. Finally, you will have to give an accounting for your time. How are you using your time? Do you waste long hours watching television? Or if you work all the time, are you working for yourself only, or do you work for others and share your time with your family, or with others you could help? Do you invest some of your time in Bible study, witnessing, or some type of Christian work?
What You Do Now Counts
Let’s close by returning to the points Paul is making.
- Stop judging your neighbor. Most of us are guilty of this, and it is one of the most harmful things that takes place in Christian churches. We think that because there are standards to be maintained we must be snooping out the shortcomings of others. We are not called to do this. If you are worried about standards, make sure you live up to them yourself. Or let the people God has appointed to deal with them—the elders in a local church—do the shepherding work.
- Take inventory of your own actions and behavior. Unless you are perfect or nearly perfect, which I doubt you are, that will be enough to keep you busy for a very long time, and we will all be better off. Besides, you will help others better that way, because people are always helped more by a loving example of what should be done than by moral nitpicking or outright condemnation.
- Do what you can to build up the body. Being judgmental tears down. Modeling builds up, and that is what we most need. And remember that it is spiritual work that will last. Most of what you have been spending your time on will pass with the passing of this world and be gone forever.
Accountability is always a sobering message. But it is also encouraging, because it means that what you do really counts.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1991). Romans (Ro 14:10). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (1991–). Romans: The New Humanity (Vol. 4, pp. 1755–1762). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.