BELIEVERS AND THE BEMA
Several years ago while I was preaching in a church in the state of Washington, the pastor forgot to pray before we proceeded. So, as he was about to sit down he said to me, “Oh, by the way, I forgot to pray. Would you pray before you preach?” And I did. It gave me an opportunity to have a little fun (I think the Lord has probably forgiven me for that). I prayed the shortest prayer that I’ve ever prayed in public. I simply said, “Dear Father, I pray that you will save me tonight for Jesus’ sake. Amen.” And then I quickly opened my eyes and looked around the audience. It was really an interesting sight. People didn’t know what was coming off. They apparently had an unsaved preacher in their pulpit—the pulpit of the First Baptist Church. I suppose they began to think, “Well, I’ve been told that they’re really going to the dogs. And they tell me it starts in the seminaries. And here we have a seminary president to prove it. He has just confessed before the Lord that he needs to be saved.”
I watched the people as they turned to one another and began to talk. Some of them began to clean out their ears because they were sure that they had not heard properly. But, they hadheard properly. They were listening to an unsaved preacher. What is even more disconcerting is that you are reading an article by one who is still unsaved. If you were to ask me, “Are you saved?” and I were to give you a biblical answer that is true to my experience, I would have to say, “I have been, I am being, and I shall be saved. Which would you like to talk about?”
Unfortunately, most talk most of the time, if not almost exclusively, is on the first tense of salvation: I have been saved from the penalty of sin. That Scripture calls salvation (Acts 16:31). It also calls that justification (Rom 3:24). But, in addition to what has happened to me, I am being saved every day from the power of sin (Heb 7:25). That the Scripture calls sanctification. Because of God’s faithfulness, I shall yet be saved one day from the presence of sin altogether. That the Scripture calls glorification. All three of those are called “salvation” in the Word of God. But unfortunately, the typical evangelical Christian has narrowed salvation way down to justification and we talk almost exclusively of salvation as justification or regeneration or what happened to him at the beginning of his life in Christ. That is extremely unfortunate. Not unfortunate because this is not worthy of being talked about, but unfortunate because many people, in talking only about that and in trying to squeeze everything into that, tend to distort even the first tense of salvation.
II. Propping Up the Gospel
There are many people today who are rightfully distressed by the level of living of many of their fellow Christians, at least those who profess life in Christ. They see them coming to the Lord Jesus, claiming Him as Savior, but witnessing little or no change in their lives. That is not only the observation of fellow Christians, that is the observation of such a neutral observer as the Gallup Poll. For when the Gallup Poll evaluates lifestyles of all people, religious and not religious, it frankly sees little difference in the lifestyle and ethical system between those who profess to be born again and those who do not. That is disconcerting, to say the least!
Consequently, there have been many people today who, I think, are in danger of corrupting the Gospel of grace because they want to keep adding to what is necessary to be a Christian. They talk about the fruits which are necessary or which must be evident if you are really a child of God. Of course, everybody has a different set. We all have our own little package of what will happen to you. So we have a rigid box that we develop and everybody must fit that box into our set of evidences that must happen in that person’s life if they are real, if they are genuine. So some people would say in that package, “You must dance.” Other people would say, “You must not dance.” Some would include what you must wear in there. Some would exclude what you must wear. Some could wear almost nothing. Some would insist on wearing a great deal. We all have different ways in which we decorate our faces. Some folks would probably feel that I am among the ranks of the unregenerate for having such a bushy mess on my face.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that when it comes to the evidences, there are all different packages that different people lay upon us. Jesus does not do that. Many wise pastors have insisted that the basis for knowing that I am a Christian is not what I do but what God’s Word says about what Christ has done and continues to do for those who have believed (John 1:12;
1 John 5:13). I know I belong to Christ because I have believed in Jesus Christ as my only Savior and Redeemer from eternal destruction. It’s not the evidences of my life that are my basis for knowing that. It’s the Word of God. God said it. That settles it. I am fearful of those today, who because of a genuine, valid concern about the lack of growth and the lack of evident Christian lifestyle, are willing to try to prop up the Gospel by adding to it. Zane Hodges has a book entitled The Gospel Under Siege which is particularly important to read. I would agree with him in saying that much of what is happening today in this attempt to correct and change a believer’s lifestyle isn’t paving the road back to Wittenberg, but it’s paving the road back to Rome. We’re coming back to a justification by works that is not a great deal different from that which Martin Luther was delivered from in his church situation.
III. Moving from the Nursery to the Infantry
Having said that, am I less concerned than some others about the failure of believers to move on to maturity in Christ? No, I am not unconcerned about that. I am desperately concerned about it, for I believe that America probably has the largest spiritual nursery that it has ever had in its history, and that can be a real drain on the resources. We desperately need to move people out of the nursery and into the infantry.
Those of you who have had or now have infants know that infants are not productive. They are only a drain on the resources. They constantly are demanding, demanding, demanding of your time, energy, and resources, and they give nothing in return. They are not productive. But all of us hope that somewhere along the line those cute little babies will grow up and be productive. God has the same desire. He wants His children, who cause rejoicing in heaven when they come to Him, to really grow up and become productive. He gives us the example of the soldier, the athlete, and the farmer (in 2 Tim 2:3-6), and many other illustrations of productivity. God is desirous that we move on to maturity. That we grow up. Most of the content of Scripture is committed to this. The “let us go on to maturity” of Hebrews is the thrust of the Bible. But, never would God compromise the Gospel of Grace by seeking to urge you to move on by making you doubt, through the evidences of your life, whether you’re really a Christian. God doesn’t use double talk. Grace is grace (see Rom 4:4; 11:6).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a heroic German minister during the Nazi era, reacted to the failure of many professing Christians to stand strong under persecution. He coined the term “cheap grace” to characterize their profession. Today others have picked up on that and have been willing to charge others with espousing a cheap grace. I like better what Charles Stanley says in response to that. When some have said “cheap grace,” he says, “Oh, better than that. It’s free. Not cheap, it’s free.” Don’t compromise that. God justifies freely—without cost (Rom 3:24). There is some cleaning up we need to do today in our teaching with regard to that. It starts with the way we deal with children right up through adults. We constantly want to help God out. We constantly want to add to. So, to little children we say, “Give your heart to Jesus.” That is totally contrary to the word of God. Never does God ever tell an unregenerate person to give Him anything. He doesn’t have anything worth giving to God. God says, “I want to give you something.” And he says, “Believe it.” But we have a hard time believing that because everybody else we ever run into insists that we give them something in return. God says, “I want to give you something. Will you believe it and receive it without trying to add to it?” By the way, believing is surely not unique. We do it every day of our lives. What is unique about this believing is the object of it.
And so, the apostle John 99 times uses that perfectly good word which many seem to depreciate, simply believe. Not “give your heart to.” Not “surrender to” and not a lot of other things that put effort on the part of man, but simply “believe.” “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). God is offering something truly unique, and of all things, what I need to do is believe what He has said and receive it. Just accept it. “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling,” the well-loved hymn rightly says. Now that message is being distorted today by well meaning prominent men in pulpits by what is being referred to as Lordship Salvation. That is, that I must receive Christ not only as my Savior, but also as my Lord in order to be saved. It seems like I must come into the family as a mature person, not as a baby. They speak of the gift of life as a “costly gift.” One wonders how they can stray so far from a simple dictionary definition of “gift,” let alone the specific description of Rom 3:24.
I like what Dr. S. Lewis Johnson said years ago: “We accept one as Savior who also is Lord and having received Him as Savior we will find out more and more of His Lordship. If we are slow about it, He will take us to the woodshed. For, He promises us that every son that He receives, He chastises.” So, God is able to deal with those who come simply believing. I believe that there is a missing note in evangelism that can be a legitimate corrective and a powerful motivator in place of what is being used in the compromise of the Gospel today. And, that is to move on in our thinking from justification, through sanctification, to glorification. What is going to happen to me in the life to come?
IV. Training Time for Reigning Time
A few years ago I heard a seminary graduate with a doctorate state in a Sunday school class that when we get to heaven, we will all be equal there. I know of nothing further removed from the truth. There will be no equality in heaven. If there were, then the whole doctrine of rewards would mean absolutely nothing and it would be utterly stupid for Paul to say “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others I myself should become disqualified” (1 Cor 9:27).
Now there is a whole host in Christendom who reads regeneration-salvation into that passage, and therefore, they say that you can lose it, namely, your justification. I belonged to that group for 20 years and I regularly lost it. I gained it on Sunday and lost it on Monday. I lost it for the rest of the week and got it again the next Sunday. So they and I unfortunately missed the whole point of that passage, because all you have to do is read the preceding context and the apostle Paul makes it clear that the thing he is working for is the “prize,” the imperishable crown. He is not talking about justification there at all. He is talking about glorification and what he will be in the life to come. He did not work to gain justification. He did not discipline his body to gain justification, but he plainly says “I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
Disqualified from what? From the incorruptible, imperishable crown! My position of service with Jesus Christ in the life to come! God offers me life without cost. He says you can have it by believing and receiving it. But, what you do with it will have everything to do with what you will do in the life to come in the reign with Jesus Christ. I am becoming today as a child of God what I will be in the life to come. I can be a prince or a boot black depending on what I do with what I have. God leaves that up to me. Choose your position. Today is a day of becoming. Then is a day of being what I have become. I am training today to reign tomorrow. As one Michigan preacher used to put it, “This is training time for reigning time.”
Now there are many ways that God seeks to get that across to me. The Scripture is loaded with this teaching and how we keep missing it I can’t understand. For example, in Luke 19:12-13 Jesus says,
A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return. So he called ten of his servants, delivered to them ten minas, and said to them “Do business till I come.”
In other words, I’ve given you a nest egg. Now go out and see what you can do with it. Use it. Do business till I come. This is the essence of stewardship. Then it goes on,
But his citizens hated him, and sent a delegation after him, saying “We will not have this man to reign over us” (v 14).
This is a reference to those who did not belong to him. Our Lord continues,
And so it was that when he returned, having received the kingdom, he then commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know how much every man had gained by trading. Then came the first, saying, “Master, your mina has earned ten minas.” And he said to him, “Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities” (vv 15-17).
That’s Jesus talking. He continues His parable:
And the second came, saying, “Master, your mina has earned five minas.” Likewise he said to him, “You also be over five cities.” And another came, saying, “Master, here is your mina, which I have kept put away in a handkerchief. For I feared you, because you are an austere man. You collect what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” And he said to him, “Out of your own mouth I will judge you, you wicked servant. You knew that I was an austere man, collecting what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow. Why then did you not put my money in the bank, that at my coming I might have collected it with interest?” And he said to those who stood by, “Take the mina from him, and give it to him who has ten minas.”
In other words, if you don’t know how to steward the resources I’ve given you now, how in the world will I let you steward eternal things? So you have just disqualified yourself from what could have been a significant position of service as a co-ruler with Jesus Christ in the life to come.
Now Jesus must have had that as a familiar story because there is a little different rendition of it in Matthew 25:14-30.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey (vv 14-15).
If we had more space to really dig into this parable it would be a helpful complement to consider because God will judge me not according to your ability but according to my ability that He has sovereignly given me (see Phil 2:12-13). So the five talents that He gives or the two talents or the one talent all are in accordance with ability, and the final judgment is not made on how much you have in the last count. It isn’t the person who has the most clothes that wins or the one who has the most toys that wins, no matter what the bumper stickers say. In the final analysis, the test is faithfulness to what I was given. It isn’t the athlete that runs the fastest, but the one who keeps the rules and finishes the race (see 2 Tim 2:5; 4:7-8).
In 1 Cor 4:2, Paul tells us that “it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.” What is a steward? A steward is a manager of somebody else’s property or equipment. When I came into the family of God, God gave me a sovereign deposit and said, in effect, “Now take it and trade with it. Use it. Show me what kind of commitment you have got. If you do nothing with it you will get nothing.” That’s the gist of 1 Cor 3:12-15. Another portrayal of it is wood, hay, and stubble versus gold, silver, and precious stone. Everyone’s work will be tried of what sort, right? Not how much, but of what sort it is. The wood, hay, and stubble will be burned up but the believer will be saved, “yet so as through fire” (v 15). Why? Grace! Not by what he did. He will be in heaven because of what Jesus Christ did.
There is the grand old hymn that puts it so well: “Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” Why? Grace. That’s one dimension. That’s justification. Unfortunately, I find some people today who want to change the meaning of the word justification from “declaring someone righteous” to “making someone righteous.” That is a failure to understand the teaching of imputation in Rom 4:1-8. That’s a return to Roman Catholicism. That is exactly the definition of justification by Rome: “To make righteous.” No, no, not make righteous, but declare righteous! At the moment of faith my position is changed so that in God’s sight I am perfect. I am righteous. “Dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” As I write these words, I stand in God’s sight faultless and perfect because God Almighty sees me through Jesus Christ. There is no compromise to that. No one who knows Jesus Christ will ever appear at the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20. Believers shall appear, however, at the Judgment Seat of Christ and will be judged by their works (2 Cor 5:10).
It is significant to note that both the unregenerate and the regenerate will be judged by their works. The unregenerate will be judged by their works at the Great White Throne Judgment and the result of that judgment will be degrees of eternal punishment in hell. The regenerate will be judged by their works at the Judgment Seat of Christ and the result of that judgment will either be reward or the lack of it.
I can never be judged for my sins because my sins have been paid for. The Lord Jesus Christ became sin for me. I owed a debt I couldn’t pay. He paid a debt He didn’t owe. Christ, who knew no sin, became the epitome of sin for me in order that I, who knew no righteousness might become the righteousness of God in Christ. What a transaction that was! What an exchange! All of my sins traded in for His righteousness.
Don’t compromise that. Don’t try to shore that up by motivating the person to good works by that. No, the motivation to good works is the Judgment Seat of Christ. And if we would have people who have come to faith in Jesus Christ focus more on the Judgment Seat of Christ, on their glorification, on their manifestation, in the life to come, they would be able to agree with Paul that these light momentary afflictions are producing for them an eternal and exceedingly heavy weight of glory (see 2 Cor 4:17).
I am becoming today what I will be in the life to come. How are you doing? Are you progressing? Will you have ten cities, five cities, or no cities? Will the stewardship that God has put into your hands be taken away from you and given to someone else who knows how to use it? Are you using God’s resources to your own interest? A steward is not an owner; a steward is a manager. A steward is a trustee, and it is required of stewards that they be faithful to the intent of the owner if they are going to be well thought of by that owner.
God tells the one person, “You faithless, wicked servant! I will take away from you what you have. Why didn’t you at least lend it out for interest? Why did you go and hide it in the ground?” What is God talking about? He is not talking about justification, He is talking about our present use of what He has entrusted to us, and our consequent position and privilege of service to His glory in His reign. Where I go is dependent on who I know. What I do when I get there is totally dependent on what I do now with what He gave me from the time I received that life from Him. That’s the motivating factor. Don’t compromise the Gospel of Grace by trying to add to it in order to motivate people on to maturity. The true motivation is glorification and what I shall do in the life to come.
V. From Stewardship to Rulership
God puts that in another picture and I want to take you to this one more picture in Revelation 19. In verses 7-8, we have a beautiful scene. It follows up on those verses that inspired Handel’s famed “Hallelujah Chorus.” You remember them from verse 6:
And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, “Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!” (v 6).
“Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready. And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright” (vv 7-8a).
Now you ask yourself, what is this fine linen? What is this picture? What is this wardrobe he’s talking about here? Well, you don’t have to look very far; he explains it. The next phrase reads, “For the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” The King James Version reads, “The righteousness of the saints.” That’s an unfortunate rendering that leads one astray because the text is not a singular, it’s a plural. The righteousness of the saint is Jesus Christ. “Clothed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.” But, the righteousnesses of the saints are the righteous acts the saints have done since they’ve been declared righteous. They are at this point of the vision clothed in their righteousnesses and, thus, God looks here at this picture not as crowns and not as rulers over cities, but as a wardrobe. So, if you put rewards in this frame of reference, we are today building our wardrobe that we shall wear in the life to come.
Now for us modern Westerners that isn’t all that big a picture because we don’t make major distinctions on the basis of clothes we wear, do we? But in that time they did. There was a wardrobe for a emperor and no one else wore an emperor’s robes. There was a toga for a member of the Roman senate and no one wore his kind of clothes. There was a tunic for a slave, which wasn’t much, and a person wasn’t particularly delighted to wear that wardrobe. People were known by the clothes they wore, and so God, accommodating Himself to that culture and that environment illustrates this whole concept of rewards using that framework. He says that as they come together now after the Judgment Seat, after they have been rewarded, that they are clothed in the garments of their righteousnesses, of their righteous acts.
So in one picture it’s crowns we wear, in another picture it’s garments we wear, in another picture it’s positions of rulership that are there. God seeks to come from every angle possible to try to get us excited about the life to come and to make us think with Paul that this life’s momentary afflictions are nothing compared to the rewards of the coming age. He says it’s nothing in comparison to eternity. You say it’s heavy; He says it’s light in comparison to the heavy weight of glory that is to be mine in the life to come. He says, “Will you take time to think about it? Will you recognize that every cup of cold water you give in Jesus’ name will receive a fair and just reward at the Judgment Seat of Christ?” There is no effort that I can make in the energy of the Spirit of God that will not receive recognition and eternal consequence. If we would get hold of that, if we could only grasp the great doctrine of rewards in our glorification, we would not find ourselves needing to compromise justification and the great Reformation restoration of the truth that means to “declare righteous” not to “make righteous,” in order to beef it up. We have a vacuum in our thinking.
I remember when I first got hold of that passage in Revelation 19 seriously just before 1976. I was asked to speak at the Bicentennial Prophecy Conference in Philadelphia. I entitled my message “Bikini Believers at the Bema.” And I submit to you that in light of 1 Cor 3:12-15 there are going to be, I’m afraid, many. So Paul says, I don’t take this lightly. “I discipline my body.” Unfortunately the NASB says “I buffet my body.” That’s a poor rendering because it is easy to misunderstand. Paul said, “I discipline my body.” One of the toughest things that you and I have to do in this materialistic, affluent, satiated society is to discipline our body. Yet, that is what is going to bring the crown. That’s what is going to bring the position of service with Jesus Christ in the life to come.
I run into some people who say, “Well, I don’t believe you ought to work for reward, I believe you ought to work for the Lord.” I want to submit something to you. It’s impossible for you to work for the Lord without working for reward because the delight of the heart of Jesus Christ is going to be able to give out all the rewards that He can possibly fairly give out. But He won’t do it unjustly (Rev 22:12). He won’t do it unrighteously, and the person who is not willing to pick up his or her cross, so to speak, as a disciple, who is not willing to suffer for Christ, shall not reign.
Second Timothy 2:11-13 is very specific:
This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, we shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He also will deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.
What a beautiful little song they sang then! If I have died with Christ I shall live with Christ. That can stand alone. If I died with Him, I shall live with Him. That is a point action: If there was a moment in time where I was crucified with Christ through my act of faith in His crucifixion on my behalf, if that took place I shall live with Him for all eternity. But he says secondly, if I suffer for Him, I’ll also reign with Him. That’s a second fact. One comes at the beginning of my life in Christ. The other comes at the end. One is a gift. The other is a prize. Endless confusion is created by those who mix these up. Now the next two statements close out the first two. The third one parallels the second one. Let me state the second one again: If I suffer with Him, I shall also reign with Him. If I deny Him—deny Him what? Deny Him that suffering, which He allows me to undergo in His stead, He will also deny me. Deny me what? Deny me the reign that would go for having suffered that way for Him.
But so we don’t get it mixed up at all, he comes back with a fourth statement that parallels the first one which begins “If we are faithless…” Now we would expect the closure of that statement to be “He will be faithless.” That would be the parallel, but it can’t be that way with God because God isn’t like that. And so it says, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.” That’s our God. My God is faithful. My God can’t lie. My God can’t be faithless and He must stick by what He said to me. He said, “I give to them eternal life and they shall never—no not at all, ever—perish” (John 10:28a). “I give eternal life without any works. I give it free. It’s grace. It’s all of grace. And by that they shall become My children. By simply believing and having believed they will not only have the privilege of being My children but they will have the privilege of having the opportunity to use a stewardship that I’ve put in trust to them to earn a position of rulership in the life to come.”
Today I am becoming what I will be in the life to come and that motivates me. I don’t feel like I want to hold back. I want to give it my all. I don’t need to live a long time. What I doneed to do is live qualitatively because a short life of that kind on earth will have a long effect through all eternity. A weight of glory, a kind of manifestation where I shall reflect the glory of Jesus Christ forever and ever. If you don’t know Christ, come drink of the water free of charge (Rev 22:17). Don’t start talking about what you will have to do: you haven’t got the grace to do it. He doesn’t come asking you to bring something. God comes saying, “I have something for you. Come and receive it. Come and get it.” Then when in effect, you have received it and you’ve been made new in Him, you’ve been given life, you will recognize that it’s not only your privilege to have life but it’s your possibility to faithfully use the resources He gave you to help set up your position of service with Christ in the life to come.
In conclusion I go back to the beginning. “Cheap grace” is a bad phrase. It’s not cheap, it’s free, and God offers it that way. Whatever happened to the word believe. Just believe, believe, believe, and a mighty transaction will take place. You will be made a child of God. You will exchange all of your sin for His righteousness. You will never, ever, in all of eternity, be brought under judgment for even one sin again. For if God were to ever judge you for sins once paid for by Jesus Christ, God’s entire kingdom would fall. Sins paid for once can’t be paid for again. Christ paid it in full. From the cross he shouted in triumph, “It is finished!” All you need to do if you are without it is take it. Believe it and receive it.
But reader, if you know Him as your Savior do a spot check. Where are you in the process of becoming? Do you like what you see? If you don’t, you have time to make some changes that will effect you in your position and privilege with Christ in the life to come. Become a believer who’s ready for the Bema.
* Earl Radmacher, who received his ThM and ThD degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, is recognized for his works on inerrancy and, in particular, for his two works Can We Trust The Bible? and Hermeneutics, Inerrancy and The Bible. He served for 25 years as President of Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, Portland, Oregon. He is currently President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Theology Emeritus. Ed.
1For many years Dr. Radmacher has sported a beard. Ed.
2Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege, Revised Edition (Dallas: Redenciï¿½n Viva), 1981, 1992.
3″Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” by Augustus Toplady (1740-1778).
4″The Solid Rock” by Edward Mote (1797-1874).