Judgment Seat of Christ (the Judgment of Believers)
I was corresponding via email with a “big-time” minister a year or two ago (a minister that has a TV show, etc.) and during our conversation it became clear that he wasn’t aware of the fact that believers will stand before the Lord to have our lives judged and rewarded or penalized accordingly. If he was unaware of this biblical truth then it’s likely that the body of Christ at large is as well. Let’s observe two of the main passages on the topic:
For we [Christians] 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.
(11) Since then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men.
2 Corinthians 5:10-11
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we [believers] will all stand before God’s judgment seat… (12) So then, each of us [believers] will give an account of ourselves to God.
Romans 14:10, 12
These passages plainly show that all believers will stand before the Lord and be held accountable for how they lived their lives. They will receive what is “due” them for what they did while in the body—”whether good or bad.”
The Judgment Seat of Christ is the judgment that believers will experience; this is also called the Bema (BAY-mah) Judgment, named after the Greek word for “judgment seat.” Christians will not be evaluated at the Great White Throne Judgment, as that judgment only concerns spiritually-dead people (Revelation 20:11-15). The purpose of the Judgment Seat of Christ is to acknowledge and reward Christians for the good things they did while in the body and to rebuke and penalize them for the bad. The latter would include both sins of commission and sins of omission, as well as an appraisal of their works. A sin of commission is something that we do, like engage in malicious talk about people not present. A sin of omission involves something that we did not do that we should have done. For instance, if God prompts a lady to give someone in need a $100 and she doesn’t do it, or if the LORD calls a man into full-time ministry and he ignores the call. These are sins of omission.
Of course, the believer’s confessed sins are forgiven by the Lord (1 John 1:8-9). This means that God dismisses them when we ‘fess up — the penalty is canceled and He treats us as if we never committed them. Unconfessed sins, on the other hand, must be dealt with and judged for the Bible makes it clear that our Creator will hold Christians accountable for what we do or don’t do in this present age, as the two passages above show.
There’s something in the first passage that we need to consider. After stating Christians will receive what is due them for the good or bad things they did, the apostle Paul then says in verse 11: “Since then, we know what it is to fear the Lord.” The King James Version translates this as “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord.” This statement makes no sense if people just receive rewards at the judgment seat of Christ (as I’ve heard some ministers erroneously teach). Knowing that Christians will be held accountable for the bad things they do in this life can inspire some healthy “terror.” For those of us who are Christians, it’s spiritually healthy to regularly remind ourselves that we will one day stand before the throne of God Himself and give an accounting of our lives. Needless to say, the fear of the Lord inspires holy (pure) living.
The fact that sins not dealt with in this age must be dealt with in the age to come is implied by Jesus’ declaration:
“Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man [Jesus] will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come.”
The implication here is that some sins—sins not dealt with and forgiven in this age—must be dealt with and forgiven in the age to come. We will be held accountable for these sins at the Judgment Seat, penalized and ultimately forgiven. This does not in any way mean that the sufferings of Christ were insufficient to save us. All of our sins that are “under the blood” are forgiven; it’s the sins that are not “under the blood” when we die that must be dealt with at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The Judgment Seat of Christ will also include an examination of our works. Some genuine Christians tend to be disinterested in the kingdom of God and consequently produce few “works” for the advancement of God’s kingdom in this life. Such an absence of works will be viewed as sins of omission. Regardless, our works will be examined and tested at the Judgment Seat.
In this passage Paul shows that a minister’s work will be judged:
If any man builds on this foundation (of Jesus Christ) using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, (13) his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. (14) If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. (15) If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
1 Corinthians 3:12-15
This passage contextually refers to a pastor’s work of building a church congregation, that is, a group of Christian disciples (see verses 6-10 for verification). The foundation that the minister builds on is the foundation of salvation through Christ. The pastor can build on this foundation with gold, silver and costly stones or with wood, hay and straw. “Gold, silver and costly stones” is a metaphor for sound biblical doctrine and Christ-like leadership whereas “wood, hay and straw” represent unsound doctrine and ineffective or abusive leadership.
At the Judgment Seat of Christ every minister’s work will be tested by fire. If what they have built survives they will be rewarded. The only works that will survive are “gold, silver and costly stones.” If the ministers’ works are “wood, hay and straw” these works will be burned up. The ministers themselves won’t lose their salvation but they will certainly “suffer loss.” This indicates that even though it is technically their works that will be tested and burned up, these ministers will personally feel pain or discomfort as a result.
What about abusive pastors and teachers who administer “wood, hay and straw” to such a harmful degree that it severely damages people, even driving some away from the Lord—in effect destroying their Christian faith? Paul answers this question in the next two verses:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? (17) If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17
This is a sobering warning for all Christian ministers. Paul makes it clear that every believer is “God’s temple”; every Christian is a sacred temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Verse 17 solemnly declares that God will destroy any person who destroys this temple. The context is referring to pastors and teachers who destroy Christians with their “wood, hay and straw,” which—again—represent unbiblical doctrine and abusive actions. Many have used verse 17 to preach against smoking and alcohol abuse but the context is plainly referring to ministers whose teachings and actions cause people to fall away from the Lord, in effect destroying God’s temple.
We all know what Paul’s talking about here. Jim Jones is a prime example of a supposed Christian minister whose work ultimately destroyed naïve believers and his work could therefore be categorized as “wood, hay and straw.” David Koresh is another fitting example. These are two well-known cases; I’m sure there are less extreme examples in your area.
Notice what verse 17 plainly says God will do to such a pastor or teacher whose work destroys people: “God will destroy him.” This means that God will cut the abusive, hypocritical minister off from salvation and cast him into the lake of fire where He will “destroy both soul and body,” as Jesus put it in Matthew 10:28. Please note that God will destroy such persons—eradicate them from existence, which includes the horror and torment thereof—not subject them to never-ending conscious torture. This is further support for the view of literal everlasting destruction.
Although this passage from 1 Corinthians 3 contextually refers to the testing of the work of pastors and teachers, we can apply it to all Christians because every believer is called to serve the Lord on this earth, even though the majority is not called to pastoral/teaching ministry. Each Christian will have works that God calls him or her to do and these works will be appraised at the Judgment Seat of Christ. For example, God will call Christians to witness to certain people in their lives; this work will ultimately be tested at the Judgment Seat. Their motives will be evaluated: Did they witness to these people because they love them as God loves them and are following the leading of the Holy Spirit or did they witness to them to fulfill an evangelistic quota or to appear pious? Needless to say, works produced from fleshly motives are “wood, hay and straw” and will be burned up.
All this explains why James said: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Those who preach and teach God’s Word will be held accountable for what they teach at the Judgment Seat of Christ. Needless to say, if you preach or teach the Word make sure that what you say is thoroughly biblical. Defending false teaching (doctrine) on the grounds that your mentor teaches it or your sect supports it won’t cut it. Don’t be a wimpy “yes man” or “yes woman” to the false doctrine others preach just because it’s popular and convenient to do so.
Jesus taught a parable that coincides with Paul’s teaching from 1 Corinthians 3:
“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, who the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time? (43) It will be good for that servant who the master finds doing so when he returns. (44) I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. (45) But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the menservants and maidservants and to eat and drink and get drunk. (46) The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.”
(47) “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. (48) But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”
The “master” in this story is an obvious reference to Jesus Christ. He goes away and puts a “manager” in charge of his “servants” until his return. The “manager” refers to Christian ministers (apostles, pastors, teachers and so on) whom Christ puts in charge of believers, referred to as “servants.” The master (Jesus) instructs the manager (minister) to properly feed and take care of his servants (believers) until his eventual return. One of the primary tasks of Christian ministers is to “feed” the people under their care a proper scriptural diet so the believers can spiritually mature and learn to walk in newness of life in a living relationship with the Lord (see 1 Peter 2:2, Ephesians 4:11-15 and Hebrews 5:12-13). In verses 43-44 Jesus says that the minister who does this will be rewarded. He then brings up those ministers who will be penalized for their “wood, hay and straw” in verses 45-48.
Verse 45 shows an abusive minister who damages those under his “care,” not to mention indulges in gluttony and drunkenness. Verse 46 solemnly declares that such a minister will be “cut to pieces” and cast away as an unbeliever when Jesus returns.
Matthew tells the same story but adds that Jesus “shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:51 NASB). As far as weeping and gnashing of teeth go, this is a solemn reminder that “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31) for God’s enemies will experience “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:27).
Concerning the weeping, if you were an unrepentant rebel against God, would you not be weeping the day you finally fell into His hands for judgment? And would you not be wailing as you are judged unworthy of eternal life and subsequently cast into a vast fiery furnace? Of course you would. This is why James warned rich oppressors to weep and wail for fear of God’s coming judgment, referred to as “the day of slaughter,” when fire will devour them (James 5:1-5).
As for gnashing of teeth, most of us might think that this is a reference to the experience of pain, but in the Bible “gnashing of teeth” describes the wrath of an adversary about to kill his victim – the teeth belong to the tormentor, not the tormented (see Job 16:9, Psalm 35:16, 37:12, Lamentations 2:16 & Acts 7:54). Psalm 112 is the only exception. The psalm starts by sharing how “Blessed is the man who fears the LORD” (verse 1), and goes on to describe such a person in verses 2-9. The final verse mentions the wicked person by contrast:
The wicked man will see and be vexed, he will gnash his teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.
As in the other texts regarding “gnashing of teeth,” the wicked man’s gnashing of teeth is evidently an expression of his fury against the righteous. Yet even while he grinds his teeth in ineffective rage, he wastes away and comes to nothing. The phrase could, in this instance, be interpreted as a reference to pain.
Being “cut to pieces” refers to severe flogging. After this punishment is inflicted the recipient will be cast away to where all unbelievers and hypocrites (pretenders) are disposed of – the lake of fire where “raging fire will… consume the enemies of God” (Hebrews 10:26-27). This coincides perfectly with what Paul said would happen to abusive, false “ministers:” God will destroy them.
In verses 47-48 Jesus says that some “servants” will be beaten with many blows and some with few blows based on their level of spiritual maturity and awareness. The Messiah refers to these people as “servants” and not hypocrites, as is the case with the abusive minister noted in verses 45-46. So Jesus is talking about legitimate Christians who will be judged and penalized at the Judgment Seat. We can confidently conclude this because only believing Christians can be referred to as Christ’s “servants,” not unbelievers. The abusive minister in verse 45 is initially referred to as a “servant” but is exposed as a “hypocrite,” which literally means ‘actor.’ So we’re talking about a person who is only pretending to be a servant of Christ. He or she is a fake. This person may have begun as a legitimate Christian servant but somehow became corrupt over time. Position, power, pride, money, lust, etc. can easily corrupt any of us and cause us to fall away from the Lord if we fail to guard our hearts (Proverbs 4:23).
Whether the servant is punished with many blows or few blows, the fact is that this punishment is of a limited duration. The words “many” and “few” are not specific, but both indicate a limit to the “blows.” In other words, no one will sadistically suffer “many blows” without end throughout all eternity. Consequently, even if we were to misapply this passage to the damnation of unbelievers, it would still not support never-ending torment.
All the above lends support to the likelihood that this next passage refers to the Judgment Seat of Christ:
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. (16) By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick up grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? (17) Likewise every good tree bears good fruit but a bad tree bears bad fruit. (18) A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. (19) Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (20) Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
(21) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (22) Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ (23) Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ ”
Jesus is warning people here about “false prophets.” ‘False prophets’ in the Greek is one compound word pseudoprohetes (soo-doh-prah-FAY-tus); pseudo of course means “false” and prophetes refers to “inspired speakers” or “those who propose to speak for God.” Hence, pseudoprophetes or “false prophets” refers to people who falsely speak for the LORD.
Jesus doesn’t want believers to be misled so he warns us in this passage about those who falsely speak for God and reveals how to recognize them. How do we recognize them? As you can see, Jesus twice says that they can be recognized by their fruit (verses 16 & 20). “Fruit” in this context refers to the “fruit of the spirit” or lack thereof, as shown in this passage:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; (20) idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions (21) and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
(22) But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (23) gentleness and self-control.
As you can see, this passage contrasts the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit.* How can you tell if people are living out of their flesh or out of their spirit? By the “fruit” they bear on a consistent basis: Are they sexually immoral? Hateful? Quarrelsome? Jealous? Have childish fits of rage? Selfish? Envious? Given to drunkard-ness?** Rigidly sectarian (which is what “factions” refers to)? If so, they’re obviously walking according to their flesh. We’re not talking about someone who stumbles, then humbly confesses and gets back up (1 John 1:8-9), we’re talking about people who regularly produce these types of fleshly acts with no concern to repent or change, even when corrected. It’s stubborn, selfish arrogance, impure and simple. People who live out of their flesh like this are fleshly and therefore carnal. A confessing believer who regularly manifests these traits without care of repentance is a carnal-Christian—a Christian ruled by his/her carnal nature. Of course, a “carnal Christian” is a total oxymoron and, if a lasting condition, would indicate that the person isn’t even saved. After all, didn’t Jesus say we could distinguish the true from the false by their fruit?
* Since there is no capitalization in the original Greek, translators have to discern whether “spirit” should be capitalized in reference to the Holy Spirit or not capitalized in reference to the human spirit (e.g. Matthew 26:41). I maintain that whenever a text contrasts flesh and spirit, like Matthew 26:41 or Mark 14:38, “spirit” obviously refers to the human spirit. It makes little difference, however, in light of the fact that the believer’s human spirit is indwelt and guided by the Holy Spirit; hence, if we’re living out of our human spirit (uncapitalized), we’re automatically following the Holy Spirit and therefore living by the Spirit (capitalized).
** I should point out that being a drunkard is not the same as drinking a sip of alcohol. See Deuteronomy 14:26.
The point is that we can determine if people are living out of their spirit simply by the evidence and quantity of fruit of the spirit. Do you see love? Joy? Peace? Patience? Kindness? Goodness? Faith? Meekness (not weakness)? Self-control? If you generally see these fruits in people’s lives, they’re obviously living out of their spirit, meaning they’re spiritual. The more fruit you see, the more spiritual they are. You could also describe them as godly.
The false ministers that Christ notes in Matthew 7:15-23, however, are not godly. They confess Jesus as Lord and are now standing before Him in judgment. They boast of performing great works, like prophesying, exorcizing demons and miracles, with the implication that they functioned within church circles. The Lord doesn’t deny that they did these good works, but condemns them on the grounds that he “never knew them” because they were “evildoers.” These confessing “Christians” are no doubt shocked by Christ’s rejection.
This passage and others covered in this section show that the Bema Judgment is for anyone who confesses Christ as Lord or were in the kingdom at some point. With this understanding, notice that Jesus doesn’t judge the salvation of such people based on their good works because these false ministers had good works; instead he judges them by their fruit or lack thereof, which indicates that they were flesh-ruled “evildoers” despite their good works!
‘What about Eternal Security?’
This question is a natural response to the above data. I want to assure you that the Bible supports the doctrine of eternal security 100% in light of what Jesus said:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (28) I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. (29) My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
Eternal security is true in the sense that no one can steal legitimate believers from their Father’s hand—no person, no circumstance, no devil, no demon. We have eternal life and we will never perish, that is, suffer the second death (Revelation 2:11). This is awesome! However, we must keep in mind the hermeneutical rule that Scripture interprets Scripture. Consequently, this passage must be interpreted in a balanced manner, taking into consideration all relevant passages on the topic, like this one:
Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; (12) if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; (13) if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself.
2 Timothy 2:11-13
Verse 13 is encouraging in that the Lord remains faithful even in light of our unfaithfulness; he won’t disown us. But verse 12 plainly declares that he will disown us if “we” disown him. This corresponds to Jesus’ statement: “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).
A skeptic once asked: “Could God make a stone so big He couldn’t lift it?” The answer is yes, the human will. You see God has blessed humanity with the power of volition. No one can snatch us from our Father’s hand except ourselves. We have a will and therefore the liberty to choose. This is why the LORD made this statement to the ancient Israelites:
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life,”
Although God encouraged them to choose life he couldn’t make them do it. Why? Because they had freewill. Similarly, if we choose to disown the Lord there’s nothing the Lord can do. His hands are tied. He must always be faithful to his Word, and his Word clearly states that he will disown us if we disown him.
Of course some will argue that, technically speaking, God will only disown us if we disown him and, therefore, believers can live like Satan for decades with no care of repentance and not lose their salvation as long as they don’t literally disown him with their tongues. Frankly, this is playing games with God. Jesus Himself addressed this issue with the fake religious leaders of first century Israel, the Pharisees and teachers of the law:
“Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”
First, note that Jesus calls these religionists “hypocrites,” which means ‘actors.’ In other words, although they were the learned religious leaders of Israel they were putting on an act, merely posturing. Everything they did and said was for show and not genuine. In short, they were fakes. Jesus follows up by quoting Isaiah, pointing out that it’s possible for people to say one thing while the truth of the heart is quite the opposite. Paul backed this up in Titus 1:16 when he warned Titus of false believers, including staunch legalists: “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.”
So, whereas the Bible supports the doctrine of eternal security, it does not support the doctrine of unconditional eternal security, often referred to as “once saved always saved.” This is proven by numerous passages where believers are warned of the “deceptiveness of sin” and the dire consequences of an unrepentant sinful lifestyle and the ensuing falling away, such as Paul, Peter, Christ and the writer of Hebrews:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (10) nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (11) And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. (21) It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than to have known it and then turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.
2 Peter 2:20-21
“Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (26) If we [believers] deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, (27) but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.
Please reflect on these passages; they’re unmistakable.
I realize that there are many believers out there who are fervent about their belief in unconditional eternal security, even stubborn. Several people have written me or spoken with me on the topic, attempting to correct, but none of them were able to explain these clear passages.*
* Here are some more in case you’re interested: Romans 11:19-24, Galatians 5:19-21, Galatians 6:7-8, Hebrews 3:6, 3:12 & 6:4-6, James 5:19-20, Jude 5, Matthew 10:22 and John 15:1-6.
I want to assure you that every believer’s salvation is secure as they “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew & Luke 3:8). This is a vital aspect of the believer’s covenant with God and Christians ignore it to their own peril. You can only produce fruit of the spirit when you are walking in the spirit, which means being spirit-controlled rather than flesh-ruled (Galatians 5:19-23). Ephesians 4:22-24 shows that being “spirit-controlled” is a simple matter of 1. putting off your old nature—your sinful nature—2. being transformed by the renewing of your mind (Romans 12:1-2); and 3. putting on your new nature, which was “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” As you do this you’ll naturally “walk in the spirit” and “participate in the divine nature” (Galatians 5:16,25 & 2 Peter 1:4).
What happens when you inevitably miss is? The Bible provides precise instructions for when this occurs:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (9) If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8-9
Temptation to sin is simply the enemy’s attempt to get the believer out of the realm of the spirit and back into the realm of the flesh via the carnal impulses of the flesh. When this happens, you must put into practice the above passage. Go to the Lord and humbly ’fess up. Confession stops prosecution and ushers in God’s forgiveness, purging unrighteousness. When you knowingly sin you enter into a state of non-grace because God holds that sin against you and you’re defiled by that sin. When you sincerely ’fess up, however, the Lord wholly dismisses it and cleanses you from “all unrighteousness,” which means you’re once again in a state of grace, i.e. God’s favor. This is how you “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” It’s a simple principle and following it is vital for a healthy relationship with the Lord. It’s impossible to produce fruit while not keeping with repentance. Believers who do this will eventually be disciplined and, if choosing to remain unrepentant, will be in danger of being rooted out of the kingdom! The Parable of the Fruitless Fig Tree applies:
“…unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
(6) Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. (7) So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
(8) “ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. (9) If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”
Christ is talking to Israelites—people in covenant with God—and he plainly tells them that they would all perish unless they repent, meaning they would suffer the everlasting destruction of the second death. This is in line with the axiom that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Luke 16:16 verifies that the turning point between the Old Testament and the New Testament was John the Baptist; once Christ entered into public ministry the good news of the kingdom of God was preached, meaning the new covenant. So, whereas the ensuing parable of verses 6-9 is applicable to Old Testament saints, it’s more so relevant to New Testament believers and addresses the question: How long can someone in covenant with God walk in known sin without care of repentance before the Lord cuts him/her out of the covenant?
The symbolism of the parable is obvious: The owner of the vineyard represents God; the fruitless fig tree represents an individual in covenant with God (owned by God through Christ*) who’s not bearing fruit; and the caretaker represents Jesus, the mediator between the owner and the fig tree. The owner wants to cut the fig tree down because it hasn’t produced fruit in three years, but the caretaker intercedes and convinces the owner to give the tree one more year wherein the caretaker will do everything he can to get it to be fruitful. If the tree still hasn’t produced fruit by the end of the fourth year the owner and caretaker agree to cut it down and remove it from the vineyard.
* See 1 Corinthians 6:19.
What we see here is patience, mercy and grace: The owner of the vineyard and the caretaker, who represent the heavenly Father and Jesus, are willing to give the tree a total of four years to be fruitful before ultimately removing it from the vineyard, if they must. The story is figurative so we can’t take it strictly literal, i.e. that God will pluck someone out of the kingdom if they’re fruitless for exactly four years. What we can get from it, however, is that God’s patience, mercy and grace are awesome and He will do everything He can to get us to be fruitful because a fruitless tree is a bad tree—a useless tree—and must be rooted out (Luke 6:43-45).
Salvation in Christ is solely determined by whether or not a person is in God’s kingdom—in God’s “vineyard”—through Christ. It’s not by good works, as verified by Romans 11:5-6 and Ephesians 2:8-9 (although, of course, true faith produces fruit, which—in turn—produces good works, as observed in Colossians 1:10 & James 2:14-26). If salvation was determined by good works then the believing thief on the cross wouldn’t be saved. So it all comes down to whether a person is in Christ or not in Christ—in the kingdom or not—which explains The Parable of the Wedding Banquet from Matthew 22:1-14 where the person without “wedding clothes” is rejected and condemned, like the fruitless “prophets” of Matthew 7:15-23. Believers are either “clothed with Christ” or not. Those who aren’t are in for a rude awakening at the Judgment Seat because they’re no longer even believers, as far as God is concerned. They’ve been “rooted from the vineyard.” While good works and the motive for them will be evaluated at the Judgment Seat, and believers will be rewarded or penalized accordingly, their good works don’t determine their salvation.
Those who rigidly advocate the “once saved always saved” doctrine argue that, if people fall away from the Lord, they were never really saved in the first place. They contend that such people merely dabbled in Christianity and their faith was never really sincere; consequently, any positive changes in their lifestyles were superficial, the result of practicing some Scriptural principles, but not actually knowing the Lord. Surely this is true, but the clear passages cited above and many others show that Christians can abort their salvation if they choose to neglect repentance and faith. We have eternal security in Christ as we “keep with repentance” and continue in faith because repentance and faith are the conditions for accepting the gospel (Acts 20:21). These conditions correspond to the first two of the six basic doctrines of Christianity (Hebrews 6:1-2). Chew on that.
This explains why the Bible stresses “keeping with repentance” and persevering in faith, as Paul pointed out:
He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel.
If it takes faith to be saved it naturally follows that people cannot be saved if they come to a point where they no longer have faith. That’s simple enough to understand, isn’t it? Let’s not make the issue more complicated than it is. The Bible teaches that it’s through faith and perseverance that we inherit what is promised, including eternal salvation, not faith for a little bit and then giving up (Hebrews 6:12 & Luke 8:13).
For anyone who argues that there are no conditions to reconciling with God through the gospel then that would mean that everyone is saved or will be saved, which is universalism.
The fact that some believers fall away because they refuse to keep in repentance and continue in faith does not negate the good news of the gospel for those who obediently comply with these conditions. As long as the believer keeps in repentance and perseveres in faith their salvation is guaranteed. This explains why I never worry about my salvation: As long as you keep with repentance and continue in faith you’re saved. Period. So what’s the problem? There is no problem unless a person is living a lifestyle of sin with no care to repent. The Holy Spirit will always convict such people and move them toward repentance; unfortunately, some will resist the Spirit’s counsel, hardening their hearts further.
Suffice to say, don’t play foolish games with God. You can draw whatever conclusion on the matter that gives you peace and helps you sleep at night, just be careful not to play around with “the deceitfulness of sin” or encourage others to do so either. We’re all going to stand before the Lord and give an account one day where “each of us will receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10-11 & Romans 14:10,12).
The obvious weakness of the “once saved always saved” teaching is that it can create spiritual complacency, whereas the weakness of the opposite extreme—that believers can lose their salvation at any moment—creates anxiety. Both of these positions are extremes and unscriptural. The sensible and balanced middle position is that a believer’s salvation is secure as one walks in the spirit and bears the fruit thereof, avoiding both complacency and insecurity. If you miss it, be quick to repent, and God will forgive you; this is “keeping with repentance.” Then continue moving forward knowing that “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). Such people have eternal security in Christ (John 10:27-29). Eternal security is a biblical doctrine, but unconditional eternal security is not. Do not be deceived (Galatians 6:7-8).
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