I can remember being confused by preaching I heard growing up. On one hand, I would hear appeals to trust Christ and experience his free forgiveness which would remove my sins as far as the east is from the west. I was assured that they would not be remembered against me any more. Any yet on the other hand, I remember many times trembling in my seat as the evangelist would thunder for me to stop sinning and live for God because one day I would stand before God and give an account. Every word, every action would be accounted for before this holy God. I was confused.
This raises an important question. Will God judge Christians one day? One one hand, the answer seems to be clearly "yes." Paul says that we will "all stand before the judgment seat of God" and each of us "will give account of himself to God" (Rom 14:10-12). He says something similar to the Corinthians: "For 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).
But what is the nature of that judgment?
Wayne Grudem helps us understand this better: "it is important to realize that this judgment of believers will be a judgment to evaluate and bestow various degrees of reward" (Bible Doctrine, p. 455). This judgment is one of reward, not of condemnation. Jesus assures his followers that they will "not come into judgment" (John 5:24) and Paul unequivocally declares that "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). Revelation 11:18 describes the day of judgment as a time "for rewarding your servants."
(1) Doesn't Paul tell local church believers in Corinth that they will give an account for the things they did while in the body, both good and bad (2 Cor. 5:10)? This sounds like sins that we committed as believers will be brought up at the judgment seat.
Remember that Scripture assures us there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ and that the judgment (as we have seen) is a time of degrees of reward for a believer. With these things in mind, certainly Rolland McCune is correct when he notes regarding this verse, "These are the works that will inevitably follow and will manifest the regeneration experience and the believer's resultant natures; some deeds will be good and others bad. The 'good' and the 'bad' are probably to be understood in the sense of being rewardable and unrewardable" (Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 413).
(2) When speaking of the judgment, doesn't Paul say that when the Lord comes he will "bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart" (1 Cor. 4:5)? This sounds like all of a believers secrets sins, words, and actions will be revealed on the last day. Were the preachers right who said that God would one day show us all of our sins on a big screen and this would be cause for our weeping?
Grudem again notes that the context of this verse is one talking about "commendation" or praise (epainos) that comes from God (Bible Doctrines, p. 455). Assurances from Scripture also give us hope: "You will cast all our sins into the depth of the sea" (Mic. 7:19); "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12); "I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isa. 43:25); "For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more" (Heb. 8:12).
This should lead us to understand that there is now no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. In Christ, our sins have been removed and will truly be remembered against us no more. The Christian will one day stand before God--not to have his sins recalled and judged, but to receive his reward. Certainly, as Robert Culver notes, "there will be loss of rewards which can only be gained in the present life by proper stewardship of God's gifts of abilities, of time and of strength through the Spirit." This will even lead to grief over "what might have been" (Systematic Theology, p. 1070). But this is different from the popular conception that the believer will be reminded of his sins and be judged according to them. In Christ, they are removed. In Christ, they are forgiven. In Christ, there is now no condemnation.
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Addendum: After I posted this, a friend sent me a paper he wrote on this topic that I thought was helpful. I've attached it to the post for those who want to read a bit more. I was particularly helped by (1) the historical observation that Paul would have understood the Bema seat as referring to reward and not punishment and (2) the section at the end of the paper discussing the theological tensions of a judgment seat for believers, and the analogy of the judgment being like a commencement ceremony.