I was speaking with someone at church a few weeks back and we both wondered what 2 Corinthians 5:10 meant:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. 2 Corinthians 5:10 English Standard Version (ESV)
Are believers judged? Rather than guess, I offered to look into it. Here’s what I found Calvin had to say:
We must be manifested. Though this is common to all, yet all without distinction do not raise their views in such a way as to consider every moment, that they must appear before the judgment-seat of Christ…For then the books, which are now shut, will be opened (Daniel 7:10).
That every one may give account. As the passage relates to the recompensing of deeds, we must notice briefly, that, as evil deeds are punished by God, so also good deeds are rewarded, but for a different reason; for evil deeds are requited with the punishment that they deserve, but God in rewarding good deeds does not look to merit or worthiness.
For no work is so full and complete in all its parts as to be deservedly well-pleasing to him, and farther, there is no one whose works are in themselves well-pleasing to God, unless he render satisfaction to the whole law. Now no one is found to be thus perfect. Hence the only resource is in his accepting us through unmerited goodness, and justifying us, by not imputing to us our sins.
After he has received us into favor, he receives our works also by a gracious acceptance. It is on this that the reward hinges. There is, therefore, no inconsistency in saying, that he rewards good works, provided we understand that mankind, nevertheless, obtain eternal life gratuitously…
So, here, I think we have half the explanation. All humankind is judged for the good and bad that they’ve done in this life. Any good we can do is only good insofar as God does not count our sins against us. This is only possible through faith in Christ’s saving work on the cross. And that, too, is freely given by Him alone to those who do not merit it.
But what of the condemnation due for the bad that we do? The scriptures say:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. John 5:24 (ESV)
Calvin says about this verse:
He that heareth my word. Here is described the way and manner of honoring God, that no one may think that it consists solely in any outward performance, or in frivolous ceremonies. …But here Christ demands from us no other honor than to obey his Gospel…
Hath eternal life. By these words he likewise commends the fruit of obedience, that we may be more willing to render it…
And shall not come into condemnation. There is here an implied contrast between the guilt to which we are all naturally liable, and the unconditional acquittal which we obtain through Christ; for if all were not liable to condemnation, what purpose would it serve to free from it those who believe in Christ?
The meaning therefore is, that we are beyond the danger of death, because we are acquitted through the grace of Christ; and, therefore, though Christ sanctifies and regenerates us, by his Spirit, to newness of life, yet here he specially mentions the unconditional forgiveness of sins, in which alone the happiness of men consists. For then does a man begin to live when he has God reconciled to him; and how would God love us, if he did not pardon our sins?
…Though life be only begun in us, Christ declares that believers are so certain of obtaining it, that they ought not to fear death; and we need not wonder at this, since they are united to him who is the inexhaustible fountain of life.
But what shall we do with such confidence? I suggest, with Calvin, that we cast off fear and live a life worthy of our gracious God’s gift.