What sort of rewards can Christians expect in the New Creation?
Does that question sound odd? Surely if we trust Christ aren’t we all going to receive the same reward in heaven? Isn’t that what Jesus’ death was about? But this question seems to suggest that we can somehow earn an ‘improved’ experience in the next life with some shrewd activity in this one. It doesn’t seem to fit in with our theological system. It looks like we’re denying ‘grace’ and introducing ‘works’ by the back door. However, we ought not to be too quick to reject the notion of different heavenly rewards because some of the ‘big names’ of Church History were enthusiastic proponents of the view.
Augustine, the Early Church theologian said,
‘we believe that there is one life to all the saints, but the rewards are diverse according to labours’.
Ambrose, the great preacher of the Early Church, reflecting on Luke 6:21 said,
‘As the increase of virtues, so also is the increase of reward’.
John Calvin, the 16th Century Reformer said,
‘We should regard as above all controversy the teaching of Scripture that, just as God, variously distributing his gifts to the saints in this world, beams upon them unequally, so there will not be an equal measure of glory in heaven, where God shall crown his own gifts’.
And in our own day Don Carson commenting on 1 Corinthians 3 says,
‘In the analogy drawn from the building industry, God is the one who judges the quality of each builder’s labour – and in principle that opens up the possibility not only of loss but of reward’.
Of course, amassing the world’s greatest theologians isn’t conclusive. It’s entirely possible that they could all be wrong. However, if we can establish this concept from the scriptures we should believe it. Calvin knew that and said,
‘for anyone who closely studies the scriptures, they promise not only eternal life but a special reward for each’.
So let’s closely study the scriptures. I hope to show that although everyone who puts their trust in the saving work of Christ will be in heaven, nevertheless our life here on earth does contribute to our experience of glory in heaven.
1. Heavenly rewards are taught in the scriptures
There’s ample biblical support for the assertion that we can expect degrees of reward in eternity depending on how we live for God on earth. Jesus talked frequently about heavenly rewards. In the Sermon on the Mount he said,
‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal’.
Jesus didn’t mean simply that heaven itself is a reward, though in a sense that’s true. It’s a reward given to Christ that becomes ours through union with Him. But Jesus wasn’t talking about God’s gracious reward of heaven. He wanted his followers to invest wisely for eternity rather than plough all their activity into seeking rewards in this life. Paul applied the principle of eternal rewards to gospel ministry. Talking about local church work he said,
‘If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’.
In these words the relative value of a Christian’s service is likened to the relative durability of various building materials. At the future Day of the Lord an assessment of each Christian’s service will be tested ‘by fire’. Only that which endures this test will remain for the eternal age. However, if someone’s work survives this test they will receive a ‘reward’. We’re not told what this will consist of but it’s fair to assume that the value of the reward will be relative to the degree of durability of the work they’ve done. The one whose work does not survive the fire will also be saved but they will suffer loss. The loss this man suffers is not the loss of salvation but loss of reward. This passage therefore speaks about a reward that some believers receive and others do not.
2. Heavenly rewards are gained by our loyalty to Christ
If there’s a reward to be had surely we want to know how it’s to be gained. Fundamentally it’s our loyalty to Christ that will be rewarded. This loyalty will be evident in our love for him, our obedience to his commands, our willingness to suffer for his work and our endurance of persecution for his name. We see this in 2 Corinthians where Paul writes,
‘For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal’.
Paul is saying more than he has a great hope in heaven that enables him to endure suffering. He’s suggesting that the affliction he suffers has an effect on the weight of glory he’ll experience. The same idea is present in Jesus’ words in Matthew 5,
‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you’.
Jesus is not simply saying that everyone who is persecuted will be rewarded by one day experiencing heaven. The reward that Jesus promises appears to be recompense for the degree of grief they’ve endured in this life. Perhaps he means that we’ll enjoy being in the presence of Christ for eternity so much more if our experience of life in this world has been characterised by suffering for his name.
3. Heavenly rewards are related to our service of Christ
In his sermon ‘the weight of glory’ CS Lewis makes the helpful distinction between two types of rewards. An unnatural reward is one that’s unrelated to the activity that we do in pursuit of it. For example, seeking money as a reward for love would be an unnatural reward. And so if any man marries a woman for her money we understandably call him a mercenary. That would be selfish and wrong. So if we’re hoping that our evangelistic endeavours will gain for us a 4×4 for some eternal ‘off-roading’ we’re going to be disappointed. A ‘Chelsea tractor’ is an unnatural reward for preaching Christ! A natural reward is one that’s related to the activity that we do to pursue it. So there’s a natural connection between the reward and the deed. Usually the reward is the natural completion of the activity done in pursuit of it. The reward is the fulfilment of the activity or its consummation. And so if any man seeks marriage as the reward for his love for a woman that’s a natural reward. It’s the fulfilment of his courting. So we talk to our friends and family about Christ because we hope that our evangelistic endeavours will gain for us their eternal company and Christ’s honour. Paul speaks of this expectation in 1 Thessalonians. He wrote,
‘For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy’.
The eternal reward that Paul was looking forward to was the people over whom he had laboured in gospel ministry. Jesus’ parable in Luke 19 about the Minas sends us also in this direction. Minas are a form of currency and not grubby Welsh coal workers with a propensity for harmony singing. An easy mistake to make! In this intriguing story the returning King brings the servants’ work under scrutiny. Those servants whose work is attested receive relative rewards. The distinctions in those rewards are different degrees of responsibility. We need to be careful in over pressing the details of a parable. But it seems fair to assert that our stewardship of talents, gifts and opportunities, our witness, service and ministry will be subject to some kind of assessment. This will happen at the coming of our returning King. In so far as we have proved ‘good and faithful’ servants we’ll receive an appropriate ‘reward’ in terms of seeing our work preserved for the eternal kingdom and perhaps also in terms of additional degrees of responsibility in the heavenly age. The main point of the parable is that we must all be faithful in working with the gifts that Christ has given us. But it would seem that the added detail about the five cities and the ten cities has at least some significance. It’s also interesting to note that the reward seems to be a matter of increased responsibility rather than merely increased enjoyment.
But a couple of nagging doubts may remain. The Bible may not answer all of our queries and therefore we’ll have to be satisfied with what it asserts and wait for the gaps to be filled in. But let’s consider three major objections and consider possible answers.
Don’t heavenly rewards deny grace?
We might put the objection like this, ‘If we earn an ‘improved’ experience in heaven because of our obedience doesn’t that mean that we’ve deserved it and doesn’t this make God’s grace unnecessary?’ Not at all, the rewards are gifts of God’s grace they can’t be anything else. Any reward that God gives is given in strict justice in accordance with our inner motives and our outward actions. Therefore any rewards we receive will be given in response to the evidence of God’s grace in our lives. Everything that we do is imperfect and doesn’t directly merit reward. And so our reward is based upon the unmerited goodness of God and not upon the personally gained merit of the believer. It’s as though God rewards the effects of his grace in our lives. Therefore our obedience, which God graciously decides to reward, is something that He has enabled. In Philippians 2 Paul puts it this way,
‘Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure’.
We work out our salvation in obedience but it’s God who enables that obedience. We must be clear that our obedience never obligates God to reward us in such a way that we have put Him in our debt. God’s rewards must not be thought of like an employer’s wage. When we fulfil our job description as employees we deserve to be paid for our work. But God is not required to pay up. God’s rewards must be thought of more like a Doctor’s prescription. When we follow the Doctor’s advice and take a course of medicine we don’t get well because we earned it. We get well because the Doctor’s wise guidelines were the path to our health.
Aren’t heavenly rewards self motivated?
We might put the objection like this, ‘If we’re seeking our own eternal happiness isn’t that just selfish?’ It just seems so profoundly un-Christian to suggest that we can improve our lot in heaven if we put in the hard yards down here. It seems selfish and it’s inconceivable that Jesus would be associated with promoting that sort of attitude. So what are we missing? This objection is built on the assumption that it’s wrong to pursue our own eternal happiness. However, that’s not necessarily the case. It’s wrong to pursue our own happiness only if doing so excludes the happiness of others or we pursue it at the expense of others. But where our ambition is to be obedient to God, loyal to Christ and serve other people and doing those things is the genuine desire of our heart it’s not selfish. The essential point is not that self-regard is wrong, what’s wrong is a perverted view of self. It’s impossible to escape from oneself. But what matters is not whether a person’s actions are self regarding or not – they are inevitably so [self-neglect is a psychological disorder] but what sort of ‘self‘ a person wants to foster. What ought to motivate us is the reward of being completely renovated in Christ and of fulfilling our divinely assigned role in heaven. That desire is not sinful or immoral. Jesus’ command to ‘lay up treasures in heaven’ presupposes that our problem is not that we’re too busy seeking our eternal happiness but that we’re too busy seeking happiness in the wrong things. If we cultivate the desire to lay up treasure in heaven it will reveal not a selfish heart but heart set on the things of God.
Won’t heavenly rewards provoke envy?
We might put the objection like this, ‘if we’re not all treated the same in heaven won’t we be disappointed and jealous of the treatment given to others?’ If we’re honest about our sinfulness this thought is not unfamiliar to us when we reflect on the different way that God has gifted others at church. But praise God that in eternity we won’t have a sinful heart from which those sort of wicked thoughts come. Instead of envy and jealousy eternity will be the place of supreme joy and fulfilment for all that are there. Jonathan Edwards wrote,
‘It will be no damp to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them: for all shall be perfectly happy, everyone shall be perfectly satisfied.’
Part of that joy will be a submissive willingness, the like of which we’ve yet to experience, to be content and approve of the sovereign appointments of God. But also, as Edwards goes on to argue, far from different degrees of rewards reducing the joy of anyone in heaven it will actually add to everyone’s overall happiness. It’s hard for us to conceive of this but listen to what he wrote, ‘Those who are not so high in glory as others, will not envy those that are higher, but they will have so great, and strong, and pure love to them, that they will rejoice in their superior happiness; their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it.’ It all sounds unimaginably good, but he may be right.
In summary we’ve seen that God offers to reward us for our lives of loyalty to Christ. Nothing we do for Christ in this life will go unrecorded. And so God is not indifferent to the sacrifices we’ll make to put the gospel first in our lives, as our abilities and opportunities allow. He’s not unconcerned about the flak we’ll have to endure from others for our principled ethical stance in the classroom, in the hospital or in the office. He’s not unsympathetic about the effort we put into praying for and evangelising our friends. He sees it all. But wonderfully nothing we do for Christ will go unrewarded. And so pursue heavenly rewards!
The End of the World Bruce Milne, Kingsway, pp120-123
The Last Things Paul Helm, Banner of Truth, pp 103-107
Anthony Hoekema, the Bible and the Future, Eerdmans, pp 262-264
Francis Turretin, ‘the Last Things’, The Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 3, pp621-630