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Starbucks. Marriott. Southwest Airlines. Even Domino’s Pizza. It seems that just about every company has some kind of rewards program. The more you eat, drink, fly, or spend the night, the more you earn. Rewards programs make sense because they reflect the way that the world works. When we work, we earn a wage. Our accomplishments often bring us praise and perks.

So it would seem that when the New Testament writers speak about heavenly rewards in the kingdom of God, we understand exactly what they are talking about. If we work hard in the Christian life, then we will earn blessing from God, right? Wrong. The Bible’s teaching on rewards is just one example of the way that God turns our expectations and assumptions upside down.

If only for this reason, we need to give careful thought to what the Scripture says (and doesn’t say) about heavenly rewards. We may think about this biblical teaching along five lines.

First, there are heavenly rewards, tied to the obedience and service of the believer in this life. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is filled with references to heavenly rewards (Matt. 5:12, 46; 6:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18). Rewards are only for those who trust in and follow Christ, not for unbelievers. These rewards will be given not in the present but in the future, after the believer leaves this life (see 16:27). Rewards relate to the good works that we do in this life, including such minor and insignificant actions as “giving one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple” (10:42).

The Apostles no less emphasize the fact and importance of rewards in the Christian life. Addressing ministers and elders, Paul says that the last day will be a time of sifting and assessing of ministerial labors. “The fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:13–14). Addressing all believers, Paul speaks of “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Paul encourages “bondservants” to live in faithful obedience to Christ because they know “that from the Lord they will receive the inheritance as their reward” (Col. 3:22, 24).

Rewards are only for those who trust in and follow Christ, not for unbelievers. These rewards will be given not in the present but in the future, after the believer leaves this life.

Second, there are differences in heavenly rewards, with some believers receiving more or less than other believers. Jesus underscores this point in His parable of the minas (Luke 19:11–27). In this parable, a king gives his servants each one mina. After some time has passed, each servant appears before the king and gives an account of what he has done with that mina. The first servant has earned ten minas with his one mina, and the second servant has earned five minas with his one mina. The king rewards the first servant with “authority over ten cities” and the second servant with authority over “five cities.” There is inequality in these heavenly rewards. Some will get more than others. But if the rewards are unequally bestowed, they are not randomly assigned. Rewards in heaven are proportionate to (but never based on) obedience on earth—the servant who earned ten minas receives authority over ten cities, and the servant who earned five minas receives authority over five cities. The reward for the investment so outweighs what was earned that our earthly obedience does not actually merit it. The reward is not based on obedience in that meritorious sense.

Third, every believer is justified on exactly the same basis, the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. The Scriptures teach that “none is righteous, no, not one,” that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:10; 6:23). Far from earning life and heaven, humans have earned death and hell. By nature, we are guilty of Adam’s first sin (in addition to all our own sins). We are therefore born into this world condemned, deserving of judgment. The sinner’s hope is not in himself but in Christ. As Paul shows us in Romans 5:12–21, Christ is the second Adam—descended from Adam but not “in Adam.” He is altogether righteous and obedient and has therefore merited life. At the cross, He paid in full the penalty for His people’s sin. Christ’s obedience and death are the “righteousness” that comes as a “free gift” to every sinner who trusts in Christ (v. 17). That righteousness is counted to the sinner the moment that the sinner believes (v. 19). On the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, the sinner is counted righteous, or justified (4:4–5). Justification is through faith but not on the basis of faith, and even faith is the free gift of God to the undeserving sinner (Eph. 2:8). Therefore, every Christian has exactly the same title to heaven—the merits of Christ, credited and received through faith alone. No person has any right to boast before God. Our boast is only in the Lord (1 Cor. 1:29, 31).

Fourth, justification and heavenly rewards are not in contradiction or tension. At first glance, it may seem that they are opposed to each other. Justification is based solely on Christ’s work, but heavenly rewards are tied to our works. Justification gives every believing sinner exactly the same thing, but heavenly rewards will render believers visibly different from each other. On closer inspection, there is no contradiction or tension between these two lines of biblical teaching. In the first place, we reiterate that only the merits of Christ admit any sinner to heaven. When we are in glory, our only right to be there comes from what Christ did for us in His life and death. We pray the prayer of the tax collector—“God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)—until we take our last breath on earth. Next, the rewards that God gives are the gift of grace. Jesus’ parable of the minas testifies to this reality. The rewards bestowed are entirely out of proportion to what the king’s servants have done—ten cities for the small sum of ten minas. We in no way merit or earn our heavenly rewards.

God in Christ is pleased to accept our faulty, imperfect, sin-stained obedience. The rewards that He gives are so out of proportion to what we do that it is clear that they are rewards of grace.

How, then, can we put justification and heavenly rewards together? Justification freely gives the sinner title to eternal life (Rom. 5:17). What is eternal life? It is the knowledge of God in Christ (John 17:3) and to dwell in the presence of God as our God (Rev. 21:3). Rewards capture the fact that believers in heaven will not experience that life in equal degrees. Some will enjoy life in fuller and greater measure than others. Theologians have helpfully used the illustration of vessels or containers to make this point. Every believer is an empty vessel who will be filled full in heaven. No one will experience lack or dissatisfaction. But each believer in heaven will be a differently sized vessel, with the size proportionate to that believer’s obedience on earth. One holds sixteen ounces, another a gallon, and yet another forty gallons. And because heaven is a world of perfect love, and love does not envy (1 Cor. 13:4), we will delight only in those believers who are “larger vessels” than we are. Everyone will be filled full, some will take in more of heavenly life than others, and no one will envy or complain.

Fifth, heavenly rewards serve critical purposes in the Christian’s life on earth. Scripture reveals the existence of heavenly rewards for practical purposes. For one thing, heavenly rewards should motivate us to obey God in the here and now. Importantly, Jesus tells us that God is pleased to give rewards to disciples for actions that the world deems inconsequential (Matt. 10:42; compare Col. 3:24) or for obedience that meets with resistance and persecution in this life (Matt. 5:11–12). Jesus is motivating us to do the small things and the hard things that make up so much of the Christian life. Rewards encourage us to pursue the life of sanctification and holiness that every Christian must pursue (Heb. 12:14). Rewards appeal to the Christian’s deepest desire—to know God in Jesus Christ. Rewards hold out to us the reality and blessedness of heaven, especially when this fleeting life on earth is difficult and miserable.

But one of the most important things that rewards do for Christians is to remind us of the character of our God. Among Satan’s primal lies is that God is not good and does not want what is for our true good and happiness (see Gen. 3:1–7). Scripture gives us reminder after reminder of the truth about God—He is good, and what He does is good (Ps. 119:68). All that our record deserves from God is condemnation and death. By His everlasting mercy, the Father has united us to His Son. Christ has taken our record and paid the price for it, and God has given us Christ’s record and the life that it merits (2 Cor. 5:21). Our justification testifies to the goodness and grace of God. Furthermore, God in Christ is pleased to accept our faulty, imperfect, sin-stained obedience. The rewards that He gives are so out of proportion to what we do that it is clear that they are rewards of grace. God longs for us to give Him the obedience that is His due, so He holds out these rewards to motivate and encourage us to serve Him in this life. Our sanctification testifies to the goodness and grace of God.

I will continue in this life to participate in corporate rewards programs. I like getting perks for what I buy and do. But I am so grateful that God’s kingdom and eternal life do not work that way. Trusting in Christ’s merits alone and striving now more and more to enjoy in glory the life that God has freely given me on earth—that is a “rewards” program that only God could put together.

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From the February 2023 Issue
Feb 2023 Issue