Dr. Randy White
I hear very little chatter, preaching, teaching, or discussion about heavenly rewards for the believer. Most of what I do hear carries a negative tone, such as, “I’m not motivated by rewards, I just do what I do because I love the Lord.” Though such talk has a sanctimonious feel, I wonder if it has a Biblical base.
Rewards are clearly taught in the New Testament. I believe that an understanding of rewards can motivate our walk with Jesus and our service for His coming Kingdom. I want to share four key elements to a proper understanding of rewards—
1. REWARDS CANNOT BE EQUATED WITH SALVATION.
Very often, Scriptures that speaks of reward is equated with salvation. This is a frightening error, often bringing an unnecessary fear of the loss of salvation to believers who are not well-grounded in the doctrine of grace.
Get this clear: God gives salvation. It is a costly gift that is freely given and freely received.
The only requirement for salvation is to place your faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ Only in this understanding of salvation is there any assurance of salvation. If we think that our repentance, profession of faith, recitation of a sinner’s prayer, baptism, church membership, or Christian faithfulness are required elements of salvation, then we place a works element into salvation, and the “reward” we receive will be no reward at all, “but as what is due.”
Paul makes this clear in Romans 4:4-5 as he reminds us of a foundational truth—
Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Often, Scriptures about rewards are misinterpreted to be Scriptures about salvation. This leads to terrible doubts about eternal security. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, for example, that we are to “run in such a way” that we may win. The prize is an imperishable wreath. Paul concludes that even he is working to “discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
If Paul can be disqualified from salvation, then I am afraid! But why would the one who proclaimed such assurance (“… for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day” 1 Timothy 1:12) also be concerned about being disqualified? Clearly, Paul didn’t have a sliver of doubt about his salvation, because he understood grace and its amazing nature. His concern was for rewards, not salvation.
2. REWARDS ARE WORKED FOR, THEY ARE NOT GIFTS.
Just as many salvation Scriptures have been inappropriately connected with reward, many reward Scriptures are erroneously equated with salvation. When this happens, we forget the aspect of works in (not for) our salvation.
In 1 Corinthians 3:5-8 Paul rebukes the Corinthian believers for creating factions—some with Paul, some with Apollos. Paul points out in verse 6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” He continues that, “neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything” (v. 7). This seems to minimize the role of works in the life of believers. Paul does this because he is emphasizing the growth-giving work of God that outshines all of our earthly work. If we work to gain a following of men, we are deceived.
So if we are not to work to gain a following of men, are works not important? Answering in the negative would be incorrect and a false assumption. Paul concludes that “We are God’s fellow workers” (v. 9) and that “each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (v. 8).
John records the words of Jesus in Revelation 22:12—
“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”
Salvation is given. Rewards are earned. When do we get them?
3. REWARDS ARE GIVEN IN HEAVEN.
We won’t get them here. Rewards are not the prosperity gospel that teaches each good work receives a quick, earthly, and often in-kind reward. Rewards are “imperishable” and thus can only be gained in heaven.
1 Corinthians 3:12-15 shows that—
…if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
“The day” that will “show it” is the day of the believer’s judgment, when we stand before the throne and each man is rewarded “according to his labors” (1 Corinthians 3:8).
4. REWARDS SHOULD BE A MOTIVATOR FOR GODLY LIVING.
Rewards are a work of the flesh that honors God. We ought to work to receive rewards. 2 Peter 1:5-11 teaches us that along with our saving faith we are to “apply all diligence” to add these works to our faith—
- Moral excellence
- Brotherly kindness
Then Peter gives the powerful reminder that when these are added to faith with all diligence, that “they render you neither useless nor unfruitful” (2 Peter 1:8) and “in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you” (2 Peter 1:11). An abundant entrance is both eternal and with the words, “well done, good and faithful servant.” This ought to be a powerful motivator for the believer—to please the Savior.
The Apostle John tells us that it is possible to “lose what we have accomplished.” He is not speaking of salvation. His concern is that “you may receive a full reward” (2 John 1:8). To walk with Christ, be filled with the Spirit, know Christ, and love Christ are terms the New Testament writers use to speak about our growing relationship with Christ. They are not salvation words, but relationship words.
There is no law nor work of the law that can save. There is no work of the flesh that can sanctify. But rewards are a work of the law of Christ, performed in the flesh, that honors God. So, let us proclaim together—
We’ll work till Jesus comes,
We’ll work till Jesus comes,
We’ll work till Jesus comes,
And we’ll be gathered home.[i]