The idea of receiving some sort of reward, honor or earned responsibility in either Heaven or the New Earth really bothers some people. It should make us uncomfortable a little. It is a fundamental truth that we don’t deserve to experience the joys of Heaven or the freedom of a new creation. We are sinners and we can only gain access to these places as a gift.
Still, the Bible (primarily Jesus) speaks of reward, treasure, and commendation frequently. So how can being saved by grace and receiving an earned reward go together?
It starts with serving as a disciple. One cannot even be a true disciple of Jesus without understanding that we are so chosen by grace. The same is true of being a “steward”. You don’t have the job unless you’ve been hired by God. So for a successful disciple/steward the right attitude is required. Jesus puts it this way:
So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.”Luke 17:10
There is no room for entitlement, competition, or pride. We serve Jesus because we love Jesus, we believe in Jesus’ work, we are commanded to serve, and if we receive nothing for it, it was still the appropriate reaction to how Jesus has served us by His life and death. That said, it doesn’t mean that Jesus can’t reward or honor whoever he wishes.
Just looking at the word “reward” as it refers to something that is given after death, we come up with this list:
Matthew 5:12/Luke6:23 Enduring persecution because of Jesus
Matthew 5:46/Luke 6:35 Loving your enemies
Matthew 6:1-4 Giving to the needy secretly
Matthew 6:5-6 Praying secretly (Could be an earthly reward as well)
Matthew 10:40-41 Supporting the workers of God’s Kingdom
Matthew 10:42 Giving a cup of cold water to a child (Indicating the scope of what God rewards)
1 Corinthians 3:14 Building on the foundation of grace in Christ honorably
1 Corinthians 9:17 Accurately and willingly sharing God’s Word
Colossians 3:24 Doing anything well as for the Lord
Speaking generically about God rewarding: 2 John 1:8, Revelation 11:18
Jesus speaks about laying up treasures in Heaven: Matthew 6:19-21, Matthew 19:21 (for giving to the poor)
1 Timothy 6:19 Treasures in eternity by being rich in good works
Receiving a “commendation” from God:
1 Corinthians 4:5
A reward, treasure or commendation is something earned. Entrance into Heaven or the New Earth is something given through the forgiveness of sins, because there is no way we could earn it.
It is clear that for those saved by Jesus, Judgment Day is about reward and not about salvation. Salvation has already been determined. It seems that God’s reward, whatever it is, can be received while living, in Heaven, or after Judgment Day. But what is it?
For good reasons the Bible is not specific. I think our sinful nature would be tempted to abuse thoughts of specific reward. The Bible does refer to honor coming through commendation. It also speaks of heightened responsibility in the New Earth for good stewardship here. (Parable of the Talents) One last idea is that reward can be connected to the people we assist. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his “hope or joy or crown of boasting…our glory and joy.” The thought of ongoing joyful relationships as a reward is particularly appealing.
One counterpoint often cited to the idea of reward is the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard”. (Matthew 20:1-16) In this story workers are hired throughout the day to work in God’s vineyard. At the end of the day, they are all paid the same; giving the idea that eternal life is egalitarian. While equality in many respects will be the feeling in the Kingdom of God, since sinful competition and favoritism will be a thing of the past, this story speaks primarily of grace and love and not reward. Late comers to God’s Kingdom are as valued as those who have been there (as a people) for centuries.
One final verse to bring out on this topic is 1 Corinthians 3:15. This is a picture of Judgment Day for those who are saved. The section speaks of building on the foundation of Christ with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw. In other words, living in a way that is changed and honors God or simply receiving grace and being largely unchanged. Judgment Day will reveal how well our lives have been spent “by fire”. This describes some sort of supernatural judgment process. Verse 15 concludes the section in a way that shows the value of grace and the value of good discipleship:
If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.1 Corinthians 3:15
What does awareness of this dynamic of God’s Kingdom do for us? It helps us trust in mercy of God for one. It also shows a value of our lives that does confuse salvation with good living. I take away peace that I belong to God and eternal life with Him is mine, even if I frequently fail. I also take away excitement about having a God-given purpose of life. It is my hope to please God and make a difference. It is my duty.