Degrees of Reward: Part 1 - A Treasury of Evidence

Reposted with permission from the Cripplegate.

On January 12 I did what all evangelicals with a twitter account do, we decide which items to sample off the A La Carte menu curated by Tim Challies. When I saw the tantalizing topic of “Degrees of Rewards” I was overjoyed. This is a subject I feel is grossly misunderstood and underappreciated by the contemporary evangelical church. Christians throughout the ages have been galvanized to action by their trust in the biblical teaching that there are degrees of reward in heaven as an incentive and an inspiration to sacrifice comfort, security, finances, and earthly esteem in exchange for a guaranteed return on investment beyond all comparison.

George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd, William Carey, John Newton, William Wilberforce, CT Studd, Jim Elliot, Hudson Taylor, George Müller, and Charles Spurgeon, to list a smattering of our pastor and missionary luminaries, openly expressed that their motives to serve God were fueled by this glorious doctrine that peppers the New Testament.

Degrees of eternal reward happens to be my favorite doctrine to study, teach, and write on when addressing believers. I did my master’s thesis on the negative consequences for believers at the Bēma seat judgment, and then delved deeper in my doctoral dissertation on the degrees of reward for Christians who teach. This latter research formed the backbone of my first book, published as The Preacher’s Payday.

So, when I spotted the link to a video of a theology professor, Dr. Wellum of Southern Seminary, responding to a question on eternal rewards, my pulse quickened. The more Christians understand the Bible’s teaching on eternal rewards, the more they will engage in the kingdom effort on earth, and the more they will reap the benefit from what they sow here when they get to heaven.

You can imagine my dismay when I heard the professor argue against the concept of degrees of eternal reward!

I concede that since this was likely an off-the-cuff Q&A answer, the gentleman deserves leniency for an answer that lacks comprehensiveness (anyone who has written a thesis and dissertation on any topic I have ever addressed on this blog would cringe or fume at all the material I neglected to cover, or dealt with superficially).

But I was disappointed by his dismissiveness toward the relevant Bible passages and the potentially misleading assertions he made on a serious topic that it appears he has not given much thought to.

Here is an extract of the transcript of Dr. Wellum’s answer:

Most of the passages that are referred to, 1 Corinthians 3, is really dealing with the leadership in the church, when you read Hebrews 11 the reward that’s mentioned really is Christ, the salvation that we receive, the inheritance that are ours. All of those rewards for the most part are dealing with receiving the great grace of God in salvation in Christ Jesus. It is not so much saying there is a higher or lesser reward. Salvation is the reward. Eternal life is the reward. Eternal relationship, covenant relationship with the triune God is the reward. Yet there is still this sense of some sitting near Christ versus others. How we think of that, well Scripture doesn’t really say much other than our great reward is Christ himself, salvation is our great reward. All believers receive their salvation in Christ are justified. There is not some that are more justified than others. We have to be very very careful of this when we think of rewards. There is the reward of ultimately the new heavens and the new earth, Christ himself the glory of salvation.

Yet we do have in Scripture where some have different roles to play. Some have had different points of service throughout redemptive history, and in the church. Whatever that turns out to be in terms of closer to the throne or not, nothing will take away from all Christians rejoicing in the grace of God, rejoicing in the reward of salvation, rejoicing in Christ himself. There’s no sort of jealousy that’s going to be there, there’s no going to be saying, well I wish I had that reward versus another. That’s just unthinkable. So I think firstreward needs to be seen in terms of all of us receive the reward of Christ in salvation. We are not to be people who are living our lives thinking that oh I’m doing this or living the Christian life in order to gain closer position to the Lord, or you know, on the streets of gold or something or a greater mansion or a greater privilege. All of that is quite wrong thinking in terms of Scripture, right. And so in Christ our focus always in this life and in the future is on our relationship with the true living God, growing in grace, being conformed to Christ and the great reward is knowing him now and experiencing the fullness of his great salvation in the new heavens and the new earth.

The main points Wellum asserts are:

  1. Jesus and our eternal life is our great reward.
  2. Some are not more justified than others.
  3. There is a sense of some rewards, but Scripture doesn’t say much.
  4. We are not to live our lives in order to gain more rewards in heaven.

While I am in total agreement with the first two points, I think that a careful exegesis of some passages in the Bible will yield the opposite conclusion to points 3 and 4. The two propositions are not mutually exclusive: Jesus and salvation are our primary and equally enjoyed reward, AND yet there are different spheres of responsibility in the afterlife that are apportioned according to one’s faithfulness in this life. Those two truths are presented as complementary not contradictory in the New Testament.

After all, we agree that while there is no condemnation (hell) for Christians (Rom 8:1), there is still accountability and discipline from the Lord for believers in this life (Heb 12:6). That chastisement isn’t diminishing our justification. Neither does a graded reward and forfeiture of reward in heaven.

Or, to use an analogy Jonathan Edwards postulated: our cups of reward will all be filled to overflowing, but that doesn’t mean everyone’s cup is of identical capacity.

Today we’ll view some texts that indicate degrees of eternal reward, and next week we will consider the question of how we ought to live as Christians in the light of the incentive of eternal rewards. We can also look at some common objections to the notion that our service is done in response to “payment” by reward, rather than simply as our offering of gratitude in response to salvation.

A Treasury of Evidence

One pertinent passage Dr Wellum waives aside as pertaining only to leaders, is 1 Corinthians 3:12–15 “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and 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. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

In this passage – specifically written to teachers of all sorts and types in the church – Paul warns that our work will be tested. If our work survives we will receive a reward but if not – we will suffer loss. Clearly this loss is not the loss of our salvation – Paul states that that teacher will still be saved – but yet there will be loss. Now while I admit that the Bible is not very clear as to what it means to suffer loss – it certainly can’t mean “not suffer loss” and presumably must mean the loss of the reward that he would have gained if his work had survived the test. Even if this applies only to teachers, that certainly is enough to state categorically that at least some Christians will experience degrees of reward.

James 3:1 — Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

This warning is directed at believers who are teachers, and accords with the teaching from 1 Corinthians 3.

Another passage that proves that at least some Christians are granted a degree of reward different from others is…

Matthew 19:27–29 — Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.

In response to Peter’s question of what his recompense will be for leaving his career, inheritance, friends, possibly family behind to follow Jesus, the Lord doesn’t say “Don’t worry Peter, I am your great reward, you gain salvation, isn’t that enough for you?” No, he promises the Twelve specifically that they will be given the unique position of prominence and responsibility of sitting on thrones. And Jesus promises all who have sacrificed home or family that they will be rewarded – a reward which is in addition to eternal life. This is clearly a degree of reward that is not common to all believers. It’s not as if we take turns on their thrones ruling at the level the Apostles will be ruling, and not all Christians sacrifice their family and lands for Christ’s sake.

You know couch-potato, pew-warming, bare minimum Christians, don’t you? To say there is no consequence for their apathy is insulting to the missionaries who give up lucrative careers in order to suffer and sometimes die for the gospel. Here is a passage that offers the greater reward for persecuted believers as a comfort to them…

Matthew 5:11–12 — 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.

If this “great reward” in heaven was the same as that of all believers, then this special comfort for extraordinary suffering evaporates. It would be as if Jesus said: “Rejoice if you are persecuted — because you get the same reward as all Christians — even the lazy ones who are not persecuted.”

In Matthew 6 Jesus promises rewards for giving, praying and fasting in secret.

In Luke 19:11-17 (the parable of the minas) Jesus teaches that not only will there be rewards but that there will be differing rewards. The more faithful servant receives the reward of ruling over ten cities rather than just five. (See also Matt 25:14-30 for the parable of the talents).

In Romans 14:12, in the context of how we treat other Christians, Paul says: “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” That warning is de-fanged if there is not something riding on this accountability. If in eternity we are just all equal – what is the point of the account?

Peter, in a passage clearly addressed to Christians already sure of an eternity in heaven, says this: And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, (1 Peter 1:17) He indicates that there will be a judgment based on deeds. The judgment referred to here does not determine salvation and so must determine something – rewards.

Let’s conclude with my favorite:

2 Corinthians 5:10 — “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.”

We will all appear before the judgment seat (Bēma) of Christ. We will be recompensed — paid back — for what we have done whether good or bad. It is vital to see here that the word for “evil” is not the normal words for evil, kakos or pornea, but the rare word phaulon, a word only used here this way, and should be translated “useless” or “worthless,” i.e. actions that are not necessarily bad, they just have no eternal value.

You can watch TV, you can sleep late, you can play video games for six hours, or you can serve, pray, study Scripture, write blog posts, prepare sermons, share the gospel with someone, or send an encouraging email. You can spend money on golf or on missions. You can buy yourself a new car or you can choose to spend that saved money on supporting an orphanage. None of those choices are prohibited in Scripture. But let’s face it, surely you don’t expect the same reward for binge-watching all six seasons of Downton Abby as the guy who has prayed the same number of hours for the conversion of the lost?

You can spend your vacation time and money on yourself at a lavish beach resort, or you can spend it on a trip to a persecuted church overseas where you endure sickness, heatstroke, and hunger in order to train pastors in theology. Neither are sinful, but do you really expect that God views both the same way and that both choices are equal in his sight?

Your salvation is not in the balance; no one is saying that “some are more justified than others.” But this recompense in heaven is what makes the difference between generous givers, indefatigable servers, or sacrificial missionaries, and regular, couch-potato Christians who give the minimum their consciences allow, do the minimum their church requires, and contribute nothing to the kingdom cause besides keeping pews warmed and filled. Missionaries understand that rewards are not about hoarding wealth and comfort here and now, but laying up treasure in heaven which is reaped at death or when the Chief Shepherd appears!

The more you believe and embrace this doctrine, the more it will affect your decisions in this life and your experience of the next.

So, in the light of this, how do we live, what do we receive rewards for and what are these rewards? More of this next week. (And the following week we’ll look at degrees of punishment for unbelievers).

If you want more in-depth access to a list of passages and their theological implications on the afterlife, it’s all crammed into the book, The Preacher’s Payday.

Clint Archer bio


Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

Much appreciate this. There is a tendency toward binary thinking on the topic: either we have to serve out of love or we have to serve for rewards. The underlying assumption is that we can't do both or that God doesn't intend us to do both. But the Scriptures don't allow us to dismiss the role that anticipated reward plays in the motivational mix.

Some articles worth reading further on the topic: https://sharperiron.org/tags/rewards

TOvermiller's picture

Crowns, reward and treasure are distinct NT themes which are important to understand. I did some thinking and writing about this here. I agree with Aaron that we need to serve God in love, but without dismissing the role of anticipated reward.

Thomas Overmiller
Pastor | www.studygodsword.com
Blog & Podcast | www.shepherdthoughts.com

ScottS's picture

Clint, thanks for this. I fully agree that there are distinctions eternally with respect to how one lives out one's life. While justification is the dividing line between those with faith and those without, a believer's holiness is positional (from salvation), but also progressive (showing there are levels of it). I believe holiness that one has strived for in this life is in some way eternally recognized, for I believe Rev 22:11 (of which I prefer the "state of being" expressed more in the KJV/NKJV translations; I do realize there are other viewpoints on that verse) acknowledges at least two levels of eternal distinction both for the saved and the unsaved. On the unbelieving side are those that are merely unjustified (unsaved) and those that actively campaigned against God and seen as filthy (a lower state of the unsaved); on the believing side are those that are merely righteous (saved), and those that are considered holy (set apart beyond only being justified, a higher state of the saved). These categories in Revelation seem to broadly match the merely saved vs. rewarded (1 Cor 3:14-15, et al. as you have noted) and the merely lost vs. greater condemnation that is less tolerable (Mt 11:22, 24, 23:13-14, Heb 10:26-29).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Ed Vasicek's picture

Since we teach salvation apart from works, many Christians take this to mean that heaven is socialistic -- everyone gets the same rewards, everyone is equally joyful, everyone has equal status.  Sure, there is a baseline (everyone is happy, rewarded, and worships before the throne), but there are different degress and statuses above the baseline.

Really appreciate this article -- much needed.  It is hard to convince fellow Christians of this reality!  It seems like those who serve the most are most aware of it.  Those who do not serve the Lord -- they are often teflon on this matter.  Their thinking might be, "all I am worried about is getting through life and then enjoying heaven."  This boils down to a lack of faith and hope.  It takes faith and hope to be motivated today for rewards that will not come until after we die!

This doctrine needs to be brought back.  In our day of "meeting felt needs," we have forgotten the heavenly/eternally minded emphasis of the New Testament.  Our songs tell us it is worth serving Jesus in this life even if there is no heaven, Paul tells us that if Christ did not rise (and therefore there is no afterlife in heaven), then we are fools and to be pitied (I Corinthians 15:9). (Incidentally, this might be an argument against Piper's Christian hedonism.)

The same concept relates to hell, with the idea of "greater condemnation" (Mark 12:40) and lost people also being judged "according to their works" (Revelation 20:12-13).

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