Previously I wrote a response to Dr Wellum’s video in which he expressed doubt about the existence of degrees of rewards in heaven. In addition, he stated the following: “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?”
In contrast with Wellum I would argue that the Bible does indeed teach us to strive for eternal rewards and that we are clearly encouraged to expect greater privilege and responsibility, which may also involve more interaction with (or reporting to, or consulting with) the Lord, as we rule and reign alongside him in varying spheres of responsibility and diverse capacities of service.
For a full and in-depth treatment of this astounding and motivating doctrine, see the book, The Preacher’s Payday.
How do we live in the light of the teaching about eternal rewards?
You might think, “I don’t care about receiving a special reward from God—I would serve him for free; salvation is all the glory I need and way more than I deserve.” That sounds noble enough. But ponder this: if God tells you there are rewards for faithful service, and you live your life as if there aren’t, are you really living a life of faith?
Faith is believing in and acting on what God says. A life of faith is one that takes God at his word and then acts on it in a way that reflects that trust in his promises.
I once saw a t-shirt in a music store that declared “Drummers will drum for food” on the front, and on the back: “Fanatics will drum for free.” I applaud the idea that when one is passionate about something, you don’t have to be paid to do it. We are all thankful when professionals offer to do work pro bono for a worthy cause. I empathize with believers who want to serve God with no thought of the cost to themselves. But God is not short on resources. He is a generous tipper. What does it say about how gracious our God is that he not only commands us to serve, equips us with the ability to do it, grants us the grace to do it to his glory, blesses us with a sense of fulfillment, and then still promises to reward us eternally? What a gracious Master!
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us. (Eph 3:20)
What you need to get your mind around is that you do not deserve rewards, but you are going to get them anyway. God promises it. And living in such a way demonstrates to others that you believe God’s promises. And it honors the one who promised.
As C. S. Lewis explains in “The Weight of Glory,”
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing … Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.
To the hypothetical objection that striving for rewards is a mercenary motive, Lewis answers,
Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it.
And as Leon Morris observes that although a purely mercenary motive should be repudiated,
That does not mean that God is to put all men on a flat level in the hereafter. Here and now the man who gives himself wholeheartedly to the service of Christ knows more of the joy of the Lord than the half-hearted. We have no warrant from the New Testament for thinking that it will be otherwise in heaven. (The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (Eerdmans, 1960), p. 67
It is not wrong to take Christ at his word that believers should store up treasures in heaven. It is not wrong to strive for that as a goal. In fact not striving for rewards in heaven is disobeying Christ’s command.
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. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19–21)
The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward. (Matt 10:41-42)
This obviously does not mean you get the reward of salvation in return for your hospitality and service. It must refer to a reward over and above free salvation.
So, what changes when we live believing in God’s promises?
- Secret prayer, fasting, and giving (Matthew 6),
- suffering persecution gladly (Matthew 5:11–12),
- giving up homes, family and land (Matthew 19:27–29),
- hard faithful work (Luke 19:11-17),
- working hard for our earthly masters (Colossians 3:24),
- fearfully performing deeds that will please our Heavenly Father (1 Peter 1:17), or that will be deserving of reward from Jesus (Rev 22:12),
- not spending time on worthless activities (2 Corinthians 5:10)
- and doing works that will withstand the fire (1 Corinthians 3:12–15).
- we will watch what we say, knowing we will give an account (Matthew 12:36 – 37),
- we will strive to work with the motive of pleasing God and not man – knowing all is known to God (Heb 4:13) and he will reward according to our motives (1 Cor 4:5).
Peter says to Christians: 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)
This is how we live in the light of eternal rewards – we conduct ourselves with fear. We fear standing before God with a tiny offering of good deeds, instead of a great load of sacrifice.
We should be afraid to squander our time. We can spend time watching people chase a ball around, enjoying holidays and movies. These are not necessarily sins. But when they get in the way of kingdom work, when we do them in place of good works that please God – then we should fear the effect on our reward—and fear that we will, as Paul describes it, “suffer loss” (1 Cor 3:15). Whatever “suffer loss” means, it cannot mean “not suffer loss.”
It’s not about what you do compared with others. The reward is for what you do with what you have been given.
What are eternal rewards?
I agree with Dr Wellum that the rewards are not related to the capaciousness of our abode in heaven (like a mansion with a hot tub and an extra guest room). And the oft-repeated biblical notion of crowns as reward is simplistic if one is picturing a glittery headdress as the pinnacle of human achievement. Crowns are not accessories, they are symbols of authority, position, responsibility. In Rome, a wreath or crown of honor was made of perishable plant matter, but the privileges that the crown represented (e.g. a lifetime of being exempt from taxation) had no expiry date.
The reward we obtain is a specific position of authority that comes with a sphere of responsibility. In other words, you get a job to do in heaven. This may or may not involve reporting to Jesus directly or consulting with him as you reign on his behalf in an area of his kingdom.
On earth our position and responsibility and authority is somewhat arbitrary (due to birth, for instance), or loosely related to factors like mental and physical abilities, training, and societal connections. But in heaven our job is directly related to our faithfulness with what God entrusted to us on earth.
Jesus promised that his disciples’ sacrifice and service would be “repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:14). What would this repayment entail? Luke 22:28 – 30 informs us, “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
In Matthew 19:28 “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.’”
Paul told the Corinthians that they would “judge angels” (1 Cor 6:3), and that when Christ came they would receive praise from God (1 Cor 4:5). He used the nomenclature, “reward of inheritance” (Col 3:24), “crown of boasting (1 Thess 2:19), and “reigning with him” (2 Tim 2:12). These designations give an indication of the nature of rewards.
As the capstone of Paul’s exhortation for Timothy to endure suffering for Christ, Paul states that “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” This is the privilege of co-ruling in some measure with Christ, as in and John’s statement that saints will “reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5).
From Paul’s references to judging, Christ’s promise that the apostles would reign over Israel on twelve thrones, and John’s explicit mention of reigning, it appears that position and function in the kingdom are the main form rewards will take.
God gives us salvation, the opportunity to work for him, the ability to work, the desire to work, and then he rewards us for it! Grace!
If you don’t know Jesus, you have no reward, only condemnation awaits…a punishment you deserve. But turn to him and ask for forgiveness and you can start living as his servant today and start investing in your heavenly portfolio to his glory, forever and ever.
Soon we’ll look at the burning question you may have about degrees of punishment in hell.