What is a reward?
A reward is something given to someone because they performed a certain service, effort, or achievement. For example, a gold medal is the reward for earning first place in an Olympic event.
Does the Bible have anything to say on this subject?
It does. The Bible clearly teaches that God gives rewards to His children.
Where does the Bible teach this?
In Isaiah, there are several verses which speak of God coming and bringing His reward with Him. (Isaiah 40:10; 49:4; 62:11) Jeremiah says to Israel: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” (Jeremiah 31:16) Jesus and Paul also clearly teach that God will reward His people for their labors.
What does Isaiah mean when he says that God is coming and His reward is with Him?
This means that God is coming in judgment and brings with him a reward for both the righteous and the wicked. See Lowth.
What did Jesus teach about rewards?
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus taught that God rewards a variety of behaviors including giving anonymous gifts (Matthew 6:4), private prayer (Matthew 6:6), and private fasting (Matthew 6:18). On the other hand, Jesus says that we lose our reward when we do any of the above publicly and to be seen of men. (Matthew 6:1) Furthermore, Jesus said that we can store up treasure in heaven. (Matthew 6:19-21)
How can believers store up treasure in heaven?
Jesus gave this instruction in the sermon on the mount where He is teaching His disciples about life in the kingdom of God. In this section, Matthew gives three, short stories intended to teach disciples about money. Pink writes that Jesus intends to overthrow the Jewish idea that the kingdom of God would come with great material prosperity and much earthly pomp and pleasure. The first of these stories is a contrast between storing our money on earth and storing it in heaven.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
How exactly we store up money in heaven is not entirely clear from what Jesus says here. Fortunately, Jesus told us on another occasion what this means. When He was speaking to the rich, young ruler, He said, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21) Paul has a similar line of thinking when he told Timothy: Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. (1 Timothy 6:18–19)
What does Paul say about rewards?
Paul’s teaching on this is found in first Corinthians.
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave [opportunity] to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now 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. (1 Corinthians 3:5-15)
Here Paul rebukes the Corinthian believers for coming apart based on their loyalty or preference for either Paul or Apollos. (1 Corinthians 3:4) Paul then notes that both he and Apollos are both laboring for the same Master (1 Corinthians 3:5, 9) and in the same work (1 Corinthians 3:8) even though they have been assigned different tasks. (1 Corinthians 3:6, 7) Then Paul points out that both he and Apollos will receive a reward based on their labors. (1 Corinthians 3:8) In the same chapter, Paul describes the different workers who build on the one foundation of Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:10) Some of what is built on Christ will be found to be wood, hay, and straw (1 Corinthians 3:12) and will not meet with God’s approval. It will be consumed in God’s fiery judgment. (1 Corinthians 3:13) Some of this, however, will be found to be gold, silver, and precious stones. These laborers will be rewarded by God. (1 Corinthians 3:14)
Why is this passage so important?
Because it makes a clear distinction between the foundation and what is built on that foundation. The foundation is our salvation in Christ. Here, there is no talk of reward. Once that foundation is laid and we are safely in Christ, now all sorts of things are built on top of it just as framers proceed to build a house on top of the foundation. The house in this analogy corresponds to the life we live after being saved and the ministry we exercise after we are in Christ. This life and ministry is subject to God’s fiery testing and will be rewarded depending on if it survives this testing. Clearly, Paul is not talking then about getting saved but about the life an already saved person lives.
What does Paul mean when he says that some will suffer loss?
Since Paul is not talking about salvation here, we know this loss is not the loss of heaven and being sent to hell. Rather, it is the loss of reward which a Christian will regret when s/he stands before God on the day of judgment. Notice that Paul makes it clear that such a person will still be saved and will receive eternal life, but s/he will receive no reward because his work did not pass muster with God.
For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now 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. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
The same idea is found in John’s teaching that some believers (“little children”) will shrink away in shame from Jesus when He returns in judgment. (1 John 2:28)
Are there other passages where Paul teaches this truth?
Yes, one of the key passages is this: Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve. For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality. (Colossians 3:23-25)
Why do you call this a key passage?
Because here Paul uses what appear to be two contradictory concepts. He says that believers who labor faithfully will receive the “reward of the inheritance.” But a reward is something earned and an inheritance is something unearned.
How are we to understand this?
The context helps us understand. Paul was just speaking to slaves and encouraging them to work as though the Lord Jesus was their master.
Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, (Colossians 3:22-23)
He then gives as a reason for this exhortation that they would receive a reward for their faithfulness. Even though their work was hard, long, tedious, and unrewarding, God was going to give them an inheritance far in excess of anything they could have ever built up on earth. This inheritance would be something of a reward for what they missed in their difficult life on earth.
Do the other Bible authors speak to this issue?
Yes, John uses the same expression as Isaiah above when he writes: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. (Revelation 22:12)
Put this all together please.
Taking the teaching of Scripture as a whole, we can assert the following propositions:
- It is clear from Scripture that salvation comes to sinners only as a result of the unmerited favor of God towards His rebellious creatures. Nothing they do moves God to rescue them from the just consequences of their sin.
- It is equally clear that God gives rewards to His children.
- There is a reward which comes to believers in this life.
- There is a reward which comes to believers in the life to come.
- Not every believer receives the same reward. Some believers receive a greater reward than others.
- The value of any believer’s reward is, in some sense, based on the number and quality of the efforts they put forth.
- This reward is given sovereignly, and God can give and withhold as He sees fit.
- Rewards do not get us into heaven, but they do affect our enjoyment of it.
Before you referenced Revelation 22 where we are taught that our salvation is based on what we do. Does this not contradict proposition #1?
It is true that the final judgment is based on our works; the question, however, is in the details. Why do our works form the basis of Christ’s final verdict on our life? Is it because our good works earned us the right to receive eternal life? There is so much teaching in the Bible that goes against this idea that we must reject it outright unless we are prepared to say that the Bible contradicts itself. Are we judged based on our works because our works are an indication of our status with God? Clearly, this is much more in line with the rest of the Bible’s teaching on this subject. John’s first letter repeats this truth in so many different ways; take this verse: If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him. (1 John 2:29)
How do you prove this to be true?
See the verses given above for the Bible’s teaching on this point.
What is the Scripture support for proposition #3?
We find this teaching throughout Scripture especially in the many narratives which show that a life lived in obedience to God brings prosperity. Think only of Israel’s history. Both the second and fifth commands are also reinforced with promises of earthly reward. (Exodus 20:5-6, 12)
What is the Scripture support for proposition #4?
This is found in Jesus teaching on laying up treasure in heaven. Treasure laid up in heaven will one day be enjoyed by those who enter it after their death.
Does this mean that some believers will receive a reward that is greater and better than another?
Yes, this is proposition #5. The Scriptural basis for this proposition is the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 and Luke 19.
But didn’t the laborers in the vineyard all receive the same wage?
This is true, but the value of the wage they received was not the point of the parable. (Matthew 20) The point was that the value of the wage was sovereignly decided on by the owner of the land. In accordance with their agreement, he owed the first men he hired a denarius. To the other men, however, he could give whatever he chose. Thus, the point is the sovereignty of the owner, not the amount of the wage.
Where does the Scripture support the truth contained in proposition 6?
This is Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 3 as given above.
What is the Scripture support for proposition #7?
This is the teaching of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Here Jesus tells the story of a man who hired men at 6am and again at 9am. Then, he hired more at noon, 3pm, and finally at 5pm. After the day’s work, Jesus paid them all the same wage. When the men who had worked the entire day saw this, they complained about the unfairness of it. Jesus’ reply is this:
“Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?” So the last shall be first, and the first last. (Matthew 20:13-16)
The teaching here is that Jesus gives His gifts sovereignly as He chooses and not in accordance with strict merit. God’s gifts are not quid pro quo; the reward is always far in excess of what was done to earn it. Consider Jesus’ words to Peter where he tells him that the reward is a hundred times more than what was done:
Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” (Mark 10:28-31)