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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
The Bible often speaks about the rewards God gives to His believers; does that not encourage a wrong motivation for serving Him?
This question deals with a biblical teaching that seems to be in tension with other Christian doctrines. We can summarize the problem as follows: Salvation is a free gift through Christ for all who believe; the human response should be motivated exclusively by gratitude and love for Christ; the concept of reward introduces a selfish motivation into the process of salvation.
1. Rewards and Ultimate Good: The biblical doctrine of rewards teaches that God takes very seriously what we do, and that He acknowledges that our final destiny is determined by what we truly want. Personal decisions are embodied in a particular way of life that bring with it certain rewards, good or evil (see Gal. 6:7-10). The human desire for ultimate good— communion and full fellowship with God, implanted in the human heart by the Spirit—is strengthened and nurtured by the concept of reward. It reminds believers that God, through Christ, has made provision to satisfy fully that yearning for the good.
2. Rewards and Promises: Accepting Christ as Saviour and Lord means committing our whole life to Him in love. Consequently, we immediately begin to enjoy the blessings of that relationship—acceptance by God, forgiveness of sin, sanctification, etc.—and we look toward the fulfillment of many other promises that God has made. The fulfillment of those promises are called in the Bible rewards (cf. Phil. 3:7-11). Paul states that we “will be richly rewarded” by God because we “will receive what he has promised” (Heb. 10:35, 36, NIV). But in order to enjoy the reward, we have to persevere in the faith and maintain the covenant relationship we have with Christ. Christian rewards are the results and benefits of the work of salvation that Christ performs for us. He earns all the rewards that we will receive from God (2 Cor. 8:9).
3. Rewards, Works, and Merits: Rewards are not wages paid by God for our meritorious work. First, the works of believers are never meritorious; they are the result of the sanctifying power of the Spirit (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 2:12, 13).
Second, the reward is not a payment for our works, because it surpasses in value anything we can do for the Lord; we do not earn the reward (Matt. 24:46, 47; Luke 17:7-10). The reward is an expression of God’s generosity. The only reward that we have earned is the one from sin, namely, death (Rom. 6:23).
Third, the promise of rewards functions as a call to persevere in the Christian life, reminding us that outside our covenant relationship with God there is only death and condemnation, but within it there is life and salvation (Heb. 10:31, 35, 36).
4. Rewards and Selfishness: Selfishness is by definition incompatible with God’s rewards for believers. The biblical promise of reward motivates believers to place others before themselves in order for all to enjoy the heavenly reward (1 Cor. 9:19-23). It is an incentive to serve others; the opposite of selfishness (1 Thess. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Peter 5:2-4). Yet the promise of rewards also promotes the importance of the ultimate well-being of believers.
5. Graded Rewards? There are some indications in the Bible that there will be some differences in rewards among the saved (Luke 19:11-17; Matt. 25:14-30). The Bible says little about this, but it is probably related to the opportunities we all have to grow and develop into the likeness of our Lord. Such development is, in fact, part of our eternal reward (1 John 3:2), and it will obviously differ from person to person. But of course we have eternity to continue to grow into the likeness of our Saviour.
The concept of reward is not incompatible with justification by faith, because our reward was earned for us by Christ. If the reward is related to our works of love, it is because the Lord acknowledges their value. But the reward continues to be a covenant gift of grace, a call to persevere and to nurture and develop in the believer the desire for fellowship with God in a context of joy, harmony, and self-fulfillment.