But one of the most important things that rewards do for Christians is to remind us of the character of our God. Among Satan’s primal lies is that God is not good and does not want what is for our true good and happiness (see Gen. 3:1–7). Scripture gives us reminder after reminder of the truth about God—He is good, and what He does is good (Ps. 119:68). All that our record deserves from God is condemnation and death. By His everlasting mercy, the Father has united us to His Son.
Starbucks. Marriott. Southwest Airlines. Even Domino’s Pizza. It seems that just about every company has some kind of rewards program. The more you eat, drink, fly, or spend the night, the more you earn. Rewards programs make sense because they reflect the way that the world works. When we work, we earn a wage. Our accomplishments often bring us praise and perks.
So it would seem that when the New Testament writers speak about heavenly rewards in the kingdom of God, we understand exactly what they are talking about. If we work hard in the Christian life, then we will earn blessing from God, right? Wrong. The Bible’s teaching on rewards is just one example of the way that God turns our expectations and assumptions upside down.
If only for this reason, we need to give careful thought to what the Scripture says (and doesn’t say) about heavenly rewards. We may think about this biblical teaching along five lines.
First, there are heavenly rewards, tied to the obedience and service of the believer in this life. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is filled with references to heavenly rewards (Matt. 5:12, 46; 6:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 16, 18). Rewards are only for those who trust in and follow Christ, not for unbelievers. These rewards will be given not in the present but in the future, after the believer leaves this life (see 16:27). Rewards relate to the good works that we do in this life, including such minor and insignificant actions as “giving one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple” (10:42).
The Apostles no less emphasize the fact and importance of rewards in the Christian life. Addressing ministers and elders, Paul says that the last day will be a time of sifting and assessing of ministerial labors. “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” (1 Cor. 3:13–14). Addressing all believers, Paul speaks of “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). Paul encourages “bondservants” to live in faithful obedience to Christ because they know “that from the Lord they will receive the inheritance as their reward” (Col. 3:22, 24).
Second, there are differences in heavenly rewards, with some believers receiving more or less than other believers. Jesus underscores this point in His parable of the minas (Luke 19:11–27). In this parable, a king gives his servants each one mina. After some time has passed, each servant appears before the king and gives an account of what he has done with that mina. The first servant has earned ten minas with his one mina, and the second servant has earned five minas with his one mina. The king rewards the first servant with “authority over ten cities” and the second servant with authority over “five cities.” There is inequality in these heavenly rewards. Some will get more than others. But if the rewards are unequally bestowed, they are not randomly assigned. Rewards in heaven are proportionate to (but never based on) obedience on earth—the servant who earned ten minas receives authority over ten cities, and the servant who earned five minas receives authority over five cities. The reward for the investment so outweighs what was earned that our earthly obedience does not actually merit it. The reward is not based on obedience in that meritorious sense.
Third, every believer is justified on exactly the same basis, the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. The Scriptures teach that “none is righteous, no, not one,” that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 3:10; 6:23). Far from earning life and heaven, humans have earned death and hell. By nature, we are guilty of Adam’s first sin (in addition to all our own sins). We are therefore born into this world condemned, deserving of judgment. The sinner’s hope is not in himself but in Christ.