If one of your Christian friends were to ask you this question:
Here’s your friend: Do we get rewards in heaven?
What would be your initial thoughts? If this is the first time you’ve ever encountered such a question, my best bet is that it would have made you quite uncomfortable! You were probably lost for words before replying promptly:
Here’s you (with your arms crossed): …Absolutely not!
So when I (your leader) decide to be funny one day during bible study and open a can of worms by saying that Christians can earn their rewards in heaven, this is how I’d imagine the conversation would play out:
John: Can I say something controversial? I believe the Bible teaches that Christians can earn greater rewards in heaven when they perform good deeds for God and His kingdom.
You (a sceptic): …That cannot be right, John. I disagree. The very thought of earning heavenly treasures from obedience seems to go against everything that we’ve been taught at church about works-based righteousness.
Another sceptic: Yeah I agree! And plus, if what you say is true, wouldn’t that kill off godly motivations for serving God and others? Doing good deeds because you want a bigger future payout just seems so wrong!
Yet another sceptic: I second that. Our obedience to God is our duty as Christians! We shouldn’t expect God to give us a single scrap for what we do for Him. Does the master ever thank his servants for their duties? If he doesn’t, then why should our master God ever reward us for our duties?
Bible study leader: John, it’s probably time for you to write another article to explain yourself.
John: …You’ve got a fair point.
These are all fair objections! So how should we respond? I think our Lord Jesus has lots to say on the matter. And as far as I can tell, I’m pretty sure that the Lord has given us enough in His Scriptures for us to develop a comprehensive theology on rewards. It’s going to be gold.
Does the New Testament teach the idea of eternal rewards in heaven?
If you read the Parable of the Ten Minas, you’ll find that Jesus taught this idea of greater reward and responsibility in heaven in this classic parable. In Luke 19:11-27, Jesus taught about the coming kingdom that will be seen in its fullness at his second coming. He portrays himself as a king who goes on vacation and calls on his servants (his disciples) to “engage in business” until he returns (Luke 19:13). After entrusting his servants with some starting capital to get them kick-started in their start-up businesses, he goes off to a far away country.
When the king returns, he orders the servants to give an account for how they used the money. The conversation went along like this (in paraphrase form):
Servant 1: My Lord, with the money you’ve entrusted to me, I managed to make 10 minas more! (a mina was equivalent to about 3 months’ wage)
King: Well done, good servant! Because you’ve been faithful with very little, I will hand you authority over 10 cities!
Servant 2: Lord, I was able to make 5 extra minas with the coin you gave me!
King: Excellent. You will look after 5 cities.
Servant 3: My Lord, I was scared of you, since you are a severe man. So I hid the minas away in a handkerchief.
King (disgruntled): …I’ll condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant. You could at least deposit the minas in the bank, so it could have accrued a bit of interest… but you didn’t.
There’s more to the parable, but what’s the main gist of it? When we interpret this parable correctly, we’ll discover that Jesus is talking to all his disciples on the particular responsibilities they are given to do until he returns. So during the time when Jesus is absent, the disciples are to “engage in business” (Luke 19:13), stewarding the gifts, resources, and opportunities the Lord has entrusted to them.
And when the Lord returns in the second coming, he will examine how useful we have been with the gifts and resources we’ve been given. And guess what? He will distribute the rewards according to our faithfulness to the task.
Still not convinced? This is what the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians on the matter (see 1 Cor. 3:14-15):
Paul: If the work that any Christian has built survives the test of fire on the final Day, he will receive a reward.
Paul: But if anyone’s work is burned up during the test of fire, he will suffer loss… but he will still be saved.
What’s he saying? Paul has made it clear that the idea of working hard for eternal reward does not contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Those who have trusted in Jesus have already been justified by faith alone (Rom. 5:1), so they won’t face condemnation on the final day (Rom. 8:1). However, that doesn’t detract from the fact that on the final day, the Lord will still judge the works of obedience of His people and reward them accordingly (see Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10).
But isn’t our obedience to God meant to be our mere duty as his servants?
Absolutely. Jesus illustrates this point vividly in Luke 17:7-10:
Jesus: Does anyone here who is a master and has a servant, plowing or keeping sheep, say to him to “Come at once and recline at the table?”
Jesus: Wouldn’t the master normally say to his servant, “Prepare supper for me, dress properly, and serve me properly while I eat and drink…”
Jesus: Would the master ever thank his servant because he did what he commanded?
Jesus just lays it down on us, doesn’t he? Christians should recognise that our service to the Lord is a great privilege and that He owes us absolutely nothing. We should be humble and devote our lives in submission to Him, because we owe everything to Him.
But maybe you would have noticed something already that the previous passage in Luke chapter 19 has alluded to. Our Lord isn’t just some ordinary master, is He? Though He is under no obligation to invite servants to have fellowship with Him in His presence, He invites them to recline at the table with Him (see Luke 22:15). Though there is no need for Him to thank His servants for their service, He acknowledges their hard work and says: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23).
Why has He chosen to do all this? It’s quite simple really: Jesus rewards us and cares for us on the basis of His goodness. God is such a good and generous master!
But won’t this kill our motivation to serve God and others?
Maybe you are convinced at this point of the Bible’s teaching on rewards. But maybe another concern has creeped in your mind:
Here’s you (a sceptic): Aren’t we being selfish if we are motivated by the promised rewards? Surely Jesus is only teaching the idea of rewards as a statement of fact. You’re not supposed to be driven to serve for the sake of the reward. We should only serve God purely out of a love and desire to please Him!
John: I get where you’re coming from. But is that what the Bible teaches though? Let’s have a look.
When Jesus instructs us to not “store up treasures on earth… but to store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (see Matt. 6:19-20), what is Jesus trying to do here? Isn’t he trying to persuade you to not invest your time and money accumulating material gain but to instead invest in the heavenly kingdom?
When Jesus instructs his disciples to pray and fast in secrecy, so that their Father “who sees what is done in secret, will reward them” (see Matt. 6:3-4, 16-18), isn’t he trying to convince them with heavenly rewards to conduct themselves in the right, obedient manner before God?
In other words, Jesus is exhorting us to not seek earthly rewards; look to the heavenly rewards that he has promised! And Jesus isn’t afraid to encourage his disciples to pursue the rewards he promises. In fact, he actually commands us to pursue it (Luke 12:33)
So where does this take us?
Our desire for greater heavenly riches shouldn’t come into conflict with our desire to serve God and others. I’m of the conviction that there can be a collection of good and healthy motivations. The Lord has offered an incentive for His children to live in obedience to Him and to do good deeds for the growth of His kingdom. He permits us to long deeply for the life that is to come. And we should pursue a desire to invest heavily in the heavenly kingdom as the apostle Paul says: “by doing good, to be rich in good deeds, to be generous and willing to share.”
In this way we will lay up treasure for ourselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that we may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim. 6:19).