August 12, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

Throughout the Bible, there are numerous promises of the rewards that will be given to the faithful, both in this life and in the life to come. But what is the essence of these promises and what is the purpose of these rewards? What is the relationship between the lives we live and the rewards we will receive? Is there a guarantee that each of us will receive rewards? These and other questions are answered within God’s Word. Let’s take a look, shall we?

The Judgment Seat of God

The Bible speaks of the individual judgment of all human beings, stating that everyone who has ever lived will appear before God for judgment, both the saved and the unsaved. The apostle Paul stated that, We will all stand before the judgment seat of God So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.[1] For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.[2]

As believers, our judgment before Christ won’t be focused on whether we will be condemned for our sins, because there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.[3] Because we have received Jesus as our Savior, we are seen by God as righteous. Though we are guilty of sinning against God, Jesus has taken the punishment of our sins upon Himself, and therefore we are not judged or condemned as guilty for them.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.[4]

As children adopted into God’s family,[5] forgiven and seen by God as righteous through Jesus’ sacrifice, we will not experience separation from God, as those who have chosen to separate themselves from God in this life will.[6] Instead, we will live in God’s presence forever. Nevertheless, we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where we will give account for the lives we led and receive what is due for what we have done. So while we are not condemned, we are held accountable before the Lord. The judgment of God’s children can be seen as an evaluation of our lives and the point at which various degrees of reward are given or withheld. The time has come … for rewarding Your servants the prophets and Your saints and those who reverence Your name, both small and great.[7]

Each of us will stand before our Savior who, as Paul says, will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.[8] When we are judged, we will not receive condemnation but rather whatever commendation—or praise—the Lord sees fit to bestow upon us.

Degrees of Reward

Will everyone’s praise which comes from God, or their reward, be the same? The Bible indicates that there will be degrees of rewards for those who are saved, and that our rewards are connected to the lives we live in relation to Jesus.

For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straweach ones work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and 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. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.[9]

This implies that every Christian’s reward won’t be the same. Some will find that though they are saved, the lives they led didn’t reflect the love of God, they didn’t live in a manner which bore fruit in their lives or the lives of others, and they didn’t lay up treasures in heaven. The picture conveyed here is of one whose house catches fire and all they had was burned, but they make it out of the house alive. There is loss, but at the same time gratitude that they have been saved from the fire.

What we do in our lives makes a difference in the life beyond, as we each receive what is due for the things done while in the body.[10]This doesn’t mean that the works we have done will save us from judgment, as only faith in Jesus can do that. But it does mean that how we live after receiving salvation is taken into account when it comes to rewards. There is the expectation that our faith in Christ will result in Christlike living and works. Everything one does springs from how one's heart is directed, and as believers, what we do in life should spring from our relationship with Jesus. The way we live is an indicator of our personal relationship with Christ, and how that personal relationship is manifested in our lives, character, decisions, interactions with others, etc., plays a role in the rewards we receive.

Jesus taught this when He said, 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.[11]When we live our faith by applying the teachings of Jesus, we will have treasure in heaven. Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.[12] When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.[13] These verses teach that when we act in love, when we operate in accordance with and obedience to God’s Word, with the right motive, we will be rewarded in heaven.

The Motive Factor

Our motives play a role in the reward we receive, as attested by the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus pointed out that those who do the right thing with the wrong motives have already received their reward, implying that they won’t be rewarded for it in the life to come.

When you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward … And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward … And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.[14]

In each of these examples Jesus said to do these things in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. We are to do such things “in secret,” meaning doing them as unto the Lord and not for the purpose of getting credit or recognition from others. When we act in a godly manner for the purpose of obedience and praise to God, when we are motivated by our desire to live in a manner which glorifies the Lord, and not ourselves, then we lay up treasure in heaven.

Understanding this concept helps to clarify that the manner in which we live our faith, how we build on the foundation of Christ, plays a role in our rewards in the afterlife. If we build with materials that glorify God; if we live in a manner that is in alignment with His Word; if we love and serve Him with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength; then we will be building with gold, silver, and precious stones.

The opposite is of course true as well. If we don’t build with durable materials, it will be reflected in our reward. We see this concept expressed in the parable of the king and the stewards, with two of the servants doing what their master had told them to do and one of them receiving ten pounds and the other five, while the third servant who didn’t carry out his lord’s bidding was not rewarded.

We should, of course, understand that the rewards spoken of in the parables and throughout Scripture are meant to teach us certain concepts, and aren’t meant to teach what the specific rewards will actually be. Reading of the servant who was given ten cities to rule shouldn’t be understood to mean that our rewards will actually be a certain amount of cities to rule. The parable conveys the understanding of differences in rewards, not what the rewards are.

Love Is the Source

In discussing rewards, we also need to realize that it’s not as if we have entered into a contractual arrangement with God that states that if we do x and y, we will receive a specific reward. This was the attitude of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. They believed that accurately and conscientiously observing the law would oblige God to recompense them for their performances. This attitude is reflected in all non-Christian religions today, and is also a common pitfall for Christians, as in our zealousness to please God, we can be tempted to fall into attempting to earn favor with God through our works or observances.

Rather than seeing rewards as “payment” for the things we’ve done for the Lord in this life, it would perhaps be more appropriate to consider them an acknowledgment from the Lord of our love and our obedience to His Word and living our lives as He has instructed us. Jesus said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”[15] In other words, you live your life in accordance with His teachings because you love Him. The way we live reflects our love for God. The expectation isn’t that we merely follow a set of rules; it’s that we develop a deep relationship with God, that we become the right kind of person, a good tree that bears good fruit. What we are determines what we do.

We are rewarded because we love God, and stemming from that love and His grace bestowed on us, we interact with God and others in a manner that glorifies Him. Whatever rewards God decides to give us, in this life or the next, aren’t earned or deserved purely through our works, any more than we earn God’s love or His salvation. Rewards are the blessing we receive for living out our love for the Lord.

The greatest reward is the blessing of having a relationship with our Creator, the God of love who has saved us through the sacrifice of His Son—and we have that blessing right now, in this life. We live with the presence of God in our lives, we are filled with His Spirit, we experience His kindness, His manifestations of love in small and great ways. The greatest blessing for believers, the greatest reward, is having the Lord in our lives.

Self-Interest vs. Selfishness

A question that might arise when considering our rewards is whether our motivation to apply the Lord’s teaching in our lives, which will result in rewards, is motivated by our own self-interest, and if so, whether that's wrong? Throughout the New Testament, there are numerous references to the concept of rewards, which are there for a reason. Certainly they encouraged the martyrs who were about to lose their lives to not deny their faith, but to hold on to the promises of God. They help and have helped many Christians in their choice to follow God’s call to serve Him as pastors, missionaries, and in other areas of service, despite originally having other hopes and plans for their life. They choose to follow because they love Him, and they do so with the assurance that they will be rewarded.

This looking forward to reward is a form of self-interest, but it’s not selfishness, and there is a difference between the two. Selfishness promotes one’s own welfare at the expense of others. Self-interest in regard to rewards is centered in our desire for fellowship with God and the desire to please Him, which results in living for the glory of God, in godliness in the individual, which brings others to the Lord. The possibility of rewards can help motivate us to godly actions, as we anticipate enjoying such rewards. The possibility of a loss of reward is also a motivator.

Throughout the New Testament, rewards offer encouragement and motivation to live in a manner which reflects God’s nature, to make needed changes in our lives, and to persevere, as seen in these verses:

Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great …[16] 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.[17] Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.[18] Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.[19]

Rewards for living in alignment with God’s directions are not limited to the next life, as both material and spiritual blessings are also promised in this life.

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.[20]For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.[21] Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.[22]

No Competition

The concept of heavenly rewards has nothing to do with competition or the pride which can stem from it. It’s not as though if we work hard for the Lord in this life we will achieve rock star status in heaven, while others will be household servants. And we won’t be in sorrow or mourning because we feel our rewards are less than someone else’s, as such feelings are of our earth life and they will be gone forever.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.[23]

Author Wayne Grudem wrote:

Even though there will be degrees of reward in heaven, the joy of each person will be full and complete for eternity. If we ask how this can be when there are different degrees of reward, it simply shows that our perception of happiness is based on the assumption that happiness depends on what we possess or the status or power that we have. In actuality, however, our true happiness consists in delighting in God and rejoicing in the status and recognition that He has given us.[24]

The following quotation expresses this concept well:

Though these [degrees of rewards] may exist, those in heaven will be glorified, and their values will be completely different from earthly values. There will not be envy or jealousy, but rather praise. It will not be, ‘Why did you get more rewards than I?,’ but more likely ‘It is wonderful how you allowed the power of the Lord to work in you,’ or, ‘It is amazing what persecution you endured for the Lord.’ Finally, everyone in heaven will realize that rewards, like salvation, are of God’s grace, and will give Him praise accordingly.[25]

Our lives as Christians are meant to be God-focused, living in a manner that glorifies Him. The rewards we receive for living in that manner will be given as an outward acknowledgment of the love for and obedience to God which we manifested through the lives we led. We should regularly remind ourselves that our love for the Lord, the way we follow and serve Him, and our actions which are done for His glory, all factor in to the rewards we will receive in heaven and in some ways in this life as well. Our goal isn’t the rewards; it’s to love and live for God. We do best when we understand that God Himself is our greatest reward.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Romans 14:10,12.

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:10 NAU.

[3] Romans 8:1.

[4] John 5:24.

[5] Galatians 4:4–7 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

[6]James Leo Garrett, Jr., Systematic Theology, Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical, Vol. 1 (N. Richland Hills: BIBAL Press, 2000), 858.

[7] Revelation 11:18 NIV.

[8] 1 Corinthians 4:5 NAU.

[9] 1 Corinthians 3:11–15.

[10] 2 Corinthians 5:10 NIV.

[11] Matthew 6:20–21.

[12] Matthew 19:21.

[13] Luke 14:13–14.

[14] Matthew 6:2,5,16.

[15] John 14:15.

[16] Luke 6:35.

[17] Matthew 10:42.

[18] 1 Corinthians 9:24–25.

[19] Colossians 3:23–24.

[20] Luke 18:29–30.

[21] 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[22] 1 John 3:2.

[23] Revelation 21:4 NIV.

[24] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 1145.

[25] T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, eds., in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).