When Kirk Cousins, starting quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, interviewed me, one of the great questions he asked was, “Will we have regret in Heaven when we finally see with an eternal perspective?”
I really appreciated Kirk’s question because of his Bible-based recognition of a truth many Christians don’t often contemplate, that “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:12). While many Bible verses teach this, most of us fail to live daily with the eternal perspective this truth should cultivate in us. I want to explore this further than I was able to do in that interview.
First things first. Certainly, Heaven ultimately will be a place of eternal joy: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, ESV).
The joy of Heaven is dependent upon the reality that God forgives our sins:
“He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” (Micah 7:19, ESV)
“[A]s far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12, ESV)
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” (Isaiah 43:25, NIV)
“For I will forgive their wrongdoing, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Hebrews 8:12, CSB)
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9, NIV)
Everything these verses say is true. And yet…there are other true things also revealed in Scripture, which we must strive to reconcile with them.
For instance, Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Revelation 22:12, ESB). Did Jesus really mean “each one,” including believers, will have his or her works evaluated, to see if they are worthy of reward?
And how about this statement from the apostle Paul: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10, ESV). Some who have never been taught this may find it shocking, but God’s Word tells us we will be held accountable at the judgment seat of Christ for every deed we’ve done, including the evil ones. If you disagree, keep in mind that these are not my words, but God’s.
Jesus, speaking to both believers and unbelievers, said, “You must give an account on judgment day for every idle word you speak” (Matthew 12:36, NLT). It seems obvious that giving account for those careless words we’ve spoken will make us feel bad. How could it be otherwise?
There are two different judgments in God’s Word: the judgment of faith, and the judgment of works. The judgment of faith relates to our eternal salvation, while the judgment of works relates to our eternal rewards.
For Christians, salvation took place in a moment in the past. It was free, it can’t be lost, it is the same for all Christians, and it is solely based on a faith that is ours by the grace of God alone. By contrast, future rewards are earned (by God’s grace), can be lost, differ among Christians, and are based on our efforts. Consider this chart and the verses cited:
Past (1 John 3:2) Future (Revelation 22:12)
Free (Ephesians 2:8-9) Earned (1 Corinthians 3:8)
Can’t be lost (John 10:28-29) Can be lost (2 John 1:8)
Same for all Christians Differ among Christians
(Romans 3:22) (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
For those who believe For those who work
(John 3:16) (1 Corinthians 9:27)
Salvation is about God’s work for us. Conversely, rewards are a matter of our work for God. When it comes to salvation, our work for God is no substitute for God’s work for us. God saves us because of Christ’s work, not ours. Likewise, when it comes to rewards, God rewards us for our work, not Christ’s. (Of course, it is empowered by the Holy Spirit; nevertheless, God refers to it as our work.)
Let me be sure this is perfectly clear. Christ paid the eternal price (Hell on the cross) for all our sins, once and for all (Hebrews 10:12-18). If we have trusted Him for that provision, we will not pay the eternal price; that is, we will not go to Hell. He has fully forgiven our sins, and we are completely secure in Christ’s love (Psalm 103:8-18; Romans 8:31-39). Our salvation is sure, and we will not undergo the judgment of condemnation (John 5:24; Romans 8:1).
But although the forgiveness of our sins has every bearing on our eternal destination, it has no automatic and effortless effect on our eternal rewards, apart from the fact that God’s sanctifying work comes out of our salvation, and therefore we should expect that the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives should lead us to do good works that God will reward. But we must choose to do the works He prompts us to do. Neither does it mean our choices have no consequences in eternity. Forgiven people can still lose their rewards or forfeit eternal positions of responsibility they could have had if they’d served Christ consistently and faithfully before death.
Trust in Christ, lean on Him, and draw upon Him for power, for apart from Him we can do nothing. But if we hope to receive a reward, we must still do the necessary work. As our forefathers put it, to wear the crown we must first bear the cross.
What we do with our resources—including our time, money, and possessions—will matter not just twenty minutes, twenty days, or twenty years from now. It will matter twenty trillion years from now.
Though Paul insists we are saved by faith, not works (Titus 3:5), he also clearly states that the choices we make and the things we do have eternal implications, and that we will each answer to God for the works we have done in this life:
If anyone builds on this foundation [Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15, NIV)
Those believers who have been less faithful and obedient in their walk with Christ will not suffer loss of salvation! But they will suffer loss of the reward that would have been theirs had they been more Christ-centered and faithful in their service to Jesus.
What 1 Corinthians 3 says is so sobering that a temporary loss doesn’t seem likely. This loss of rewards appears permanent, for while we will all serve God in our resurrected bodies on His New Earth, there appears to be a finality to the fact that after death comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27). If there are any future judgments for our service to God on the New Earth, we are not told about them in Scripture. Of course, we should anticipate for our future service He will say to all of his children, “Well done!” And yet, despite Scripture’s silence on this, I think it’s very possible that God, who is by nature a rewarder (Hebrews 6:11), may continue to reward His people for faithful service on the New Earth. That resonates with me, and I don’t see anything unbiblical about it. It fully fits His nature as a Father who takes joy in saying “Well done” to His devoted children.
First Corinthians isn’t the only passage that speaks of losing reward. The apostle John wrote, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward” (2 John 1:8, ESV).
To win a full reward would be glorious, wouldn’t it? But surely all of us will regret some of our decisions in that day when we “suffer loss” or “lose what we have worked for.” Anticipating standing before the judgment seat of Christ should motivate us to follow Him wholeheartedly and generate in us a proper fear of God.
All of us will be full of joy in Heaven, but those who served Him faithfully, particularly in the midst of adversity, will have been made, by God’s grace, into larger vessels. They won’t be fuller of joy, but they will have a greater capacity, and their fullness will accordingly contain even more joy. (Hence the special place in Revelation given to the martyrs.) There won’t be envy or regret, because of our new natures, and all will be full of joy, yet there will be true continuity and eternal consequence so that what we do—not just what we believe—in this life affects the next.
Maybe one way to say it is that the “loss” of rewards is in some sense permanent, but the “suffering” of that loss will be temporary. God will do away with the suffering (Revelation 21:4), but that is after the judgment, after we give an account to the Lord. The suffering of regret will be there at the judgment (how could it not be?) before entrance to the eternal state, but then comes the learning and purifying and eternal rejoicing. Perhaps we’ll offer a short, entirely sincere, “I regret my lack of faith and faithfulness,” expressing this to our God who graciously forgives. Then, with that forever behind us, we move on to eternal joy.
But there will be no ongoing suffering, for all our regrets about our past will be overshadowed by God’s grace. Yet if there were no reckoning, no “suffering loss” then the 1 Corinthians 3 passage would be meaningless (which is exactly what most teaching on the subject reduces it to). Some will object that this is a sort of Protestant purgatory, just shorter in duration than languishing in the flames of the Catholic purgatory. But the suffering is not in the eternal state, only in a temporal judgment, and judgment must involve the negative as well as positive or it too is meaningless. The biblical statements of “giving an account” and that include “works done in the body, whether good and evil” are unmistakable in that regard. (Doing the evil will clearly have taken away from the rewards that would have come from doing good.)
Since all who know Jesus go to the intermediate Heaven immediately when we die, it appears that whenever this judgment happens, it will be after we get there. So, while God will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4), it seems likely that when we must give an account for our lives, there will be, for a time, some regrets and tears and a sense of that loss Scripture speaks of.
I realize this is hard to grasp. I am just trying to be true to all God’s Word says, instead of choosing only parts of it . This may sound like a sort of condemnation and punishment, but we are assured this isn’t the case, for “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Ephesians 1:7 says, “In him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace” (NIV). The Bible teaches not only forgiveness of our sins but also consequences for our choices. These consequences apply despite our forgiveness. Forgiveness means that God eliminates our eternal condemnation; we will not be ultimately punished for our sins, but there may be immediate consequences in this world due to our sins. Forgiven people can still contract AIDS, go to jail for drunk driving, or suffer the death penalty, for example. A murderer or drug dealer can be fully redeemed and forgiven, and may still spend the rest of his life in prison. He may lose his family as well as his freedom. After all, the thief on the cross remained there despite his confession of faith.
In Heaven, God appears to say that while all our sins will be forgiven and there will be no ongoing shame or regrets, nevertheless at the judgment seat an initial and temporary sense of shame, regret and sorrow seems likely, though one that will soon be swallowed up by eternal grace and joy.
One of the most often quoted passages in Scripture states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV).
It’s a wonderful truth, but verse 10 immediately follows with more truth about works: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God has prepared a lifetime of good works and we will give an account to Him for whether or not we have done them.
Surely each of these passages and others like them imply that while we will be fully forgiven in Christ and be forever totally cleansed and purified by His redemptive work, we will nonetheless be held accountable for what we have and haven’t done in this life.
It seems reasonable we won’t be joyful at the very moment we have to give an account for our sins, the careless words we have spoken, and all the wood, hay, and straw of our lives that will be consumed in the fire, that could have instead been gold and silver and precious stones. And at the same time, we will find great pleasure in the rewards God has given us, and we will celebrate the rewards He gives to others.
But how does this all fit with the truth about forgiveness of our sins? I think of the example of Charles Spurgeon, who didn’t try to reconcile every paradox or apparent contradiction in the Bible. Speaking of the truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility—which I also believe to be applicable to the truths of complete forgiveness and accountability at the judgment seat—Spurgeon said this:
These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.
Spurgeon also wrote, “Those who will only believe what they can reconcile will necessarily disbelieve much of divine revelation.” Our desire for logical consistency, as we understand it, can become our God. Then we, not Scripture and not God, become our own ultimate authority. We end up ignoring, rejecting, or twisting Scripture that doesn’t fit our chosen theology.
On the contrary, our theology should reflect Scripture itself, and wherever Scripture teaches apparently contradictory ideas, our theology should embrace those same ideas, rather than resort to a consistency which rejects part of God’s revealed Word.
Certainly, any and all of our regrets about our past will be overshadowed by God’s grace, which is the good news of the Gospel. There is comfort in 1 Corinthians 4:5, which says God “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” God will apparently find something to reward “each one” for. This makes sense, for no one can truly be born again without having demonstrated some fruit for which God can reward us.
All of this argues for cultivating an eternal perspective in which we seek to live each day in light of eternity—not out of dread, yet with the right kind of fear of God and a heartfelt love that desires to please our Lord and Savior.
In his book When Christ Comes, Max Lucado writes, “You can be certain you won’t regret any sacrifice you made for the kingdom. The hours of service for Christ? You won’t regret them. The money you gave? You’d give it a thousand times over. The times you helped the poor and loved the lost? You’d do it again. . . . You’d change the diapers, fix the cars, prepare the lessons, repair the roofs. One look into the faces of the ones you love, and you’d do it all again.”
An eternal perspective isn’t something we have to wait until Heaven to have. So I’ve often given readers and listeners this advice: live now the way that you will one day wish you would have. Don’t postpone obedience, holiness, purity, drawing close to God, and serving others.
Five minutes after we die, we’ll know exactly how we should have lived—it will be too late to go back and change anything. God has given us His Word so we don’t have to wait until we die to know how we should have lived. There’s no second chance for the unbeliever—but also no second chance for the believer! Just as missionary C. T. Studd said, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”
You and I have one life on this fallen earth in which to follow Jesus and invest in Heaven. Let’s not miss the opportunity. God will one day take away all our sorrows, but why go into eternity with regrets? Here’s a prayer for us: May what will be most important to us five minutes after we die become most important to us now.For more on the eternal Heaven, the New Earth, see Randy’s book Heaven. You can also browse our additional resources on Heaven.
Photo by David Billings on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.