Questions to Randy Alcorn About Eternal Rewards
Our Bible study has questions about your teaching on eternal rewards in your books Money, Possessions and Eternity and The Law of Rewards. We’ve quoted below from different things you say in The Law of Rewards. We’d appreciate some answers to these questions.
1. While we are still here on earth, doesn’t a focus on heavenly rewards take our focus off of Christ? Isn’t the focus in Heaven solely on Christ? Isn’t Christ our reward?
Page 21—”The greatest treasure is Christ himself. To Paul, gaining Christ made everything else seem comparatively worthless (Philippians 3:7-11). But the rewards God promises us are treasures too, and he expects us to want them.”
If even Paul said that gaining Christ made “everything else” seem comparatively worthless, doesn’t that show that Christ should be the treasure we are seeking after? If we have just been saved from eternal damnation, where is the relevancy of rewards with that in mind?
There can be no conflict here, since the same Paul who says everything (that is, everything that was a substitute or competitor or distracter for knowing him) is worthless compared to knowing Christ himself says we should labor for rewards: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25)
Paul assures Christians, “God will give to each person according to what he has done.” (Romans 2:6) He says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). He says, “Because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.” (Ephesians 6:8) Paul rejoices because, “The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me 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 longed for his appearing.” (2 Tim. 4:6-8)
Paul delights in the reward he will receive in fellowship with the Thessalonian Christians in whom he invested his life. “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?” (1 Thessalonians 2:19) He calls the Philippians “my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1).
Does any of this minimize Christ as the greatest treasure? Of course not. You say, “If even Paul said that gaining Christ made “everything else” seem comparatively worthless, doesn’t that show that Christ should be the treasure we are seeking after? If we have just been saved from eternal damnation, where is the relevancy of rewards with that in mind?”
You seem to be seeing a conflict where there is none. Furthermore, we have not “just been saved from eternal damnation.” We have been empowered to serve Christ faithfully, something which he treasures and rewards. When you ask “where is the relevance of rewards,” even if you can’t wrap your mind around it (who can? Not me), you need to believe it. It’s taught so repeatedly that it’s a central biblical doctrine that we must embrace. As Jesus said, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.” (Matt. 16:27)
You say Christ is our treasure as if that means there are no other treasures. But Jesus says otherwise. Christ is our main treasure, but when he tells us to lay up treasures in Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21) does he mean “lay up Christs in Heaven?”
When Paul says, in 1 Tim 6:18-19 “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age” does he mean we will lay up Christ for ourselves through good works?
When Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in Heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys ” (Luke 12:33 ), does he mean provide for yourself a Christ in Heaven that will not be exhausted and cannot be stolen or destroyed?
To say Christ is the main treasure we seek is absolutely true. To say he is the only treasure we should seek is false, since Scripture itself tells us to store up treasures in Heaven that are not Christ. Christ is the giver, those are the gifts. It is a false dichotomy to pit rewards against Christ, since God is the creator and grantor of rewards. It’s like saying we shouldn’t anticipate Heaven or anticipate being reunited with loved ones in Heaven, because God is the only one we should care about. It’s like saying we shouldn’t love people, because we should only love God. That may sound spiritual, but it’s completely false, contradicting Scripture.
This needs a closer look, I think, because it appears there are similar assumptions behind nearly all your questions. Please don’t take this as criticism. I appreciate that you’re seeking truth in this area. I’m just saying I think there are some wrong assumptions that are keeping you from seeing and celebrating what Scripture teaches on rewards. So I’m going to try to address some of them. To do that I’m going to pull some things from a manuscript of a book on Heaven I’m finishing. So if some doesn’t relate to your question, bear with me, because I think some does:
It is common to believe God is glorified only when we think of him alone and that any motive besides love for God is inferior or unacceptable. Yet it is God in his Word who gives us other motives—love for people, fear of disobedience and hope of reward among them. These are not mixed motives, but multiple motives—all God-given.
Perhaps we can understand the appropriateness of motivation by reward (a secondary source of joy in the Christ-centered life) by considering the appropriateness of taking pleasure in the fellowship of other people (also a secondary source of joy, with God being the only primary source).
Aquinas and the early Augustine were dismissive of the notion that we would find joy in Heaven due to our relationships with other people. This seemed to elevate creatures and undermine the Creator as the sole source of joy. Hence it was regarded as unspiritual. So, based on logic instead of on Scripture, people think they’re taking the spiritual high road by saying, “God is the only one we should long for or desire or look forward to being with.”
But this is contradicted by Scripture. Paul talks of “our intense longing” to be in the presence of the Thessalonian church. He says “you long to see us, just as we also long to see you” (1 Thessalonians 2:17; 3:6). Obviously he does not consider this as contrary to or competing with his or their longing for God. He considers this longing for human companionship good and appropriate.
In fact, Paul anticipates his rich relationship with the Thessalonians as part of his reward in Heaven: “What is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed you are our glory and our joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19).
He goes on to say “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” (3:9-10). The joy he takes in his friends doesn’t compete with his joy in God—it is part of his joy in God. Whenever we enjoy something or someone from God’s hand and are moved to thank him, we are experiencing exactly what he intended.
God has given us secondary sources of joy that are derivative of our primary source of joy (Him). In turn, derivative joys are sign posts pointing right back to the God they came from. So in Heaven we will take joy in God’s presence not only in God, but in what has graciously given us—including our loved ones, our eternal rewards, the beauties of Heaven’s great city and gardens, the delicious food we’ll eat, the fascinating activities we’ll engage in.
Since He is the creator and designer and provider of all these, He is our ultimate source of joy. He does not feel slighted when we thoroughly enjoy what is from our hand—on the contrary, he feels delighted. (He would feel slighted only if we DIDN’T look forward to and enjoy them.)
We will enjoy God forever by enjoying his attributes and his greatness, and also by enjoying all the creatures and creations and rewards and adventures he has made to delight us and glorify Himself. We did not invent this order, He did. It cannot be wrong or inappropriate any more than he can be wrong or inappropriate.
He goes on to talk about how we will be reunited with believing family and friends in Heaven, saying “Brothers we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope...God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him...we who are still alive and are let will be caught up together with them...so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
Our source of comfort is not only that we will be with the Lord in Heaven, but with each other. God is not bothered by our love for each other—he made us for each other. It was God, not man, who first said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God was saying, “I have made these people in such a way that they need not only me, but others who I will give to them.” In Heaven, God will delight in his children’s love for each other. As we walk and talk and laugh together, He will take us much pleasure in it as we do.
So can we make people or heavenly reward into idols? Of course, but only by utterly twisting God’s design for both. We need only to remind ourselves that all creatures and creations, including people, Heaven and eternal rewards, exist to draw us toward God—and when we see with eternal perspective, we’ll see that by being drawn toward them we are being drawn toward Him.
2. Is there regret and guilt in Heaven? Is Heaven only a step up from hell for some people? Isn’t it wrong to imply that Heaven is not going to be very joyous for many who enter it?
Heaven will ultimately be a place of eternal joy, and I think I said nothing to imply otherwise. But when we are held accountable at the judgment seat for every deed we’ve done, and every word we’ve spoken, and even the bad we have done (I can’t explain it, but you have to admit the Bible directly says it in 2 Cor. 5:10), don’t you think this will involve regret? Surely it won’t be joyful at the moment we have to give an account for our failures. (I don’t believe this discomfort will go on and on, of course, but I do believe it will happen because Scripture clearly says so. Consider these passages):
1. Some Christians will and others will not hear Christ say, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:21)
2. Some Christians will be ashamed when they meet Christ—”Dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” (1 John 2:28).
3. Some Christians in Heaven will “suffer loss” when their lives on earth are evaluated at the judgment seat of Christ.
“If any man builds on this foundation [the foundation of Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood hay or straw, his 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 man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
4. Christians at the judgment seat will experience certain consequences of good they have failed to do and bad they have done:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
“Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (Colossians 3:25).
The believer’s judgment is of works, not sins. But apparently the commission of sins results in the omission of righteous works. Hence, the loss of reward that we would have had if we hadn’t lived in sin. There is no indication that rewards missed by virtue of lack of service on earth (1 Cor. 3: 13-15) will be later achieved in some other way. In Heaven, how we have lived on earth will have eternal effects.
3. How do we stay away from legalistic living if so much of our focus is on the rewards we will be receiving in Heaven for the good works we do here on earth?
Page 72—”Whether I read my Bible today, pray, go to church, share my faith, and give my money—actions graciously empowered not by my flesh but by his Spirit—is of eternal consequences, not only for other souls, but for mine.”
If I am always thinking, I’ve got to read my Bible today, go to church, and share my faith so that I can store up some treasures today, that seems like legalistic motivation rather than doing them out of a love of Christ.
Legalism is always wrong. So what is the solution? To disobey Scripture by not looking to our reward in Heaven? No. You dare not throw out rewards because you can get legalistic about them, any more than you should throw out Bible study, fasting and prayer because you can get legalistic about them.
We can pervert any good thing into legalism. To avoid it we have to remind ourselves that apart from Christ we can do nothing and he is the one who empowers our good works for his glory. It’s about Him, not us. But we still have to believe Him when he says He wants to reward us. To disbelieve Him, and act as if rewards don’t matter when he says they do, is to insult Him.
This doesn’t mean we can’t relax, ride a bike, or have fun. These are part of the life God gives us, and we should enjoy it. In fact, some of the fun—loving activities we do lead to investments in eternity. For instance, after playing tennis with a man one day I had the joy of leading him to Christ. That doesn’t usually happen, and it doesn’t have to happen for God to be pleased. We should not frantically run through life fearing that if we stop to take a nap or pick an apple or watch a football game that we’ve displeased God. He rewards us for obedience. So if we honor him by doing nothing in a grace-motivated keeping of a day of rest, he may reward us for “doing nothing” that day.
The sheer size and scope of the biblical doctrine of rewards demonstrates how important this subject is. Consider all the passages I’ve compiled. Because some try to work their way into Heaven, which is foolish and sinful and impossible, we have come to fear good works and reject them as insignificant, when in fact God says we were created to do good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). We should not throw out the baby of eternal reward for good works with the bathwater of works—righteousness.
With legalism, the problem is us exalting ourselves and doing good works in the power of the flesh, and seeking the reward of men. Properly, we are to live for the Audience of One, seeking to please Him and gratefully anticipating the miracle of rewards he will give us which will testify not to our goodness, but to his grace at work in our lives. If we remind ourselves of what Scripture says about who he is and who we are, about his worthiness and our unworthiness, we will break free of legalism. Apart from Him we can do nothing.
4. This sort of gets into deeper questions of free will, but in light of our previous question, are we doing our good works on our own power or on Christ’s? If it is God who is willing in us to act according to his good purpose, how can we take the credit for it?
We don’t take the credit. What makes you think God’s promise that He will reward us means we would ever take the credit for anything? It is God who says “Well done.” We do not stand before God and say “My job was well done”—that would be taking credit.
This is what I mean by the assumptions that underlie your questions. You ask this as if reward were our idea. It isn’t. It is God’s. Don’t you see the difference between God GIVING us reward and us TAKING CREDIT for reward? It’s stated as if the doctrine of rewards as inherently contradictory to the doctrine of grace. But it CANNOT be because God is the author of both doctrines!
Don’t get me wrong. I take no offense to this or any of your questions. I’m just saying that the wording of this question, like several of the others, reveals what I think are wrong assumptions about the matter of rewards, assumptions which resist and could even twist the biblical revelation on this subject and make it appear to be taking the moral/humility “high ground” by rejecting rewards and motivation by rewards as carnal, unspiritual, or misguided. But, though we’d never say this, aren’t we are really accusing GOD of being unspiritual and misguided, since he is the one who invented rewards, offers them, encourages us to be motivated by them, etc.? Isn’t it a little presumptuous of us, as if we know something about the dangers of his offering rewards that he doesn’t?
5. Are our rewards in Heaven given to us to be laid at Christ’s feet for his glory?
Page 92—”These crowns bring glory to Christ as they are laid before his feet (Revelation 4:10), showing that our rewards are given not merely for our recognition but for God’s glory.”
Revelation 4:10—”the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne, and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worth, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.’“
Again, isn’t the focus in Heaven going to be on Christ and praising him and not on ourselves and the rewards we have earned?
Of course. The passage I cited, Rev. 4:10, shows this and others support it. But the fact that you’ve asked this question implies an unbiblical assumption that there is a contradiction between Christ being glorified and our receiving reward.
It isn’t either/or, it’s both/and. Christ is glorified through giving us reward. You need to stop seeing that as contradictory. It isn’t.
Again, you must deal with the fact that it is God-inspired Scripture that speaks of all these rewards and tells us that we MUST believe that God is a Rewarder (Hebrews 11:6). If we do not believe this, we disbelieve God and fail to bring him glory.
6. Is it really insulting God when we say to him, “I don’t deserve this reward?”
Page 124—”So if I give a cup of cold water, do I earn or deserve a reward? In one sense no. In another sense yes.” It seems backwards from what the Bible teaches to say that we are deserving of something (even if it is promised to us).
Page 106—”Suppose my daughter did the yard work joylessly and then said, ‘Dad, I just did my duty. I refuse the money, and I don’t want to go to dinner with you.’ How would that make me feel? We flatter ourselves—and insult God—when we say, ‘I don’t care about reward.’“
What if your daughter instead had said, “Dad, I am going to do the yard work, but I refuse to take the money. I’m just going to do it because I’m your daughter and I love you.” Do you think if she responded in this way that you would be mad at her for not accepting the money? It is not that we don’t care about God’s rewards, it is just admitting that we don’t deserve them.
I said we insult God when we say “I don’t care about reward.” I did NOT say we insult him when we say “I don’t deserve this reward.” Do you see that these are two radically different things?
OF COURSE we don’t deserve rewards. That’s a given. That’s 101. But does the fact that we don’t deserve them mean that we dare refuse to accept them?
We do not deserve salvation, right? So using the same logic, are you saying we should refuse to accept salvation? Since we deserve damnation, would choosing it be more pleasing to Him? Does God want us to say “I refuse to take salvation”?
God would be no more honored through our refusing reward as through our refusing salvation. There is nothing spiritual about embracing damnation, or embracing loss or refusal of reward—in fact, this attitude couldn’t be more unspiritual, because we are opposing the revealed will of God, which is to save us and to reward us. Is it wrong to want to be saved? Yes, if it is wrong to want to be rewarded. Well, if that is wrong, then it must be good not only to want to not be rewarded (as you expressed it) but to not want to be saved. Do you see how convoluted this logic is?
Consider carefully what you portrayed (if I understood correctly) as a virtuous response: “Dad, I am going to do the yard work, but I refuse to take the money. I’m just going to do it because I’m your daughter and I love you.” It has the illusion of spirituality in assuming there can only be one right motive in life (even though God gives us multiple motives). But it goes much further. What is this really saying? It’s frightening when you think about it: “Father, I refuse to receive what you have promised me and what you delight to give me.” The Sovereign God of Heaven and earth comes up with this marvelous extension of his grace, this joyous gift he wishes to bestow on us for having served Him, and then we say “Nope—I refuse to take it”??????? Who do we think we are?
Do you really believe God would be honored by our refusing to accept reward he desires to give us? Who are we to refuse God? He is God and we’re not—we should never refuse him! It may seem the spiritual high road, but it’s just the opposite.
It would be like Mary saying to God when she’d been chosen to bear the Messiah, “No, Lord, you see I’m not worthy, so I refuse to bear the Messiah.” Does that sound spiritual? Instead she responded, “May it be to me as you have said.” Mary accepts God’s incredibly high calling of her with humility, instead of a false humility which would have said, “No God, I’m unworthy so I refuse to do what you want.” Isn’t our unworthiness an argument for us receiving what God wants to give us rather than refusing to receive it?
Our unworthiness is a given. But to refuse God’s grace to us (reward is a grace as salvation is) because we are unworthy in a given case is to imply that we can get by without God’s grace, or that sometimes we really are worthy, just not in this case.
Peter no doubt thought he was being spiritual when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet, but it was in fact desperately misguided and prideful. Likewise it may seem spiritual for someone to say “I refuse reward from you, God” but it is prideful, in that we are trusting our judgment, and essentially trying to correct God because somehow he’s got it wrong on this idea of rewarding us! We know better, apparently, than God does! And, to make it worse, we imagine ourselves spiritual for having done this.
Our logic deduces that wanting reward or being motivated by reward cannot be right and therefore even though God repeatedly tries to motivate us by reward we say “No, God, I won’t buy it.” In fact, if it is sinful to be motivated by reward then we accuse God of tempting us to sin whenever he motivates us by reward (e.g. Luke 14, where we’re told to serve the poor and the lame since because they can’t pay us back, God will pay us back in Heaven).
I encourage you to go back to Scripture and embrace what it actually says, then rest in it and find pleasure in it, rather than avoiding and denying and dismissing what it says because you think it sounds unspiritual or selfish. It isn’t, it cannot be, because it is God, not man, who came up with this. There is no conflict whatsoever with the doctrine of grace.
We dare not expect God to revise or modify his theology to fit us. We must revise ours to fit his. I don’t mean to sound like I’m scolding—it’s just that most of these questions seem to reflect a basic resistance to a marvelous doctrine of Scripture, and I’m wanting you to not miss out on it. I don’t mean that you’re WANTING to resist it, just that you have a preconceived idea of grace and works that is keeping you from seeing rewards as a very positive doctrine not only compatible with grace, but a wondrous extension of it. My recommendation is that you try to put down your defenses about what Scripture says about rewards, and humbly ask God to help you embrace it.
7. Is Heaven more wonderful for some?
Page 94—”We saw earlier that hell will be terrible for all, but it will be more terrible for some than others, depending on their works on earth (Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 20:45-47). Doesn’t it follow that although everyone’s experience in Heaven will be wonderful, it will be more wonderful for some than others, depending on their service for Christ while on earth?”
In Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he makes the following comments on rewards in Heaven.
Pages 1144-5—”Many passages likewise teach or imply degrees of reward for believers at the final judgment. But we must guard against misunderstanding here: 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. The foolishness of thinking that only those who have been highly rewarded and given great status will be fully happy in Heaven is seen when we realize that no matter how great a reward we are given, there will always be those with greater rewards, or who have higher status and authority, including the apostles, the heavenly creatures, and Jesus Christ and God himself. Therefore if highest status were essential for people to be fully happy, no one but God would be fully happy in Heaven, which is certainly and incorrect idea. Moreover, those with greater reward and honor in Heaven, those nearest the throne of God, delight not in their status but only in the privilege of falling down before God’s throne to worship him (see Rev. 4:10-11).”
If you agree with what Grudem says (specifically “the joy of each person will be full and complete for eternity”), what is our motivation to have more rewards?
To bring honor and glory to Christ—don’t forget that it is about Him, not us. It is He who wants us to live faithfully to his glory. The more rewards he has to give us, the more he will be glorified, the more pleasure he will take, and the more we will enjoy Him forever.
In conclusion, let me add the following, which I am copying and pasting from our website:
Can we really earn eternal rewards?
I enjoy your books, but I’m put off by the notion that we as Christians should work to earn eternal rewards. How can we who are unworthy of anything possibly do something to earn rewards? The whole concept of earning implies “putting an employer in our debt by virtue of the value of our service.” How can God be in our debt when in fact we are absolutely in His? God is not our employer, He’s our Creator and Savior! Yes, to rewards, but NO to earning. All my good deeds are done by the grace of God which is with me.
I say this in one of my books, The Treasure Principle:
We obtain rewards for doing good works (Ephesians 6:8, Romans 2:6, 10), persevering under persecution (Luke 6:22-23), caring for the needy (Matthew 25:20-21), and treating our enemies kindly (Luke 6:35). God also graciously gives us eternal rewards for generous giving: “Go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven” (Matthew 19:21).
I did use the word “earn” in a few places in my books Money, Possessions and Eternity and In Light of Eternity. But in its context in both books I used “earn” in the sense of a Christ-empowered obedience resulting in God graciously granting us the rewards he promises. Note this excerpt from In Light of Eternity:
It’s critical to understand that the judgment of believers by Christ is a judgment of our works, not our sins. In 1 Corinthians 3:13-14, Paul says of each believer, “His work will be shown for what it is,” and God’s judgment fire “will test the quality of each man’s work.”
Our sins are totally forgiven when we come to Christ, and we stand justified in him. There’s no condemnation for the Christian (Romans 8:1). Nevertheless, our laying up of precious stones on the foundation of Christ can apparently be replaced or prevented by sins we’ve committed as well as by righteous acts we have failed to do. Therefore a believer’s sins contribute directly to his “suffering loss” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
Through this loss of reward the believer is considered to be receiving his “due” for his bad works (2 Corinthians 5:10). This is not a punishment for sins, but the withholding of rewards for works not done that should have been.
Let’s be sure this is perfectly clear: Salvation and rewards are different.
Salvation is about God’s work for us. It’s a free gift, to which we can contribute absolutely nothing (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
Rewards are about our work for God.
Salvation is dependent on God’s faithfulness to his promises, and on his mercy.
Rewards are conditional, dependent on our faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 2:26-28; 3:21).
Belief determines our eternal destination...where we’ll be.
Behavior determines our eternal rewards...what we’ll have.
Works do not affect our redemption. Works do affect our reward. Just as there are eternal consequences to our faith, so there are eternal consequences to our works.
Because we speak of rewards so rarely, when we do speak of them it’s easy to confuse God’s work and man’s. We may, for example, mistakenly believe that Heaven is a person’s reward for doing good things. This is absolutely not the case. Eternal life is entirely “the gift of God” (Romans 6:23). In going to Heaven we don’t get what we deserve. What we all deserve is hell. Heaven is a gift, not a reward.
In regard to salvation, our work for God is no substitute for God’s work for us. In regard to rewards, God’s work for us is no substitute for our work for God. Of course, this doesn’t mean we work in our own strength to earn rewards. Ultimately even our reward-earning works are empowered by the Holy Spirit (Colossians 1:29).
I appreciate your concern, Brian, and given people’s proneness to mistake salvation and rewards, I must always be careful to make the clarification. But I do have some questions for you to consider. In your post, you objected to the idea of God being portrayed as our employer. But doesn’t Christ himself use this analogy in the stewardship parables? Yes, he is the master, but these are not merely slaves as we often think of them, but trusted employees, as they are specifically given financial assets which they are called upon to invest, and the Money-owner then repays them according to how well they have done their job in investing his assets, putting them in charge of many things if they’ve proven faithful.
Certainly Jesus uses the employer analogy in Matt 20. He hired men to work in the vineyard. He agreed to pay them a certain wage. He then hired others and said he’d pay them what was right. Some expected more, and grumbled and he said, ‘I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Now if we only portrayed God as an employer, or even mainly did so, it would be unbalanced. He is also my King, father, owner, shepherd, etc. Christ is my bridegroom and my friend and my brother. If I camp on any of these without the others that is imbalance. But if I nix any of the analogies that Scripture uses—including the employer analogy—that too is imbalance, isn’t it? To say that Christ pays his servants for our labors is not the whole picture. But it is certainly part of the picture, isn’t it? When dealing with stewardship, as I often do, using the language of the stewardship parables, as Christ did, is appropriate, isn’t it?
You say, “The concept of earning implies “putting an employer in our debt by virtue of the value of our service.” I don’t view it that way, Brian, because it is he—not us—who puts the value on our service, and it is he, not us, who commits himself to repay our service to him. We make no demands on him here, and it would be blasphemy to do so. But He tells us that he keeps account and will repay.
Christ said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” God says he himself will repay us. Doesn’t the word “repay” mean that he chooses to put we, who are unworthy, in a position to be paid back, as if he has chosen to owe us for our Christ-centered acts of obedience? If this puts God “in our debt” (a phrase that makes me cringe) it is by his decree not ours!
To me, it’s all a matter of who came up with this notion. If it was us it would be a heresy and presumption from the pit of hell. But it wasn’t us. It was God. It is one thing for me to say “God, if I give a cup of cold water in your name, you are in my debt to repay me.” That would be damnable. But when God himself, by his own gracious decree promises he will “repay” us, then by embracing that, instead of presuming upon him aren’t we simply believing him (with wonder at how he could stoop so low as to regard our works as worthy of his reward)?
So if I give a cup of cold water do I earn or deserve a reward? In one sense no. In another sense yes. God is not only gracious, but just. He does not let us into Heaven simply out of grace, but also because—clothed in his righteousness—there is an objective reason (Christ’s atonement) that fulfills his righteous demands of us. Likewise he reward us by grace, but also in justice—a just God does not give reward unless it is not only gracious but right for him to do so. When Christ says “Well done my good and faithful servant” I don’t think he will be kidding—I think he will really mean “you’ve done a good job and in doing so you have, by my grace, earned the reward which it pleases me to give you.”
If I had come up with the notion “God will repay those who serve him,” that would give me the willies too. Yet He himself says it. Reward is not just a general notion—it is highly specific, given to us for measurable works we did that please him (1 Cor. 3). One could certainly abuse that notion, and people have, but that it can be abused does not invalidate the truth of it (e.g. Rom 6:1). Somehow all this relates to that great paradox of Paul’s statement, “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.”
You say in your post, “Yes, to rewards, but NO to earning. All my good deeds are done by the grace of God which is with me.” Well, yes, but God rewards us, not himself, right? So he sees us somehow as players in this thing, doesn’t he? “Yes, to rewards but NO to earning” sounds spiritual, but what does it really mean? That there is nothing that can be done to gain or lose rewards? If one takes action to gain a reward is he not in some sense earning it? Would you say to someone going off to college, “Yes to getting a degree but NO to earning it”? He doesn’t have to work to be your son—he’s that no matter what. But he does need to work to earn a degree.
Obviously we can’t earn our salvation—nothing could be more clear. But is it possible that you are disqualifying “earn” in the context of reward, presupposing it as a dirty term, guilt by association with its damnable meaning in relation to salvation? I think it has legitimacy in this very different context, the context of being rewarded for serving Him, a context which he himself has implemented and commanded.
Honestly, can you read 1 Cor. 9:24-27 without the sense that by God’s grace Paul is striving to earn eternal rewards, and is concerned lest he be disqualified from doing so? Isn’t the notion of winning the race for the crown the same as earning the crown through one’s Christ-empowered efforts?
So, my agreement about the wisdom of not using the term “earn” is precisely on the level of wisdom—largely because of the dangers of what it could suggest to those who don’t understand God’s grace and our utter unworthiness apart from his righteousness and empowerment. As I said, however, I don’t agree about the inappropriateness of viewing God as an employer who calls upon his servants to work for their pay, since Christ himself used the analogy.
One other thought, as it relates to the riskiness of how God phrases things. Suppose we had never heard these words before and one day heard a preacher say:
“Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” Then suppose he added, “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.”
I would cringe, wouldn’t you? To use your term, it would give me the willies.
“His bride has made herself ready”? No, we’d say, it should be “He has made his bride ready.”
“Fine linen stands for the righteous...” Complete the sentence. There’s only one correct answer, isn’t there? “Fine linen stands for the righteous work of Christ on our behalf.”
If it wasn’t in Scripture and we heard someone say “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints” we’d conclude (I would anyway) that they were heretics, giving men credit where it is only due to God. Yet God himself, who could have said the bride’s wedding dress is the righteousness of Christ in which we’re covered, said instead the bride is covered in her own righteous acts. (Of course, we know these are empowered by God himself, but he chooses to say the other anyway, apparently wishing to focus on his children’s faithful acts of obedience.)
Again Rev. 22:14 says “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” The next verse talks about those who are outside because they are unworthy. Doesn’t that mean those who go in are worthy? They actually “have the right to the tree of life.” By their merit? Absolutely not. Only by Christ’s merit. But nonetheless it is said that they “wash their robes.” I would have expected it to say “God washed their robes.” For some reason, it doesn’t. God seems often to use risky language that is subject to misunderstanding and abuse. Yet apparently He considers the point he’s trying to emphasize as worth the risk. The question is whether we think it’s worth the risk to put the emphasis where God chose to in the particular passage in front of us. Or do we try to protect people from a possible abuse by staying away from or altering the meaning of passages which present risky truth?
So, I agree with your belief that “earned” isn’t the best term in light of possible misunderstanding, yet disagree that it has no biblical teaching that lends support to it (as long as one stays clearly within the confines of Christ-empowered service based on his worthiness, not ours). We are his sons, but not only his sons, his bride, but not only his bride, his servants and stewards who are repaid for our service—by no means only that, but that nonetheless.