Can We Really Earn Eternal Rewards?

Question from a reader:

The Treasure Principle

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.

Answer from Randy Alcorn:

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, 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 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.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries