On the doctrine of rewards, 1 Corinthians 3:15 says some will “suffer loss” though they will be saved and therefore be in Heaven and on the New Earth. That’s always bothered me. Loss implies comparison, and something “bad” in Heaven. Do you think that such loss is permanent? Or might there be opportunity to work past the "loss" and improve one's lot?
I do think that the loss is probably permanent in its effect, that is forever not having rewards we would have had if we’d served Christ more faithfully here. In Luke 19, the parable of the one who is put over ten, five or one city in the kingdom, as opposed to being put over none, the master says “you have been faithful in a little, I will put you over much.”
What 1 Corinthians 3 says is so sobering that a “temporary loss” just doesn’t seem to qualify for the effect. To be saved without having faithfully served, to “suffer loss” in regard to the eternal state would seem to be minimized if it would just be followed by “sure, you were unfaithful, but here’s as much reward as you would have had if you’d been faithful.”
At the same time, 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, and a Father takes joy in saying “Well done” to His child. So I would think that will continue forever, and we will enjoy the privilege of a loving God who commends us as we serve Him faithfully, as we all surely will in the eternal kingdom.
Yet, as Hebrews 9 puts it, “it is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment.” As there is no second chance after death to turn to Christ, there is no second chance to go back and do it over and live a life of faithful service here on the old earth. It will always be true that we will forever be moving forward from the “starting place” of rewarded position of service granted by the Master to those who served him faithfully on the old earth. So, could we move forward with new rewards? I think so. Could we move backward to redo our lives to regain the exact rewards we would have had if we’d served Him faithfully? There I think the answer would be no.
So what would that mean in terms of differences not just in position but in our persons? It may be like what Edwards and Spurgeon said about the full and empty vessel. Bunyan said something similar (see in excerpt below). 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 will have eternal effect.
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 our giving 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 there is the learning and purifying and eternal rejoicing. Perhaps a very short “I really feel bad and regret my lack of faith and faithfulness” and expressing this to a God who graciously forgives. Then, 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 this includes “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.)
There is comfort in 1 Corinthians 4:5, 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 he can reward us.
This is a tough issue, no doubt about it, which is why the doctrine of eternal rewards, and especially the part about loss of rewards, is so little taught, though ironically this requires ignoring a mass of biblical statements on the subject. We think it sounds “too Catholic” and not Protestant, but of course the goal is to be biblical. We must distinguish between salvation and service. (See excerpt below).
If you want more on the subject, here are two portions from my book The Law of Rewards:
From Here to Eternity’s Rewards
It is my happiness that I have served Him who never fails to reward His servants to the full extent of His promise.
Two men owned farms side by side. One was a bitter atheist, the other a devout Christian. Constantly annoyed at the Christian for his trust in God, the atheist said to him one winter, “Let’s plant our crops as usual this spring, each the same number of acres. You pray to your God, and I’ll curse him. Then come October, let’s see who has the bigger crop.”
When October came the atheist was delighted because his crop was larger. “See, you fool,” he taunted, “what do you have to say for your God now?”
“My God,” replied the other farmer, “doesn’t settle all his accounts in October.”
A Closer Look at Rewards
A day of judgment is coming upon all men. God promises great reward for all who have served him faithfully. He will reward every loyal servant for works done in this life: “At that time each will receive his praise from God” (1 Corinthians 4:5). This is a particularly encouraging passage, suggesting that God will find something to praise and reward each one of us for. Shouldn’t that motivate us to do more for our Father that he will take pleasure in and be proud of?
God rewards generously, promising a return of “a hundred times” (Matthew 19:29). This is ten thousand percent interest, a return far out of proportion to the amount invested. No earthly investment will pay such dividends, and even if it did, they wouldn’t last.
What Does God Reward?
According to the Bible, God rewards for many things, including doing good works (Ephesians 6:8; Romans 2:6, 10), denying ourselves (Matthew 16:24-27), showing compassion to the needy (Luke 14:13-14), and treating our enemies kindly (Luke 6:35). He also grants us rewards for sacrificial and generous giving: “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matthew 19:21).
God promises rewards to those who endure difficult circumstances while trusting him (Hebrews 10:34-36), to those who live faithfully and with good motives (1 Corinthians 4:2,5), and to those who persevere under persecution (Luke 6:22-23). God will richly reward a life of godliness (2 Peter 3:11-14).
God will also reward those who make wise and productive use of the resources and opportunities he has given them (Matthew 25:14-23).
Paul reminds us there’s a timetable for the harvest: “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). Like the law of gravity, the law of rewards—the law of the harvest—is always in effect, even when we can’t see it. Everything and everyone in human history is headed toward a day of reaping, even if it does not seem obvious. The farmer should not be discouraged and give up his work if the crop growth seems indiscernible day to day. Likewise, the Christian’s persistent faith, refusing to give up, trusts God that the harvest will come, and at just the right time.
Prosperity theology gets it right that God rewards faithfulness but gets it wrong when it comes to the location and timing of rewards. It assumes rewards are here and now, while Scripture teaches us that the greatest rewards will be not here and now but then and there.
We’re told, “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). In the short term, this teaches exactly the opposite of prosperity theology. But in the long term we are always promised that obedience brings eternal rewards that far exceed any temporary hardship:
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
The believer’s compensation, just like the unbeliever’s, is usually deferred. Our God doesn’t settle all his accounts in October.
The Reward of Rulership
Believers will reign with Christ over the world (Revelation 20:6). We’ll even rule over angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). Some will be put “in charge of many things” (Matthew 25:21-23). Christ spoke of granting some followers rulership over cities—eleven cities for one, five for another, and none for a third, in proportion to their faithful service (Luke 19:17-24).
It’s apparent from these passages that although all believers will be with Christ, not all will reign with him, at least not with equal responsibility and authority. There are stated conditions for reigning: “If we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12). Christ promises, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne” (Revelation 3:21). He says, “To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations…just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give him the morning star” (Revelation 2:26-28).
Crowns as Rewards
Crowns are a common symbol of ruling power, though they may symbolize other rewards as well. Five crowns are mentioned in the New Testament:
- The crown of life—given for faithfulness to Christ in persecution or martyrdom (James 1:12; Revelation 2:10).
- The incorruptible crown—given for determination, discipline, and victory in the Christian life (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
- The crown of rejoicing—given for pouring oneself into others in evangelism and discipleship (1 Thessalonians 2:19; Philippians 4:1).
- The crown of glory—given for faithfully representing Christ in a position of spiritual leadership (1 Peter 5:1-4). (Note that a prerequisite is being “not greedy for money, but eager to serve.” A Christian leader’s preoccupation with money can forfeit this reward.)
- The crown of righteousness—given for joyfully purifying and readying oneself to meet Christ at his return (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
There’s nothing in this list that suggests it’s exhaustive. There may be innumerable crowns and types of crowns and rewards unrelated to crowns. But all are graciously given by the Lord Jesus in response to the faithful efforts of the believer, which themselves are empowered by God’s grace.
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. Although God’s glory is the highest reason for any action, Scripture sees no contradiction between God’s eternal glory and our eternal good. On the contrary, glorifying God will always result in our greatest eternal good. Likewise, pursuing our eternal good, as he commands us to do, will always glorify God.
False humility says, “I want no reward.” Effectively that means, “I want nothing to lay at Christ’s feet to bring him glory.” We may think we are taking the spiritual high ground by being disinterested in rewards, but this is foreign to Scripture. Of course we should desire rewards. Hearing our Master say, “Well done” will not simply be for our pleasure but for his!
We are to guard our crowns carefully (Revelation 3:11). Why? Because we can be disqualified from receiving them (1 Corinthians 9:27). We can lose them (1 Corinthians 3:15). They can be taken from us (Matthew 25:28-29). We can seek our rewards from men, thereby forfeiting them from God (Matthew 6:5-6). John warns, “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully” (2 John 8). We can fail to gain rewards, and we can forfeit rewards already in our account.
Eternal Differences in Heaven?
Not all Christians will hear the master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). Not all of us will have treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Not all of us will have the same position of authority in heaven (Luke 19:17, 19, 26). We will have differing rewards in heaven (1 Corinthians 3:12-15), depending on our actions and choices here on earth. There is no hint that, once given or withheld, rewards are anything other than eternal and irrevocable.
Reward Principle #6: We will have differing levels of reward in heaven, depending on our actions and choices on earth.
Scripture suggests that some Christians will be ashamed at Christ’s coming (1 John 2:28). Although it seems incomprehensible that such shame would continue in heaven, the doctrine of eternal rewards certainly has sobering implications. The tangible results of those who have faithfully served Christ in this life and those who haven’t will be evident for all eternity. They will be exemplified in eternal possessions (treasures) and positions (rulership) that will differ significantly from person to person.
Scripture is clear that there’s a payback in eternity according to what was done during our time on earth, and there will be commensurate differences in our rewards (Proverbs 24:12; Matthew 19:27-30; Luke 14:12-14). In other words, our experiences in heaven will not be identical. (Obviously, in heaven there will be no conceit, pettiness, jealousy, or unhealthy comparisons, but there nonetheless will be differences in reward and position.)
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?
Perhaps it’s a matter of differing capacities. Two jars can both be full, but the one with greater capacity contains more. Likewise, all of us will be full of joy in heaven, but some may have more joy because their capacity for joy will be larger, having been stretched through trusting God in this life.
John Bunyan put it this way:
And why shall he that doth most for God in this world, enjoy most of him in that which is to come? But because by doing and acting, the heart, and every faculty of the soul is enlarged, and more capacitated, whereby more room is made for glory.…He that is best bred, and that is most in the bosom of God, and that so acts for him here; he is the man that will be best able to enjoy most of God in the kingdom of heaven.
No matter how we attempt to explain it, no matter how uneasy it makes us, it’s a fact that the biblical doctrine of differing rewards and differing positions in heaven means we will have different experiences in heaven. These eternal experiences are presently being forged in the crucible of this life. Even if I cannot yet comprehend how, the fact remains that what I do with my money and possessions here and now will significantly affect my eternal experience in heaven.
Understanding Salvation and Rewards
Whenever we speak of rewards, particularly because we speak of them so rarely, it’s easy to confuse God’s work and man’s. Many mistakenly believe that heaven is our reward for doing good things. This is absolutely not the case. Our presence in heaven is in no sense a reward for our works, but a gift freely given by God in response to faith, which is itself God’s gift (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).
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 for those who believe. By contrast, rewards will be given in the future, are earned (by God’s grace), can be lost, differ among Christians, and are for those who work.
Past (1 John 3:2) Future (Rev. 22:12)
Free (Eph. 2:8-9) Earned (1 Cor. 3:8)
Can’t be lost (John 10:28-29) Can be lost (2 John 1:8)
Same for all Christians Differ among Christians
(Rom. 3:22) (1 Cor. 3:12-15)
For those who believe For those who work
(John 3:16) (1 Cor. 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’s work for us is no substitute for our work for God. God rewards us for our work, not Christ’s. (Of course, it is empowered by Christ, but God nevertheless refers to it as our work.)
Let me be sure this is perfectly clear. Christ paid the eternal price (hell) 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 the love of Christ (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 bearing on our eternal rewards. The Bible teaches not only forgiveness of our sins but also consequences of our choices. These consequences apply despite our forgiveness. Forgiveness means that God eliminates our eternal condemnation. But it does not mean that our actions in this life have no consequences on earth. (Forgiven people can still contract AIDS, go to jail for drunk driving, or suffer the death penalty, for example.)
Neither does it mean our choices have no consequences in eternity. Forgiven people can still lose their rewards and forfeit eternal positions of responsibility they could have had if they’d served Christ on earth.
With our salvation, the work was Christ’s. With our rewards, the work is ours. It’s imperative that we 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, we must bear the cross if we are to wear the crown.
Belief (trust, faith) determines our eternal destination: where we will be. Behavior (obedience, works) determines our eternal rewards: what we will have there. Works do not affect our destination, since our redemption is secured by the work of Christ. However, works do affect our reward experienced at that destination.
Just as there are eternal consequences to our faith, so there are eternal consequences to our works.
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.
This is God’s law of rewards. The more we come to grips with it, the more we glorify the one who designed this law and who sees that it is always carried out.
The Believer’s Judgment in Heaven
The Lord’s evaluation of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 shows that he’s watching us, evaluating us. He is “keeping score.” As an instructor gives grades to his students, Christ gives grades to his churches. To Christians, Jesus says, “I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23).
Scripture teaches with unmistakable clarity that all believers in Christ will give an account of their lives to their Lord (Romans 14:10-12). We will be judged by him according to our works, both good and bad (2 Corinthians 5:10). The result of this will be the gain or loss of eternal rewards (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
This, again, is the law of rewards: While our faith determines our eternal destination, our behavior determines our eternal rewards.
God’s Word treats the judgment of believers with great sobriety. It does not portray it as a meaningless formality, going through the motions before we get on to the real business of heavenly bliss. Rather, Scripture presents it as a monumental event in which things of eternal significance are brought to light and things of eternal consequence are put into effect.
If any man builds on this foundation [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)
Our works are what we have done with our resources—time, energy, talents, money, possessions. The fire of God’s holiness will reveal the quality of these works, the eternal significance of what we’ve done with our God-given assets and opportunities. The fate of the works will be determined by their nature. If they are made of the right stuff (gold, silver, costly stones), they’ll withstand and be purified by the fire. But no matter how nice our works of wood, hay, and straw may look in the display case of this world, they will not withstand the incendiary gaze of God’s Son in the next.
“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).
“Whether good or bad” in the above verse may be the most disturbing phrase in the New Testament. It’s so upsetting to hearers, in fact, that I’ve found any honest attempts to deal with it are met with tremendous resistance.
When teaching at a Bible college, I read the words of this verse, without saying I was quoting Scripture. Then I asked, “How many of you agree with what I just said?” Only a few hands out of a hundred went up. This verse rubs against the grain of our thinking. But either God is wrong or we are! When we take the words at face value we say to ourselves, “But we can’t experience recompense for bad things we’ve done—that contradicts grace and forgiveness.”
Equally disturbing is the direct statement to Christians that not only will they receive reward from Christ for their good works, but “anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism” (Colossians 3:25). Since Christ has paid the price for our sins, if we have confessed and received forgiveness of our sins, what can this mean?
We must resist the temptation to immediately explain away such verses, instead of letting their weight fall upon us.
Our sins are totally forgiven when we come to Christ, and we do stand justified in him (Romans 5:1; 8:1). Scripture is emphatic on this point, and I am too. Nevertheless, the Bible speaks about a coming judgment of our works, not our sins. When we commit sins or neglect doing righteous acts we should have done, we are not doing what we could to lay up precious stones on the foundation of Christ. Therefore, these sins contribute to our “suffering loss.” Through this loss of reward, the believer is considered to be receiving his “due” for his works, “whether good or bad.” So what we do as believers, both good and bad, will have certain eternal effects.
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1). Sin entangles our feet, puts us out of the competition, and results in losing the race and the prize.
If we are his children, God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31). He has assured us our names are written in the Book of Life, and we won’t face the Great White Throne Judgment. He wants to commend and reward us at the judgment seat of Christ. He doesn’t want the works of our lifetime to go up in smoke. He wants us to have eternal rewards—and he has given us every resource in Christ to live the godly life that will result in those eternal rewards (2 Peter 1:3).
Five Minutes after We Die
Five minutes after we die every Christian will understand that heaven (and ultimately the New Earth) is our home and this earth under the curse was a temporary lodging on the homeward journey. Then we’ll know for certain what was important and what wasn’t. We will see with eternity’s clarity. We will know exactly how we should have lived.
But we don’t have to wait until we die to know how we should live. God has given us his Word to tell us how to live and his indwelling Spirit to empower us to live as we should.
We can either take off the blinders now, while we still have our earthly lives to live, or wait for them to be taken off after death—when it will be too late to go back and change what we’ve done on earth.
May what will be most important to us five minutes after we die become most important to us now.
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.