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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring 1996 -- Volume 9:16


The Biblical Distinction Between Eternal Salvation And Eternal Rewards:
A Key to Proper Exegesis


Bob Wilkin

Executive Director
Grace Evangelical Society
Irving, TX

 

I. Introduction

A number of books have been written recently which attempt to harmonize two NT themes: judgment according to one’s works and justification by faith.

Sometimes the explanation given is hard to follow. Some authors seem to feel that justification is by faith apart from works and yet final salvation is by faith plus works.

For example, Judith Gundry Volf writes,

Paul’s certainty that God will faithfully accomplish God’s purpose to save Christians completely and finally does not mean, however, that he views this process as "automatic." The present is characterized by the eschatological tension. Both the reality of salvation and the power of evil await the completion of their salvation while enduring testing and afflictions in the present. Subjection to antagonistic forces at work in such tribulation can even threaten their salvation. Moreover, they have yet to appear before the judgment seat at which occasion their final destiny will be made manifest. Will they be accused and condemned after all?

It is in the very context of these dangers that Paul affirms the certainty of Christians’ final salvation… Christians are more than conquerors in tribulations and will come through the final judgment unscathed (Rom 8:28-39).1

This is confusing. How is it possible that Paul "affirms the certainty of Christians’ final salvation" and yet as the same time asserts that Christians await a final judgment in which they may be "condemned after all"?

The problem here is a failure to recognize a distinction between eternal salvation and eternal rewards. This is a widespread today. Blomberg, who feels that there is no distinction between eternal rewards and eternal salvation, writes concerning five texts which deal with the possibility of receiving crowns (1 Cor 9:25; 1 Thess 2:19; 2 Tim 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet 5:4):

A majority of commentators agree in each of these five instances that our texts are not at all talking about degrees of rewards in heaven but simply about eternal life. 2

It is my contention that we will often miss the meaning of the text if we fail to recognize the distinction between eternal salvation and eternal rewards.

I have selected two sample passages to examine. In each case I will present two interpretations: one which understands the passage as dealing with eternal salvation and one which understands it as dealing with eternal rewards.

 

II. Two Test Passages

A. First Corinthians 9:24-27

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.

1. The eternal salvation view

Blomberg argues that Paul was here speaking of eternal salvation and that he was uncertain that he possessed it. He writes:

In 1 Cor 9:25, Paul compares our perseverance to the athlete striving after an Olympic crown. But unlike a race on a track in which there can be only one winner, "we" [Christians] all should compete for "the crown that will last forever." This "crown" is the same as the "prize" of vv. 24, 27, which one fails to receive if one is "disqualified" (adokimos)… Eternal life and death are at stake here, not gradations of reward.

A too simplistic understanding of "eternal security" has probably led many Christians to doubt that Paul could have seriously considered not "making it to heaven." But true Reformed doctrine recognizes that saints are those who persevere. No Biblical text offers assurance of salvation for people who flagrantly repudiate Christ without subsequent repentance. Anthony Hoekema captures the sense of 1 Cor 9:26-27 quite well: "Only as he thus continued to discipline himself did Paul feel justified in claiming his spiritual security in Christ. He did not dare to claim this blessing while being careless and indolent in his daily battle against sin. And neither may we."3

 

2. The eternal rewards view

There is a major difference theologically and practically between the eternal salvation view and the eternal rewards view. According to the latter view, Paul was sure he had eternal life, but he was not sure he would be approved by Christ at His Judgment Seat and receive the rewards that go along with that approval.

Hodges writes concerning this passage:

Paul compares the Christian life to a racecourse in which winning is not automatic for any runner, not even for himself…

Again, there is no thought here of the loss of eternal life. Such a loss is impossible, as our Lord Himself made clear. But the apostle can indeed envision the possibility that even he—a preacher to others—might lose the reward that God grants to successful runners…

No Christian life can be pronounced a success until it ends successfully. The race is not over simply because we have been running it for years."4

 

B. Philippians 3:11, 14

If, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection of the dead… I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

1. The eternal salvation view

"The Problem of Doubt in Philippians 3:11" is the title of a thesis written at Dallas Seminary adopting this perspective.5 The author, William R. Johnson, says: "One can never be absolutely sure that he will persevere to the end until the end."6

He goes on: "There can be relative assurance of such perseverance. Paul expresses this in Philippians 3:11. He had seen what Christ had done in his life so far."7

Since he is writing from the Reformed perspective, Johnson then assures the reader that "the loss of assurance as treated in this thesis could never indicate more than that an individual never possessed salvation to begin with."8

Johnson concludes, "Paul seeks sanctification if perhaps he may attain to the resurrection of the dead. As long as his attitude is always on the goal and the striving required to reach it, he may have relative assurance of reaching it. Should he ever stop running, resting on his present achievements, or should he begin a lifestyle of habitual sin, such would be an indication that he might not truly know God."9

 

2.The eternal rewards view

A thesis entitled "The Out-Resurrection of Philippians 3:11" adopted the rewards interpretation.10 In it the author, Phil R. Williams, says:

Exanastasis occurs in three other places [in the NT], in addition to Philippians 3:11. In each of these three instances…it [speaks] of a special, select, limited resurrection. It is used metaphorically with this same significance in Philippians 3:11. It is the same as the "better resurrection" of Hebrews 11:35, and is resurrection to greater glory and higher reward, won on the basis of faithfulness to Christ, and likeness to Him.11

There is a variation on this interpretation. I have argued elsewhere (The Grace Evangelical Society News, August 1991) that v 11 does not deal directly with eternal salvation or eternal rewards. Paul was hoping to attain to a quality of life here and now which manifested resurrection power. He was seeking to live now in the same manner in which he would live forever (cf. Heb 12:14).

According to this view the theme of eternal rewards is still present. In v 14 Paul indicates that he is striving to know Christ in his experience and to attain now to a resurrection type of life, so that he might receive the prize (brabeion, cf. 1 Cor 9:25) of the upward call of God in Christ. That prize, as in 1 Cor 9:24-25, is the approval of Christ and the rewards that attend such approval.

 

C. Which View Does the Text Support?

There are several strong reasons to conclude that the rewards view is the best understanding of the texts in our test passages.

First, the salvation view demands the conclusion that Paul was unsure of his own salvation. That is, however, impossible apart from clear evidence of a complete mental breakdown on Paul’s part. There is, of course, no evidence in the NT or in extrabiblical literature of Paul having experienced a major breakdown.

Paul came to faith in Christ by a dramatic encounter with the risen Lord (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-16). He made it clear that he received the Gospel from Jesus Himself (Gal 1:12). He repeatedly asserted in his epistles that he believed in Christ and that he had eternal life and could never lose it. His certainty of his standing with God was based on his faith in the promises of God :

"For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Rom 8:38-39

"knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law"
Gal 2:16

"you all are partakers with me of grace"
Phil 1:7

"giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light"
Col 1:12

"I know whom I have believed"
2 Tim 1:12

"To Titus, a true son in our common faith"
Titus 1:4

"according to His mercy He saved us"
Titus 3:5

See also Rom 4:23-25; 1 Cor 3:9-15; 2 Cor 5:1-21; Gal 1:12; 2:4-10; 1 Thess 2:4; 2 Tim 2:11-13.

In addition, in his letters to churches Paul called himself an apostle of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; Eph 1:1; etc.). Surely he knew that there were no unsaved apostles (cf. 1 Cor 12:1-31, esp. v 28)! Equally certain is that he wouldn’t have called himself an apostle if he had any doubt about whether he was saved or not!

Any view that requires the conclusion that Paul was uncertain of his salvation should be rejected on that basis alone.

Second, the term brabeion, used in the NT only in our two test passages, most naturally fits with the eternal rewards interpretation. Brabeion means a prize. This prize can be compared with those won by competitors in an athletic contest (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-25). Competitors in a race who lost were not executed. They were not excluded from the kingdom in which they lived. They did not forfeit their citizenship. They did, however, miss out on the prize and the special privileges attendant to it.

Third, to suggest that "striving [is] required to reach [the goal of eternal salvation]," as the salvation view suggests, requires that Paul completely contradict his doctrine of justification by faith apart from works. Surely Paul would not contradict the Gospel which he preached. He was adamant to maintain its purity (cf. Gal 1:6-9; 5:12).

Fourth, the salvation view appeals to theology before exegesis. Blomberg admits that his understanding of 1 Cor 9:24-27 is influenced by dogmatic concerns: "True Reformed doctrine recognizes that saints are those who persevere." This leads him to the following syllogism:

All Christians persevere.
Paul wasn’t sure he would persevere.
Conclusion: Paul wasn’t sure he was a Christian.

The syllogism appears airtight. However, it is flawed because one of the premises is wrong. All Christians do not persevere. In fact, 1 Cor 9:24-27 suggests that perseverance is neither automatic nor guaranteed.

We thus turn now to consider the various problems which result from misinterpreting passages which deal with eternal rewards.

 

III. Difficulties Which Arise from
Failing to Recognize this Distinction

A. Distorting the Gospel Message

If passages like 1 Cor 9:24-27 and Phil 3:11-14 refer to obtaining eternal salvation, then believers must work to obtain it:

"Run in such a way that you may obtain it."
1 Cor 9:24

"I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified."
1 Cor 9:27

"I press toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Phil 3:14

However, we know from many NT passages that this is not the case. Eternal salvation is absolutely free to the recipient (John 4:10; Rom 3:24; 4: 3-8; Eph 2:9; Rev 22:17). Jesus paid the whole price. We pay nothing. We are saved the moment we believe Jesus’ promise to give eternal life to all who trust Him for it (John 5:24; 6:47).

Unlike eternal salvation, eternal rewards are not free. They are earned by work done. Paul said in 2 Cor 5:10 that "all [believers] must appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad." Similarly, the Lord Jesus said the He will "reward each according to his works" (Matt 16:27, emphasis added). Eternal salvation is not "according to what [one] has done" and is not "according to [one’s] works."

In some places eternal salvation and eternal rewards are contrasted in the same paragraph. For example, in 1 Cor 3:14-15 Paul said: "If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire." The unproductive believer is saved even though his works are burned up. However, if a believer’s works endure the test of fire, then in addition he will be rewarded. Compare also Rom 14:8-12; 2 Tim 2:11-13; Rev 22:14-17.

Since eternal rewards are not the same as eternal salvation, there is no contradiction of the Gospel in passages conditioning eternal rewards on perseverance in good works.

To understand passages like 1 Cor 9:24-27 and Phil 3:11-14 as being Gospel passages is to distort the Gospel by suggesting that ongoing good works are a requirement for obtaining eternal salvation.

 

B. Undermining Assurance

Obviously if the apostle Paul could not be certain he had eternal life, neither can anyone.

Reformed exegetes do not view this as a problem. In fact, they view ongoing doubt about one’s standing with God as an important impetus to perseverance. For example, MacArthur writes, "Periodic doubts about one’s salvation are not necessarily wrong. Such doubts must be confronted and dealt with honestly and biblically" (The Gospel According to Jesus, revised edition, p. 214). Shortly thereafter he writes:

It has become quite popular to teach professing Christians that they can enjoy assurance of salvation no matter what their lives are like. After all, some argue, if salvation is a gift to people who simply believe the gospel facts, what does practical living have to do with assurance? That teaching is nothing but practical antinomianism. It encourages people living in hypocrisy, disobedience, and sin by offering them a false assurance (p. 215).

Since assurance in the Reformed view is conditioned upon ongoing perseverance, assurance is something less than certainty.

As long as one looks to his works to discern whether he is saved or not, he will never be sure he has eternal life. If one fails to recognize the distinction between eternal salvation and eternal rewards, certainty is lost.

 

C. Improperly Motivating Obedience

As mentioned above, doubts about one’s salvation are viewed as an important motivation for those who do not distinguish between eternal salvation and eternal rewards. However, such a motivation is seriously flawed.

Believers should not fear going to hell. Jesus guarantees to give eternal life to all who trust Him for it (John 6:47). Paul proclaimed that there is nothing which can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38-39). It is impossible to trust Christ for eternal life and at the same time fear going to hell. The two are incompatible.

This is not to suggest that one who doubts his salvation is necessarily unsaved. It is sadly possible for genuine believers to lose their assurance (though not their salvation).

To be motivated to obey God out of fear of hell is to return to Rome. Such a motivation is not pleasing to God for He promises that those who believe in Christ will never be judged to determine their eternal destiny (John 5:24).

In addition to adopting an improper motive, those who miss the distinction between eternal salvation and eternal rewards jettison a proper motivation. Eternal rewards are held forth in Scripture as a powerful motivation for believers to obey God. Believers should set their hearts on laying up treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19-21) and on ruling with Christ (1 Cor 9:24-27; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 3:21). While eternal life is an absolutely free gift, eternal rewards are earned by work done. Only by remaining faithful and diligent can any believer earn the right to rule with Christ forever (2 Tim 2:12; Rev 3:21).

 

IV. A Grace Gospel Hermenuetic

If a given interpretation of a passage requires that eternal salvation is earned or preserved by works which the believer must do, then that interpretation should be rejected as impossible. The analogy of faith requires that we understand difficult texts in light of the simple ones. There are many simple texts which assert that eternal salvation is neither earned nor preserved by works which the believer does (cf. Rom 4:4-8; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).

If a passage clearly conditions something upon good works which a person must do, then the passage is either showing the impossibility of salvation by works (e.g., Romans 2), or is not dealing with the Gospel at all (e.g., the two sample passages).

John 6:28-29 appears to be an exception, but it isn’t. There the expression "good work" (singular) is used rhetorically to refer to believing the Gospel. The Jews thought they had to do good works (plural) to obtain everlasting life. Jesus said the work (singular) they needed to do was to believe Him. Jesus was not talking about good works in the Pauline sense. He was talking about obeying God’s command to believe in His Son (cf. Acts 5:32; 6:7; 1 Pet 2:7). Eternal salvation is conditioned upon faith, not upon good works.

Words like salvation (sozo, soteria), inheritance (kleronomeo, kleronomia), and even eternal life (aionion zoe) are not technical terms which always refer to eternal salvation from hell. On some occasions they refer to eternal rewards which believers can earn. See, for example, 1 Pet 1:5,9; Gal 5:19-21; 6:7-9.

Exegetes should be open to the possibility that a given text may be dealing with eternal rewards and not eternal salvation.

 

V. Theological Principles Which Grow Out of This Distinction

The following are a number of points which naturally follow if there is indeed a distinction between eternal salvation and eternal rewards:

  • Believers can and sometimes do fall away.
  • All will not have an equal experience in the kingdom. Some will have more abundant lives than others.
  • Salvation is a gift, but rewards are earned.
  • Salvation can’t be lost, but rewards can be.
  • Assurance of salvation is absolute, but assurance of rewards is not absolute.
  • There is no future judgment of believers to determine their eternal destiny. There is a future judgment of believers to determine the quality of their eternal experience.

 

VI. Conclusion

Two NT themes, justification by faith and judgment according to one’s works, can best be understood and harmonized by realizing that there is an author-intended distinction in the NT between eternal salvation and eternal rewards. The former is a free gift, is apart from works, and is received by faith alone. The latter is earned, is conditioned upon ongoing good works, and is received by faith plus works.

If we fail to recognize the distinction between passages which deal with eternal salvation versus those which deal with eternal rewards, we will misunderstand quite a large number of NT texts. In addition, a number of practical difficulties will result. The Gospel becomes garbled. Assurance of salvation is eliminated. And motivations for obedience are muddled.

First Corinthians 9:24-27 and Phil 3:11-14 show the importance of this study and strongly support the thesis of this article. The biblical distinction between eternal salvation and eternal rewards is a key to proper exegesis.

 

Endnotes

1Judith Gundry Volf, Paul and Perseverance: Staying In and Falling Away (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 283.

2Craig Blomberg, "Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1992, 163, emphasis added.

3"Degrees of Reward?" p. 163.

4Zane C. Hodges, Absolutely Free! A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation, 82-83.

5William Randall Johnson, "The Problem of Doubt in Philippians 3:11," Dallas Theological Seminary, 1979.

6Ibid., 49.

7Ibid., 49.

8Ibid., 50.

9Ibid., 51 (emphasis added).

10Philip R. Williams, "The Out-Resurrection of Philippians 3:11," Dallas Theological Seminary, 1955..

11Ibid., 40.

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