I met Bruce Wilkinson, then the head of Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, at Western Conservative Baptist Seminary in Portland Oregon in June of 1987. He was teaching a one-week class on eternal rewards. Each day after class a group consisting of Bruce, Earl Radmacher, Zane Hodges, Gerry Breshears, Josef Tson, Mike Cocoris, and I would meet to discuss the issue of eternal rewards. I was very encouraged by Bruce’s stand on this issue. He clearly distinguished between the free gift of everlasting life and the costliness of eternal rewards.
Someone sent me a video of Bruce speaking at a March 3-5, 2017 conference in Washington D. C. called Broken Together. It was put on by the New Canaan Society. You can see the video here.
In the video Bruce says that the doctrine of eternal rewards, as distinct from the gift of everlasting life, changed his life. He powerfully presents the difference between the free gift of everlasting life and the costliness of eternal rewards, including the concept of ruling with Christ in the life to come. He also talks about the chastising ministry of God.
I too have found that the doctrine of eternal rewards changed my life. I came to faith in 1972 at the start of my senior year in college. It wasn’t until 1979 when I was a student at DTS that I first learned about eternal rewards. I was writing an exegetical paper for my Greek class on 1 Cor 9:19-27. The last four verses deal with eternal rewards. As I studied the passage, I was thrilled to learn this important doctrine. However, I had only a little enthusiasm because it had not yet gripped me.
A year later in January of 1980 I took my first course with Zane Hodges. He was teaching the book of Hebrews. I remember that early in the course, I think week two, I raised my hand and said something like this, “Prof. Hodges, I notice that you are talking a lot about eternal rewards in Hebrews. We all know that there are two major texts in the New Testament that talk about eternal rewards, 1 Cor 3:10-15 and 1 Cor 9:24-27. But I understand you to be saying that there are other passages that touch on this doctrine too.”
He said that it really bothered him that people minimized or even rejected the doctrine of eternal rewards as distinct from the gift of everlasting life. He said that nearly every single page in the New Testament teaches about eternal rewards. It is everywhere, he said. It is a pervasive doctrine, a vital doctrine. Until we see that, we will misunderstand much of the Bible.
His response shook me up. I began searching. Soon I found he was right. This is not some minor doctrine. This is a major doctrine that is found not only in the Gospels and epistles and Revelation, but it is also found in the Old Testament.
When I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (1974-1978) I remember hearing Dr. Bill Bright say that he served God out of love for Christ and that it was wrong to serve God looking for some reward from him. I thought he was right. Until I wrote that paper on 1 Cor 9:24-27 I was not motivated by rewards. Then it became a minor motivation, with love and gratitude and fear of discipline being the major motivations. After taking Hebrews with Hodges, the doctrine of eternal rewards became a major motivating factor in my life. Indeed, I came to see that the doctrine of eternal rewards is intimately connected with love for Jesus. If I love Him, then I want His approval. I want to hear Him say, “Well done, good servant” (Luke 19:17).
Many people sadly do not understand the difference between rewards and salvation. They think that getting into Jesus’ kingdom is in some sense a reward for work done. They think that unless we live wholeheartedly for Jesus, we won’t get into His kingdom. While well-intentioned, that way of looking at the Bible and its teachings is completely backwards. It turns the grace of God into something to be earned by work done.
Sadly some Free Grace people minimize or even reject the doctrine of eternal rewards. Like Dr. Bright, they think our only motives should be love and gratitude.
However, if our Lord commanded us to lay up treasure in heaven and to set our heart on heavenly treasure (Matt 6:19-21), then that is what we should do. If He commanded us to “Do business until I come” and then promised He will judged us depending on what we did with what He gave us (Luke 19:16-26), then the Judgment Seat of Christ should be a powerful motivator for us. If the Apostles taught that we will be rewarded for work done in the body (1 Cor 3:10-15; 4:1-5; 9:24-27; 2 Cor 5:9-10; Gal 6:7-9; Phil 4:17; 1 Tim 1:12; 2 Tim 2:12; 4:6-8; Jas 3:1; 5:9; 1 Pet 5:1-4; 1 John 2:28; Rev 2:26; 3:21; 22:12), then focusing on eternal rewards is not optional for the obedient Christian. We must have such a focus if we are to obey what the Lord and His Apostles told us.
The doctrine of eternal rewards shows that while eternal life is a free gift by faith alone, apart from works, we are nonetheless accountable for what we do and what we do not do.
I thank God He showed me this wonderful truth. If you are just learning about it, I urge you to be a Berean and search the Scriptures (Acts 17:11) to see if eternal rewards are indeed taught. I believe that like me and Bruce Wilkinson, once this teaching grips your heart you will be more excited about serving the Lord, about His soon return, and about telling others about both the free gift and the earned rewards. (See a video by me and Shawn Lazar on eternal rewards, as well as my book Road to Reward).