In the front of a large red hard back edition of Canadian Poets (vintage 1916) I find this inscription: “Presented by the Council of Havergal College to Winifred Thomas as an acknowledgment of merit and as a reward for General Proficiency VI A with Honours in Scripture, Literature, French- Toronto, June 1919″-Ellen Knox, Principal (italics supplied).
My friend “Winnie” Thomas (now Gillespie) is the daughter of W. H. Griffith Thomas, one of the founders of my Alma Mater, Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Thomas got his only daughter into the prestigious, conservative Anglican school by his “grace and power” (to use the title of one of his many books). Once inside, Winifred did him proud by excelling in many subjects (but not in math). Most important of all, she won the gold medal in Holy Scripture, only fitting for the offspring of the Principal (=President) of Wycliffe Hall. The things my friend learned at the school named after the talented English hymn writer later stood her in good stead when she edited her father’s lecture notes into book form after his death in June of 1924.
To me this little historic vignette is a good picture of the difference between salvation by the grace and power of another on the one hand, and the rewards one gets after acceptance for doing good work to please one’s father/Father. Winnie believed her father could get her in, and he did so. But once accepted by the school it was up to her to perform and earn her own rewards by personal effort (not without the help of very good teachers and her father’s spiritual guidance, of course).
Speaking of rewards, the Greeks had a word for it—actually more than one. I’d like to notice a few things about the word brabeion, or prize, used twice in Paul’s letters, once literally and once metaphorically.
In the Greek athletic games the winner didn’t receive a gold medal or an inscribed scroll called Greek Poets. The victorious athlete got a stephanos (whence our names Stephen and Stefan). This was a wreath of laurels, a garland or chaplet.
In 1 Cor 9:24 Paul writes: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize (brabeion—pronounced brah-BAY-on).” The context is about discipline and temperance in physical training. This is not an image of running the race in order to be saved (only one wins!). Thankfully, there are many winners, unlike in a Greco-Roman athletic contest, even when running for a prize as a reward for good performance. Probably most Christians will get some reward, since our Lord tells us that even a cup of cold water given in His name will not lose its reward (Matt 10:42).
In Phil 3:14, using the word in a less literal sense, the apostle says: “I press toward the goal for the prize (brabeion) of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Unless we can believe that the apostle to the Gentiles was still unsaved and was working towards getting eternal life by his own hard work, Paul must be writing here about future rewards for a godly life of ministry, and not about salvation from hell. If the apostle Paul wasn’t born again, who is?
Works-salvationists, who sadly seem to constitute a majority of professing Christendom, while admitting the need for grace through faith, always have to add something to God’s way of salvation. Hence the confusion of passages on salvation by faith and rewards for good works regularly shows up in their writings, teaching, and sermons.
Even some Free Grace people err in the area of rewards, due no doubt to their commendable stress on grace alone in salvation. Since salvation is “not of works lest anyone should boast,” they feel that we can’t allow any degrees of rewards in heaven for doing good works either.
Our Lord’s parables, such as the Parable of the Talents, indicate otherwise. Rewards,which are totally unrelated to our entry into heaven, are awarded in accordance with how good and faithful servants of our Master we have been, that is, how we have used our talents or spiritual gifts.
To summarize, then, according to the NT epistles, salvation is “the free gift of God” (Theou to dōron). Rewards, on the other hand, are a prize (brabeion) for merit or performance. Thankfully for us, it is God who “umpires” or rules on our performance (the verb brabeuō, which is related to the word for prize that we have been considering briefly, is used in Col 3:15). Unlike the judges in athletic contests, schools, or even in the Olympics, the Lord is omniscient, completely just, and also merciful. He’ll award just the right brabeion to every Christian “runner” in the game of life.
Looking back over nearly nine decades of Christian life (she became a believer at an extremely early age), my friend Winifred Gillespie says to all younger believers (nearly all other Christians!), “Go for the gold-especially in your work in Holy Scripture!”