This article is excerpted and slightly adapted from an article which appeared in the Autumn 1991 issue of the Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society under the title, “We Believe in Rewards.” This portion of the article is taken from pp. 6-8, 11.
In the previous issue we discussed a problem some Christians have with the subject of rewards. Some are troubled by the doctrine of rewards because this doctrine seems to suggest “merit” instead of “grace.” We saw that this point of view confuses the doctrine of divine grace with the truth of human responsibility. Salvation is a gift and it is absolutely free. Rewards are earned and are not free. God gives us His salvation, but He pays us for our good works.
Rewards and Selfishness
Another problem some Christians have with the doctrine of rewards is that this doctrine seems to them to appeal to our “selfishness.” Such Christians may go on to say that we do not need to be motivated this way. Instead, we ought to do all that we do for God out of love and gratitude to Him.
This point of view, however, confronts a serious problem of its own. Not only is a doctrine of rewards taught in Scripture, but we are actually commanded to pursue them.
Thus Jesus said:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We may observe here that our Lord does not present the pursuit of heavenly treasure as though it were optional. On the contrary, it is clear that He wants every disciple of His to lay up this celestial wealth.
The reason for this is also stated. Wherever our treasure happens to be, that’s where our hearts will be focused. And God wants our hearts to be focused on heaven and that is why we are commanded to invest in heavenly rewards.
God knows better than we do what will captivate our hearts for Him. Evidently, rewards play a significant role in this.
It may sound pious for someone to say: “I am not interested in rewards! I serve God out of love and gratitude alone!” But such a person is claiming to be more loftily motivated than even the apostle Paul himself! He wrote:
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 Cor 9:24-27
Obviously Paul was not “running” to obtain his justification or his eternal salvation! Those things were already his by grace alone. It follows then that Paul is talking about the “reward”—the prize—that could be won by a person who ran a winning race.
Obviously, too, Paul is highly motivated by the thought of winning this prize. He dedicates himself to obtaining it with the same intense self-discipline that characterizes the superior athlete.
Those who disparage rewards as a powerful Christian motivation ought to read their NT again—this time, with their eves open!
But is this motivation selfish? We believe that no motivation encouraged by the Lord Jesus and His apostles could ever possibly be termed “selfish”!
What is wrong, in fact, is our own incorrect view of “selfishness.” Scripture does not teach us to be uninterested in our own happiness or well-being. The very desire to escape eternal damnation is a legitimate and urgent self-interest. The instinct to preserve our lives is the same. Nor are pleasure and enjoyment illegitimate experiences.
When God put Adam and Eve in the garden, He furnished them with “every tree…that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9). They could enjoy themselves freely provided they abstained from eating from the one forbidden tree. Similarly, Paul tells rich people that “God…gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17; italics added).
Selfishness ought not to be defined simply as the pursuit of our own self-interest. Instead, it should be defined as the pursuit of our self-interest in our own way. rather than in God’s way. Since “love” is a preeminent virtue in Christianity, true selfishness often involves a pursuit of self-interest that violates the law of love.
But no one who seriously pursues heavenly treasure can afford to be unloving. As Paul pointed out in his great chapter on love, all seemingly spiritual and sacrificial activities are reduced to nothing in the absence of love (1 Cor 13:1-3). Loveless activity will no doubt go up in billows of smoke at the Judgment Seat of Christ as though it were so much wood, hay, or stubble (1 Cor 3:11-15).
No indeed! It is not selfish to obey God by pursuing eternal rewards. Still less can someone who does so afford to be selfish in nature. For if he is, he is forfeiting the very rewards he professes to seek.
No wonder that James censures his Christian readers for showing partiality toward the rich and neglecting the poor. In doing so they violate the “royal law” of Scripture: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” Jas 2:8).
A couple of verses later, James gives his fellow Christians the bottom line:
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
The doctrine of the Judgment Seat of Christ and of rewards is not merely not selfish. It is one of the strongest scriptural motivations for an unselfish, loving, and merciful lifestyle!
Let us get ourselves back on track. Let us give to the doctrine of rewards the same high visibility that it has in the NT.
Let us sense anew the dynamic power of this truth in the lives of great spiritual men, like Paul himself. Let us listen again to the famous words he penned prior to his approaching death. Can anyone fail to see in them that the apostle was inspired right to the end of his earthly career by the prospect of reward? He wrote thus:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
—2 Tim 4:7-8
Clearly the apostle Paul believed in rewards. This is a belief we should all heartily share.