Our eternal reward in the next age is related to our works on earth
Ephesians 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.
This is one of the seminal verses on which the Protestant Reformation was based, and its influence quite obviously continues on into evangelicalism today. However, in reacting to the error of the Catholic Church (and of the legalistic Judaizers in the case of the early Church) emphasizing works, the Church has gone to the opposite extreme of focusing nearly exclusively on grace. Something similar also happened in the early Church.
Changing the grace of God into license
Jude 3 Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. 4 For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
Jude was eager to write about the salvation we share—which is by grace and not by works. However, he felt he had to warn the believers about a threat to the faith which had been entrusted to them. The threat came from godless teachers who took the grace of God to an unscriptural extreme. Since Jesus died on the cross to bear our sins, all we need to do after we sin is to confess it to God according to 1 John 1:9, and all will be forgiven and wiped clean. Logically, therefore, we can sin with impunity and without fear of consequences. The grace of God in this way is changed into a license for immorality. Such a teaching denies our Lord Jesus Christ. The Greek word for “deny” also means to “contradict.” Such godless teachers contradict what Jesus taught and in doing so they essentially deny him.
An unbalanced and in some circles extreme focus on grace in the Church today has similarly raised up a generation of believers with little discipline and self-control, and who at their own risk do not live holy lives.
Hebrews 12:14 Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
The role of works in our lives
In order to correct this dangerous imbalance, we should study the role of works in the lives of believers. The Church, with its traditionally heavy emphasis on grace, tends to shy away from teaching on the importance of works. Unfortunately, this is to our own loss. By this we are referring to possible loss of eternal reward for believers in the next age. Let us find out what this means.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Why is it important to please the Lord by doing good works—inasmuch as our salvation is by grace and not dependent on works?
For one thing, the reference to works in “it is the gift of God—not by works” refers primarily to a legalistic adherence to the Law of Moses. They are called “dead works.” By contrast, “good works” refer to obedience to the Lord’s commands to love God and to love one another.
Matthew 22:37 Jesus replied: ”‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Let’s now bring up a cogent reason why as human beings we should do good works here in this life.
2 Corinthians 5:9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For 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.
What happens to us at the judgment seat of Christ?
One day every believer must appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ. There we will receive from the Lord whatever is due us for what we did while we were on earth. For the good things we have done, we will be rewarded. For the bad things we have done, we will suffer loss of reward. At this point there could a tendency for us to become super-spiritual and to dismiss the “selfish” talk of rewards and loss of rewards: we should obey God simply because He loves us and we love Him. However, while certainly admirable, this falls short of the whole counsel of God. Let us not forget what befell David, the “man after God’s own heart” who despite his very intimate relationship with God still sinned grievously again Him. There are such “Davids” in the Church even to this day. Something is clearly missing. Perhaps it is failing to admit and acknowledge the basic fact that God created man such that he responds to both rewards and punishment. As essential as it is, it is not sufficient simply to love God. We must also fear Him and the consequences of sinning as well. (Proverbs 1:7)
Let’s consider what will happen to believers at the judgment seat of Christ as taught by Paul the apostle.
Based on our understanding of Scripture, we can say that Paul here is not teaching that salvation or eternal life for us is to be determined at this judgment seat. Rather he is teaching about the eternal reward we as already-saved believers will receive in the next age based on our works in this life. Unlike the case with salvation, we will not all receive the same reward. Some will receive more, others will receive less. This will be based on “the things done while in the body.”
The analogy of retirement
Almost everyone prepares for their eventual retirement from working. We put as much as we can into our retirement accounts. We try to maximize our salary just before retirement since the exact amount of our monthly retirement pension may be commensurate with it. We do this to make our remaining years on earth—twenty or thirty years—as enjoyable as possible.
Interestingly, there is little interest among believers to maximize their reward in the age to come after they enter their rest in the Lord’s presence. This reward will not be for a mere twenty or thirty years, but for eternity. Why is there such little interest in an eternal matter of which the importance should rank only second to salvation itself?
It must be because a teaching on rewards would conflict with the Church’s traditional emphasis on grace. Everyone likes freebies and giveaways. So we tell people that salvation is by grace and therefore “free.” By doing so we hope to draw the crowds to fill our pews (with of course the best possible intentions). So as not to confuse the easily-spooked sheep, we minimize any mention of eternal rewards based on works and obedience to the Lord’s commands. “Works” have almost become a dirty word in some circles.
Food for thought: In America we say that “freedom is not free.” There is truth in that statement. Is there any possibility at all that freedom from sin and eternal life in the same way are not “free” in the way that we have been led to believe? It would behoove every believer to examine the Scriptures closely.
By minimizing the importance of works, we are doing a grave disservice to God’s people. To use an analogy, how would we feel as people working for a living if we were never advised to save up for retirement? What if we never knew that we could maximize our retirement benefits until after we stopped working? It would be unthinkable. In the same way, believers should be taught about what happens after they enter life in the next age.
Salvation and eternal reward are independent and distinct
If our work or ministry for the Lord bears fruit that lasts (John 15:16), we will receive our reward. If not, we will suffer loss of reward. Even though we ourselves might be saved, we might enjoy little or no reward in the next age. The quality of our work counts towards our reward.
1 Corinthians 3:14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
It is arguable that Scripture also teaches that eternal rewards might in some way be commensurate with the quantity of good fruit which we bear in obedience to the Lord in this life. To understand this, let’s take a look at some of the parables Jesus taught.
The Parable of the Talents
Luke 19:12 He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. 13 So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’
14 “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’
15 “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it.
16 “The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’
17 ”‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’
Because this servant earned ten minas for his master, he was given commensurate authority over ten cities. Could this symbolize the authority which disciples will be given in the next age to reign with Christ?
18 “The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’
19 “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’
Because this servant earned five minas for his master, he was given commensurate authority over five cities. Again, could this symbolize the authority which disciples will be given in the next age to reign with Christ, the level of authority to be related directly to the quantity of good fruit we bear in this life?
20 “Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. 21 I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’
22 “His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’
24 “Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’
25 ”‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’
26 “He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.”
The mina was taken away from the third servant and given to the servant who had the ten minas. In the economy of the kingdom of God, indeed “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”
2 Timothy 2:12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us…
In the next age, we may be given authority to reign with Jesus Christ. The level of authority given to us might depend on the quantity of good fruit we bear in this life.
“Each according to his ability”
The Parable of the Talents as taught in Luke 19 tells us that rewards may be based on the amount of good works we have done in obedience to the Lord. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, however, is taught from a slightly different perspective. Here there are three servants of varying levels of ability to whom are given talents each according to his ability. The first two servants were given five and two talents, respectively. While their master was gone, they each doubled their master’s talents. But even though there was a clear difference between the absolute production of the two, there was no apparent difference in the rewards which they received.
The Lord is just, and may take into account the factor of varying degrees of ability among his disciples.
Other things like ability being equal, eternal rewards in the next age then might be determined by the quantity or amount of fruitful work we have done for the Lord in this life. Before we can come to this conclusion, however, we need to deal with some troubling verses from the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew.
The Parable of the Workers
Matthew 19:25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
In the next age, the apostles of the Lamb will be given authority to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. But what about the eternal reward for the rest of us? Jesus continues:
29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much…
“A hundred times as much” may refer to the eternal reward given to those who have left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for his sake and for the gospel. It is therefore based on works. (According to Mark 10:29, this reward will be given to them in this present age as well.) While on earth, they stored their treasure in heaven. In the next age they will be getting it back one hundred fold as their reward. Those who have not left houses or brothers or sisters, etc. for his sake in this life might not receive the hundred fold reward in the next age.
…and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
In addition to their reward, of course, they will inherit eternal life. But as for eternal life, the reckoning will be entirely different. Jesus teaches that with regard to eternal life, “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” What could this mean? Jesus explains it in the very next chapter.
A “troubling” parable
Matthew 20:1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“ He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6 About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 ”‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“ He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
The workers received equal pay regardless of how long they worked. What does this mean for us believers? “Equal pay” may refer to the salvation which every born-again believer shares. We all enter eternal life; we are all spared from condemnation in hell. It is unlikely that this parable teaches equal eternal rewards for every believer, regardless of their work for the gospel in obedience to the Lord’s commands. That would conflict directly with the many other Scriptures which deal with the subject of rewards.
Therefore we can conclude from the three parables we have studied that eternal rewards for us might be determined by both the quality as well as the quantity of our work in obedience to the Lord’s commands. And what we have given up on earth for His sake can also be taken into account in the reckoning of our eternal reward.
To their loss, unfortunately, believers have rarely been taught about this most important aspect of life in the next age. They are taught rather to pursue God’s blessings in this present age after they are assured over and over that they indeed are saved. Some indeed are correctly taught to please and to obey God. They should also be taught why they should please God over and above loving Him and obeying Him as an end in itself. It’s because we will all, as Paul clearly reminds us, appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
Does our level of personal holiness affect our reward?
We have looked at the factor of our works for the Lord in the determination of our heavenly reward. Now let us address the question of our character—the matter of personal holiness.
2 Corinthians 5:10 teaches that at the judgment seat of Christ each one of us will receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. This would include good deeds as well as bad deeds, the latter referring to sinful acts and behavior.
Paul teaches that there are things we do in this life which can in fact “disqualify us for the prize.” If the prize does not refer specifically to salvation—and this is not absolutely clear—then it likely refers to our eternal reward.
1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27 No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul treats his body strictly and makes it his slave so that he himself will not be disqualified for the prize. By his “body” he is referring to his flesh or the works of his old nature. He takes authority over his flesh, and does not allow it to enslave him as it did before he came to know Jesus Christ. He makes his flesh submit to him so that he will not sin against God and be disqualified, as we shall see in the next section.
Sin can disqualify us for the prize
We know that it is in fact sin which can disqualify us for the prize. This is confirmed in the very next verses as we continue with Paul’s teaching.
1 Corinthians 10:1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert.
6 Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. 7 Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8 We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. 9 We should not test the Lord, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.
11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
14 Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry.
We must do our part: flee from idolatry
Paul urges us to flee from sin and idolatry in our hearts. It can cause us to be disqualified for the prize and suffer loss of eternal reward in the next age. Yes, God is indeed faithful and will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear. But there is a condition for this. We cannot be passive, but we must do our part—we must flee from the sin and idolatry which are so prevalent in our culture today. We must beat our body and make it our slave. We must actively take authority over and assertively rebuke and deny our flesh. We must exercise the self-control and discipline given to us by the Holy Spirit as we grow in maturity.
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
15 These, then, are the things you should teach. Encourage and rebuke with all authority.
The true grace of God enables us to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age. It is entirely possible for believers to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions. We must do this if we want to maximize our eternal reward.
Jesus reinforces this in the final chapter of the New Testament.
Revelation 22:12 “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.
13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. 14 “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. 15 Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches.”
Jesus indicates that these words are for the churches. These words are for those who profess to follow Jesus Christ. They are for us who have the hope of eternal life.
A final word of caution
This article rests on the valid presumption that salvation and rewards are separate and distinct. However, it is not wise to overemphasize the distinction as has been done with the teaching on grace. Scripture does not repeatedly remind us of the distinction between the two, and we believe with good reason.
There is a danger that some people will seek to “get to heaven by the skin of their teeth.” They will try to do the minimum in order to be saved. They would like to enjoy a bit of sin and the world as long as they can still be saved. They don’t mind losing their eternal reward as long as they get to heaven. This is what happens when we overemphasize the distinction between salvation and rewards. (There are others who believe in the Lord Jesus as an “insurance policy just in case” the gospel turns out to be true.)
By contrast, Scripture more often than not blurs the distinction between the two. And it is for our own good. It warns us not to play with God, but rather to follow Him wholeheartedly. This also weeds out those who want to have one foot on earth and the other in heaven. Heaven is actually not meant for such people. Rather, heaven is for those who “set their hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. They set their minds on things above, not on earthly things. For they died, and their lives are now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is their life, appears, then they also will appear with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:1-4)