Should we expect rewards in heaven for our behavior in this life? In the last podcast I argued 1Corinthians 3 does NOT teach that we will receive rewards in heaven. In this podcast we study several other passages which also appear to teach that doctrine. I think the passages used to build this doctrine of crowns or rewards in heaven have been taken out of context and/or misunderstood.
Whenever we approach a topic over which many believers disagree, we start from the position that doctrine does not save us and none of us has perfect theology. We are like a class of kindergartners debating who reads the best: we all still need to grow and mature.
Therefore we should make it our goal to
- Know what we believe and why.
- Understand the other side well enough to know why it fails to persuade us.
Basics of Reward Theology
Broadly speaking, proponents of rewards theology argue: We know we are saved by the grace of God and not by works, but many passages addressed to believers talk about rewards and consequences of our actions.
Since we know these passages are not talking about salvation, there must additional rewards in heaven based on how we live our lives after coming to faith. We’re all saved but if we build on our salvation good works we will receive extra rewards or crowns.
The key issue in sorting out this debate is understanding the relationship between faith and works, and two great themes taught in Scripture:
- We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. None of us will be saved on the basis of our works.
- Genuine faith reveals itself in the way we live our lives. Faith makes a difference in what we say, what we do, what we value such that we begin to make different choices.
Confusing these two themes is the classic problem of whether James and Paul agree.
The Bible says both: that we will not be judged by our works and that we will be judged by our works depending on which of these two themes is in view. When the Bible talks about being judged by our works, it is in this sense of theme 2: ultimately over time what we do reveals whether or not we have genuine saving faith.
Confusing these two themes is the primary mistake people make in approaching this issue of rewards in heaven.
The second mistake is approaching the Bible as if it were a catalog of tips and rewards.
1 Corinthians 9:23-27
9:23I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it. 24Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. 25Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; 27but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. – 1Corinthians 9:23-27
- Proponents of rewards theology argue that Paul is describing a wreath that you can win based on whether you exercise self-control.
- I would argue Paul is talking about “theme 2” — that faith changes how you live your life.
- If you really want that wreath at the end of this journey of faith, then you need to embrace the gospel and believe – which will change how you live your life.
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. – James 1:12
- Rewards theology argues that persevering under trial wins you the crown of life in heaven.
- I would argue James is talking about “theme 2” — that faith changes how you live your life.
- Real faith survives the pressures of life and the “crown of life” is receiving eternal life in the kingdom of heaven.
2 Timothy 4:7-8
4:7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. – 2Timothy 4:7-8
- Rewards theology would say: Those believers who don’t finish the race and keep the faith won’t receive the crown of righteousness.
- I would argue Paul is saying that his life has shown the reality and the maturity of his faith because he persevered.
- The crown of righteousness is the fulfillment of the promises of the gospel, and the fact that one day God will make us righteous.
Parable of the Sheep & The Goats
- Matthew 24:31-46
- This passage teaches that we will be judged on how we respond to Jesus. One way we know what people think of Jesus is how they treat other believers.
- If we look at other believers as my fellow travelers on this journey of faith and seek to treat them wisely and well, it reveals maturity of faith.
- Conversely, if we hate people because they believe in Jesus, it reveals a lack of faith.
20:11Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. – Revelation 20:11-15
- Rewards theology proponents argue that believers will not go through this judgment because it says we are judged according to our works in 20:13.
- While I don’t understand many things about this passage, if this passage is describing a judgment that believers will face, then it is this theme 2 – that my actions reveal what I really believe and faith will change my lifestyle.
22:11“Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. 12Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” 14Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. 15Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying. -Revelation 22:11-15 NASB
- Most scholars think this passage describes eternal destiny . Whether you are inside or outside the gate is whether or not you are saved.
- Yet, in the middle of this section is “I will render to every man according to what he has done”.
- I would argue this is not a denial of salvation by grace, but an affirmation that faith makes a difference (theme 2).
Are there rewards on earth?
- The Parable of the Minas in Luke 19 is often used to justify rewards in this life. In this parable, all the servants start with the same amount of minas but they receive different rewards.
- The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25: In this parable, all the workers start with different amounts of talents and receive the same reward.
- In both stories, those that fail rejected the master’s calling. In neither story do we see a worker who wants to succeed but fails.
- The emphasis in these stories is not on striving to get a greater reward. Rather the emphasis is on being faithful.
For more detail and explanation, please listen to the podcast.