The dictionary says that a reward is something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, and so on.
The Bible says that eternal life is a reward, but it is not earned or deserved by anything anyone does:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8–9)
So how can a “reward” be given to someone who has not done anything to earn it? And why call the end result of putting our faith in Jesus Christ a reward when it is not a wage or a recompense? Is this about splitting hairs? Or is it about fine-tuning the concept of how those rewards are earned?
Some passages speak of rewards for being faithful with what the Master has given us. Jesus indicates that these rewards could vary in degree. He uses a parable to describe a master who said, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ (Matthew 25:21) The servant didn’t earn his place just as no one earns salvation, yet this servant received a reward for his faithfulness.
Today’s devotional writer insists that there are no rewards because salvation is by grace only, and whatever we do cannot merit it. Of course, this is true. No one can earn this great gift, yet what we do with it after we receive it might be where rewards are considered. In fact, the Bible speaks of Christians being judged for their deeds, and of suffering loss by being foolish in that area.
Consider the two words for judgment in the Scriptures. One word speaks of the Great White Throne where those who reject God’s grace will go to eternal wrath. No genuine believer will be in that horrible and final judgment.
The other word is Bema and refers to a judgment where God will judge or evaluate the works done by God’s people. Some of what we have spent our lives doing will be like gold and pass muster. However, some of what we have done will be useless or worthless. (Note, the word is not evil.) For that, God says: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:15)
This means is that all Christians will be saved, but anything done with wrong motives, laziness, or misplaced priorities that resulted in works with no eternal worth will be lost.
The Bible is clear that the whole salvation process is a gift, it indicates rewards are given for faithfulness in follow Jesus, for living a Spirit-filled life doing His will. This passage about Bema judgment clearly says, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.” (1 Corinthians 3:14)
All believers will enter the kingdom of heaven, whether they come in early or late in life, whether they gave themselves to God’s work or wasted a lot of time and energy on matters that didn’t matter. Each get the same ‘reward’ of eternity with God. (See Matthew 20:1–16) But when it comes to how we lived our lives, there are other ‘rewards’ and they will vary — depending upon the faithful labor expended.
The 1 Corinthians 3 passages says when believer’s works are judged, each will receive a reward according to his or her labor. Matthew 5:12 speaks of great reward in heaven and 2 John 8 speaks of a full reward, both references indicating that the rewards will not all be the same.
The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 says the master expected more from his servant with five talents than he did from the two-talented or the one-talented individuals. Those talents were dispensed according to their ability to handle them (v. 15) so those with lesser amounts had lesser responsibility.
The view expressed in today’s devotional seems one-sided. When God saves a sinner, that person is a new creation. A sinner cannot merit salvation, but we can live for Christ after salvation. One major thing salvation does for us is give the ability to choose. Before Christ, I could not do anything other than sin. Now, as a new creation, I am able to live for Christ. This is grace, not earned — yet choice is involved. It seems to me that this is where rewards come in.
Jesus, I am fully aware of occasions when I rejected the best thing and settled for what appeared good. I’ve also turned from Your way to follow my own way. While You pick me up and get me back on track, I doubt you will pat me on the back and say “well done” for my lapses in faithfulness. Mercifully, that worthless stuff will be burned up at the Bema and there will be no reward for it. What will survive is up to You. You may see gold in words and actions that I don’t even recall. Two things I know: all of my life will be reviewed and evaluated fairly — and You will graciously wipe away my tears of regret for the stuff that didn’t make the cut.