Rewards and grace, part II: What we’re rewarded for

The first installment of this blog post (at http://www.craigkeener.com/how-can-we-be-saved-by-grace-yet-rewarded-for-works/) asked whether rewards are compatible with grace (an issue revisited at points also in the later installments). The present installment, somewhat longer than the first, examines what we’re rewarded for. The third installment (http://www.craigkeener.com/rewards-part-iii-what-the-reward-is/) will extrapolate from some biblical teaching to try to understand what the reward is.

What we’re rewarded for

So what does the New Testament say about reward? Jesus promises that we will be rewarded if we suffer for him (Matt 5:12; Luke 6:23) and if we go beyond what is easy (Matt 5:46). We will be rewarded if we count on our heavenly reward so fully that we don’t seek one on earth. We should do our deeds for God to see and bless us someday, not to impress others (Matt 6:1-2, 5, 16). The more we willingly sacrifice to do God’s will—whether loving our enemies (Luke 6:35) or offering our lives to proclaim Christ (Revelation 11:18; cf. 16:6; 18:20, 24)—the greater our reward. Present sufferings cannot even be compared with the future promise of glory (Rom 8:18), all the more when we suffer for Christ (2 Cor 4:17).

Paul speaks of each worker for the Lord being rewarded according to their own labor (1 Cor 3:8, 14). Some who are saved yet don’t labor rightly can lose their reward (3:15)—that is, they will have eternal fellowship with God but not much to show for their labors.

To offer an example: What if a pastor draws large crowds that enjoy the church services but can’t mature enough to withstand suffering? If these crowds fall away from following Christ when hard times come, what has been accomplished in light of eternity? Of course, it’s great if a pastor reaches lots of people and helps them mature in faith. And some Christians have the gift of evangelism whereas others are better equipped as teachers, so they can work together. But the ultimate fruit matters, and in light of eternity this bears at least some relation to the devotion of God’s agents, whether or not they always live to see it.

Paul revisits this issue of reward later in the same letter. He has to preach the gospel either way—it is God’s demand on his life—but Paul says his reward (or “wages,” as the term can also mean is this context) the privilege of offering this good news free of charge (1 Cor 9:17-18). Here Paul does not simply fulfill the minimum demands of his call. Loving God and loving the people to whom God sends him, Paul lives in his calling and seeks to reach as many people as possible (9:19, 22-23; 10:33). Paul here agrees with the Lord Jesus’s teaching: Paul will be rewarded for how he sacrifices for God and he depends on God alone for his reward.

By God’s grace, we will be rewarded for even the smallest contributions, if they are our best: whoever gives even a cup of cold water to a righteous person, a prophet or a disciple shares in the reward of the person they have helped (Matt 10:41-42; Mark 9:41). That’s why the Philippians were partners in Paul’s ministry (Phil 1:5); churches could support Paul in prayer (Rom 15:31; 2 Cor 1:11; Eph 6:19-20; Col 4:3-4; 1 Thess 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2) and/or, as in the Philippian church, finances (Phil 4:15-18; cf. Rom 15:24). (Similarly, those who knowingly bless agents of evil participate in their evildoing—2 John 11.) What’s important is that we do what we can.

That’s also why Jesus spoke of the reaper receiving reward and both sower and reaper rejoicing (probably also meaning, and sharing the reward) together (John 4:36). Think of the labors of Hudson Taylor and his China Inland Mission in the nineteenth century. Imperfect as the missionaries may have been, most lived sacrificially for the gospel. The same is true for many others, including Korean missionaries, who labored in China, and for Chinese Christians who suffered much, especially (in recent generations) during the Cultural Revolution. Today China’s church is massive, and most Christians there live sacrificially for the gospel, with many having a vision to carry it further. Similarly, many nineteenth-century missionaries to Africa carried their coffins with them, often dying from malaria within a year of their arrival; they did not live to see the flourishing African churches today, but sower and reaper will celebrate together. Right now many Asian, African, and Latin American Christians are sacrificing greatly to spread the gospel, with massive fruit now in many places, and undoubtedly even more fruit that we cannot yet recognize.

We sacrifice for the kingdom, and we participate in the long-term reward whether we see the short-term results or not. Likewise, when I do ministry, my friends who support me in prayer are as much as a part of that ministry as I am; I know that God rather than myself is the source of my gifts, and I simply have the privilege of those occasions for ministry. Far more often, I labor over my research in producing pastoral and scholarly commentaries, hopeful that these will serve pastors, scholars and others, trusting that somehow these labors will serve God’s long-term purposes even though I am far in the background. (In this task, moreover, I stand on the shoulders of others from whom I have learned and again I am sustained by others in prayer.)

Some today are winning thousands to the Lord on the front lines, and we should praise God for them. Some of us have to spend most of the day doing research, trusting that God will produce the long-term fruit; hopefully someone praises God for this! Some suffer for Christ silently in prisons, or must face poverty and hunger depending on God’s grace; certainly we should praise God for their example of fortitude. We are each given different ways to glorify God. The point is that we all have our role to play in God’s larger mission, and we must devote our lives wholly to that mission.

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