Rewards and grace, part III: What the reward is

The first installment of this blog post (at asked whether rewards are compatible with grace (an issue revisited at points also in the later installments). The second and longest installment (at Rewards part 2) examined what we’re rewarded for. This third installment extrapolates from some biblical teaching to try to understand what the reward is.

The third part is my own theological exploration. Like any theological exploration about the future, it may be open to debate, since “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard”—though God has given us a foretaste by his Spirit (1 Cor 2:9-10). I simply offer my best attempt to synthesize the biblical hope, recognizing that others may contribute better insights and, when faith becomes sight and we know as we are known, we will finally understand fully.

We know we will be rewarded, and that encourages us, but it’s not a competition with anybody else. One passage that most elaborates on reward specifically assigns rivalry and jealousy to the immature worldly mindedness of this age (1 Cor 3:3-4). (That’s not to say that Paul never employed competition when it served as a useful motivation; cf. 2 Cor 9:2.) To imagine what kind of reward will please us most, we should consider what our fully renewed perspectives will be like at the time of our future reward.

What will our perspective be like in eternity? In light of eternity, we should live not for others to praise us but for God to praise us (Rom 2:7, 29). God will openly declare that he is pleased with what we have offered him, declaring, “Well done!” (Matt 25:21, 23). (Based on Matt 25:21, 23, some suggest that this also includes the privilege of continuing to serve, by reigning. We will reign with him, but over whom exactly and in exactly what way may exceed our present knowledge. In any case, I’m sure it will be much nicer than the kind of administration we have to do in the present. Some of us professors, at least, do not enjoy committee work!)

Yet again in light of eternity, the point will not be boasting in ourselves but glorifying God. Perhaps the principle is the same when the elders in Revelation 4 cast their crowns before God’s throne to magnify their creator (Rev 4:10-11). In any case, the New Testament sometimes follows Jewish tradition in envisioning our reward as a crown. This reward sometimes refers to salvation itself—a crown of life (Rev 2:10), given to all who persevere (cf. 1 Cor 9:25).

But sometimes Paul speaks of other rewards. As noted above, Paul says that his reward (or payment, as it could be translated) is to be able to offer the gospel freely—that is, to sacrifice even more than God demands (1 Cor 9:17-18). Paul sometimes speaks of the churches he founded as his crown, and therefore exhorts them to persevere (Phil 4:1; 1 Thess 2:19). That is, his reward is that his labor for the Lord bears permanent fruit, and thus is not in vain. Again, the reward is measured not by how large our role in that fruitbearing is, but how faithful we are to our assigned role (1 Cor 3:6-8).

The results sought by the mature person of the Spirit, a person like Paul, are not our own status, which is already settled in Christ, but to contribute to Christ’s mission, to make a difference for a lost and suffering world (cf. Col 1:24). Similarly, John says that his greatest joy is that his children walk in the truth (3 John 4). He also apparently warns believers not to risk losing their reward, for which John and his colleagues have labored (2 John 8; I say “apparently” because of the textual variant here).

Is it possible that our reward and honor involves the fruit of our labors, and the reality of our service? Is it possible that a person’s reward for forgiving and not holding bitterness, or for sacrificing economically by not cheating, or, for the sake of serving the needy, going without what others possess, is that God will be glorified when all the secrets of our hearts are exposed?

Although the image is inadequate, we might envision the opening of the “books” for judgment (Rev 20:12) as something like revealing the uncensored videos of our lives. What is most important is that we are in the lamb’s book of life (Rev 20:12, 15), but everyone’s works will nevertheless be revealed. If much of our life is marked “forgiven,” we’ll give God glory for his grace; but how much more can we glorify his grace for what is marked “transformed” and “empowered” by his grace? Those works will express the fruit of his grace within us, and out of all creation’s actions these will bring God the greatest glory.

What goal can be greater than that we bring our maker and redeemer glory? Isn’t that the goal that will matter to us in our perfected state, in light of eternity? If that’s not what we value most highly right now, should it be? Like a bride eager to show her nuptial beauty to her groom (Rev 19:7-8; 21:2), like a child delighting to please loving parents, like devoted followers whose honor is found in the honor of their king, may everything we say and do and think be pleasing to our Lord.

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