DEGREES OF REWARD IN HEAVEN
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 10:47am
QUESTION: It seems clear that on the day of final judgment, all works (good and bad) of all people (saved and lost) will be brought up. But if we as Christians are justified by faith apart from a consideration of our works of obedience and disobedience to our law code (Rom. 3:28), and if, even in the moment of our death, we have assurance of our salvation, what then is the PURPOSE of having to face our sins on Judgment Day?
ANSWER: Please refer to the previous note for the Biblical data confirming the fact that each of us will indeed be confronted with all our works, good and bad on Judgment Day. This does raise the question of purpose: WHY is this necessary? And how is this consistent with Heb. 8:12? (I have answered these questions in my book, The Faith Once for All, in chapter 31, “The Final Judgment.” The following is adapted from that.)
It is important to understand the purpose of the judgment day. One thing is clear: its purpose is not to determine who will be saved and who will be lost. The omniscient God does not need a final examination of each person’s records in order to make such a decision. In fact he foreknew everyone’s life history even before the foundation of the world, and had already predestined believers to heaven as a result (Rom. 8:29). But even from man’s standpoint, a judgment day is not needed for this purpose. Even before we die, believers in a sense are already judged; in the act of justification God is saying, “No penalty for you!” (see Rom. 8:1, 31-39; Phil.3:9-10; 1 John 4:17; Jude 24). Those who are thus saved by grace are supposed to have an assurance of their saved status. Also, at the point of death a saved person enters the bliss of Paradise and a lost person enters the torment of Hades. At the second coming itself, after the resurrection and transformation, the human race is transported to the scene of the judgment in two waves, the wicked first and then the righteous. Thus the decision as to who is saved and who is lost has already been made before the judgment itself begins.
So what is the purpose of the judgment? For one thing, this event is the occasion for the first formal separation of the entire company of the saved from the entire host of the lost. While living upon the earth the saved and the lost are mingled together (Matt. 13:30, 47-49). They are separated at death, but at the resurrection are intermingled again. Then the two-stage rapture functions as a prelude to the final judgment, as one band of angels pluck away the lost (Matt. 13:41) and deposit them on the Judge’s left hand (Matt. 25:33), while another group of angels rapture the saved (Matt. 24:31) and deposit them at the Judge’s right hand (Matt. 25:33). Here at the judgment scene, for the first time, a complete and final separation occurs.
This will also be the occasion for the first public proclamation of the fate of each individual. When one enters his specific intermediate state at death, this is primarily a private experience. But at the final judgment scene Jesus says to the saved in the presence of all, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). Likewise he says to the lost, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41; see 7:23).
One could say, however, that such separation and proclamation are not really necessary, i.e., that the final states could be ushered in without them. Thus there must be some deeper purpose for the judgment day, whereby something may be accomplished that God considers to be very important if not necessary. What might this be? The answer may be summed up in one word: vindication. The public examination of every person’s deeds will vindicate God’s decision regarding each person’s eternal destiny. As mentioned above, it will demonstrate God’s righteousness and impartiality in judgment. No one will be able to accuse God of being unfair, nor have any basis for complaint about his fate. Everyone will be “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20; 2:1); every mouth will be closed (Rom. 3:19). God will be glorified in his justice because it will be made clear that those who are lost are getting what they deserve, and he will be glorified in his grace because it will be made clear that those who are saved are getting the opposite of what they deserve. “What is therefore central on the day of judgment is not the destinies of individuals but the glory of God” (Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 254).
This same rationale for the judgment applies also to the fact that a final judgment according to works will demonstrate God’s righteousness in assigning specific degrees of reward and punishment to those who are judged. That different degrees of punishment will be meted out to the lost seems to be the point of Luke 12:47-48, “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, will receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” Concerning the hypocritical religious leaders of his day Jesus said, “These will receive greater condemnation” (Luke 20:47). He also said that it will be “more tolerable” for some than others “in the day of judgment” (Matt. 11:22-24). This is true because some commandments have greater significance than others (Matt. 22:36-40), some sins are worse than others (Matt. 23:23), and some people have more opportunity than others (Matt. 11:22-24).
The same applies to degrees of reward. In Jesus’ parable of the nobleman and his stewards (“the parable of the pounds”), one steward is rewarded by being given authority over ten cities, and another by being given authority over five cities (Luke 19:17-18). In 1 Cor. 3:12-15 “the quality of each man’s work” will be tested as with fire. The works of some are equated with gold, silver, and jewels; these pass the test and result in a reward. The works of others are compared with wood, hay, and straw; these fail the test, resulting in salvation without rewards. Greater responsibility results in “stricter judgment” (James 3:1), implying variable rewards. See also Matt. 5:19; 6:19-21; 18:4; 2 Cor. 9:6; see Wayne Grudem (Systematic Theology, 1144) for other related texts.
What determines the degree of reward or punishment? Nothing other than the individual’s works; this is a main reason for the examination of each person’s deeds. Such an examination requires not only the analysis of our good works, but also the full exposure of our sins (Eccl. 12:14; 2 Cor. 5:10). Some believers mistakenly think that their sins will not be brought out on that day, based on Ps. 103:12 and Jer. 31:34 (cited in Heb. 8:12; 10:17). The latter texts say that under the New Covenant God “will remember their sins no more.” These texts do not mean, though, that the omniscient God literally forgets about our sins and never mentions them at the judgment; they mean that, thanks to the blood of the New Covenant, he will never hold them against us again. They will never condemn us, not even on the day of judgment. But they will be displayed.
But why is this necessary? Again, from God’s perspective it is not necessary; because of his total knowledge of every aspect of our lives, good and bad, he is perfectly able fairly to assign degrees of reward to the saved and degrees of punishment to the lost without a public examination of their works. But again, the issue is the vindication of the righteousness of God. By judging us according to our own works, God’s impartiality again is demonstrated; and the degrees of reward and punishment assigned to all are shown to be utterly fair.
We must remember that everyone who reaches heaven will be saved by grace; admission to heaven as such is not related to the extent of one’s labor in the kingdom (Matt. 20:1-16). Also, in heaven no degree of reward is literally deserved (Luke 17:10). That God determines to assign such rewards is also a matter of grace, and the various degrees of reward experienced by individual believers are determined by a fair examination of each one’s works. What we are not told, however, is exactly HOW these various degrees of reward are assigned and experienced. Many think it will have to do with our relative subjective capacities to enjoy the blessings of eternal life (Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 264), rather than with differences in our external environment.