What About Rewards in Heaven?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, July 2, 2010 at 1:16pm
QUESTION: The Bible teaches we are not saved BY our works, but saved FOR good works (Eph. 2:9-10). We do not earn our salvation; rather, we are to view heaven itself as a gift and not as a reward. But since we will be judged according to what we have done (2 Cor. 5:10), will there not be differing rewards? And would it not thus be proper to say we EARN such rewards? What is the nature of these rewards?
ANSWER: You are correct to distinguish between heaven itself and the rewards allotted to those who will inhabit heaven. Heaven as such is a free gift of God’s grace to saved sinners, a gift that is not just undeserved but is in fact the opposite of what we deserve. No amount of good works can offset our sins and somehow make us worthy of heaven. Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16) makes this clear. Those who work in the vineyard twelve hours, nine hours, six hours, three hours, and even just one hour all receive the same blessing by God’s free choice.
On the other hand, Jesus tells another parable that pictures those in heaven as receiving different degrees of blessing, according to the relative intensity of their earthly labors. This is the parable of the “pounds” or “minas” [from the Greek “mna,” a unit of money], found in Luke 19:11-27. Here the master of the household gives ten of his servants a mina each, and commissions them to use the money in a way that shows a profit. At the time of accounting one servant reports that he has multiplied his mina tenfold; the master rewards him by giving him “authority over ten cities.” Another reports that his mina has earned five more; the master says, “You are to be over five cities.” This clearly shows that those in heaven will be honored on different levels according to their works. [The rest of this note is adapted from pp. 557-558 of my book “The Faith Once for All,” in the chapter on the final judgment.]
Another text that teaches degrees of rewards is 1 Cor. 3:12-15, which says “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. Also, greater responsibility results in “stricter judgment” (Jas. 3:1), implying variable rewards. See also Matt. 5:19; 6:19-21; 18:4; 2 Cor. 9:6.
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 on the Judgment Day. 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 (see 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.
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). We do not earn our way into heaven. But do we in some way EARN the rewards themselves? Based on Luke 17:7-10, I conclude that no degree of heavenly reward is literally deserved or earned. In the parable the slave-owner (representing God) issues commands to his slave (representing us); when the slave obeys the commands, the owner does not even say “thank you” to him, since he is only doing what he ought to do anyway. What this teaches us is that even a perfect person would be unworthy of rewards, since he would only be doing what it is his duty to do. Thus the fact that God determines to assign such rewards at all is also a matter of grace, with the various degrees of reward experienced by individual believers being determined by a fair examination of each one’s works.
What is the nature of these rewards? The fact is that we are not told 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 (Anthony Hoekema, “The Bible and the Future,” 264), rather than with differences in our external environment. As far as I am concerned personally, I never really think about what these rewards will be, or even the fact that there will be rewards. I will be content just to reach heaven, where the things that really matter will be shared equally by all. (In terms of a couple of old gospel songs, I can sing with equal gusto, “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop,” and “Just give me a cabin in the corner of Glory Land”!)