“Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. 14 If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Cor 3:12-15)
It is common to hear teachers minimize or make light of any mention of us receiving rewards, a prize or treasures in heaven. They reason that, after all, they are really not our works but the works of Christ in us. However, Christ only works through us as we yield to Him and remain in yoke with Him. Also, doing the will of the Lord often causes suffering on our part which could be easily averted by simply doing nothing. Paul says that it is well-pleasing to the Lord when we are fruitful in every good work (Col 1:10). As Christians we may choose to live selfishly according to the flesh, or we may choose to die daily in order that His will, rather than ours, may be accomplished in our lives.
Many a martyr throughout the centuries has been encouraged with the expectation of heavenly rewards, yet some teachers actually seem to mock any such expectation. As one prominent grace teacher says:
“In reality, the term rewards does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. The apostle Paul speaks of a ‘reward’ (singular, not plural) or a ‘prize’ in the context of running a race and reaching the end. But Paul also notes that everything else is like garbage next to knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3: 8). Given this truth, do we really believe that God will be awarding larger homes and nicer jewelry to those who depended on Jesus more?... But doesn’t Jesus himself tell us to store up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20)? Yes, but treasures aren’t rewards. People discover treasures. They don’t earn them.” [i]
I doubt very much that the Christian martyrs were motivated to keep the faith in hopes of jewelry or a larger home in heaven. Without a doubt their life’s motivation, just as with Paul, was to know Jesus Christ and to be well-pleasing to the Father (Php 3:10; 2Cor 5:9). But didn’t Paul himself encourage us to run so as to win?
“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. 25 And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown.” (1Cor 9:24,25)
The crown in view here is not a royal golden crown with jewels (diádema), but rather a wreath (stéphanos – “wreath”) made of olive leaves, such as those given to the Olympic contestants who performed well, as a reward. He says that while the Olympic wreath is perishable, our heavenly reward is imperishable. Peter also speaks of the unfadable crown (stéphanos) which will be given to all faithful pastors when Christ appears:
“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown (stéphanos) of glory that does not fade away.” (1Peter 5:4)
Paul, speaking along the same line, says of the believers in Thessalonica that they were his reward at Christ’s coming:
“For what is our hope, or joy, or crown (stephanos) of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? 20 For you are our glory and joy.” (1Thess 2:19-20)
Here we see that the souls of those whom we have shared the gospel with and discipled in this life will be an eternal crown of glory for us. To imply that it is unspiritual to aspire to receive the Lord’s well done in anticipation of a reward, is to also imply that Paul, Peter and multitudes of saints who persevered, were also unspiritual. It even implies that Jesus Himself was unspiritual, since He also ran for the prize:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:1,2)
Jesus was clearly referring to rewards in heaven when He said that we should lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven. Contrary to what the above author says, the heavenly treasures are not buried for us in heaven, so as to need to be dug up and discovered. They are laid up by us in the heavenly treasury as we invest in the spiritual, rather than the earthly and carnal.
Also, Jesus said that suffering for Him has a great reward:
“Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:11-12)
He also said to the Church: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown (stehpanos) of life.” (Rev 2:10). Paul also says that rewards await those who suffer for His name: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2Cor 4:17). To say that the word “rewards” never appears in plural form is immaterial. The fact remains that, one way or another, everything we suffer for His name’s sake, and everything we do in this life in yoke with Christ and for the kingdom of God, will have an exceedingly great reward.
As believers, we will never again be condemned for our sins. We will not be judged at the Great White Throne (thronos) Judgment because we have already been justified and perfected forever through Christ’s once and for all sacrifice for sins (John 5:24). The only judgment seat we will stand before is the Bema Seat of Christ:
“For we must all appear before the judgment seat (bema) of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2Cor 5:10)
Notice that two different Greek words are used for the judge’s throne. The White Throne Judgment that is judicial is thronos, but the word for the Judgment Seat of Christ is bema, which is the same word used of the seats of the judges at the Olympics. The Olympic judges weighed the good moves against the errors committed by the contestants and meted out rewards in the form of wreaths (stephanos) to those who competed well. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, but there is a Bema judgment to determine what rewards will be granted or lost.
Also, our sins are not brought up in this judgment, but rather our works are judged in order to see whether they were good and beneficial, or trivial and worthless. The words “good or bad” used in 2Corinthians 5:10 are not the words normally used to express that which is morally good or evil, but rather that which is useful or worthless. The word “good” is agathos, which usually means “good or beneficial.” The word “bad” is neither kakos nor poneros which mean “morally bad or evil,” but rather faulos, meaning “bad in the sense of trivial or worthless.” [ii] From this Greek word we derive the term “foul ball.”
Paul is referring to the same judgment in 1Corinthians when he speaks of the day when all we have done, rather good or useless, will pass through fire and we will be rewarded for all that survives His consuming fire:
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. 14 If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Cor 3:11-15)
In this judgment our salvation is not in question. That was already settled at the Cross. Here, our works are examined to see if they are good or worthless, and we will be rewarded for every good work. This is not works salvation, it is Christ giving out rewards as promised to those who have suffered for His name and invested their lives in the kingdom of God. The purpose and end result of this Bema Judgment is that the Lord may commend us for the good we have allowed Him to do through us. Paul says of this judgment:
“For I know of nothing against myself, yet I am not justified by this; but He who judges me is the Lord. 5 Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God.” (1Cor 4:4-5)
What amazing grace! The only judgment God’s justified children will face at Christ’s coming is when He examines our earthly lives in order to praise us for what we have suffered for the cause of Christ and done for His kingdom in this life.
I firmly believe that the Grace Movement is of God. However, as with any new move of God or restoration of biblical doctrines such as the apocatastasis or final restoration of all, there are often extremes and excesses which need to be brought into balance. The teaching of some that we as believers do not receive rewards since that goes against free grace is one of the misconceptions concerning grace which I consider in my book “The True Grace of God.”
[i] Farley, Andrew; Farley, Andrew. The Naked Gospel: Truth You May Never Hear in Church (p. 168, 170). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
[ii] from Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers.