What is God’s reward system? Is it biblical? How is it different from the worldly reward system? Can everyone participate in God’s reward system?
I can’t remember the last time I heard a sermon that suggested that a motive for our obedience should be the rewards we receive in heaven. Whenever a sermon (or book) provides a motive for obedience, it is almost always thankfulness for what Christ has done. And certainly that is a wonderful and foundational motivation. But is it the only motivation?
The New Testament writings suggest it is not. For those who faithfully endure persecution, Jesus makes it clear, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Paul states it plainly, “But each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8). The author of Hebrews even reminds us that Moses was motivated by rewards, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb 11:26).
But, if rewards are clearly presented as a motivation in the Christian life, why don’t we hear more about rewards in church services? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but let me suggest one: we have been convinced that our obedience doesn’t matter. While we are rightly told that only Christ’s obedience can secure our justification, and that he has kept the law perfectly for us, our own obedience receives far less attention in the pulpit. Justification is center stage, and sanctification is peripheral.
No doubt, the downplaying of Christian obedience is borne out of good motives—some think Christ is glorified the most when we disparage our own obedience. Our good works are just “filthy rags” (Is 64:6), we are reminded.
But, this whole line of thought misses the distinction between an unbeliever’s attempts at law-keeping and that of regenerated believer. Granted, neither can merit salvation or justification. Both fall woefully short of God’s perfect standards. But, that does not mean that the believer’s obedience doesn’t matter. God can still be pleased with it, even though it is imperfect.
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…[But] when my children do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags”.
It is only when we recognize that the obedience of the believer really does matter, and that we really can please our Father, that the rewards passages in the Bible will make any sense. And that can be a tremendous encouragement to those who labor heavily in church ministry. When we toil for the cause of Christ, we want to hear, and are bolstered by hearing, the encouraging words of Paul: “Your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
Unlike the worldly reward system which remunerates us for meeting the needs and wants of customers and shareholders, God’s system rewards obedience, faithfulness and faith with salvation, healing, deliverance, favor, wisdom and peace. It is impossible to meet God’s needs because He has none (cf. Acts 17:24–25).
Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” The Hebrew word for reward is defined as payment of contract, wages, salary or compensation. God is looking for ways to reward and bless all those that walk in obedience to His Word!
Psalm 84:11 declares, For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly. And Psalm 31:23 says, “Love the LORD, all his faithful people! The LORD preserves those who are true to him, but the proud he pays back in full.”
So what are the evaluation criteria of God’s reward system? There are three: (1) The relationship criterion. The life God rewards is not a life of performance apart from relationship with Him. Jesus pointed out that unless you abide in Him and obey His commandments; you will not bear fruit for Him (cf. John 15:5). He commended the church at Ephesus for their good works, then turned around and condemned them because they hadn’t kept their love for Him alive. “I know your works, your labor, your patience…Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rev 2:2-4). (2) The motive criterion. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward…in heaven” (Mt 6:1). Note the words “to be seen.” What should our motive be? To serve God and bring glory to Him! Even simple things like eating and drinking can do that (cf. 1 Cor 10:31). On the other hand, our most religious actions are worthless if our motive is to enhance our own ego and reputation. (3) The love criterion. Christ said, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). When it comes to good works, “why” is always more important than “what”. The Bible says, “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward” (2 John 8). So let’s keep our hearts pure and our motives right!
The worldly reward system is exclusive as it favors the rich and powerful more than poor and ordinary people (i.e. the rich get richer). On the other hand, God’s reward system is inclusive, it does not discriminate. As long as we have a strong relationship with Him, our motives for serving Him are right, and we love our neighbors as ourselves, we will be rewarded. Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. (Mk 9:41)” No deed for God will be overlooked or go unrewarded—even a cup of cold water for a fellow brother or sister. Hence, there is no excuse for not participating in God’s inclusive reward system. The choice is ours.
Let’s praise God with the hymn “Blest Are They”: