Russell and Duenes

Heaven is free, but rewards are earned

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Our church has been in a sermon series addressing the issues of life after death. Today our pastor was fielding emailed questions from the congregation, and one set of questions was asking about rewards in heaven. Specifically, the questioners were a bit uneasy about this concept of rewards. After all, if going to heaven is a free gift from God, attained by faith in Christ alone, then on what basis can believers expect to gain rewards beyond the reward of merely “crossing the line” into heaven?

My pastor’s answer got me a bit fidgety. He said that while heaven is indeed a free gift, rewards are earned.

In other words, he inferred from the fact that believers receive rewards based on what they do, that their “doing” is earning rewards for them. Now I suppose there might be a charitable way of explaining the idea of “earning” so as to understand it as distinct from “meriting.” Yet I don’t recall there being any such explanation, and even were it forthcoming, the claim that heavenly rewards are earned is spiritually unhelpful at least and plain erroneous at worst. I think it leaves the average parishioner with the impression that there’s a two-phase Christian life: The free-gift phase received by faith, and then the earning rewards part after we’ve “made it in” to heaven. This would mean that we’re all laboring, like employees, to earn wages from our needy boss.

Yet what does the Scripture say? St. Paul tells us that God is “the Lord of heaven and earth” and “is not served by human hands as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24-25). Paul asks: “Who has given to God that He should repay?” (Rom.11:35). The obvious answer is: No one. For “from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” (Rom. 11:36). Indeed, Paul goes further in Galatians 5:6, stating that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but rather, faith working itself out through love [counts for everything].” Paul is clear that none of the believer’s obedience, that is, his or her “doing,” has any tinge of earning to it, for Paul calls our proper obedience the “obedience of faith.” (Rom. 1:5). Indeed, “the righteous shall live by faith,” (Rom. 1:17) and “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” (Gal.2:20). That is, Paul’s life after conversion, his life whereby heavenly rewards are being stored up for him, is a life of faith, and a life of faith is antithetical to any kind of earning.

Hence, I strenuously disagree with the claim that Christian believers are earning anything, much less their heavenly rewards. The earning argument is spiritually harmful, in my view. It’s harmful in that it has a tendency to produce a sense that “getting to heaven” is good enough, thus leaving pastors with the task of trying to get congregations to “get to work” after their “free” salvation (which does not work too well as a motivation). Further, it creates a false sense that my rewards in heaven are based, in part, on my own earning effort, rather than the fact that even my rewards are a gift from God, “by grace through faith.” It may also leave me rather focused on myself, rather than on God’s power, as a sense of “earning” tends to do. Worst of all, it portrays God as though He needs something from me, for which I earn a reward; rather than a rightful sense that I am the one who “serves in the strength that God provides,” so that even my rewards come from the strength of His hand and providence alone.

What needs to be taught is that all of the believer’s “doing” in the Christian life is to be done “by faith,” just as his or her salvation was done. The works we do which bring reward are “the works of faith.” They earn nothing! As Daniel Fuller says: “Since the connection [between faith and resulting works] is inseparable, and genuine faith cannot but produce works, the Bible sometimes speaks of faith and sometimes of works when it speaks of the condition to be met in receiving the forgiveness of sins or subsequent blessings from God.” We are to seek rewards by trusting in God’s promises to do us good for all eternity, and then obeying His commands based on that trust.

“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the only thing required for salvation, and for the subsequent Christian life of sanctification and storing up treasure in heaven. God is the giver. We earn nothing. As Paul says, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain. I labored harder than them all, yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”



Written by Michael Duenes

May 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Duenes, Theology

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