The Kingdom, the Cross, and Eternal Rewards

By God’s grace the Christian receives eternal rewards. This is a wonderful truth that leaves undeserving sinners speechless. But for all the grace in this concept, we can be tempted to speak of eternal rewards in a way that’s dislocated from the death of Christ.

Salvation is by grace through faith; rewards are a bonus check of merit on top. Not so, say the reformed Dutch theologians. How do they get here?

In his parable of the talents, Jesus seems to connect eternal rewards with the kingdom. The reward for the man who turned 5 talents into 10 and the reward for the man who turned 2 into 4 was the same: “enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:14—30). This parable is sandwiched between two other parables about the kingdom (v. 25:1, 34) and it seems to make sense that the “joy of your master” is a synonym for the kingdom.

Why is this important? Follow the flow: Believers receive reward for fruitfulness in this life. The reward is to enter the joy of the master (the kingdom). Once the Dutch theologians connect the dots, it’s not a stretch to say the reward is the kingdom.

Take it one step further. The kingdom is offered as a package deal with salvation by grace alone:

Ephesians 2:4—6. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”

Colossians 1:13—14. “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The Dutch guys were careful to never separate personal salvation from the receipt of eternal rewards, and protested the idea that said Christ supplies the first (salvation) and we merit the second (reward) as a bonus. Not so. Every ounce of eternal reward has been purchased by the death of Christ upon the cross. The kingdom is the reward, and the reward is all of grace.

So what is the significance of eternal rewards? A summary by J. van Genderen:

“Reward” in the New Testament means: God fulfills what he promises. It is not senseless to devote oneself to God’s cause. Those who devote their best efforts to it will also share in the victory and the glory. On the negative side, the concept of reward implies that a believer cannot and may not live as a citizen of the realm of darkness. On the positive side it says that he who lives and fights in the service of this kingdom does not do so in vain. He will reap its fruit.

One day everyone will say: My faith and my struggle, my love and my prayers have not been in vain. The LORD fulfills his promise. This has been the goal of my faith and life.

The concept of a reward underscores the necessity and the seriousness with which we are called to live holy lives. The reward itself is part of salvation… The biblical concept of reward is an encouragement from God to persevere. It is a means along the way to consummation. It is entirely a reward of grace. God sustains his own work. He crowns it. Sola gratia. [Concise Reformed Dogmatics (P&R 2008) p. 667.]

Good thoughts from the Dutch boys to ponder as we develop our theology of rewards. This model provides one thoughtful approach that preserves the grace-centeredness and the cross-centeredness of eternal rewards. Are there others?

5 thoughts on “The Kingdom, the Cross, and Eternal Rewards

  1. Thanks for this Tony. I think it’s very helpful and thought-provoking.

    I agree wholeheartedly that it seems, at best, silly to conceive of rewards in addition to the kingdom, which is the happiness of God, or his beatitude.

    But I do think, however, that it is still biblical to conceive of reward in terms of genuine personal merit–not meriting the additional three chariot garage, but a larger vision of God, a larger capacity for his happiness.

    Certainly such a varied capacity for God is present in this life. Now, it would be convenient for me to assign all such variations to God’s inscrutable wisdom. Unfortunately, when the rubber hits the road, my soul suffers a certain “wizening” because I often stubbornly choose a Star Trek episode and a bowl of ice-cream over the throne of grace. Yes, I resist God (dare I say that?). And I hesitate to name God as the efficient cause of my laziness weak spiritual appetite.

    If an individual merits a deeper, more profound relationship with God here on earth, is there not reason to believe that God will honour that relationship in glory, that is, honour the genuinely free choices of that individual? For God rewards those who diligently seek him.

    I do think that we merit reward in heaven–not in terms of extras, for that almost seems blasphemous–but in terms of a deeper, more profound enjoyment of God himself. That is ultimately the reward here, and shall be, I trust, the ultimate reward in glory.

    “I conclude then, if God’s manifestations in this life admit such variety of ascents as we see by all these instances…why may not God’s dispensations yet remaining for us in the other world be framed unto so vast a disproportion as I have been arguing for?” Thomas Goodwin

  2. Manton, on this topic of God rewarding those who diligently seek him:

    “But the great and solemn day is to come when God will call all the world to an account and general audit, and justice and mercy shall both have their solemn triumph; and as our work hath been, so shall our wages be; that which is good shall be found to praise and honour, and that which is evil lie under its own shame. Well then, he that cometh to God must believe that God is a rewarder…the Lord takes notice of human actions, and…he will judge accordingly…

    Oh, to what a sorry use do the most of us put our lives!…Most of use have cause to blush and to be ashamed–How little is our delight in God?…They that do indeed love God, and seek after God, they are with him morning, noon, and night”

    Thomas Manton, Sermons Upon Hebrews XI

  3. I suppose, Tony, a good question to ask is whether or not there is anything that we can do, here in our earthly pilgrimage, that will change, for better or for worse, the nature of our heavenly rewards.

    I may be misreading your presentation of “the Dutch boys”, but it seems to me as if they are denying that our heavenly rewards will be variegated on the basis of what we do and don’t do here in this life. That is to say: 1. The reward is the kingdom. 2. Every saint will receive the kingdom. 3. Therefore, quality of life subsequent to death does not affect the nature of one’s reward.

    I wonder if this is the case. I have a nagging sense that how we live now will affect how we enjoy eternity.

    TB

  4. No, I don’t think they deny or question that rewards will be variegated. The rewards of each will be given in differing levels. What they are reacting against is the idea that rewards are the kingdom + something else. Rather, they argue that all rewards are part of what it means to receive the kingdom. In other words, no matter the differing level of rewards, the cross purchased those rewards. I don’t think they were questioning the levels but the basis of any/all reward. Make sense?

  5. Thanks Tony.

    I only wonder what it means to say that we do not merit reward even as we do not merit salvation.

    That is, is it not possible that I may end up having less reward in heaven than God intended?

    If so, then we either merit or do not merit those rewards

    TB

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