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?