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?

And the beach was no more…

seaFew things in life are more wonderful than a warm day at the beach with the family. I love it. It’s a little paradise on earth. Except I always leave the beach tortured by one thought. The new earth—that perfect eternal home built for God’s redeemed children—will be sea-less. And that’s what I read at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21:1—“and the sea was no more.” Now, I’m not too decisive on my favorite passage of scripture, but I am clear on my least favorite.

I know this all sounds vain. You’re thinking, doesn’t he know the presence of our Savior and the Triune God and the angels and all the redeemed singing praise to our Savior will be an overwhelming joy that will make us forget all about pain and loss and beach vacations? Yes, of course I do. I anticipate the new creation for all these glorious reasons. But this doesn’t answer my lingering question: Why no seas?

So you can imagine my delight when I recently read one sentence written by G. K. Beale, an expert on the book of Revelation. He wrote: “the presence of a literal sea in the new creation would not be inconsistent with the figurative exclusion of the sea in 21:1.” In other words, the passage does not rule out the possibility of a heavenly shoreline. While Beale’s words hardly say, “pack a beach towel,” I am more hopeful that my glorified eyes (now 10/80) will gaze upon a perfect beach for eternity.

But enough silly business. Revelation 21:1 contains layers of serious figurative meaning, says Beale:

Usage elsewhere in the Apocalypse suggests various identifications [of “sea”]: (1) the origin of cosmic evil (especially in the light of OT background: so Rev. 4:6: 12:18; 13:1; 15:2), (2) the unbelieving, rebellious nations who cause tribulation for God’s people (12:18; 13:1; Isa. 57:20; cf. Rev. 17:2,6), (3) the place of the dead (20:13), (4) the primary location of the world’s idolatrous trade activity (18:10-19), (5) a literal body of water, sometimes mentioned together with “the earth,” used as a synecdoche in which the sea as a part of the old creation represents the totality of it (5:13; 7:1-3; 8:8-9; 10:2, 5-6, 8; 14:7; 16:3).

The use here probably summarizes how all these various nuances of “sea” throughout the book relate to the new creation. Therefore, it encompasses all five meanings. That is, when the new creation comes there will no longer be any threat from Satan because he will have been permanently judged and excluded from the new creation. Nor will there be any threat from rebellious nations, since they will have suffered the same fate as Satan. Neither will there be death ever again in the new world, so that there is no room for the sea as the place of the dead. There also will be no more idolatrous trade practice using the sea as its main avenue. Even the perception of the literal sea as a murky, unruly part of God’s creation is no longer appropriate in the new cosmos, since the new creation is to be characterized by peace. Literal seas separate nation from nation, and they separated John from his beloved churches, but in the new creation such a separation can be no more, since all are in close fellowship with one another and with God (e.g., 21:22-26). There will be a “lake” of fiery punishment (20:10, 14-15), but it will be located enigmatically outside the perimeters of the new heavens and earth (21:27: 22:15). Just as there must be an eternally consummated form of the new creation in which God’s people dwell, so must there be an eternally consummated form of a realm of punishment in another dimension, where unbelievers will dwell.

… the evil nuance of the sea metaphorically represents the entire range of afflictions that formerly threatened God’s people in the old world. Uppermost in John’s mind would have been tribulations resulting from oppression by the ungodly world. There will be no trial over which to weep in the final order of things. … Therefore, the presence of a literal sea in the new creation would not be inconsistent with the figurative exclusion of the sea in 21:1. [The Book of Revelation, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 1999), pp. 1042-1043]

Good thoughts to let loose in your mind when you’re driving your sunburned, sand-covered family home after a delightful weekend at the beach.

Eternal Diversity and Eternal Rewards


By God’s design, the Church is richly diverse. Ethnical diversity is celebrated as the cross brings together people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9; Eph 2:11—22). We know from Revelation that the ethnic distinctions will continue into eternity. Although I’m willing to guess we will share a common language, since linguistic diversity was a result of the fall (Gen 11:9), nevertheless, ethnic diversity is eternal.

The Church celebrates diversity in a second way. God distributes an assortment of gifts to the members of the Body (1 Cor 12:12—31). And it appears this diversity is carried over into eternity, too. But to understand how requires a little explaining about eternal rewards.

From Scripture we know that eternal rewards are distributed to individual Christians. Scripture is also clear that our eternal rewards are not the basis of our salvation, but built from a foundation of personal faith in Christ (1 Cor 3:15). Rewards in heaven are distributed according to personal achievements made possible by grace alone. However, justification before God (i.e. being saved) is never merited by personal achievement or self-righteousness.

For each Christian in heaven there will be various degrees of rewards, various degrees of glory. My question is why? Why the variance of reward, especially in a place where there will be no tears and no regret or sorrow over past failure? And why the variance of reward in light of a variance of gifting?

Our tendency is to erect a monolithic ladder of rewards that will measure the worthiness of individuals. We see this in distorted versions of Christianity. Saints and martyrs reach the top of the reward spectrum. Missionaries are near the top. The upper-middle rungs are covered with faithful pastors. Toward the bottom are folks who really did very little for the church. The lower you are on the ladder, the more you need the help of those above you. There is a minimal reward threshold all must meet to enter heaven. This is 2-dimentional image distorts the truth of salvation, distorts the truth about rewards, and it distorts the beauty of diversity.

“His purpose in doing this,” Herman Bavinck writes of God’s distribution of eternal rewards, “is that, on earth as it is in heaven, there would be profuse diversity in the believing community, and that in such diversity the glory of his attributes would be manifest. Indeed, as a result of this diversity, the life of fellowship with God and with the angels, and of the blessed among themselves, gains in depth and intimacy. In that fellowship everyone has a place and task of one’s own, based on personality and character, just as this is the case in the believing community on earth.” [RD, 4:729]

There are many problems with the ladder image. First, rewards are not means to heaven. Secondly, it does not account for God’s diverse gifting. We cannot equally achieve the same level of reward because we are not gifted equally. Bavinck was getting at this. Here is the point: To the degree God has gifted you, this is the degree that you serve in this life, which translates into a unique distribution of eternal rewards you receive in heaven, which translates into a unique position you will fulfill in the life to come.

If Bavinck is right, the level of reward we individually receive is not so much a means to compare ourselves with others (to determine our height on the ladder). Rather, it is a set-up for God to eternally display the multiplicity of His glory as it is reflected in the “profuse diversity” of His people.

photo: estherase