But What About Rewards?

Front Page Q&A

Q: Jesus spoke of God rewarding people for charitable giving, for prayer and for fasting: “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:17-18). If God gives us everything by grace, what did Jesus mean here?

A:In the light of the clear message of the New Testament, it would be a serious mistake to take the merit theology of Judaism (which of course was well-known among the primarily Jewish recipients of the Gospel of Matthew) and try to force it into the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Removing ourselves from the historical context, it would be an equal mistake to try to make the empty promises of performance- based religion appear to be a part of God’s grace. It would be like attempting to put new wine into old wineskins, or trying to patch an old garment with a piece of new cloth (we find this passage just three chapters later in Matthew 9:16-17).

Matthew is deliberately targeting a predominantly Jewish readership, to tell them the good news of Jesus, and therefore he uses terminology and language familiar to them, while transforming meanings traditionally associated with some of that language. I think that the concept of reward is one of these (particularly in Matthew).

C.S. Lewis, in They Asked for a Paper, provides one of the best discussions of this topic of which I am aware. He draws distinctions between the idea of a reward, a word which usually evokes a word picture of some kind of a ceremony, a trophy, a ribbon, a certificate or a diploma being awarded, together with the applause of spectators. That kind of a reward is not the reward that God gives. The gifts, awards and rewards of God are all based on his grace, not human achievement, prowess or performance. Even to the degree that we have been involved in some kind of activity that precedes the award, the new covenant makes it clear that the abilities we have to perform are God-given, and thus all will be to his glory.

Lewis notes that a man may marry a wealthy woman—he marries for money—and he is “rewarded” with her money. However, he is a mercenary if he is not marrying for love, and in addition he is not being rewarded for a beneficial activity, but rather because of his deception and greed. That’s one kind of reward.

On the other hand, marriage itself, if and when two people love each other, is its own reward—and that reward generally flows out of their love for each other, rather than a self-centered love. In that case, the reward results not from performing religious duties of some kind, but it’s a natural outgrowth of the love we give to another—that love can be agape love, the very expression of that kind of love given to us by God, because agape love is love that directly flows from God. So Lewis comments that spiritual rewards are not directly linked, or, in his words, “tacked on” to an activity for which they might seem to be given, but rather they are the “activity itself in consummation.”
Put another way, we might say that many rewards we are given in life are received as a part of our journey, not necessarily the destination. There are rewards in life which we are given, both from physical sources, and certainly from God, that have no direct connection with things we might do to earn or merit them.

New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd spoke of God’s kingdom as being already, but not yet. There is a present sense of the kingdom, a kingdom which we are now given, and therefore rewards which we now receive and enjoy. There is also a future complete fulfillment of that kingdom, and rewards, by God’s grace, which will once again be given to us. One of these future rewards we do not now enjoy is detailed in 1 Corinthians 15—the hope of the resurrection, when our bodies of flesh will be glorified and made immortal, no longer subject to decay and pain.

If we persist in trying to directly link God’s rewards to our earthly efforts then we place ourselves in direct conflict with the gospel of God’s grace, proclaimed throughout the New Testament.

If we wish to confine our study of the idea of rewards that Jesus teaches to the predominately Jewish audience as revealed in the Gospel of Matthew, we would also want to study Matthew 11:25; 19:16-26; 20:1-16 and 25:31-46.