What is Our Eternal Reward?

Q: What is our eternal reward?

A:The Bible does speak of a reward, but should that reward be viewed as a prize given as a response for our diligent performance of deeds, then our reward would not be by grace through faith, but of works. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ a measured reward we receive on the basis of our own efforts cannot be the reward the biblical writers have in mind. The New Testament is clear and absolute: our eternal reward is given, rather than earned. Everything we as Christ-followers are able to produce by ourselves here in this temporal life is physical and has a shelf life. Nothing we can produce, apart from God, is worthy, nor is it sufficient, for God to respond by giving an eternal reward.

Eternal, immortal rewards for efforts extended by mortal humans are not possible. If I go to the grocery store here in the United States and try to purchase goods with the currency of China, Mexico or Russia, my purchase will be refused. I must use the currency “of the realm.” The currency of the realm of the kingdom of God is grace, and grace alone can produce eternal rewards. The very best rewards we can earn, apart from God’s grace, are short-lived, and perish with the end of our earthly sojourn.

Nonetheless, some Christians press this metaphor of “rewards” because, it seems, we humans like to feel that what we do and contribute in the here and now has positive eternal consequences. In terms of “rewards” God gives to us, I believe that the New Testament teaches that those who follow Christ win the “race” by God’s grace alone, so that all credit for our victory is given to the Lord. But, pressing the metaphor as some do, it might be possible to say that after God empowers us to win the “race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1), at the “awards ceremony” that follows the race, we receive “extra” rewards.

I believe that such an interpretation of various New Testament passages might be valid; however, the mistake it seems is that many misunderstand any award God may confer on us at an award ceremony:

• First of all, 1) let us realize that no “reward” following the gift of eternal life stands on its own. That is, if we are not given eternal life by God’s grace, then we will not be able to receive any reward, however one might think of a reward.

• 2) Following the biblical metaphor of winning our race by God’s grace, some might think of “extra” rewards being due to the fact that they ran the race. That is true, but once again, there are no rewards that do not ultimately owe their existence to God’s grace. He invites us to the race, he allows us to run, he gives us the clothing and the shoes, he gives us the strength and energy, he shows us how to run the race, Jesus and the “great cloud of witnesses” both coach us and cheer us on as we run—and beyond that, we run because God gives us life, and he gives us legs and muscles so that we can run. No one runs the race solely on their own—all is based on God’s grace.

So for those who feel there will be special recognition given to those who, after winning the race by God’s grace, are given “extra” rewards on the basis of how diligently they ran the race, I would say that any and all righteous accomplishments that any of us can ever produce in this life are the workmanship and handiwork of God. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.”

Therefore, we are saved—that is, we win “the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1) BY God’s grace, FOR the works he will produce in and through our lives—by the risen Lord who indwells us. So yes, by all means, Christ-followers have works present in their lives, but we are quick to give God the glory for all that he accomplishes in our lives. Some might point out that the parable of the talents (“bags of gold” as it is called in the NIV) in Matthew 25 and the similar parable of the pounds (“minas” in the NIV) in Luke 19 explains differing “amounts” (rewards) the servants of the master receive in return for their “work.”

In that context, remember that these two parables stipulate that these servants were just that. They had no resources of their own. In Matthew 25, the master, before leaving for a “journey” gave his servants differing gifts. What the servants had to begin with was a gift (grace)—the master gave them his grace. Had they not been given grace, they would not have been able to produce anything.

The two parables essentially commend the servants who “used” the grace given to them, doing so using the metaphor of monetary currency. The servants “used” and “traded” the currency—as Christ followers we realize that the grace we have been given is dynamic and it does not terminate with us. God’s grace is alive and is given to us so that we in turn might pass it on. The servants in these parables who passed on God’s grace (one did not of course, but instead buried the gift he received) were merely passing on what had originally been given to them. So again, no reward is possible unless and until the initial gift/grace is given.