When is the last time you heard a sermon that suggested that a motive for our obedience should be the rewards we receive in heaven? I imagine for most of us it has been a long time, maybe even never. Whenever a sermon (or book) provides a motive for obedience, it is almost always thankfulness for what Christ has done. And certainly that is a wonderful and foundational motivation. But is it the only motivation?
Recently I’ve been working on a commentary on the book of Hebrews and was struck by the role rewards have played in the lives of God’s people. We are reminded that Moses was motivated by rewards, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb 11:26). Why did Abraham obey? We are told “He went to live in the land of promise…For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations” (Heb 11:9-10).
This same motivation is found throughout the New Testament writings. Jesus makes it clear, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Paul states it plainly, “But each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8).
Even Jesus himself was motivated by his future reward: “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2).
It seems that prior generations may have grasped this truth more clearly. Richard Baxter explains the various kinds of motivations for our obedience:
This full subjection and obedience [to God] is difficult, but we should not hesitate to use every effort to attain it. How? (1.) Consider God’s government. Should he not rule the creatures he has created?…(2) God is perfectly fit to govern you. His interest is for your good…(3) Consider how unable and unfit you are to govern yourself. We are blind, ignorant, and biased by a corrupt will and turbulent passions…(4) Consider the rewards prepared for obedience and the punishment for disobedience…(5) Consider the joys of full obedience. All is at ease within us…(6) Consider our endless rewards: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (A Christian Directory, 1:75-77).
Baxter offers a full-range of reasons for why we obey God, but I particularly appreciate #4, #5, and #6. In these, Baxter gives us future-oriented reasons for obedience. Instead of asking us to look back (as we might expect him to do), he asks us to look forward to the rich blessings that God will provide.
But, if rewards are clearly presented as a motivation in the Christian life, why don’t we hear more about rewards in our modern pulpits? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but let me suggest one: we have been convinced that our obedience doesn’t matter.
No doubt, the downplaying of Christian obedience is borne out of good motives—some think Christ is glorified the most when we disparage our own obedience. Our good works are just “filthy rags” (Is 64:6), we are reminded.
But, this whole line of thought misses the distinction between an unbeliever’s attempts at law-keeping and that of regenerated believer. Granted, neither can merit salvation or justification. Both fall woefully short of God’s perfect standards. But, that does not mean that the believer’s obedience doesn’t matter. God can still be pleased with it, even though it is imperfect. Consider John Piper’s comments on this point:
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…[But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags” (Future Grace, 151-152).
Of course, Piper simply reflects the standard Reformed view on this matter. The Westminster Confession of Faith is plain:
Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
This recognition that God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride, but rather a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us who are laboring in ministry (whether we are pastors or laypeople). Truth be told, ministry can be difficult. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.
What a refreshment to our souls to know that our father in heaven actually delights in these labors. It is like salve on our blisters, and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.
He is like a Father who sees the painting his five-year old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.
Indeed, it is this very hope–that God might be pleased with our labors–that Jesus lays out as a motive for us in our ministries. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
It is only when we recognize that the obedience of the believer really does matter, and that we really can please our Father, that the rewards passages in the Bible will make any sense. When we toil for the cause of Christ, we want to hear, and are bolstered by hearing, the encouraging words of Paul: “Your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).
Cameron Shaffer says
I think the shift is for a different reason. Seeing rewards as anything apart from Jesus himself would place Christian motivation for obedience outside of God himself. In other words, the enjoyment and comfort that comes from obedience to God is reception of him, growing in union and communion with Christ. The city theme in Hebrews culminates after all in a duel approach: First, coming to the mount of God with fear and reverence in drawing near to *him*, and second, going outside the camp to join Christ. That’s what Moses, etc. were looking forward to as the alternative to their earthly comforts.
WCF 16.6 talks about the acceptance of good works by God, not the motivation for doing them by the Christian, and even so does not discuss what the reward actually is. WCF 16.2 gives the motivation for good works, which does not include rewards detached from the person of Christ, “…by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.” People are created for good works in Christ, who is the end/goal of that workmanship, and we obey out of gratitude.
My guess is that you probably have heard plenty of reward sermons, just not any that say “Obey Christ so that he will eschatologically bless you with stuff besides himself.”
Gary Stiltner says
Thanks for posting this article – it encouraged me greatly! “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Eph 2:10
Great article. I think it’s good to note scripture seems to suggest looking forward to the rewards isn’t a bad thing and certainly not taboo. I can say personally I have another motivation as well. When I fall short of what he wants for my life, when I mess up I feel further from God and this bothers me over time.. when I push towards God and follow in obedience, bless others, I feel closer to God, I feel more secure, I feel like the worries of the world are often less.
I agree with your last part… obedience is really downplayed.. which is sad. I rarely hear sin even spoken of in church anymore unless it’s about Porn, which seems to be one they like to pull out occasionally for shock value or something. I guess we speak a lot about sin of omission in a sense.. not living up to our true purpose.. otherwise mostly just messages about just how much God loves us. It can be as simple as John 14:15… If you love me, keep my commandments. Expanded in verse 21..He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
Al Ngu says
Great article, thanks Dr Krueger. Rewards motivation is so very real in the Bible like you said, and repeatedly shown, and Jesus endured the cross as he looked forward to the joy (reward).
Problem is today we are fearful that we are not motivated by God but by rewards which descends into religion, not relationship. Emphasizing that we should serve God because of God, not by what He can bless us with. There is truth in it, but rewards is from God, and part of God. SO long we take care of that nuance, we should love God, and be motivated by his rewards.
Lois Westerlund says
Thank you for bringing up a Biblical truth! For me the primary incentive for an act of obedience, especially when it is costing my comfort or convenience is the joy that I know will follow! It will be the joy of being sensible of God’s closeness, because I have responded to the Spirit’s conviction. But it will also be the joy of sensing His approval. Does it not make us make us marvel at the gracious love of our God which first enables us to obey, when of ourselves we cannot, but then makes us feel we have pleased him, even though, we have we remain unprofitable servants? Luke 17:10. We have done only what we owe our Creator and Redeemer. But He graciously tells us we have pleased Him! And that He will reward that! What a God we worship!
C. S. Lewis talks about good rewards and bad rewards. Telling a child that if he practices, you will give him $5.00 is a bad reward. A child’s knowing that if he consistently practices, he will one day be able to play the concerto he loves is a good reward. I submit that knowing I will feel again the intimate presence of God, ready to continue to lead me, step by step, is a good reward. He is a Holy God and the price of enjoying His presence is a pure, obedient heart.
We don’t often hear sermons on rewards; nor do we often hear sermons on dying to oneself, which is necessary to enjoy the fellowship with God which the death of His son makes possible, and which is the only lasting joy. I John 1:3
Ron Kubsch says
Thanks for your article. I also think that obedience is not taken seriously enough. I would like to add, however, that we should keep in mind that Baxter rejected justification based on faith alone. Baxter says that some wrongly believe that Paul excludes our love and our own righteousness from justification. The final justification is based on faith and evangelical obedience. The price is then eternal life. So he denies very clearly what the Westminster confession in chapter X1.1 says:
“THOSE whom God effectually calleth he also freely justifieth; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous: not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone: not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience, to them as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith: which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.”
Great Reminder, Sir. There’s also a good book written by Erwin Lutzer on this topic called “Eternal Reward”.
Cheryl Zach says
A needed consideration for a wayward insipid church
My husband and I used to be missionaries in Brazil. We hosted short term teams from the U.S. that came to help preexisting ministries. When we gave up our lives in the U.S. and the nearness of our children and grandchildren, we were being obedient but rewards kept us motivated. My husband spoke of rewards to every team that came to Brazil, so at least they heard a sermon on rewards! 🙂
Many thanks, great stuff — besides the Lutzer book referenced above, any other book-length treatments of this topic you would recommend?
Jessy jonas says
We are such frail humans, ” ……but I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. Oh wretched man that I am!”
Knowing this, we could easily slip into the state Jesus spoke of John 6:26
” ….. you seek me not because you saw the signs but because you are of the loaves and were filled.”
Better for us, we continue to heed his word and labour for the food which endures to everlasting life..John 6:27
Timothy Soh says
It is sad that much of modern churches are reduced to simply “getting people into heaven” on this ticket called “faith.” Minimal teachings on various tenets of theology much less the doctrine of rewards. As a result, many Christians suffers malnutrition; many will, no doubt, end up in heaven eternally regretful of squandered years eager to be do much more in the new heaven and new earth.
Theo K says
One of the reasons for not preaching rewards may be that it is difficult to uphold both rewards and justification by faith alone.
Note I didn’t say impossible, but difficult.
Case in point, the examples mentioned in this article:
Baxter was a neonomian (he expressly rejected justification by faith alone).
So, please keep both rewards and justification by faith alone.
But if this isn’t feasible, I would very much prefer to see rewards ignored than tampering with the article upon which the church stands or falls.
Hi Dr Kruger, how do you understand Paul’s words regarding that all will appear before the judgment seat of Christ? I thought believers had already been judged and found ‘not guilty’? Does this relate to believers and unbelievers alike or if only the former, is this related to ‘rewards’ for service? If so, how do you understand these rewards, will they be different for each believer? Craig Blomberg has been rather dismissive of such rewards if they do relate to a believer’s obedience and service, arguing that to a very large extent all believers will be treated equally by God, given they are only saved by grace.