A Definition of Reward. The word "reward" has both a favorable and an unfavorable meaning in English. In its favorable sense, it is something given in return for a good thing done, a service rendered, or some merit earned. For example, in Matthew 5:11-12, Jesus says, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven." In its opposite sense, the word "reward" can refer to punishment for a wrong or wrongs committed, although it is rarely used this way in the Bible. In Revelation 22:12 the Greek word for "reward" is probably used with both favorable and unfavorable meanings in mind: "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." In this article, the word is limited to the more favorable meaning of recompense for good done rather than punishment for evil committed.
The Location of the Giving of Rewards. The rewards Christians will receive for faithful service to the Lord will be given out at the judgment seat of Christ or the bema [bh'ma] judgment. The Greek word bema [bh'ma] appears in 2 Corinthians 5:10 and Romans 14:10 and refers to the place where the works of believers will be evaluated by Christ for purposes of reward. In 2 Corinthians, a context in which Paul has stated several other incentives for faithful Christian service, Paul adds this additional encouragement: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." In Romans 14:10, where Paul is speaking about exercising love for fellow Christians, be they weak or strong in the faith, he again uses the bema [bh'ma] judgment as a motive for doing it, only here he calls it "God's judgment seat." "You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat (bema [bh'ma])."
It is clear that this is not a judgment resulting in salvation or damnation. Nevertheless, it is an important judgment for it will determine what responsibilities Christians will have in the coming kingdom ( Matt 25:21 ). According to Paul, some will come through with very little to show for their Christian lives, saved as though "through the flames" ( 1 Cor 3:15 ). What he means is that some Christians will be saved but with little, if anything, to show for their years on earth. Whether because of wrong motives or laziness or misplaced priorities, they will conclude their lives with very little of any eternal worth to show. While the whole salvation process is a gift ( Rom 6:23 ; Eph 2:8-10 ), rewards are the result of human effort and are earned ( 1 Cor 3:14 ).
Depending on one's view of the temporal location of the rapture of the church, the bema [bh'ma] judgment will take place either in heaven, while the great tribulation is transpiring here on the earth, or on earth at the beginning of Christ's reign after his second coming. In either case, it is preparatory to the Christians' reigning together with Christ on earth following his return.
An Identification of the Rewards. The rewards to be given out for faithful service at the bema [bh'ma] judgment are dealt with in various ways. Those spoken of in terms of "crowns" are nonmaterial, thus doing away with their being materialistic motives for divine service. The "crowns" that are biblically identified as being given on that day include: a crown that will last forever for those who have kept their sinful nature in check ( 1 Cor 9:25-27 ); a crown of righteousness for those who have longed for Christ's appearance ( 2 Tim 4:8 ); a crown of life for those who have endured testing successfully, even to the point of death ( James 1:12 ; Rev 2:10 ); a crown of rejoicing for those who have seen souls saved ( 1 Thess 2:19 ); and a crown of glory for those who have faithfully served God's people ( 1 Peter 5:4 ). In other places, the rewards are spoken of as "treasures in heaven" ( Matt 6:20 ), a share in Christ's future role ( Rev 2:26-27 ), and additional responsibilities and words of praise ("Well done, good and faithful servant" Matthew 25:21 Matthew 25:23 ; Luke 19:17 Luke 19:19 ). It is worth noting again how intangible and immaterial these rewards are. Even the gift of eternal life is set forth as a prize to be gained. Eternal life is something to be laid hold of by the individual ( 1 Tim 6:17-19 ).
While emphasizing the future rewards, it is also well to remember that there are many good results that come to the faithful believer in this life, things that can be called "rewards." Jesus said that he had come that his own might have life and have it to the full ( John 10:10 ). He also said that if his own would continue to seek first his Father's kingdom and his righteousness, all the temporal things they needed would be given to them as well ( Matt 6:33 ).
The Standards for Reward. One clearly stated standard for rewards at the bema [bh'ma] judgment will be whether the works done by the Christian have been good or bad ( 2 Cor 5:10 ). It is significant that Paul uses the Greek word "foolish" or "worthless" and not one of the Greek words for "evil." His point is that there are some things that are good for the advancement of the kingdom and righteousness and others that are not, even though one would not call them evil. For example, some may spend a great deal of time and money on personal hobbies that have no eternal worth. They are not evil, unless undue amounts of time and money are spent on them; but they may not be of any eternal profit either. In that sense, they can be said to be foolish, although not sinful.
Another point to be stressed regarding standards is that rewards will not be given necessarily for successful service as the world so often evaluates it. Paul notes that "it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful" ( 1 Cor 4:2 ). Note that he does not say "successful" as one might consider success here on earth. What is rewarded is not primarily the visible accomplishments of the individual, but the faithful labor expended ( 1 Cor 15:58 ). On this basis, some who have been very faithful in a more private ministry may come in alongside of and even ahead of some others who have had more public ministries, but who have not been as faithful or as purely motivated. It is also significant to note that the five-talented and the two-talented servants ( Matthew 25:21 Matthew 25:23 ) were given the same reward because both were equally faithful with what had been entrusted to them.
The Variation in Reward. Salvation and eternal life are the same for all Christians but the rewards given to each varies, dependent upon the faithful labor expended. It is clear from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 that the lord of the servants expected more from the five-talented man than he did from the two-talented or the one-talented individuals. Note that the talents were dispensed according to personal ability to handle them (v. 15). The ones with lesser amounts had lesser responsibility. Paul says that at the judgment of the believer's works, each will receive a reward according to his or her labor. Matthew 5:12 speaks of great reward in heaven and 2 John 8 speaks of a full reward, both references indicating that the rewards will not all be the same.
The Forfeiture of Reward. Several passages warn against the forfeiture or loss of reward. It is clear that this does not mean a repossession of the reward by the Lord, for the rewards being spoken of here have not yet been given. According to Paul, it is possible to "build" on the foundation, which is Christ, but to be building with "wood, hay or straw, " which cannot stand the test of fire; the builder will be saved but "only as one escaping through the flames" ( 1 Cor 3:11-15 ). In other words, people can be busy with the Lord's work and still receive no reward. They may be taking advantage of opportunities to labor for the Lord and yet not be engaged in endeavors that meet with God's approval because they have the wrong motives. For example, if they seek the praise of others, they can have that praise but receive no reward from God later ( Matt 6:1-18 ). Along with this forfeiture of reward will go a severe sense of shame and remorse ( 1 John 2:28 ) and a possible divine reprimand for wasted living as a Christian ( Matt 25:26-28 ). It is to be underscored, however, that this loss of reward does not mean a loss of salvation.
The Motivation of Reward for Christian Service. It is true that the reward motive for Christian service is not the highest biblical motive but it is a biblical one. As the highest, we are told to do all we do for God's glory ( 1 Cor 10:31 ; Col 3:23-24 ). We are to do all we can to be accepted by Christ, for the good of others, and out of gratitude and love for all God has done for us. Even the fear of the Lord that is going to fall on the unsaved is a legitimate incentive for service in seeing the lost saved ( 2 Cor 5:11 ).
Down the line, but certainly in the line of biblical motivations for ministry, is the reward motive. Jesus, knowing our human nature, spoke much about the rewards to come for Christian labor for the Christian cause. It must also be remembered, however, that Jesus encouraged humble, unselfish service for God's kingdom and his church, even without reward. He taught that, even if we could do everything commanded of us, we are still unprofitable servants since we have just done our duty ( Luke 17:7-10 ). In Matthew 20:1-16, all the servants receive a denarius for a day's work in the field, even though some had worked only a small fraction of the day. In fact, the righteous in Matthew 25:37-39 were so unimpressed by the reward motive for doing good that they could not remember when they did the good things cited by the Lord. Apparently the promise of reward does not spoil the conduct coming from it or Jesus would not have used it; nor does it contradict the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone. We cannot demand recompense from the Lord, but he can sovereignly give rewards if he so wills.
Finally, two things should be pointed out. According to Romans 8:8 and Hebrews 11:6, it is impossible for unbelievers to do anything that fundamentally meets with God's approval or that will receive a reward from God, no matter how impressive their deeds may be. However, once one is a believer, even as small a service as a cup of cold water given in the Lord's name ( Mark 9:41 ) will not go without divine notice and reward. Second, even the rewards earned are totally a result of God's grace since all successful labor for Christ is accomplished by Christ working in and through us. In Romans 15:18, Paul says he will not dare to speak of any accomplishment except those Christ has done through him.
Wesley L. Gerig
Bibliography. H. Z. Cleveland, EDT, pp. 951-52; W. M. Knoll, It Will Be Worth It All: A Study In Believer's Rewards.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Reward'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".