The message on Sunday prompted some questions that I thought I would answer here since there are probably others in the congregation who may be pondering the same questions.
Does the Bible really teach that there will be degrees of rewards in heaven? It is difficult to imagine another way to understand the passage that we looked at in 1 Corinthians 3. We focused on vv10-15, which clearly address degrees of rewards for work done for the kingdom:
13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1Cor3:13-15).
Some might desire to view the concept of rewards as always referring to eternal life or to eternity in the presence of Christ. However, the reward in this text cannot refer to either since v15 indicates that one can lose this reward but still be saved. Therefore, this reward must be something other than eternal life or the presence of Jesus. Further, the text indicates that some will receive this reward and others will not.
Degrees of rewards are also mentioned earlier in the chapter, which we did not look at Sunday. 1 Cor 3:8 reads, He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. Also, the parable of the ten pounds in Luke 19:11-27 depicts servants being given authority according to their level of faithfulness: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17). The parable is preceded with the explanation that the Lord told the parable “because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” The parable is a call to serve faithfully until the Lord comes. Why should we serve faithfully until He comes? Faithfulness will be rewarded in the end. (Consider also the parable of the talents in Matt 25:14-30.)
The passage that we will look at shortly in Matt 20 regarding the mother of James and John requesting that they be appointed to places of honor in the kingdom assumes that there will be positions of distinction in the kingdom (Matt 20:20-28). The Lord’s words in the passage confirm this truth rather than denying it. Likewise, the passage in 19:23-30 also assumes this to be true – the 12 apostles will occupy 12 thrones and will judge the 12 tribes of Israel. That is, they will occupy places of distinction in the kingdom. Similarly, Luke 16 portrays Abraham as having more prominence and authority in the kingdom than Lazarus. Other passages that assume degrees of rewards include: Matt 6:2-4, 6:16-18,10:41-42,16:27; Luke 6:35; 1 Cor 15:41-42; 2 Cor 5:10; Eph 6:5-8; 1 Tim6:18-19; Rev 2:23, 22:12.
Wouldn’t the loss of rewards mentioned in 1 Cor 3:15 lead to sorrow? How can there be sorrow in heaven? Certainly, there will be no sorrow in heaven – He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…(Rev 21:4). But it is an unwarranted assumption that degrees of reward will lead to degrees of happiness. Consider this quote from Wayne Grudem:
“Even though there will be degrees of reward in heaven, the joy of each person will be full and complete for eternity. If we ask how this can be when there are different degrees of reward, it simply shows that our perception of happiness is based on the assumption that happiness depends on what we possess or the status or power that we have. In actuality, however, our true happiness consists in delighting in God and rejoicing in the status and recognition that he has given us. The foolishness of thinking that only those who have been highly rewarded and given great status will be fully happy in heaven is seen when we realize that no matter how great a reward we are given, there will always be those with greater rewards, or who have higher status and authority, including the apostles, the heavenly creatures, and Jesus Christ and God himself. Therefore if highest status were essential for people to be fully happy, no one but God would be fully happy in heaven, which is certainly an incorrect idea. Moreover, those with greater rewards and honor in heaven, those nearest the throne of God, delight not in their status but only in the privilege of falling down before God’s throne to worship him (see Rev 4:10-11)” [Systematic Theology, 1144-1145].
Doesn’t the concept of heavenly rewards negate or harm the doctrine of grace? No – God is understood to be the source of motivation and power for the works that are rewarded. Just prior to the statement in 1 Cor 3:8 that believers will be rewarded according to their labor, Paul writes, So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:7). Likewise, Paul prefaces his comments regarding the reception and loss of reward with the acknowledgement that his work was “according to the grace of God given to me.”
Here is a link to an article by John Piper explaining three ways that our deeds relate to our salvation. It is so well written and helpful that to paraphrase it here would be to risk muddying up what he has made so clear. It is not very long; I highly recommend that you take a minute to look at it. It explains very well how these rewards should be understood as gifts of God’s grace.
If you missed my post last week regarding eternal rewards as a motivation for obedience, you may find that helpful as well.
If these questions have prompted still more questions, feel free to email me or leave comments below. If you have other theological questions that you'd like to see answered on the blog, I'm happy to receive those as well.