The Idea of Reward

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of reward. There has been some discussion that grace precludes us from the dynamic of receiving rewards for doing well, and that is the genesis of this reflection. First let’s look at some scriptures which mention the idea of rewards:

From the gospels:

12 “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
46 “For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax-gatherers do the same?
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
2 “When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
5 “And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners, in order to be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
16 “And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.
41 “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.
42 “And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward.”
(Matthew 5:12, 46; 6:1, 2, 5, 16; 10:41, 42, NASB).

From the epistles:

8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
14 If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward.
17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.
18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.
35 Therefore, do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
6 And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.
26 considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.
(1 Corinthians 3:8, 14; 9:17, 18; Colossians 3:24; Hebrews 10:35; 11:6, 26, NASB).

Reward is an important concept in the New Testament. I think that the sermon on the mount really does reinforce that people who approach God by the virtue of their deeds rather than the blessing of a free gift think of reward in the wrong way, and we must resist this. However, the persecuted ones receive a very great reward as a free gift blessing, not under the rubric of the law — yet it is listed as a reward, and a very great one.

There is an important distinction to be made between a wage and a reward. A wage is a payment which is warranted based on an agreement based on work performed. A reward has no agreement, it is work performed for no payment, but which receives blessing in recognition of the special sacrifice or work that was done. A soldier in the field may do deeds of great valor to save his fellow soldiers, but he does it because it was the right thing, not because he was thinking of getting a purple heart. Yet the reward for his valor is welcome and would not be granted to someone who did not deserve it. This is not a wage, and it bears no condemnation on those who do not receive a reward.

For more insight into this I find myself reaching for the parable of the vineyard workers:

1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.
2 “And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.
3 “And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place;
4 and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went.
5 “Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.
6 “And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’
7 “They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.’
8 “And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’
9 “And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.
10 “And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius.
11 “And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner,
12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?
14 ‘Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.
15 ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’
16 “Thus the last shall be first, and the first last.”
(Matthew 20:1-16, NASB).

You see that the generosity of the landowner includes not only that he is generous to the men who only worked one hour, but that he gave what was fair to the others. Grace doesn’t preclude reward for merit, it simply goes right past it. Here is the rub, if this is not true, if grace precludes reward for merit, it makes a law of not working, and says you can only approach God if you are the guys who worked one hour. It says that the landowner should stiff the all-day workers and only pay the end-of-day workers. If we are free from the law, we are free from the strange law of not seeking rewards as well. We are free to work for reward, it is encouraged in the New Testament under the auspices of grace. However, in the universe of grace, it is entirely possible that others will simply be given similar blessings quite apart from their merit, and if we are made of the same stuff as Christ, this is a joy and a delight to us.

We really do see this strange law of not seeking rewards as the basis of blessing at work among those treasured few among us who really believe in the grace of Christ. For instance, if a child excels at sports, can we not say, yes, you worked really hard and focused on your strength and stamina and skills, and you went out there and hustled and you won! It sounds a little deflating to say, don’t think you won, it was Christ in you who caused you to succeed, and you are an utterly depraved nothing who has no good in you at all. That may or may not be theologically accurate, but there really is a reward for good effort, and there is no reason under grace to steal that away. Grace doesn’t say that you aren’t allowed to do well at something and so receive the reward for it! There is a difference between letting a kid win and couching it in a way that their whole self-worth is tied up in their success. It makes grace into a very strange law which steals all initiative and all success, instead of making it a beautiful love which frees us from judgment and sets us free to live and to love with an honest and uncoerced heart. Grace really is freedom — it empowers you work to win but gives you a huge safety net when you fail. Even more, it not only gives you blessings as a pure gift, but rewards you for doing the things it empowered you to do.

Here is what this parable teaches us. The all-day laborers imagine that their work institutes a control over the landowner’s funds. In paying the end-of-day workers the same, he breaks that control, and this is what troubles them. They want to say, you owe us our wages, and he comes back and says, no, all that I give is gracious. You laborers are not my lord, I am your lord, and I grant my funds to whom I wish for whatever reason I wish. To you who worked, it is reward, and to you who did not work, it is a gift. Your labor is not the controlling factor over my graciousness; rather, in all cases, I am sovereign over my gifts, and I give them as I wish. You all-day laborers are trying to establish a controlling causal connection between your labor and my blessing, but you are wrong. However, neither does the end-of-day camp control my actions by forcing me to be gracious. You can work a lot or a little, and I will give what I wish to give. In either case, the workers do not control the funds.

It is not from living in the universe of grace that we say, “I could have stood around doing nothing all day and gotten paid all the same!” In the universe of grace, we say, “I could have entered this labor to bless this generous landowner instead of just standing around doing nothing all day. He is so generous, we must find more ways to help this man prosper! Either way, it is certainly nice to hang around such a generous wealthy guy, and I like to be useful.” God wants to bless us all, and whether we work or not, He intends to be generous. In His grace, He will not withhold His reward, and still He will be handing out scandalously underserved blessings on into eternity. I’ll be working in His vineyard now, thank you very much. I can’t wait to see who He blesses next!

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  1. Really important to think through rewards… and I love the concept of being excited about the blessings that God gives people!

    Think there might be some fuzziness still. For example, I think in the parable of the vineyard/laborers (Matthew 20), v.2 indicates that what is being given is a wage, not a reward. Don’t think there’s any way around that; to claim it is a reward goes against the text. All that is given to them is ‘what is agreed’ (v.13). I believe the parable actually argues against a merit-based reward system. Eternal life is given to those who work much and those who work little… it is up to God!

    That’s not to say there isn’t reward; in most cases, the Scripture points to the reward being eternal life; the 1 Cor 3 passage you reference above also indicates some reward of seeing your work/labor stand… it seems.

    Wonderful topic, and too easily overlooked in thinking through grace. We can’t be against the Lord’s radical blessing… just amazing that we are part of the same body, with the Spirit of Christ producing fruit in us… wondrous that we bear fruit!

  2. Dax, I seriously love you man! Do we not have the best conversations? I agree that there is still fuzziness, but I think there is yet something to contribute from the parable.

    You’re right about v.2. However, what is it that the landowner did for the end-of-day laborers? What made the all-day laborers so upset? The main point of the parable is the upset nature of the all-day laborers.

    The question for us is, because the landowner paid some of them what was agreed (forget about whether it should be called a wage or a reward), does that mean that in those cases he did not operate from graciousness? I posit that it shows that he is always operating from graciousness, even when that ends up looking the same as granting wages. It is the workers who misinterpret that. They thought he changed the rules and upped the wage, which means their labor would still control his resources. Instead he threw the rules out and paid everyone whatever he wanted regardless of their work. Just as it is not true that his graciousness in some cases negates his fairness, so his fairness in some cases does not negate his graciousness.

    I would disagree about the nature of the reward being solely about receiving the kingdom. I think this is the main blessing, but in the beatitudes this is carefully worded as a gift, whereas some of the items are listed as receiving rewards.

    In the beatitudes, the base level blessing is to receive the entire kingdom of God, which is given to the poor in spirit. The only qualification is poorness of spirit! The rest of these are particular kinds of poorness, and these different kinds of poorness receive peculiar and particular blessings. It’s like everyone gets a giant house on the ocean overlooking the mountains, but if you are a big reader and scholar, your house gets a library and study. If you are an athlete, your house gets a workout room. But everyone gets the big house with a stunning view.

    The mourners receive comfort. This is different than those who are hungry for righteousness. The young man who regrets his sin receives different blessings than the mother who has lost a child. The one who is persecuted receives a very great (but unnamed) reward, although his base gift, because he is poor in spirit, is to receive the kingdom. Clearly the unnamed reward goes beyond the base reward, but it is nothing apart from the base reward. Many will receive substantial gifts that are wholly unmerited simply because God likes to do that. Some will receive some kind of reward based on being persecuted for receiving the gift of the kingdom. I think that our place and blessing and reward in the kingdom will be so perfectly suited to us in the end that it will shock us how un-generic it all is.

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