I’ve been ruminating on this one for a long time. I think I’ve come to a bit of an epiphany on the issue, and I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to my computer and share this. I think it is a very powerful insight from the Holy Spirit, and I have been weeping and weeping really hard in prayer over it! Is that weird? I don’t really care! This is very beautiful stuff.
Defining the Problem
First, let’s define the problem. If we are saved by grace as a gift apart from merit or works or any notion of earning things, then it would seem that everything is ours by virtue of mere belief.
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16
all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. Romans 3:23-25
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness
On the other hand, we have clear teachings on the existence of rewards.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:11-12
5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God. 1 Corinthians 4:5
41 For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because of your name as followers of Christ, truly I say to you, he will not lose his reward. Mark 9:41
A reward is “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.” This would seem to be in opposition to the idea of gift; it would seem that we either receive blessing from the Lord as favor and not as “what is due”, or we receive it as “what is due” and not as a gift. That’s the problem: if we start seeking rewards then it would seem to imply that we cease to live under free gift grace, but we have this teaching that we will receive rewards and that God will actually praise us for hidden deeds and good motives. What gives? On reflection I think this is absolutely wonderful.
Doing Only What We Ought
Let’s take a peek at the parable of the unworthy servant:
7 “Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? 8 But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? 9 He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? 10 So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’”
If we do anything worthy of reward, it really is true that we have nothing under the law than what we should have done anyway. If you notice, in the parable of the minas, the successful investors do this exact thing: they simply invest their minor provision well, with no hint or clue that they would be rewarded with cities! Who gets a city as a reward? It is unexpected, and over the top, and not at all warranted. If we do it for the purpose of reward instead of the purpose of simply doing what is right, it ends up that we dictate the consequences of our actions to God, who can dream up much better consequences than we ourselves would ever imagine. When we set up our own expectations of reward, we make the error of the “Lord Lord didn’t I” people (Matthew 7:21-23) who thought that their deeds could dictate the acceptance of God. They thought their deeds were true food and true drink, rather than the flesh and blood of Jesus (John 6:55). They pointed to themselves, and not to Jesus. Their work was to prophesy and to cast out demons and to perform many miracles instead of to believe in Jesus, but the true work is belief (John 6:29).
The Deeper Meaning of Reward Under Grace
So, how does reward work in the universe of grace? Why do we have this idea? Is this all: don’t expect anything, and know that God will do way better at rewarding you if you let Him have His way? This is great news, but I don’t think it gets down to the heart of the matter. It is still, in a way, conditional blessing based on command. Obey, and don’t expect anything (which is really hard to do!), and you will get a bigger reward. There is a further and much more important truth to be mined.
If you look at the beatitudes, they are all conditional blessings. If you are a baseline sinner with no mourning, no persecution, no meekness, just an awful sinner with no other claim to anything, you are granted the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3). Everyone who forsakes their self-sufficiency and simply admits the truth falls at least into this category. However, if you mourn, you get comfort. If you hunger for righteousness, you get satisfaction. If you are pure in heart, the world may hate you, but you get to see God. If you are persecuted for Jesus’ name’s sake, you get some unspecified but great reward. In other words, “grace” is not a blanket one-size-fits-all thing. God sees you. He see your grief. He sees how your honesty and humility have cut you off from opportunities in the world. He sees your intense self-doubt. He sees the small ways and the large ways, the dramatic ways and the subtle ways, that you are persecuted and denied favor. He sees how your “best life now” is not working out. He sees how in your gifting you are all dressed up with nowhere to go. He sees that your works are not great, but that when you give that one glass of water, you did it with joy from faith. You may have done it with some impure motives, but through His cleansing blood the purity hidden in your gift can be brought out and observed. There is not one tiny thing He sees that will go unnoticed and unpraised. You may be a mess, but it matters what you do and who you are, and the Lord will cause all of this to work out for good.
When the world ignores you, shuts the door in your face, and hates your faith in God’s gift to you, He loves you uniquely. He knows the unique shape of your hunger, the unique source of your thirst. He knows how you, in your secret heart, feel you do not measure up. He counts that as purity, and He aims to lead you to the satisfaction you so desire and do not have. Under grace through Christ’s blood, if you stumble forward one drunken sinful step and fall back 20 steps, He persists to celebrate that one step. He counts your disappointment in yourself as precious in His sight. He loves you, as you, uniquely. Reward means that His grace fits your plight. His love is not a blanket ethereal theological abstraction, but is affection for the unique blend of hurt and sin and want that is you.
Reward says that you are very truly and uniquely loved, and that of all the incredible and impossible things, that God will praise you. I promise you when that happens you will be weeping and wiping His feet and utterly humbled and speechless. You will be overcome with gratitude and the sense of His great love and goodness! You will know that of all things, God really does know you! He will know in that moment that you are loving Him very very much. Is our Lord not a great marvel and comfort? Hallelujah!
44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.”