What Are Rewards? Heaven Series: Part Nine
Read 2 Corinthians 5:1-10
Some time ago there was a commercial, and the slogan was: ”We make money the old fashioned way: we earn it.” Thinking about that little phrase, this really is a fascinating slogan because of what it reveals about the very nature of humanity itself. All of us are born with this works-based system, whether it is for religious reasons or whether it is for financial reasons or whether it is for our children. How do we get our kids to obey, especially when we are having a difficult time with them, other than to bribe them or to tell them, “If you do certain things then you will get a reward”? We put up little charts on the refrigerator with stars or little checkmarks. They earn certain credits and they end up receiving some sort of reward. It may not be money, but it might be a prize or it might be satisfaction with a relationship, or it might be with salvation. All of us are born with this in our hearts. “We earn it.”
(Transcription of audio file from 01:57 to 02:10 omitted.)
We call that, in many respects, a theology of glory. All of us are born with this theology of glory, because we all were made in the beginning for fellowship with God. Remember that in the beginning Adam was made for the Tree of Life, to fellowship with his Creator, to have his life in God (as Paul describes it in Colossians 3). But yet, the way of blessedness and ultimate fulfilment and ultimate blessing with God and ultimate fellowship with his Creator was by means of obedience. So we describe the original covenant in the Garden as a covenant of works, because it was by works and by obedience that Adam would have entered into the result of that covenant. Or sometimes we call it a covenant of life. It is a covenant that would give life. It is a covenant that stipulated that: If you keep these terms, you will have not only physical life, but you will enter into a greater life, the life of consummation (or heaven, or the ultimate resting place between God and man).
So all of us were made in Adam for this purpose: to obey God and to receive life. But because of the Fall, we have destroyed that original situation, that original covenant. We have destroyed that covenant relationship between God and man. And now we turn it on its head, and we turn it into a way that we now can somehow leverage our merits. We can say, “I have earned enough bonus credits," that we can enter into everlasting life. And that affects how we view relationships and the world around us. It is all based on works; it is all based on performance; it is all based on merits.
So as we continue to think about heaven, we want to think especially about 2 Corinthians 5:10. And we want to ask the question: What are rewards? Remember, we have seen that the intermediate state is between now and Christ coming. If we die, we go to heaven or we go to hell. If we trust in Christ, we have confidence and assurance that we shall dwell with him. That is what Paul describes here. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and that is far greater, as Philippians 1 says! “It is good to be here,” Paul said to the Philippians, “but it is far greater to be with the Lord.” That is called the intermediate state.
The final state, though, is after Christ returns. We saw a few weeks ago that Christ will raise us up and he will reunite our souls with our frail, mortal bodies. But yet, he will give them new life. That which is mortal, 1 Corinthians 15 said, will become immortal. That which is sown in weakness and dishonour and frailty shall be raised in power and glory by the power of the Holy Spirit.
So what happens then? Jesus returns. He raises all dead, lifeless corpses. He unites those corpses with their souls, which were either in heaven or which were in hell. He raises them up. And then, as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” We see that here in our text. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). He will judge the living and the dead. He will give rewards on that last day. He will give that which is due for what we have done in the body, whether it is good or whether it is evil. He will give a reward based upon those works and based upon those performances. On the one hand, there are those who will go into everlasting life, and there are those who will go into everlasting condemnation.
But what exactly are they? How do we get rewards? What is the basis upon which we receive them? What do they look like? What do they do? What is their purpose?
I want to think of this in terms of two brief points. First of all, I want to address the misconceptions of merits. In the second place, we want to think about rewards as receptions of grace.
Misconceptions of Merits
So what are rewards? All of us are wired for the law. We are all wired for works and merits. We are all made for this obedience. If we do certain things, we get a certain reward. But when we think about rewards on the last day, there are many misconceptions of merits. There are many, many, many misconceptions about how we get rewards, why God gives them to us and what they are. And they are all based upon the idea of merits.
Fear of Not Being Rewarded
In our text, after all (and we might even think this ourselves), doesn’t Paul say there, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ”? [We might think], “Well, of course it is to give us rewards.” And of course, he describes it in terms of merit, doesn’t he? He says we will “receive what is due.” That is the language of merit and of reward and of obedience and of payments.
And there are texts such as Revelation 20. Logically speaking, doesn’t this text say that very same thing as well?
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.Revelation 20:11-15, ESV
Well, there it is! Everyone on the last day will be raised and they will be judged, and the basis of that judgment is what they have done. Therefore, is it not a system of strict merit?
Even more close to home, though, are texts like these. So this text in Revelation describes the final judgment in terms of its comprehensiveness (John sees everyone, [including] the dead). But turn with me to 1 Peter 4. We know there is going to be a final judgment, and we know that as the text of Scripture describes it for us. And there are many more texts like Revelation 20 and like 2 Corinthians 5 that [say] it is according to what we have done. That is in our head, and then we read texts such as 1 Peter 4:17, and then the fear starts to set in. This is not describing that guy down the road; it is not describing your neighbour over the wall right next to you. This describes us.
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?1 Peter 4:17, ESV
Finally, Hebrews 10. We read texts like Hebrews 10:30 and it really starts to set in: the fear, the doubt, the questions.
For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”
That is why the text ends up saying:
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.Hebrews 10:30-31, ESV
We are born with this theology of merits. We naturally want to earn our salvation. We want to earn whatever it is in life. We are all made that way and we have all fallen into a corruption of that way. Because of that, we read texts like our text tonight [with fear]. Poor saints across this land will hear this text of 2 Corinthians 5:10 and texts like I just read in terms of fear of punishment, or to put a more positive spin, hope of rewards. Preachers will preach this text in terms of fear of punishment. “Beloved, don't you know that the Bible says God is going to judge his household? He repays! Vengeance belongs to him. The Lord will judge his people on the basis of what they have done, whether good or evil, in their bodies. You better start acting up! You better clean up your act! Don't you know what God is going to do? Jesus Christ is going to judge you on the basis of what you have done!” So we hear preachers say things like this.
I once heard Greg Laurie preach about the rapture and he said this about the rapture (I do not know where the text came from): “Everyone who is caught up, you will be surrounded by all those whom you have converted in life.” Everyone that you have brought to faith and you have had a personal hand in their commitment to Christ and their dedication, they will be surrounding you. We will look around in the sky as we are raptured up. And I remember him saying explicitly, “Billy Graham and “Papa Chuck” (Chuck Smith) are going to have thousands upon thousands surrounding them…how many are you going to have?” You better get to work! If you do not have anyone surrounding you, maybe you really were not taken up. The fear is: “I am not going to have someone by me! I have not done enough in this life!” My friends, we should be salt and light, we should be the witness of the gospel in this life, but not unto fear! The fear of the punishment that says, “They will have thousands around them—their rewards will be great. Yours are going to be nothing at all, because Paul says you will be judged. And if you have not brought anyone to Christ, what a fearful punishment that is going to be!” That is one way this text has been read.
Hoping for Rewards
What are rewards? They are not meant to put us into fear. On the other hand, we are not to use them as hope of rewards. Those of you who have dogs: When you say, “Xerxes, come!” he does not like to come. He is very stubborn. He is a good German dog. He likes to sit and look. Now, if I pull out a snack and if I hold it out in front of him, he is going to come, trust me! And the same thing with your dog, or maybe another kind of animal. Sometimes when horses take carriage rides they hold out on a stick with a little rope (almost like a fishing pole) a carrot. You put it right in front of the horse and the horse is sure to move. That is hope of rewards.
That is when preachers put out just past your nose and just beyond your grasp these crowns of glory. “My friends, if you would only see the crown in front of you, if you would only earn it, God will bring you grace and blessings, whether in this life, but especially in the life to come!” Hope of rewards. So Christians begin to live very greedy lives. How many of us in former churches heard things like this? Doesn’t the Bible say (in the King James Version at least) that Jesus Christ is going to prepare a mansion for us? “In my Father’s house are many mansions," and he goes to prepare one of them for us.
“How many rooms will yours have? Will you have a great room in your mansion? Will you have a living room and a family room? Will you have a great den? Will you have a large master bedroom with a walk-in closet larger than your house now? Or will your reward be a dingy little shack? Sure, it is heaven, but that is not the kind of reward you would like, is it? What kind of crown are you going to receive? Is your crown going to be plain gold? Or are you going to have jewels in your crown, and how many jewels? What kind of jewels? With what array are those jewels going to be placed? What cut of diamond will you have in your crown?”
These are things that many people hear. Rewards, as the apostle describes them, are not meant to put us into fear, and they are not meant to turn us into Christian hedonists. They are not meant to make us greedy and covetous to get a bigger crown or a more shiny diamond ring, as it were, in heaven.
Receptions of Grace
What are they then? They are receptions of grace.
Our Aim Is to Please God
The rewards that the apostle Paul in this text and all the other apostles describe are not receptions of merit, but of grace. Our Catechism describes that for us:
Q. How can you say that the good we do does not earn anything when God promises to reward it in this life and the next?
That is the question. If we cannot earn these rewards, why does God say he will reward us?
A. This reward is not earned, but it is a gift of grace.Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 63
Or better yet: “This reward is not of merit, but it is a gift of grace.” But we might think, “How is that possible? Doesn't Paul here say to us that we shall receive that which is due? That which is done in the body, whether good or evil?” We see the trucks that drive on the freeway with a large marine ad on the side of one of those large eighteen wheelers which says, “Always earned, never given.” That seems a little opposite to what our catechism says, doesn't it? Always earned, never given? Our catechism says to us that our rewards are always given, never earned. So what are we to make of what the apostle Paul says to us? There are misconceptions, sure, but what do we believe about these rewards?
Notice the context of Paul's language here about judgment and about the seat of Christ and about receiving what we have done in our body, good or evil. This is so amazing! Verse 10 cannot be divorced from verse 9. Verse 10 cannot be separated and divorced out as some kind of moralistic principle that stands on its own. Paul in verse 9 says, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” I want you to understand that! Paul here writes about the longing of the saint for heaven. And he says that despite the fact that we live in this life or the life to come—no matter where we are in our situation, whether we are part of the Church militant upon earth or the part of the Church triumphant in heaven—all that we do, it is our aim to please him (that is, Jesus Christ).
So often we think about the Christian life as “We get the blessings.” What am I going to get out of it if I go say hello that person? What do I get out of it if I invest part of my life in such-and-such person? What do I get out of it if I put money in the offering plate? Or whatever it might be. What do I get out of it? How am I going to be blessed? We use that language. We think about things in terms of blessings. “I was so blessed when such-and-such said this," or “I was so blessed by this," or “I was so blessed by that.” We do not think about blessing someone else; it is always about us, isn't it? But Paul here says our aim, whether we are in life or in death, is to please Jesus Christ! Not ourselves. We are not hedonists. It is not our goal to be pleased, but to please God. Our aim is to please Jesus Christ.
And then in verse 10 notice the link: that little word 'for', or ‘because’. Here is the reason why we seek to please Jesus Christ, whether we are at home or whether we are away: it is because we will all appear before Christ and receive what is due for what we have done in the body. As we seek to glorify Christ, to bring him glory, to bring him pleasure (He is pleased by our good works), we do that because we will stand before him as he sits upon his throne of judgment. And it is amazing that it says that he will reward us! Here is the Christ who was pleased by his servants’ actions, thoughts, words and deeds, and their whole lives. Here is the Christ who sits upon a judgment seat. And as our catechism says in question 62, nothing that we can do in this life can meet the bar of God's judgment and justice! That is why we stand before him in that last day without any works—not even one shred of good deeds. Because none of them can match his bar of justice!
God’s Good Pleasure
But yet, even the works that we do that are stained, that are like “filthy rags” the prophet says, he takes pleasure in them! And then as we go to be with him and as he returns, he raises us up, he transforms our mortal bodies like unto his glorious body and we stand before that judgment seat, the One who is pleased by us our entire life is pleased to grant to us that which is our due for what we have done in the body, whether good or evil. We have done nothing! We deserve nothing! We can do nothing! We cannot say to Christ that we deserve to receive anything for what we have done! But yet he is pleased by our good deeds and he will reward us.
It is in his good pleasure, you see. Not only is Jesus pleased with us in this life, but he will be pleased with us in the life to come. It is not a crass system of merit here that is described. Again, verse 10 cannot be divorced from verse 9. It is the pleasure of Christ to reward his saints and to crown his own gifts. After all, doesn't Paul say elsewhere in Philippians 1 that “it is God’s pleasure to work in us—“to will and to work according to his good pleasure”? It is amazing that in our actions it is God who is at work within us, and he is working within us his good pleasure! And doesn't Paul say elsewhere again (such as Ephesians 2:10) that even the good deeds that we do were predestined for us to walk in?
How can we ever enter into this equation any idea of merit? If the good works that you do are predestined by God himself just as much as your salvation, and if those good deeds that you do are actually the work of the Holy Spirit working through you to will and to do his good pleasure which he is then pleased with in this life, will he not be pleased to then grant to us [reward] on the basis of what he is doing through us? That is why it is not of merit (as our catechism says), but it is of sheer free grace.
This is why in Revelation 4 the 24 elders who surround the throne of Almighty God and who receive these clowns of glory, the text describes that whenever they give him glory and honour they fall upon their hands and their faces and they cast their crowns before him. These are not things that we have coveted after. These are not rewards that we hedonistically sought after our lives, doing good works because of what we were going to get out of it. These are not things that we received as merit, because then they would be properly ours. But these are crowns. The good deeds which Christ has done, he crowns them, and we then give them back to Christ, because they are his. They belong to him, not to us.
Jesus Christ is pleased, and he grants in his pleasure rewards. It is just like parents and their children. Is it more pleasurable to receive a Christmas present or is it more pleasurable as a parent to see the reaction, smile and excitement upon your son or daughter's face when you give them a gift? Or think about it like this: When you go to your son or daughter's baseball game and he strikes out, or you go to a soccer game and he is playing goalie and ten goals are scored upon him that Saturday afternoon, or you go to their music recital and it just really was not that great, or your kids might have a choir and the voices were a little crackly—do you look upon them with a scowl or a frown? No! You take pleasure in those children. Just like Christ looks upon us and our frail deeds. “Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling.” We bring him nothing, but yet Christ looks upon us and it is his pleasure to reward us, despite the fact that we deserve none of it. And he is pleased to do that for us because it is his good pleasure. He actually takes delight in us! He takes delight in giving an overabundance of grace to us in our Lord and Saviour. We take pleasure as parents in our children's frail little drawings. We take pleasure.
So what are rewards? Rewards are simply the final confirmation that we do belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. The Belgic Confession (Article 37) describes it that on the last day our cause shall be made known before the world. They shall know that our cause is the cause of the Son of God, and that he crowns us with his own gifts. And not only is the crown a gift, but he crowns us because of the gifts that he has given to us already and the gift that he is working within us by the power of his Holy Spirit!
Rewards have more to do with Christ than with us. They are about him confirming to us and openly to the world that we belong unto him, body and soul, in life and in death. They are not of merit. You are not to be afraid. You are not to do so with a hedonistic hope. But as Paul says, make it your aim to please him, because by pleasing him he will one day take a greater pleasure in crowning us with what we never deserved in the first place: a victor's wreath and a crown of righteousness.