One day believers will be assessed on what they did:
Something Christians do not speak much about is the idea of receiving rewards one day for their faithful service. It might be a mark of humility perhaps not to think about that too much. After all, as has often been said, when we meet our Lord in the next life, we will bow our knees before him and throw any crowns we may have gained at his feet.
That is the right attitude, but still, Scripture does often speak about rewards for what we have done – as well as loss for what we have not done, or done amiss. The classic passage on this notion of the judgment of believers’ works is found in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
This judgment seat for Christians is spoken of elsewhere, as in Rom 14:10-12:
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Paul also says this in 2 Corinthians 5:9-10: “So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
And Jesus of course spoke of rewards, as in Matthew 5:10-12 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
So thinking about future rewards (or the lack thereof) is something all Christians should meditate on and prayerfully consider. Here I want to share some thoughts of John Piper on this matter. In his new book, Come, Lord Jesus (Crossway, 2023), he has a chapter on “Rejoicing in the Hope of Receiving Different Rewards” which is quite helpful.
He of course reminds us that our justification is not based on our works, but on God’s free gift of grace. But our sanctification involves how we live the Christian life, and these rewards have to do with that, not our initial salvation. So whether a believer receives rewards in the next life, or loses out on rewards, there is still no condemnation for the believer.
Piper reminds us that every good thing we have done for Christ will be acknowledged – and rewarded: “God rewards the smallest acts that come from a Christ-honoring heart.” All these efforts to do the right thing, in spite of them not being noticed or praised in this life, will be well worth it.
Something I do want to highlight is what he says about how no faithful suffering will go unrewarded. He discusses three types of suffering: “suffering for physical debilitation and illness, suffering for persecution, and suffering embraced in the service of others.” Given what my wife is now going through, I especially want to focus on the first of these. He cites 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 which speaks about our “momentary afflictions” and then says this:
This is not persecution. This is aging, or the debilitation of illness, or the weakness of disability. Not all Christians are called to endure the same measure of suffering in this way. What comfort is there for one who suffers right up to the very end—when there is no life left on earth where one could profit from the sanctifying effects of suffering? Paul’s answer: No Christian suffering is pointless. It is “preparing an eternal weight of glory.” In other words, there is a real correlation between our suffering here and the measures of glory we know there. God will award the Christian sufferer in accord with his or her suffering. These rewards will differ greatly, and those of us who suffered less will leap for joy that the rewards of those who suffered more exceed ours.
He goes on to say that all believers will experience some loss of rewards:
Every one of us will look back over our lives and realize that at almost every point, we could have been more faithful managers of what Christ entrusted to us. It will not be a small fire when the shortcomings of our lives are burned up. But as we ponder with purified minds and hearts what this means, there will be a sinless regret—no self-pity, no complaining, no neglect of grace, no joylessness. Our regret will be without destructive pain. It will be a constructive regret. It will serve the intensity of our amazed thankfulness that “the righteous is scarcely saved” (1 Pet. 4:18).
Yes, I at least can certainly go along with that: “we could have been more faithful managers of what Christ entrusted to us”. I often think about how little I have done for Christ and the Kingdom, and how much more I could have done – and should be doing.
However, as Piper points out, regardless of how many or how few rewards the believer gets, the essence of such rewards will be to increase our capacity for joy in the Lord. We will all rejoice in God and not look down on others for what they received. We are all different and unique now, and in the next life there will be a sense in which this continues to be the case. Says Piper:
[I]t seems that differing roles or functions of the saints in the age to come would not be experienced as rewards if they had no bearing on the happiness of our experience of God. Moreover, Paul’s description of the resurrection points to diversities of glory that would seem to suggest greater or lesser reflections of God’s glory, which we would experience as greater or lesser joy. “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:41–42). Therefore, I conclude that the essence of rewards at the day of Christ is that, while every glorified Christian will be completely happy, our capacities for happiness will be diverse.
And this is his concluding paragraph from the chapter:
Can we joyfully and fearlessly look forward to this time of judgment at the appearing of Christ? The answer is yes. Jesus will do all things well. His people have nothing to shrink back from. Even our “losses” will be sanctified and take us into new experiences of God’s grace. And so it will be that “the name of our Lord Jesus [will] be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:12).
Good words from John Piper. In sum, let me ask you this: Do you long for his appearing? Do you seek it and pray for it? I do daily. I am so ready for him to return. And this longing has its own reward. The key biblical passage for Piper’s book is 2 Timothy 4:6-8:
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”