Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Biblical teaching on rewards for believers at the final judgment

The Bible teaches us that Christians will be called to give an account at the final judgment, and rewarded accordingly. This teaching has long been a source of confusion and debate. This has especially been firstly in how to relate it to other Biblical principles, and secondly how to understand the idea of reward at all when all believers are promised that they will be perfectly happy in the knowledge of the triune God eternally. A third related difficulty is in our patchy knowledge of the nature of the eternal state itself in terms of its continuity and discontinuity with our present mode of existence: the Bible can describe it in terms of things that we know now, but it will not itself be those things (e.g. the discussion of our resurrection bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff).

What then can we say?

  1. All believers will have to give an account of their service to Christ himself. This is taught explicitly in Romans 14:10-12, and implicitly in such places as Matthew 25:19ff (the parable of the talents).

  2. This is a separate matter to the judgment by which we are openly owned by Christ, declared to be his people and vindicated before the world, and all granted entry into his eternal kingdom. This belongs to all believers equally without distinction (e.g. Matthew 25:33-40). That judgment also takes into account believers' works in the sense (as shown in Matthew 25) that their good works as the fruit of their spiritual life proved the reality of the roots of that spiritual life in their genuine faith in Christ - whereas unbelievers' lack of loving service to Christ proves that they did not belong to him (Matthew 25:41-45). The salvation is entirely gracious - it is not on the basis of works, but works nonetheless inevitably ensue.

  3. The judgment of believers in regard of their reward is also gracious. This is a consequence of the Biblical teaching that our gifts and opportunities are given by the Lord - we are his servants who have his goods put into our hands. We do not manufacture something ourself, but only trade with what he gives us (Matthew 25:14ff, 1 Corinthians 4:7).

  4. Rewards differ. I know that many godly teachers have disagreed on this point, and denied it on the grounds that it is illogical - either because it means rewards are not gracious, or because rewards cannot differ if all believers receive all the fulness of Christ (and what more could there be to reward us with?) Nevertheless, this teaching is too clear in Scripture to be emptied on such grounds - if we cannot see how to reconcile it with other truths, yet we must continue to uphold all those truths. The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 teaches this point, as does the whole principle of a separate judgment/account-giving of believers individually - because this differs from the general judgment mentioned in 2. above. Again, in Matthew 20:23 Jesus does not contradict the idea of privileged positions in the kingdom - he simply teaches that Salome had the wrong idea of how her sons could attain to them! Furthermore, it is obvious that God whilst God has given all believers absolute equality in many fundamental senses (e.g. Ephesians 4:1ff), it is equally true that he has not made believers equal in privileges in this life in others - which places the burden of proof on the person arguing that God somehow must then do differently in the life to come.

  5. God is not unfair in giving one man greater gifts and opportunities and then a greater reward, because God is completely sovereign in how he decides to apportion those things that are his own. God giving out the things that are his to distribute in now way contradicts the principle of free grace. To deal with the other objection, my only insight into that is that whilst it is difficult for us to conceptualise in our minds the idea of different stations in glory, the reason for this may simply be the lack of comprehension we are able to have of the state of glory whilst still in our present condition. I have heard used the illustration of vessels that are full, yet of different sizes - each enjoys the fullness, but the fullnesses yet differ. I doubt that there is any human analogy can be adequate for picturing glory, and I'm not sure this illustration in particular hits the mark, but at least it illustrates in some way that we can cope with the idea of fullness and inequality together.

  6. Bible teachers have debated over what the grounds of the reward are - is it greater holiness (R T Kendall teaches this) or the overall impact in the world (one man I read taught that D L Moody is still having his reward topped up by virtue of the Bible college he founded, etc.), or something else? Kendall's teaching lacks Biblical foundation; there are no passages which teach that personal avoidance of sin (whilst an immensely important matter) is itself the measure of judgment. The second idea above is simply wrong; what of all the servants of God in Scripture who are commended for their faithfulness, but had little to no impact in apostate societies (e.g. Jeremiah, Elijah - granted their lives have blessed millions since; but what of other faithful servants who vanished in obscurity and didn't have their lives recorded in Scripture or elsewhere)? This seems to be measuring a spiritual kingdom using a carnal yardstick.

    I don't think this question is actually that unclear. The answer is that what any master looks for in his servants is faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:2). This is what is taught in the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. The servants laboured (or didn't) with what the master had delivered to them - which he had apportioned as he had pleased (25:15). There is no grounds for boasting; in fact, the lording attitude is clean contrary to the spirit of faithful service (Matthew 20:20ff). Christ doesn't require miracles from us, and doesn't require the same thing from us all. He knows what we're capable of and where he's placed us, and he assigns us work accordingly. He doesn't require us to do something that his providence has made impossible for us - he just looks for us to be faithful in what he did give to us.

    This teaching certainly rebukes worldly and complacent Christians in the modern West. We've been given such immense opportunities, and Christ then will demand very much from us.

  7. What about the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, Matthew 20:1ff? Does this not teach an absolute equality of reward? Well, if it did, then we would have an irresolvable contradiction in Scripture. I think that the purpose of the parable is more to rebuke a servile, legalistic spirit in service, and the idea that eminence or earthly privilege translates into heavenly privilege. The true servants of Christ are not going about their labourers totting up what they've earned towards their reward, nor do they pride themselves on the positions they held in this life and think God should give them something for it. Those with such a spirit will be sorely disappointed. We serve as sons, and the fact that Christ would dream of giving us anything at all ought to completely stagger us. We are unworthy servants, and at our best only complete the duties we were obligated to do (Luke 17:10).

  8. What exactly is the reward? This is hard to say; Scripture is mostly silent. It seems that there will be privileged positions in the world to come; Christianity is not communism and nowhere teaches that absolute equality is the final state of perfection. God will still be God, Christ will be Christ, and saved sinners will be saved sinners. I think it is not overly speculative to say that there will still remain ranks and distinctions amongst the redeemed in glory. This will be totally apart from the various muddles that cling to the idea of rank in a fallen world - where people are unsatisfied until they accumulate power and status for their own gain, and where the idea of being content with one's station in life is thought to be a failing. I think something corresponding to this conception of the reward is suggested in Matthew 25:21, 23 and in Matthew 20:23; I think it's possible but can't be dogmatic too that Daniel 12:3 is an advance and means more than the everlasting life mentioned in Daniel 12:2.

Our eyes, though, are not to be on the reward for the reward's sake; such an attitude will lead us away from faithfulness and then the reward itself. Privileged postions in glory mean privileged in some way in relationship to the ongoing service of the Saviour. I think what is left to say is best said in the words of the hymn:

The bride eyes not her garments,
But her dear bridegroom's face;
I will not gaze on glory,
But on my king of grace,
Not on the crown he weareth,
But on his pierced hands,
The Lamb is all the glory,
In Immanuel's Land.

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