For God, or for the Reward?
It has long bothered me to hear disciples speak of the “reason” they chose to live as disciples and obey God is for the eternal reward. Why? Just stop and think about that statement: “I am serving God so I can get to heaven.” If I am to accept this statement at face value, one is serving God not because of God’s love or a desire to please Him, but merely for the reward. Is that what being a Christian is really about?
I unhesitatingly say, NO.
By definition, a reward is “something given or received in return or recompense for service.” It is seen as “something given or done in return for good received.” [Random House Unabridged Dictionary] By definition, this is something in the hands of the giver, and is the giver’s prerogative. We can do something to merit, or earn, the reward but, in the end, the giving of the reward is dependent on the giver. What IS in our hands is the actions that the giver has determined are worthy of the reward.
For example, we often see or hear of a “Reward Offered” for the return of a lost pet or a wanted criminal. In such cases, it is required that the lost pet be returned or the wanted criminal captured before the reward is given. In such cases, the reward is motivation for many to seek either the lost pet or the wanted criminal; in such cases, the one offering the reward knows that the reward is the motivation, and that those in involved in the search may not know the giver at all, other than the fact of him or her being the one who offered the reward. There is no personal knowledge of the giver required as long as the requirements are met [return of the pet or capture of the criminal] before the reward is given. That is not the case with God and disciples who anticipate an eternal reward.
But before we get into why that is not the case, we must ask: Has God actually promised a “reward? With all the talk of God’s grace being, by definition, “unmerited favor,” how can we say God promises a reward? Doesn’t that go against the very definition of grace?
First, consider some plain Bible passages that speak of a reward. First, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus closed in the section we call ‘the Beatitudes’ with this statement: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11, 12). Jesus plainly stated that those who endured persecutions for Christ’s sake would have a great reward in heaven. Jesus also spoke of how “the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (Matt. 16:27). Again, Jesus spoke of a reward [as a verb, or action], and that act of rewarding would be based on the works [deeds] of one’s earthly life.
Furthermore, the writer of the book of Hebrews, in admonishing the early Jewish disciples to not turn their backs on Jesus and go back to the Old Law, said plainly, “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward” (Heb. 10:35). There are many other passages in the New Testament that speak of a reward for faithful disciples, so it cannot even be argued that there is no such thing.
With all these passages, though, it does not negate grace, nor does it change its meaning. Again, since grace is defined as “unmerited favor” and a reward is “something given or received,” we must acknowledge that this reward is in the hands and power of God to give, and remains an act of grace — unmerited favor. What is “unmerited” is the fact God was not obligated to provide such a reward, in the first place. There is nothing man had ever done, or ever would do, that would obligate God to grant this great reward of the forgiveness of our sins, much less eternal life in heaven. The mere existence of the willingness of God to forgive, and the very idea of eternal life with Him in heaven speaks to His mercy, long-suffering, and grace. A reward offered by Him in no way overrules or redefines His grace.
God’s word speaks plainly of this fact, too. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, he reminded them that we all were once “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), but “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Eph. 2:4, 5), and states it again in Eph. 2:8, 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Note that Paul wrote that salvation was by God’s grace, and not something we have earned.
Now, what is our motivation, then, for serving God? Is it just the reward that motivates us, like those lost pets or wanted criminals? Well, I am certain that is the motivation for some because they have stated it plainly and multiple times; but should that be the case? No.
First, let us recall that the apostle Paul spoke of Christ’s return, when He would come “in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thess. 1:8); knowledge of God is required for the reward, for punishment awaits those who do not know Him! A pet owner or a government agency may not care if you know them, but God cares. But knowing God is not enough; let us also recall that the greatest commandment demands more than that. In answer to the question, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matt. 22:36), Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). That being the case, we see that God most certainly wants more from us than a desire for the reward! A pet owner may not care if you love them or not, and I am sure a state or federal government agency couldn’t care less if you loved them, but God cares ⏤ no, God demands ⏤ we love Him.
Finally, what should motivate us in our service to God is this love for Him and a desire to please Him. The apostle John wrote to the early disciples, “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19); their motivation to love God was His love for them, and their love for Him was at the heart of their discipleship. Paul would also write, “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him” (2 Cor. 5:9). Note that Paul said nothing about his aim being a recipient of God’s reward, but pleasing God. The reward comes after a life of pleasing God! Albert Barnes comments on this statement: “And the truth taught in this verse is, that this will be the great purpose of the Christian’s life.” [Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament] Amen!
Think about this: If the reward is your motivation for serving God, then once you received it, what would be your motivation in eternity? There is nothing more to look forward to, no further promised rewards; what would be your motivation for what you do after the reward is received? You see, if our motivation for serving God now is not our love for Him and a desire to please Him, then heaven will be an extremely awkward existence.
So, what’s your reason for serving God? Discipleship is about loving God and pleasing Him. — Steven Harper