This week in our Community Groups, we are studying Matthew 6:1-6. While studying this passage, I realized that there is a concept in these verses that is often passed over: heavenly rewards. What does Jesus mean when he says in verses 4 and 6, “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you”?
Remembering Who We Are
I fear that we have forgotten the biblical notion of heavenly reward. We (I think rightly) have made the gospel message central which says, “Jesus Christ has done everything necessary to save you; you contribute nothing to your salvation.” I myself would go so far as to say that offering any of your personal work to God to try and purchase salvation from him is a grievous sin. This often leads to anxiety about anything that even smells like a good work. But we have forgotten that the gospel also says we are saved for a particular purpose. God has crucified the old sinner with Christ and remade us as saints, set apart for the good works he prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10).
Yes, God Does See Some Works as Good and Rewards Them
I feel that some readers’ brains are exploding at this point. It feels like such a contradiction to what we may have heard. But let’s try to transform our thinking by renewing our mind with Scripture.
Where does it say that God will reward our works?
Let’s begin at the end. In Revelation 22:12, Jesus says this to his hearers: “Look, I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to repay each person according to his work.”
Paul seemed to foreshadow this same judgment of Christ as he says to the Corinthian church, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).
Paul even describes (although somewhat cryptically) what this will look like:
For no one can lay any other foundation than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, each one’s work will become obvious. For the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will experience loss, but he himself will be saved — but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:11-15)
Paul here understands that there is no such thing as a good work that is not built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. But if your good works flow from the salvation you have received through faith in Jesus, then you will receive a reward on the Day of Judgment.
What’s interesting about this passage is that Paul completely undermines the common idea that you may have heard (or even expressed yourself): “I don’t care if I get a reward, I just want to get in the gates” [which is usually code for, “I don’t care about living some ‘radical’ Christian life. My faith is enough”]. But Paul here says that just “getting in” is “through fire”—it’s terrifying.
We must always keep in our minds that we do not do our good works out of our own efforts but out of God’s empowerment. Just like Paul says of his own life: “I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). How gracious is God that he rewards us for the very works he accomplishes through us!
So, we pray fervently that God would give us both the heart and the energy to do his work. And first and foremost, we strive to do this work simply because we love God, we want to please him, and we know that at his right hand are “eternal pleasures” (Ps. 16:11).
But despite how it may sound to our ears, both Jesus and Paul present heavenly rewards as a pure, secondary motivation.
Use Heavenly Rewards as Economic Incentive
We are an economic people that respond to economic incentives. Let’s be honest. We often buy things because they are Buy One Get One that we wouldn’t have purchased at normal price. Everyone loves a sale. Yet, concerning Christianity, we don’t like to think about being incentivized; we consider it sinful behavior. But Jesus made us, and he knows how he has wired us. It’s not our behavioral responses to incentives that are bad but being incentivized by the wrong things. Jesus says, “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20). The implication is this: don’t be incentivized by worldly things but by the treasures of the Kingdom of God.
Paul goes with this same sentiment in 1 Timothy 6: “Instruct [the rich] to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life” (vs 18-19).
That last thought of Paul’s is interesting. It seems that he believed that one can enhance one’s experience of the Kingdom by trading good works for heavenly riches. What are theses riches? That is hotly debated, and answers range from the praise of God to literal heavenly wealth to greater authority and rule in the Kingdom.
Regardless of what these rewards are (and there is much more that could be said about this topic in general), we need to take stock of our life and see if we believe this. Does the way we strive to leverage our lives—our time, talent, and treasure—show clearly that we expect to receive a reward that far outshines what we have done? Where do our earthly lives show that our home is?
John Calvin, in writing on this topic of heavenly reward, says that to truly understand this topic and live it out is to be like a family who sends all their goods and furniture to the house they just purchased, while still eating dinner on the floor of their old apartment, using paper plates and plastic utensils. Their assurance of the superior worth of their new home allows them to live joyfully deprived lives while they wait for the glorious home that’s to come.
-Alex Nolette (Equip Coordinator)
 I recognize that there is some debate as to whether the rewards in Matthew 6 are given in heaven or at some point in the present. But, while conceding this, I find it to be sure ground that many who read these verses will think of heavenly rewards.
 I have expanded this analogy, but I am convinced that Calvin would approve.