I always enjoyed school and learning — I suppose in large part because I have also always been curious about just about everything. “How does that work?” is still a common question from me in conversations.
But the year I was in fourth or fifth grade, I was particularly motivated to do well. My parents said that if I attained a certain mark of grades, they would give me something I particularly
coveted desired — a PitchBack. (And surprise, I can still get a replacement for the long-gone one I received those many years ago!)
I attained the required grades, received my reward, and proceeded to wear it out with hours of use.
If you are or have been a parent of a school-aged child, you understand using rewards to motivate education or various other activities. Most parents use some form of blessings and consequences to encourage wise behavior and minimize foolish and ungodly behavior.
But when we get think about the spiritual life, we are often reticent to acknowledge that rewards are a legitimate motivation for godly behavior and spiritual transformation. We tend to reason, “Shouldn’t we be obedient to God simply because He demands obedience? Isn’t the blessing of obedience lost if we are motivated by gain?”
That sounds reasonable and right. But the Scriptures don’t talk that way. The Scriptures call us to consider the cost of disobedience and rebellion (Galatians 6:7-8a) as well as the cost of godly service (Lk. 14:28-33), but it also commands us to evaluate the blessings and gifts of obedience.
For instance, the writer to the Hebrews notes that if a believer in Christ will live by faith (faithfully), he must believe that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb. 11:6). The word “rewarder” has the sense of “paymaster.” God “pays” us for our service; that doesn’t mean we labor in a meritocracy, but it does mean that God gives appropriate gifts of grace for faithful service of Him. This verse would have us understand that a fundamental aspect of the life of faith is being motivated by the reward of God. Living for God’s reward is essential to godly living.
This is not the first time the writer of Hebrews has affirmed that God rewards His people. In the “preface” to chapter 11, he noted, “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward” (10:35). In other words, giving up faith in God (and faithfulness to God) will result in loss of a great reward. Don’t give up what God will give you in the future, and don’t give up what He gives to you as the objects of His pleasure (see 10:38).
This emphasis on God’s delight in rewarding His people is affirmed in many other places in Scripture. Consider:
God verbally commends those who are faithful (Matt. 25:21ff). For their faithfulness on earth, some will hear Him say to them in eternity, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And that commendation is meant as a motive for us: we work so that we will hear His affirmation of our pursuit of Him and obedience to Him.
God honors those who are faithful (Jn. 12:26). We know that God honors the Son (2 Pt. 1:17; Mt. 3:17). We know that believers are to honor the Son (Jn. 5:23) and that all people will honor the Son (Phil. 2:10-11). But it is also true that those who are faithful servants of God will be honored by God. Jesus means us to be encouraged and motivated by this reality.
God gives rewards on earth now (1 Tim. 6:17). We should not be motivated by the things of this earth, but while on this earth, God gives liberally (the word Paul uses is “richly”) to His children so that we might enjoy those good gifts (things like marriage and food, 1 Tim. 4:3). Those gifts are a temporal reward for His children.
God will reward finally and fully in Heaven (1 Cor. 3:10-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). Earthly rewards, as good as they might be, are always temporal. But there are heavenly rewards that are also coming to the believer that are eternal. Those rewards are gifts of God’s grace, but they are also meted out on the basis of faithful works for Christ. They are our “recompense” — what our laborers have merited. And we are compelled by those future rewards to consider the quality of our labors for Him now: “Are my actions now producing a reward I will enjoy in Glory?” (Cf. also Mt. 6:19-21, which emphasizes the importance of cultivating a heart that produces godly action.)
God’s reward is eternity in Heaven (2 Tim. 4:8; Gal. 6:8-10). Of course the great gift and reward of God is eternity itself; because of what we will experience in eternity with our fellowship to the Lord, we should desire greater service and being used up in serving God’s people.
God’s rewards are also our opportunity to honor Him (Rev. 4:10). The believers in this passage take the crowns (rewards) they have received and give them back to God as a reflection of their delight in Him. Having received a gift from Him, they give the gift to Him in worship, recognizing that what they have received from Him is only because of Him and His work in their lives (they have done nothing apart from Him).
God is generous with His rewards (Mt. 19:27-30; 20:1ff, 15-16). Are there sacrifices in following Christ? Certainly. But whatever we give up, we will receive back from Him infinitely more. We cannot out-give the great Giver. Serving Christ may come at great cost for us. God will grant us gifts of grace that eternally and immeasurably surpass what we have given Him.
To say that God is a rewarder is to recognize that He is gracious in His care of His people. He is sympathetic towards us and understands our troubles (Heb. 4:14-16). Whatever trouble we have now, He will ultimately resolve and give us infinite and eternal rewards of grace. And He means us to be motivated to serve Him by that reality.