Do We Really Get Rewards in Heaven?
Jesus never contrasts different amounts of heavenly rewards for those who inherit God’s kingdom.
The Bible speaks clearly of heavenly reward(s) but for our part, whenever we speak of biblical rewards (and views among otherwise like-minded Christians vary), we must lay aside ideas of comparison and be careful to avoid the idea that once saved by faith apart from works we then earn various degrees of reward through our obedience.
So what does Scripture say about heavenly rewards?
Does Jesus Talk about Earning Rewards in Eternity?
The Gospels, particularly Matthew and Luke, include several examples of Jesus teaching about heavenly rewards, but not in the sense of earning extra rewards. Jesus never contrasts different amounts of heavenly rewards for those who inherit God’s kingdom. Instead he contrasts inheriting the kingdom of this world with God’s kingdom. Let’s consider a few examples.
“You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11 –12).
The great reward, heaven, is absolute. The idea of greater rewards among those blessed in the Kingdom works against the perspective of the text. In God’s kingdom, the blessed—the meek, humble, merciful, etc.—stand in stark contrast with what counts as great in this world.
“Store up for your yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20).
Similarly, in Matthew 6, Jesus isn’t envisioning some sort of spiritual vault where increasing rewards get deposited for future enjoyment. Jesus contrasts the values of his kingdom over the values of the kingdom of this world. Living for the riches of this world means living for things that cannot last, for all is destroyed by “moth and rust.” The treasures of heaven, however, last forever.
“If you want to be perfect . . . go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (Matt. 19:21).
In this statement, Jesus pinpoints the primary obstacle the rich, young ruler had to following Jesus: he “had many possessions” (19:22). Jesus, of course, is not suggesting that simply selling everything and giving the money to the poor earns someone eternal life. He’s telling this young ruler that he shouldn’t live for his temporal earthly wealth and should instead value the kingdom of heaven where humility, service, and mercy count. The reward is the kingdom of heaven itself. The perfection Jesus offers is the eschatological blessing extended to citizens of the kingdom.
“But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).
Here, Jesus is teaching his disciples about life in his kingdom in contrast to the world where “even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full” (6:34). The “great” reward for selfless love, generosity, and mercy is the full realization of becoming “children of the Most High.” Even if some sort of measurable, heavenly reward is in view, there’s no hint of earning it by obedience. Those who pursue the kingdom life Jesus envisions are motivated by what they have received by promise, not for some extra reward they might earn.
Parable of the Talents?
In the Parable of the Talents, one servant is given five talents, another two, and another one, each according to his ability (Matt. 25:14–15). You know what happens next: the servants who began with five and two double their master’s investment and both are rewarded: “Well done, good and faithful servant! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy” (25:21, 23). But the third servant did nothing with his one talent and is subsequently thrown “into the outer darkness” (25:30). His talent is given to the one who has ten.
Jesus then declares, “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him” (25:29). The second servant is left out in the redistribution. Why? Because the amount of talents isn’t the issue; faithfulness is. In other words, Jesus’ point isn’t that the better you do the more you’ll be rewarded. He’s simply highlighting the super-abundance of the eschatological gift described in the parable as “sharing in the master’s joy”.
It’s a mistake to translate each phrase of the parable—such as being “put in charge of many things” or “more will be given”—as indications of increased heavenly rewards or status. Parables simply don’t work that way. We cannot arbitrarily choose which details are theologically laden and which are simply “part of the story.” For instance, the master clearly symbolizes God the Father.
But no one should read the specific descriptions of the master in the parable as reflecting something more about God’s attributes or actions—such as the servant’s description that the master reaps where he hasn’t sown and gathers where he hasn’t scattered seed (25:24, 26). Those who point to this parable to defend degrees of heavenly rewards haven’t given careful attention to the context—nor do they understand how to read parables differently than narratives.
True followers of Jesus will be rewarded; they will receive the inheritance Jesus promised. But works-based levels of heavenly reward are not the focus of the parable. Furthermore, the parables on either side—The Ten Virgins (25:1–13) and The Sheep and the Goats (25:31–46)—confirm this conclusion. There are no degrees of readiness, faithfulness, or service—those in the kingdom are ready, faithful, and serving. They will hear: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34; cf. 25:10; 21). The motivation for faithfulness focuses on pleasing God and the fulfillment of his word of promise.
Won’t Each of Us Receive Something?
In 1 Corinthians 3:8, Paul says, “each will receive his own reward” according to the work each is given. Paul’s point here is not about varying degrees of reward but how God will judge and reward each person’s work according to whether it was founded in Christ (3:12–14). Note that Paul speaks specifically of Christian ministry here, and rewards are not held out as motives for faithfulness. In Colossians 3:24, however, Paul speaks more generally of “the reward of an inheritance” to all who do everything “for the Lord and not for people.”
Another text that mentions heavenly rewards is 1 Timothy 6:17–19:
“Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them 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.”
As in the Sermon on the Mount, “storing up” describes a life marked by service, generosity, and doing good to others—the kind of life that reflects and partakes in the life to come. If we ask, “So, what will we get?,” it means we don’t get, as in grasp, the text.
Finally, the word “crown” appears with some frequency in the New Testament. This term is often associated with heavenly rewards. The believer’s crown, however, is a metaphor for the glory of eternal life (e.g., 2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4; Rev. 2:10). The promised reward of eternal life exhorts believers to persevere in faith.
Worry about the Giver, the Rewards Will Come
The Bible holds out a future reward for God’s people, but it doesn’t teach that we earn rewards by obedience. Neither does it hold out rewards as the motivation for obedience. Doing so would pass over the one who gives and is the reward in favor of the rewards themselves—namely, God himself.
Christians should never think of obedience, love, or service in terms of earning some future pay-off. Though evangelicals will continue to disagree on the nature of heavenly rewards, we must all take care that in our preaching and teaching we don’t give the impression that heaven in the presence of Christ is glorious, but rewards will make it even better. Christ, through whom we have forgiveness and eternal life, is all the reward we need.
Editors’ note: This originally appeared in the new 9Marks Journal on the topic of Heaven: Rejoicing in Future Glory. This issue of the journal includes contributions from numerous SBTS faculty members and graduates.