For the last several months, my column in The Outlook has been devoted to a series of articles on the life and legacy of Abraham Kuyper. Some readers may remember that, prior to this series, I had been writing a rather lengthy series on the Bible’s teaching regarding the future. With this article, I hope, the Lord willing, to resume that series and bring it eventually to a conclusion The following article is the third on the subject of the final judgment, addressing the controversial question whether there will be degrees of reward in the kingdom of heaven. In the previous article in this series, I had promised to take up this subject in a following article (CPV).
A question that has frequently surfaced throughout the history of the church’s reflection on the final judgment is: Does God reward the righteous according to their deeds? And, in so doing, does God reward in greater or lesser degrees those whom He welcomes into the glory of the kingdom of heaven?
In my previous discussion of the final judgment, I argued that all people will be judged according to what they have done in the body. All will be judged and they will be judged for whatever they have done. This judgment will be exercised according to the standard of God's law or Word so far as these have been revealed to those who are subject to judgment. On these matters, there is general agreement and little dissent. However, within the framework of these common convictions about the final judgment, there are several questions that have been disputed. Will God reward the righteous for what they have done? Will this reward vary in degree, depending upon the nature and extent of the good works of the righteous? Moreover, how is the idea of God rewarding the righteous compatible with the teaching that our salvation is based upon grace alone? Does the idea of reward not require the reintroduction of some kind of notion of “merit” in the Christian life? And, if there are different degrees of reward in the kingdom of heaven, would this inequity not detract from the perfection of blessedness that the people of God are presumed to enjoy in the final state?
Though each of these questions could be developed more elaborately, we will have occasion to explore them further in what follows Before taking them up directly, however, the question of different degrees of reward needs to be considered directly from the Scriptures. In order to consider this question. I will begin with a consideration of several passages that are often cited in support of this teaching.
SEVERAL KEY PASSAGES
In the history of the discussion of this question, a number of key passages have played an important role. These passages describe in various ways the granting of rewards by God to the righteous in the context of the final judgment. They not only speak of rewards being given according to the respective works of their recipients, but they also seem to suggest a diversity in the degree and kind of the rewards.1
1 Corinthians 3:14,15
If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.
The context for this passage and its description of the fiery judgment of each man’s work is the labor of those who are ministers or teachers in the church. Utilizing the metaphor of the church as a kind of building, the apostle Paul describes those ministers who build upon the foundation which is Jesus Christ, some with “gold, silver, precious stones” and others with “wood, hay, straw.” The day is coming when these respective works will become evident. They will be shown for what they are in the day of judgment, when they are tested and revealed as to their quality by fire. The outcome of this testing of the quality of works of Christ’s ministers will be twofold: some will prove to have been with solid and enduring materials, some will prove to have been built with insecure and fleeting materials. Those whose works are shown to be worthy will receive an appropriate reward. Those whose works are shown to be unworthy will be saved, “yet so as through fire.” Their works will not be rewarded in the same manner as those whose works were built with solid materials — though their persons will be saved.
On the most common reading of this passage, it seems clearly to be teaching that those whose labor is in the ministry of the Word of Christ will be rewarded differently or variously, depending upon the quality of their works.2 Though each class of ministers is expressly said to receive salvation, the one is contrasted with the other from the standpoint of a reward for work well done. The one group is rewarded, the other is not — each because of the difference in the kind of work performed.
2 Corinthians 9:6
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; and he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully.
In this passage, the apostle is speaking not only of ministers of the gospel but also of all who give generously in support of the Lord’s work. In the context of his encouragement to the Corinthians to give freely and abundantly to the needs of others in the church, he encourages them with the reminder that there will be a correspondence between sowing and reaping. If they sow sparingly, they will reap sparingly. If they sow generously, they will reap generously. This “law of the harvest” applies also to the Christian life. Those who labor in a spirit of generosity and beneficence will reap a correspondingly greater reward.
Now, it could be argued that this passage has reference only to the experience of believers in this life. On this reading, this passage would say nothing about a diversity of reaping in the life to come. However, in a similar passage (Gal. 6:8) and others which use the common Scriptural theme of the harvest (compare Matt. 25:24). the time of reaping coincides with the period of final judgment and the ingathering of the full harvest. This passage, therefore, likely speaks of some kind of reaping in conjunction with the final judgment and its outcome for the righteous. Those who sow much will receive a greater reward than those who sow sparingly.
Parables of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30) and pounds (Luke 19:11–26)
Among the parables of the kingdom in the gospels, two of them, the parables of the talents and the pounds, suggest that God grants different gifts to His servants in this life and also in the life to come. Those who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven vary in the extent and nature of their responsibilities and privileges in the service of their King. Similarly, they receive in the day of reckoning correspondingly different rewards for the service they have rendered.
In the parable of the talents, we are told that, when a man prepared to go on a journey, he entrusted to his servants his possessions, granting to one “five” talents, to another “two” talents, and to still another “one” talent (Matt. 25:15). After a long time passed, the man returned from his journey to settle accounts with his servants. In doing so, he granted a correspondingly greater reward to the man who received the five talents than to the one who received two. By contrast, the man to whom one talent was given, because he had not wisely used what had been given to him, was deprived of all that he had earlier received and cast into “outer darkness” (v. 30). In the second of these parables, the parable of the pounds, the inequitable distribution of pounds and subsequent rewards is even more strikingly apparent. Though each of the nobleman's servants was given ten pounds, in the day of reckoning when the nobleman returned one servant was rewarded with responsibility for ten cities, another for five cities, and another is deprived even of the little he was given. In this parable, there is clear emphasis upon the right of the nobleman to grant a diversity of gifts and rewards to his servants, corresponding to their responsible use of the things entrusted to them.
The language used in these parables for the final reckoning and rewarding of the servants suggests that they are a description of the final judgment at the end of the age. The return of the man from his long journey and the nobleman from a distant country coincide with the end of the age. The context for the parable in Matthew 25 explicitly refers to the final judgment and the separation that will occur between the righteous and the unrighteous. This is also confirmed by the language of harvest that is used to describe the master's reckoning with his servants upon his return. Thus, these parables appear to be teaching that Christ will distribute a diversity of degrees of reward to the righteous at the final judgment.
The examples of the patriarchs, prophets and apostles
In addition to those passages that speak rather directly of a diversity of rewards at the final judgment, there are also biblical passages that seem to teach that certain privileges and responsibilities will be granted to some of the righteous, but not to others, in the final judgment and state.
For example, in Matthew 8:11, we read that believers will sit down “with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” When the rich man and Lazarus die, Jesus speaks of Lazarus being “carried into Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22; compare Rom. 4:11,12). In the account of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are said to have been present (Matt. 17:3) as representatives of the prophets of the old covenant. Christ, in His description of the "regeneration" at the end of the age, declares that the apostles "will sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:30). Similarly, when in the book of Revelation we are given a description of the foundations of the heavenly Jerusalem, the names of the twelve apostles are inscribed upon them (Rev. 21:14).
What these kinds of passages suggest is that the peculiar distinctions and prerogatives that the Lord has granted to His servants in this life are not lost upon the life to come. There is a perpetual remembrance and significance to the part the patriarchs, prophets and apostles have played in the course of the history of redemption. These distinctions and privileges, in other words, are not swept away and ignored in a final state so that a kind of flat “egalitarianism” prevails among the people of God. The richness, diversity, and degree of privilege and responsibility in this life, seem to find their correspondence and fulfillment in the life to come.
The believer’s “crowns”
If this latter point is a correct conclusion from these passages, then it should not surprise us to find a number of biblical passages which speak of a diversity of “crowns” that will be awarded Christ’s servants in the day of judgment.
Admittedly, in some of these passages, the “crown” granted to believers probably refers to the granting of salvation or eternal life, something which is the common reward and joy of God’s people (compare 1 Cor. 9:25; 2 Tim. 4:8). This is not always the case, however. In 1 Thessalonians 2:19, the apostle Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his “hope or joy or crown,” in whom he will glory and rejoice in the presence of the Lord Jesus at His coming. Clearly, this cannot mean any kind of proud or arrogant boasting among the people of God. But it does mean that the Thessalonians will be an occasion for joy and thanksgiving to the apostle when the work he performed among them is recognized in the day of Christ’s coming. In James 1:12, we read of the “crown of life” that will be given to the man who “perseveres under trial” in the service of the Lord. The apostle Peter also encourages the elders in the churches by reminding them that, “when the Chief Shepherd appears, [they] will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Pet. 5:4). This crown of glory is a special reward for the faithful ministry of those who serve as shepherds of the flock of God. The diversity of gifts and callings among the people of God will not go unnoticed in the final judgment by Christ. Each will receive a reward in keeping with the service rendered. The work of the Lord’s servants will not go unremarked or be unacknowledged. Rather, Christ will openly acknowledge and reward His faithful servants as they all together enter into the joy of the Lord and the blessings of fellowship with Him and all who belong to Him.
(To be continued)
1. The passages I will be considering are by no means exhaustive of the passages that have been appealed to in support of the doctrine of differing rewards granted to the righteous I am restricting my consideration of these passages to those that seem the most important and clear. Other passages that have been appealed to include: Dan 12:3; 1 Cor. 15:41,42; John 14:2; 1 Cor. 3:8; Matt. 5:19; 11:11; 1 Cor. 4:5. Though these passages may confirm the teaching of the passages I will consider, they do not constitute by themselves a strong testimony to the notion of a diversity of degrees of reward.
2. Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, “Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 35/2 (June, 1992): 159–172. Blomberg, who argues against the diversity of rewards in the kingdom of heaven, maintains that this passage “says nothing about these distinctions among believers’ experiences persisting for all time” (p. 165). This is, at best, an argument from silence. However, it implies that the experience and reward granted believers at the final judgment will somehow be extinguished from the memory and experience of believers in the final state. I do not see any reason why this should be the case.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.