My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.
— Revelation 22: 12
Most, I would hazard to say, are comfortable with the idea that we are rewarded for what we do. It seems to be a basic fact of life that we get out of life what we put into it. If I sit idly, I may starve. If I go out and get a job, I won’t. If I apply myself and work hard, chances are I will make a comfortable life for myself.
And the same seems to be the case when it comes to doing good. We seem to have this inherent sense that doing good is not only the object of life but it carries with it some form of reward, just as much as doing evil carries with it impending punishment. This gets a little murky in a secular society where we have lost our connection to our metaphysical roots, but it is easiest to see this is still the case by assuming the opposite: If there is no reward for doing good, then why do it? “Because it is the right thing to do” may be one answer, but I would suggest hiding under that answer is the reality I am pointing to: That even if a purely secular mindset cannot find it, there is reward in doing it.
But when we turn to the church, we immediately face a problem with the whole idea of rewards. Working for rewards sounds a whole lot like performance. And performance is, in the modern church at least, one of the seven deadly sins. For those unfamiliar, performance is the whole idea we have to work for God’s favor, instead of recognizing we already have God’s favor because of what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Favor includes God’s blessing, so working for God’s blessing is no different: It all falls under the same poisoned root of performing for favor and ultimately for love.
For this reason, the whole idea of rewards has no place to land. And yet, how can this be, since the idea of rewards is something we find throughout the New Testament? I was listening to a sermon today from Upper Room in Dallas, Texas, and one of the pastors said it well: “We do not really have a framework for the idea of eternal rewards.”
What I plan to do here therefore is propose what I believe is that framework; that is, where the idea of rewards fits in an anti-performance culture. For starters, I would like to propose that the New Covenant ushered in with the Cross did not do away with the idea of us being rewarded for doing good: It simply transformed it. But in order to properly unpack that, let’s first talk about faith.
Faith is seen as the antithesis of performance. Faith and works are discussed extensively in the book of Romans, and this is closely related to faith and “the Law,” which is the idea that we must do the right thing if we wish to avoid God’s punishment and receive His favor. Which by the way is totally true — before Jesus. The problem with the Law is us: We could never fulfill it. We can never be good enough on our own. Humanity is much better at conforming right and wrong to its own evil inclinations than conforming themselves to what God actually requires. But Jesus came to die in our place for our sin that we might receive His righteousness, by faith alone. So faith alone grants us God’s immeasurable favor, not trying to earn it through good behavior, i.e. performance.
But faith did not abolish the idea of performance: It simply transferred ownership. That is, the concept of doing good has now been transferred from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light. Under the Kingdom of darkness, it was all about meeting a requirement. Under the Kingdom of Light, it is all about meeting a Person. And when I say that, it is important to realize I am not being metaphorical. We literally have come into a living, breathing relationship with Jesus Christ. And — here’s the kicker — that relationship places demands upon us just as much as the Law ever could.
Granted, those demands look much different. For one, God is bringing us into a relationship built on unconditional love and unchanging acceptance. We are no longer working to earn God’s favor. But even coming to fully accept this is a demand Jesus places upon the relationship. It may seem like a strange demand, since it seems so good, but it carries with it the same weight as any other demand, from the difficulty we may have in accepting it, the decision we bear in rejecting it, and the reward we have in embracing it.
I am not suggesting performance in the Kingdom is limited to simply accepting how much God now loves us. What I am saying is that the idea of doing good has not died: It is simply now being played out in the relationship we have with Jesus instead of a relationship we might otherwise have with the letter of the Law. And in the context of a living relationship with the Holy Spirit, the concept of performance pretty much dies. Sure, we are still “working”, but we are now working in response to (and in cooperation with) a Person. We are working not for favor, but from favor.
So the concept of works under the New Covenant is now relational, and I would like to suggest we will be rewarded according to our willingness to cooperate with that relationship. All our effort in cooperating with that relationship, by the way, is what the Bible calls faith. It is why the Bible is able to say this:
And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)