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I am currently reading Erwin Lutzer's "Your Eternal Reward". I also watched MacArthus's "Eternal Rewards and Motivation". Now, I know that Reformed theologians believe:

  • salvation by grace, not works
  • salvation by predestination

My question is NOT about salvation. My question is about heavenly rewards. How did Reformed theologians view heavenly rewards?

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Great question, well stated and clear! Welcome to Christianity.SE. –  Caleb Mar 25 '13 at 14:38
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From reading many reformed theological works I think that the first thing to notice is that the subject of the differing degrees of rewards is rarely focused on. This stems from the fact that the Bible verses that indicate differing rewards in heaven and differing degrees of punishments are few. Most of the bible versus making this indications are these: Mathew 16:27,25:20-23, Luke 19:15-19; 1Cor 3:8; 2Cor 9:6; Rev 22:12.

Usually the scripture presents the idea of the great common reward of salvation for all found in Christ. It also reminds us usually of the great common punishment of hell for all outside of him. This is the reformed focus as a reformed view tries to maintain the same focus that scripture has.

When it comes to explaining the different degrees of punishments or rewards, for the faithful and faithless I have not found much speculation. From what I have encountered (and the only place I can really remember it being talked about in any depth was in some old sermons I heard by Dr. Martin-Lloyd Jones on Revelation) the idea is more of a mystery. We can’t comprehend how a joy can be added to an eternal joy, but it can. The idea is usually presented as our communion with God can be 'deeper' in this life through obedience and that same nearness to God can continue into eternity. That is, rewards are an extra nearness to God that we can have on top of our eternal nearness to him by the grace of God. It is like putting some grace in the bank to collect interest for more grace. This nearness is also from grace, but it involves our own daily labor and accompanying reward by that same grace kindly recognizing our own effort, when such recognition is not deserved to begin with.

It is not selfish or greedy to work for these extra rewards, for true holy emotion is emotion that rises up to God’s revealed glory -- in love of it and desire for more of it. True holy emotion and desire is a love of God and an enjoyment of his excellency. To desire to work to obtain more of it for personal gain is not selfishness but is simply allowing our mind to guide us to what is good. This seeking out good is our natural duty. It is the duty of our mind to identify what is best and our heart is to seek it. God has made us to live this way. By faith it is God that is understood to be our highest good and pleasure, so we are holy with a natural goodness when we seek his rewards according to his glorious grace.

It’s is also not foolish for a sinner to avoid sinning in greater measure, even though he feels the sentence of death in his soul. It might seem that there is no purpose in restraining a wicked desire if one already thinks they are going to hell, but God is wise and powerful enough to ensure every soul regrets every sin. Where unforgiven sin is carried by unbelievers into hell, without any restraint and fear of God, such sinners will then understand that they should have at least sinned less. Pound for pound, deed for deed, the wicked will be judged. Pound for pound, righteousness for righteousness, those in Christ will be rewarded.

However back to the central theme of scripture; we can’t allow these 'degrees', which are not a central theme in the Bible, to obscure the 'general reward' of the faithful and 'general punishment' of the wicked. May it never be doubted that when a Christian dies he will enter glory. There is no way a person having been forever freed from sin, will not stand in utter joy and eternal rejoicing having obtained the goal of his salvation. Yes some may be nearer to God, and this will also be great. The fact is, eternal joys in heaven are what we are looking for and all believers will obtain it. The extra rewards are more like sprinkles on top of a sundae. They are there to motivate our holy desires but not to compare with the joys that we will all share even if it is that we are like a man escaping from a house on fire with nothing to bring into heaven but our own soul. Even such a man as this will be rejoicing forever more.

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John Calvin, the ur-Reformed theologian and prolific commentator, says of Matthew 16:27 ("For the Son of man will come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will he render to every one according to his actions"):

When a reward is promised to good works, their merit is not contrasted with the justification which is freely bestowed on us through faith; nor is it pointed out as the cause of our salvation, but is only held out to excite believers to aim at doing what is right, by assuring them that their labor will not be lost. There is a perfect agreement, therefore, between these two statements, that we are justified freely, (Romans 3:24,) because we are received into God’s favor without any merit; and yet that God, of his own good pleasure, bestows on our works a reward which we did not deserve.

And on John 4:36 ("And he who reapeth receiveth reward, and gathereth fruit into life eternal") he says:

And he who reapeth receiveth reward. How diligently we ought to devote ourselves to the work of God, he proves by another argument; namely, because a large and most excellent reward is reserved for our labor; for he promises that there will be fruit, and fruit not corruptible or fading. What he adds about fruit may be explained in two ways; either it is an announcement of the reward, and on that supposition he would say the same thing twice in different words; or, he applauds the labors of those who enrich the kingdom of God, as we shall afterwards find him repeating,

I have chosen you, that you may go and bear fruit, and that your fruit may remain, (John 15:16.)

And certainly both considerations ought greatly to encourage the ministers of the word, that they may never sink under the toil, when they hear that a crown of glory is prepared for them in heaven, and know that the fruit of their harvest will not only be precious in the sight of God, but will also be eternal. It is for this purpose that Scripture everywhere mentions reward, and not for the purpose of leading us to judge from it as to the merits of works; for which of us, if we come to a reckoning, will not be found more worthy of being punished for slothfulness than of being rewarded for diligence? To the best laborers nothing else will be left than to approach to God in all humility to implore forgiveness. But the Lord, who acts towards us with the kindness of a father, in order to correct our sloth, and to encourage us who would otherwise be dismayed, deigns to bestow upon us an undeserved reward.

This is so far from overturning justification by faith that it rather confirms it. For, in the first place, how comes it that God finds in us any thing to reward, but because He has bestowed it upon us by his Spirit? Now we know that the Spirit is the earnest and pledge of adoption, (Ephesians 1:14.) Secondly, how comes it that God confers so great honor on imperfect and sinful works but because, after having by free grace reconciled us to himself, He accepts our works without any regard to merit, by not imputing the sins which cleave to them? The amount of this passage is, that the labor which the Apostles bestow on teaching ought not to be reckoned by them hard and unpleasant, since they know that it is so useful and so advantageous to Christ and to the Church.

Puritan commentator Matthew Henry says of Matthew 16:27:

Men will then be rewarded, not according to their gains in this world, but according to their works, according to what they were and did. In that day, the treachery of backsliders will be punished with eternal destruction, and the constancy of faithful souls recompensed with a crown of life.... The rewarding of men according to their works is deferred till that day. Here good and evil seem to be dispensed promiscuously; we see not apostasy punished with immediate strokes, nor fidelity encouraged with immediate smiles, from heaven; but in that day all will be set to rights.

I heard it said by Reformed theologian John Gerstner that the matter waited for Jonathan Edwards, broadly considered the greatest theologian America has ever produced by liberals and conservatives alike, to sort it out. In short, Edwards says that there will be degrees of reward and happiness in heaven on the basis of works. In his sermon "The Portion of the Righteous" Edwards says (paragraphs added to ease reading):

There are different degrees of happiness and glory in heaven. As there are degrees among the angels, viz. thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers; so there are degrees among the saints. In heaven are many mansions, and of different degrees of dignity. The glory of the saints above will be in some proportion to their eminency in holiness and good works here. Christ will reward all according to their works. He that gained ten pounds was made ruler over ten cities, and he that gained five pounds over five cities. Luke 19:17; 2 Cor. 9:6, “He that soweth sparingly, shall reap sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.” And the apostle Paul tells us that, as one star differs from another star in glory, so also it shall be in the resurrection of the dead. 1 Cor. 15:41. Christ tells us that he who gives a cup of cold water unto a disciple in the name of a disciple, shall in no wise lose his reward. But this could not be true, if a person should have no greater reward for doing many good works than if he did but few.

It will be no damp to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them. For all shall be perfectly happy, every one shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others. And there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign through the whole society. Those who are not so high in glory as other, will not envy those that are higher, but they will have so great, and strong, and pure love to them, that they will rejoice in their superior happiness. Their love to them will be such that they will rejoice that they are happier than themselves; so that instead of having a damp to their own happiness, it will add to it. They will see it to be fit that they that have been most eminent in works of righteousness should be most highly exalted in glory. And they will rejoice in having that done, that is fittest to be done.

There will be a perfect harmony in that society; those that are most happy will also be most holy, and all will be both perfectly holy and perfectly happy. But yet there will be different degrees of both holiness and happiness according to the measure of each one’s capacity, and therefore those that are lowest in glory will have the greatest love to those that are highest in happiness, because they will see most of the image of God in them. And having the greatest love to them, they will rejoice to see them the most happy and the highest in glory. And so, on the other hand, those that are highest in glory, as they will be the most lovely, so they will be fullest of love. As they will excel in happiness, they will proportionally excel in divine benevolence and love to others, and will have more love to God and to the saints than those that are lower in holiness and happiness. And besides, those that will excel in glory will also excel in humility. Here in this world, those that are above others are the objects of envy, because that others conceive of them as being lifted up with it. But in heaven it will not be so, but those saints in heaven who excel in happiness will also in holiness, and consequently in humility. The saints in heaven are more humble than the saints on earth, and still the higher we go among them the greater humility there is. The highest orders of saints, who know most of God, see most of the distinction between God and them, and consequently are comparatively least in their own eyes, and so are more humble. The exaltation of some in heaven above the rest will be so far from diminishing the perfect happiness and joy of the rest who are inferior, that they will be the happier for it. Such will be the union in their society that they will be partakers of each other’s happiness. Then will be fulfilled in its perfection that which is declared in 1 Cor. 12:26, “If one of the members be honoured all the members rejoice with it.”

In more recent days, N. T. Wright, who is in the Reformed branch of the Anglican church, has made a bit of a stir with his take on the role of works at the final judgment. He says that our final justification at the last judgment will be “in accordance with” works, but not “on the basis of” works. One writer summarizes Wright like this:

[F]aith is the first evidence that one has become a member of God’s covenant people. Present justification follows immediately. Present justification is “by faith” because faith in Christ is irrefutable evidence that God has indeed made one a member of his covenant people through the work of his Spirit. Thus, in Wright’s view, when Paul speaks of present justification by faith, he means God’s declaration that one has been brought into the family of his covenant people. The evidence that God cites to demonstrate that one has already been brought into covenant membership is the presence of faith.

Wright’s understanding of the function of Spirit-inspired works in final justification is identical to his understanding of the function of faith in present justification. Just as Spirit-produced faith is the initial sign that God has made one a member of his covenant people, so in final justification, Spirit-produced good works serve as the sign that one was truly a member of God’s covenant people from the point of one’s conversion on. When Wright has said that good works are the “basis” of the believer’s final justification, he has meant that Spirit-inspired works serve as the evidence that one truly is a covenant member. They are the “basis” for final justification the same way that a paternity test may serve as the “basis” for the verdict in a paternity lawsuit. A paternity test does not make one a father; it demonstrates that one was a child’s father all along. So also, Spirit-inspired works do not make one a covenant member in Wright’s view; they demonstrate that one has been a covenant member all along.

Finally, Reformed Theological Seminary professor Michael Kruger recently wrote on this topic, quoting Reformed Baptist John Piper:

God can still be pleased with it, even though it is imperfect. Consider John Piper’s comments on this point:

It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…[But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags.”

It is only when we recognize that the obedience of the believer really does matter, and that we really can please our Father, that the rewards passages in the Bible will make any sense. And that can be a tremendous encouragement to those of us who labor heavily in ministry. When we toil for the cause of Christ, we want to hear, and are bolstered by hearing, the encouraging words of Paul: “Your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).

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The Jonathan Edwards quote from his sermon series "Charity and its Fruits" on 1 Cor. 13 is extremely appropriate here. I would have added it if you hadn't. I think you added from a different sermon, but the content is very similar. –  Adrian Keister Jun 3 '13 at 14:22
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