Does each of my sins cost me an eternal reward? Are we caught in a race to outweigh our sins by our good deeds in order to preserve any level of rewards in heaven? It’s a question today from a listener named Brandon. “Hello, Pastor John! I know the Bible talks about rewards in heaven in the form of crowns. I want to have the most joy in heaven I possibly can in the life to come. But in this life, I feel like I’m constantly sinning. And every time I sin, I feel like my eternal rewards slip from my fingers. I can never get ahead, always returning back to a balance of zero. At this rate, there won’t be any rewards for me in heaven. Or is my thinking backward? Pastor John, can you help me?”
Well, it’s right to want the most joy possible in heaven, if the aim is to be satisfied in God himself supremely, with the gifts of his grace as secondary echoes of his excellence that we then enjoy for that reason. So, amen to that. And I can confirm to Brandon that he not only feels he is sinning every day; he is. I can confirm that analysis — and so are all of us. None of us loves God perfectly the way we should. In our best deeds, there is something to regret. So far, so good in Brandon’s thinking.
No Heavenly Ledger
And then things start to go haywire. He says, “Every time I sin, I feel like my eternal rewards slip from my fingers. I can never get ahead, always returning back to a balance of zero.” Now, in this way of talking, I think he revealed a serious mistake in his understanding of the Bible. The mistake seems to be this: rewards are given — he would say, he seems to imply — not for each good deed, but only for the good deeds whose number surpasses the number of bad deeds.
“We are able to do what is truly good only because God caused us to be born again.”
In other words, if you do five good deeds and four bad deeds, you get a reward for one good deed. And if you do five good deeds and five or more bad deeds, he says (these are his words), you’re “back to a balance of zero.” Now, I’m not sure where he’s getting this notion that rewards are parceled out this way. But let me cite some passages from the Bible to show I don’t think that’s right. There’s a very different way of thinking about rewards for good deeds than in this kind of ledger approach.
No Reward Lost
Let’s start with Matthew 10:41–42:
The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.
There’s no hint here that if, later in the day, after you give the cup of cold water to a disciple because you love his Christ-exalting ministry, you speak harshly, say, to your child — there’s no hint, I say, that you will therefore lose your reward for the good deed of giving a drink of water to the disciple. It says you will by no means lose your reward.
Now, of course, if you prove yourself to be an unbeliever by a life of sustained lovelessness, then even your “good” deeds are not good deeds, because they’re not coming from faith. But if you are a believer, the good deed, the work of faith that you do in the morning is not canceled out by the failure of patience in the afternoon. That’s not the way Jesus is thinking — or anybody else in the New Testament.
Trial by Fire
Or consider 1 Corinthians 3:13–15:
Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Now, what’s plain here is that fire is not an accountant. Fire is not counting up numbers of good deeds and bad deeds, or in this case, solid teachings and useless teachings (I think that’s the context of what good deeds he’s talking about). Fire doesn’t work that way, right? It doesn’t count; fire doesn’t count. It just consumes wood, hay, and stubble. It consumes useless, harmful works or teachings, which by implication means it does not consume useful, good, righteous works or teachings. They survive the fire. And presumably they survive no matter how many bad works got burned up in the fire. If we’re true believers, the good works survive.
The biblical picture of the judgment of Christians is not like Brandon’s picture of counting up bad deeds and counting up good deeds, and only rewarding the good deeds if there are more of them than bad deeds. That’s not a biblical picture of judgment.
Or consider Ephesians 6:8: “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.” There’s no mention here that he really won’t receive back for doing the good deed if there are more bad deeds.
“Rewards are God’s way of confirming that we are truly born again, truly in Christ, truly the children of God.”
Or consider Luke 14:13–14: “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” So if, one Thanksgiving, you invite lots of international students, and maybe some older folks who don’t have any family nearby, and maybe a homeless man that you met on the street, you invite them to Thanksgiving dinner, and you share your bounty joyfully with them in the name of Jesus, it says you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. And that is true even if the next Thanksgiving you are in a bad place spiritually and selfishly let the opportunity go by. Thanksgiving number two gets burned up. Thanksgiving number one is rewarded at the resurrection.
All Good from God
Here’s the principle behind this way of thinking: good works in the life of a Christian are rewarded because they are beautiful, and their beauty is owing to the beauty of God’s regenerating and sanctifying grace in the life of the Christian. We are able to do what is truly good only because God caused us to be born again — made us spiritually alive — and because his Spirit goes on working in us what is pleasing in his sight (Hebrews 13:21).
The rewards are God’s way of confirming that we are truly born again, truly in Christ, truly the children of God. It is so crucial never to forget Ephesians 2:8–10:
By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast [even when the rewards are passed out]. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
The point of that text is to get God, God, God, as the source and goal of all of our good deeds. So, when we are rewarded for those good works, it is the workmanship of God that is being celebrated. And that workmanship does not cease to be properly rewarded because there are other remaining sins in our lives.