Degrees of Holiness, Degrees of Reward

I was recently asked, “Do degrees of holiness here on earth result in degrees of reward in Heaven?”

The question assumes there are degrees of holiness. Is that true? When we consult the OT, we see degrees of holiness in the tabernacle. The courtyard and all its equipment were holy, the “holy place” was more holy than the surrounding tabernacle, and the holy of holies was the most holy of all.

Are there degrees of holiness in people ? When we are saved we are made holy (1 Cor. 1:2). This holiness is real, but it is limited. It has not been integrated into every facet of our thoughts and behavior. Thus, it is often the case that new believers who are holy, act unwittingly in unholy ways. The Corinthians are a classic example (1 Cor. 1:2; 3:1-3). The more our minds are transformed to think as God thinks, the more holy our lives become (cf. 2 Cor. 7:1). Holy living flows from holy thinking that is motivated by love for God.

About five year ago I read A Life God Rewards by Bruce Wilkinson. It revolutionized my thinking on the topic of rewards. I found things to disagree with, but I would heartily recommend (most of) this book to all for prayerful, scriptural examination.

To answer the question posed to me, I did a quick examination of the New Testament’s teaching about rewards. Here’s what I found. Jesus taught that God rewards those who
  • love those who do not love them (Mat. 5:46-48),
  • do what is right without seeking to be noticed by men (Mat. 6:1),
  • give to the poor without public acclaim (Mat. 6:3-4),
  • pray in private (Mat. 6:6),
  • fast without calling attention to their fasting (Mat. 6:16-18),
  • receive a prophet or a righteous man (Mat. 10:41),
  • or give even a cup of cold water to a child (Mat. 10:42; Mark 9:41).
Jesus promises “great reward” (degrees of reward!) to two groups: those who are persecuted, lied about, hated, ostracized, insulted, or scorned as evil for Christ's sake (Mat. 5:12; Luke 6:23), and those who love their enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:35). In fact, Jesus commands us to "leap (for joy)" because of the great reward persecution secures for us in Heaven (Luke 6:23).

Jesus also teaches that those who make profitable use of the capacities God has given them will be rewarded. The parables of the talents and minas (Matt. 5:14-30; Luke 19:11-27) are interesting because the master rewards faithful servants with administrative responsibility—“I will put you in charge of many things” (Matt. 25:21); “you are to be in authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17).

I infer from these passages that the rewards of Heaven are not primarily, if at all, monetary. Jesus rewards faithful servants by increasing their responsibility and breadth of service. Eternity is not about sitting on clouds, strumming harps, nor it is simply an endless praise service. Earthly work is preparation for eternal service for our King on a much grander scale. Work in Heaven?! Don’t be disheartened! You can be confident that our Designer will so fit our heavenly service to our design that we find it incomparably enjoyable and satisfying.

When we examine Paul's writings, he teaches that God rewards believers according to their works:” We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 14:10). The word “bad” in 2 Cor. 5:10 does not mean sinful. It means worthless or unprofitable. God will test the produce of our entire life by fire in order to reveal its quality (1 Cor. 3:13). Those whose works survive the fire of Divine scrutiny will receive reward (1 Cor. 3:14). Those who works are burned up, will “suffer loss”; however, they will be saved (1 Cor. 3:15).

Paul commands Timothy to teach that those who do good, are rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, store up for themselves “the treasure of a good foundation for the future” (1 Tim. 6:18-19). The reward of a “crown” appears several places in the NT. All those who have loved Jesus’ appearing, will receive a “crown of righteousness” when he appears (2 Tim. 4:8). Those who persevere under trial (Jam. 1:12) and those who are faithful unto death will receive the crown of life (Rev. 2:10). Elders who shepherd the flock well will receive an unfading crown of glory (1 Pet. 5:1-4). Jesus warns the Philadelphians to "hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown" (Rev. 3:11).

My favorite passage on rewards is Ephesians 6:5-8. “Whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.” In other words, everything you and I do as to the Lord, even if it’s slave-labor, will be rewarded in Heaven! (See also Col. 3:22-24.)

The NT concludes with Jesus promising marvelous rewards to him who overcomes. The one who overcomes will:
  • eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God (Rev. 2:7).
  • not be hurt by the second death (Rev. 2:11).
  • receive some of the hidden manna, a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it. (Rev. 2:17).
  • receive authority over the nations, rule them with Christ, and receive the morning star (Rev. 2:26-28).
  • be clothed in white garments; his name will not be erased from the book of life, and Jesus will confess his name before His Father and His angels (Rev. 3:5).
  • be a pillar in the temple of God, he will not go out from it anymore; and I [Jesus] will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name (Rev. 3:12).
  • sit down with Me [Jesus] on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne (Rev. 3:21)
  • inherit the new heaven and new earth, the new Jerusalem, and the spring of the water of life (Rev. 21:1-7).
My quick survey has by no means exhausted the NT’s teaching on rewards, and it hasn’t even touched the OT. Perhaps the most thought provoking OT passage on rewards is Daniel 12:3, “Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” This statement by Daniel’s angelic interpreter seems to indicate that glorified saints shine with varying degrees of intensity depending on the level of their reward or perhaps as part of their reward.

So in answer to the original question: When we understand that holiness involves not only the absence of that which is sinful, but also the presence of that which is godly, then, yes, degrees of holiness here affect the level of our reward in the next life. The more our lives are filled with the fruit of holiness, the greater our rewards will be.


AJ Gibson said…
Thanks Phil. Have you read Craig Blomberg's "Degrees of Reward in the Kingdom of Heaven?" [JETS 35 (1992), pp. 159-72]? He argues against the idea of rewards. I didn't find his arguments ultimately convincing, but he did give me a lot to think about. I'll have to think this through some more. Thanks again for the thoughts.
Philip Brown said…
Hi, AJ,

Yes, I have read Blomberg's article. His presentation was not compelling to me. Rewards, let alone degrees of rewards, were not part of the theological picture I grew up with. In fact, I was inclined to reject the idea. C. S. Lewis' comments vis-a-vis reward in his "Weight of Glory" challenged my assumptions and started me down this line of thinking. A BT investigation appears to confirm the conclusions I'm drawing. I think we could generate some good ST arguments in favor of it as well.

AJ Gibson said…
I agree that the evidence seems to point to degrees of rewards. Especially clear are the parables of the talents and minas as you mentioned.

On the other hand, some passages that you mentioned don't seem to me to support the view. For example the promises you cited in Revelation. It appears to me that the promises in chs. 2-3 & 21:1-7 are all-or-nothing -- that is, those who overcome (persevere) in this life are promised all of the eschatological blessings of Revelation and those who don't overcome won't receive any. In other words, it's not that some receive a white stone, others eat from the tree of life, and others inherit the new creation, etc., but that all who overcome receive all these blessings. So I don't think that degrees of rewards are implied in Revelation.

Likewise other passages that speak of rewards do not seem to me to be speaking of degrees of rewards, but rather of THE reward the inheritance of all the sons of God (i.e. Col 3:24). That's how I read the "crown" passages -- the "crown of life" or the "crown of righteousness" are probably the rewards of "life" and "righteousness" which are given to all of God's children (genitive of apposition).

So I guess that what I'm saying is thatwe need to distinguish between passages that speak of reward(which can be understood in terms of the general reward of all the blessings that goe with eternal life) and the passages that specifically teach degrees of rewards.

Just thinking out loud. What do you think?
Philip Brown said…
Thanks, AJ,

I should have specified that all the passages I listed were not passages that support degrees of reward. I agree with you that the Revelation passages are not teaching degrees of reward.

I was shooting to do two things by surveying the NT material on rewards: (1) establish that there are rewards and we are supposed to care about them -- as opposed to the who-cares-about-rewards-I-just-want -to-get-to-Heaven approach of many, and (2) point out the passages that do point to degrees of reward.

I didn't work Luke 12:47-48 into the original post, but I can't avoid the conclusion that Jesus is teaching degrees of punishment in Hell/Lake of Fire. This seems to be reflected in Romans 2:12ff where one's knowledge is the criterion for one's judgment.
AJ Gibson said…
Hey, thanks for the clarification. This topic is of interest to me (it's one of many that sit on my shelf to be studied fully at a later date) so I'm glad you brought it up (maybe it's time to pull it off my shelf and finally study it). :)

At the same time it's a topic that concerns me. Just to give you some context on where I'm coming, one of my concerns is that I feel like the idea of rewards has been badly abused by the "no-lordship" crowd. For example, the many warning passages of the NT that are intended to strike fear in the hearts of professing Christians who are not persevering have often been dismissed as simply speaking of loss of rewards. This is a view that I've come across several times when teaching Hebrews, etc. In other words, passages that are intended to cause so-called "carnal Christians" to question the legitimacy of their profession of faith are glibly written of as "reward passages" (thus softening or removing the warning). In my view (and I think in yours as well) the "loss of rewards" view of the perseverance and warning passages is dangerous and seriously undermines the NT teaching on salvation and the importance of holiness.

So I guess the discussion of "degrees of rewards" needs to be carefully balanced with the NT passages that provide stern warnings to those who don't produce holiness. While some passages warn that those who don't produce certain degrees holiness will fail to receive certain corresponding rewards, others warn that those who don't produce certain degrees holiness will fail to receive THE reward, eternal life (i.e. Revelation 2-3).

My struggle has been to balance the two. My tendency has been to minimize (although not entirely negate) the degrees of rewards teaching, so I'm going to have to try to work through the NT passages again to try to strike a healthy biblical balance.

Thanks again for your helpful comments.
AJ Gibson said…
P.S. I look forward to your forthcoming survey of the OT passages. ;)
Anonymous said…
Hi, good article! I just thought I could offer a few thoughts. If you recall the parable of the talents, all of the servants who earned a reward were called "faithful" they just had different capacities of faithfulness and likewise of reward but each were completely faithful (10 given 10 and 2 given 2 and so on). Perhaps their reward or eternal responsibilities were proportionate but that seems to be in God's determination. Some were given 10 and others 2 talents but being faithful for one person was different than being faithful for another. Also, I am thinking of the fact that God has determined who will sit at his right hand and his left and also each is given a measure of faith and likewise how on this earth we each have differing gifts and responsibilities and that these carry with themselves great toil, time etc. and perhaps greater reward. But again, God is deciding to His gifts as He wills.
My thought on 1 Cor 3 is that it seems to saying that a teacher or builder of converts needs to be careful how he builds for if he builds on wood, hay, and stubble it will not last. More specifically, this seems to be referring to a teacher and his teaching and that if properly done teaching the Word will bear fruit b/c God has given the increase. I say this b/c in 2:1 we see Paul talking about not using persuasive speech as a means to build but things taught by the Spirit (2:13). So in a sense, eternal rewards is not really the specific topic. Vincent supports this teaching and teacher subject in his word studies.
Also, some verses tend to say that we will not be judged (Jn 3:18) "he who believes is not judged (future tense) and 5:24 as well. So if there is a reckoning before God it is to receive praise (1 Cor 4:5-which might again be a building metaphor). These are just some thoughts I had. I thought the Blomberg article was good but was too brief in its survey of the texts. It did have a good point on the Matthew passage of those last-hour workers who receive the same pay as those who worked all day. Then again this could be a reference to Gentiles and Jews. I like what the previous commentator said regarding "the crown" and "the prize" being given. That this is eternal life. It is interesting to note that the Corinthians, who had trouble spots, were comforted in the fact that they will be blameless before God in 1:8 (1st Cor) and that Paul didn't warn them about the bema seat of Christ and their accountability for their poor judgments. He comforted them with the final outcome which is based on God's faithfulness and not our own in a sense. Thanks.
Darin G said…
Hey, Doc Brown!
There may be degrees of reward in heaven based on the level of the fruit of true holiness in our lives. Yet, you do agree that there is a certain or distinctive standard or "line" we must all reach spiritually as true children of God?
Philip Brown said…
Hi, Darin,
Yes, the spiritual minimum is walking in all the light we have. No one who walks in darkness has any part in the kingdom of God. John's way of saying this in Revelation is you must "overcome" to make it.

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