Question: What is the difference between heavenly rewards and salvation?
Answer: The answer to the first part of your question can be found in the Bible verse: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The apostle Paul is contrasting two things that people normally receive: wages and gifts.
Wages and Gifts
Wages are something that a worker earns. If I work 10 hours for my employer, then he or she is obligated to pay me $100, because we have mutually agreed upon $10/hour as my wage. But if I do no work, then he has no obligation to pay me any wages.
However, there is no work involved in receiving a gift. Gifts are something that the giver gives freely, because gifts are, by definition, not earned. If I work in order to receive something from you, then what I get is my wages, not a gift. Gifts, on the other hand, are not given out of obligation. The giver is free to give, and free not to give.
In ordinary human relationships, we do sometimes feel obligated to give gifts, but this is not the case with God. He is completely free: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3).
Which Way Do We Receive Heaven?
Back to Romans 6. Paul is saying that what we earn by sinning (our work) is death. Death is the wages that we receive from God for doing the wrong thing or failing to do right. But heaven, or eternal life, is not the result of what we do or fail to do (our work). Eternal life is not the wage that we receive from God for doing good. No. Eternal life is the gift of God, in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In other words, God is not obligated (on the basis of our work) to give eternal life to anyone. No one has earned it. No one can earn it: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
Paul is using the word “justified” here to talk about our standing before God. It’s a legal term. To be justified is to be declared “innocent” by the judge. To not be justified is to be declared “guilty” by the judge. So, Paul is saying that the only way a person will be declared “innocent” by God, is never through the keeping of the law (heaven as a wage), but only through faith in Jesus Christ (heaven as a gift).
Does This Really Matter?
Does it really matter, whether salvation comes to us as a gift or as a wage? Yes. If we were able to earn it, then we would have a boast, before God and other people.
The difference has to do with motivation: “For 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” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Listen to Paul’s explanation of this: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works…” (2:10).
In other words, our salvation is not the result of our own works; our works are the result of our salvation. Works are not the root of our salvation, they are the fruit of our salvation. If everything good that I do comes as a result of God’s grace in my life, then all the credit goes to God: “Whether you eat or you drink, whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What About Rewards Then?
Rewards are different than wages. God has not set up a system—if you do this, then I’ll give you that. He has said that he will reward his people for doing certain things—for example, for doing good works (Ephesians 6:8), for denying ourselves (Matthew 16:24-27), for showing compassion to the needy (Luke 14:13-14), and for treating our enemies kindly (Luke 6:35).
Rewards in heaven are a reflection of the generosity of God. He promises a return of “a hundred times” (Matthew 19:29)! He is offering us a return far out of proportion to the amount of effort and sacrifice that we could ever invest. He has not told us exactly what the rewards will be, but that we will be astonished by his generosity when we receive them.
That means how we live now will have an effect on what our lives will be like in heaven. I trust that you will want to join me in storing up treasures in heaven, knowing that our righteousness is a gift from God in Christ Jesus, and that we serve a generous God who promises great rewards (100x!) to those who trust him and serve him faithfully.
For Further Study
If you would like to study this more, I recommend the book Money, Possessions and Eternity by Randy Alcorn. This is a large (but rewarding) book. I’m thinking especially of chapters 8 and 9 on the steward’s eternal destiny and the steward’s eternal rewards. He has a smaller version of the book called Managing God’s Money that is also very good.