Are Rewards a Valid Motivation for Sanctification?

It seems that every generation of the church sees a struggle to rightly define Christian sanctification. This happens in part because of the importance of the subject. Sanctification is the present tense of salvation for those who have believed; it is the salvific address to which our mail is sent in this life. With this in mind, the two errors associated with this doctrine are among the most deadly. To be a legalist means to forfeit the peace and joy that comes through the grace of Christ. To be a libertine is to justify a wayward and messy life instead of living in step with the Holy Spirit as we should.

How we understand sanctification will further exert a dramatic influence on our approach to Christian ministry. One question in this regard is the validity of appeals for godliness based on rewards or punishments. Is the doctrine of salvation by grace compatible with warnings given to Christians or rewards offered for godly living? For many in the so-called Contemporary Grace Movement, the answer is No. These preachers teach that gratitude is the only valid basis for holiness. Guilt-Grace-Gratitude is the only track on which the train of godly living runs. But is this true? Are punishments and rewards biblically consistent with the idea of God’s saving grace?

In addressing this subject, the Gospel Reformation Network’s statement of Affirmations and Denials affirms both the importance of gratitude for grace and the validity of rewards and punishments in the Christian life. Article V says:

We affirm that gratitude for justification is a powerful motivation for growth in holiness.We deny that gratitude is the only valid motivation for holiness, making all other motivations illegitimate or legalistic.

The affirmation wholeheartedly embraces the importance of the believer’s gratitude for what Christ has done in motivating a holy life. The New Testament frequently emphasizes the relationship between godly obedience and the motive of thanksgiving. Paul prays that believers may be strengthened “for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father” (Col. 1:11-12). Paul urges: “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). The Puritan John Owen thus stressed that our obedience should never be offered for our righteousness, but “it is that for which God has created us and which we do out of love and gratitude to him for his grace.”[1]Having emphasized thanksgiving, the denial insists that gratitude is not the only valid motive for holiness. It is not legalistic, as some claim, to urge believers to godliness in light of threatened punishments or offered rewards. We can be sure of this because Jesus and the apostles frequently press these motivations upon us. After all, what else could Jesus have meant when he taught us not to store up treasures on earth, where they are so easily lost or destroyed, but instead to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Mt. 6:20). Unless we are prepared to denounce Jesus as a legalist, we will have to accept the validity of using promised rewards to motivate godliness. We see his even more pointedly in his parable of the talents. The master’s servants were given talents to invest and then he returned to inspect their work. To the faithful servants who had earned him a profit, the master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Mt. 25:21). Not only should Christians be motivated by the desire to hear these same words at the end of our lives, but the nature of heavenly rewards is indicated. Instead of earthly goods like gold or silver, the reward is presented in terms of fellowship with our Savior in heaven and an increased scope of service to him in glory (see also Luke 19:17).

Scripture insists that our works will be examined for reward at the return of Jesus Christ. Matthew 25:34-40shows Jesus praising his disciples at the last judgment for acts of mercy to fellow believers who were weak, good deeds that Jesus claims were done to himself: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…” (Mt. 25:35). Notice that Jesus focuses not on grand achievements but rather in daily kindness and love. Paul confirms that Christians will have their lives evaluated, writing in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” The context makes it clear that Christians are included and that this judgment is intended as a motivation for our behavior. Paul adds that knowing this, “we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9).

Does this mean that Christians should fear punishment at the last judgment for our failures and sins? In my view, the answer to this is No, although non-Christians certainly should. It is in this life that Christians should fear discipline and chastisement from our heavenly Father if we lag woefully in sanctification. The writer of Hebrews says, “he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). This is plainly intended as a motivation for sanctification, since he immediately adds: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” (Heb. 12:12). Nonetheless, divine chastisement is what wayward believers experience on this side of heaven.

But does not Paul plainly warn that Christians will be judged for both “good or evil”? The answer is yes, but that we must set it alongside Romans 8:1, which declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Christians need not fear any condemnation when Jesus returns. Nor should we anticipate shaming for our failures, in which case we could hardly look forward to the Second Coming as, Paul says, “our blessed hope” (Tit. 2:13). Christ bore all the guilt and shame of our sin and failure on the cross! So where does the judgment of our “evil” come in as believers? I think the best biblical answer is found in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15: “Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it… 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.” Here we have a saved person whose life work yielded little return for eternity, and the example is given as a warning to us. The penalty for demerits here is not condemnation or shame, but rather a lamentable loss of heavenly reward.

In considering the many biblical passages that speak of a future evaluation of believers’ lives, the overwhelming emphasis lies on the side of rewards. This is not surprising, since Jesus paid the penalty for our sins in his atoning death. Since there will be no tears, mourning, or crying in heaven (Rev. 21:4), Christians may look forward to Christ’s return with an overwhelming expectation of divine approval and reward. And this anticipation is treated in the Bible as a very significant source of motivation for sanctification and Christian service. The true danger of unholy or unfaithful living among professing believers is not that they will wear tarnished crowns in heaven but that they will not be admitted to heaven at all, their ungodliness having been the death knell of a false profession and unregenerate life.

Not only do rewards and punishments stand alongside gratitude as biblical motivations for sanctification, but none of these may be seen as the primary or ultimate impulse for holy living and good deeds. For this we must turn to the indwelling Holy Spirit and the new spiritual nature that Christians all receive in the new birth. To be sure, the believer is moved by thanksgiving for the grace of God in Jesus Christ, just as we are made wise by our awareness of heavenly rewards and temporal punishments. But the more basic reason we pursue a holy life is that our new nature is animated towards this kind of life and the very Spirit of God moves within us to share in his holiness. We were “created in Christ Jesus for good works,” Paul declares (Eph. 2:10). And by the gracious work of Christ through the Holy Spirit we “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). In light of this, the sheer opportunity to glorify God in this life is not only a cause for thanksgiving and spiritual zeal but an instance of the abounding grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


originally published at reformation21, November 2014