This article will show that the very idea is a worldly one, but it is at the core of work-based religion.
The one who plants and the one who waters work as one, but each will receive his reward according to his work. (I Corinthians 3:8)
This passage is commonly understood as God reserves rewards in heaven for each person according to the good deeds they do while they're here on earth. However I believe that this thinking runs against at least one basic truth of the gospel of salvation that it is based on faith in Christ, on the principle of God's grace, not on works. Is it possible that this Bible verse does not speak of degrees of rewards, but of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7)?
Let us survey some passages that may be related to works and rewards so we may establish a framework to interpret I Corinthians 3:8.
Rewards or wages?
The word “rewards” in the King James version is mapped to number 3408 in the Strong’s Concordance, which is mis-thos’ in Greek. This word is defined as follows: “3408 misthos mis-thos’ apparently a primary word; pay for service (literally or figuratively), good or bad:–hire, reward, wages.” Therefore in the context of this verse, it may have one of two meanings: rewards, or wages.
The passage in I Corinthians 3:10-15 that immediately follows this verse shows a reward that is either given, or witheld, but is not given in proportion to amount of work or good deeds.
10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master-builder I laid a foundation, but someone else builds on it. And each one must be careful how he builds. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than what is being laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13each builder’s work will be plainly seen, for the Day will make it clear, because it will be revealed by fire. And the fire will test what kind of work each has done. 14If what someone has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15If someone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
We observe that the deciding factor in whether a reward is given or witheld is based on what foundation someone placed his hope: on Christ (by grace) or the law (by works). The book of Romans explains this truth very plainly. The same truth is also expressed in this passage. Paul built the foundation of his ministry on Christ, meanwhile the opposition built theirs on what foundation other than the strength of their flesh?
We can see clearly Paul did not say that those who worked more got more rewards, but he spoke that rewards are reserved only for those who placed their hope on the true foundation. Some “will receive a reward,” while some others “will suffer loss.” This is the matter of truth versus falsehood, not more or less, not better or best.
The parable of the vineyard workers below is a powerful description of God’s economy where the rewards are not based on works at all. This leads us to a very important implication of how much care we must exercise in choosing the foundation upon which we build, or to an astounding realization of God’s grace that some who dare to build on something other than Christ and yet He did not refuse him even their own eternal inheritance let alone the witholding of rewards.
Parable of the vineyard worker
1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2And after agreeing with the workers for the standard wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When it was about nine o’clock in the morning, he went out again and saw others standing around in the marketplace without work. 4He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and I will give you whatever is right.’ 5So they went. When he went out again about noon and three o’clock that afternoon, he did the same thing. 6And about five o’clock that afternoon he went out and found others standing around, and said to them, ‘Why are you standing here all day without work?’ 7They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go and work in the vineyard too.’ 8When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give the pay starting with the last hired until the first.’ 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each received a full day’s pay. 10And when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each one also received the standard wage. 11When they received it, they began to complain against the landowner, 12saying, ‘These last fellows worked one hour, and you have made them equal to us who bore the hardship and burning heat of the day.’ 13And the landowner replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am not treating you unfairly. Didn’t you agree with me to work for the standard wage? 14Take what is yours and go. I want to give to this last man the same as I gave to you. 15Am I not permitted to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:1-16)
The vineyard in this parable represents the kingdom of God, and those who entered it were those that responded to Christ’s call to enter. The most amazing thing about this kingdom is its economy is nothing like that of the world. How God gives the mis-thos’ is a world apart from the way the workers of this earthly kingdom get paid. Those who entered the vineyard, even the last to come during the last hour of the day, got paid first, and for the same amount as the one who came in early in the morning. To take this to its logical conclusion, suppose there were those who came in exactly as the gate was closing, they would have become the first to be paid because they came in last; much like the thief on the cross next to Jesus as he would be the first to be with Him in paradise. And it would be the same with one of the world’s greatest evangelist Billy Graham because in God’s eye he would be on the same footing with the very soul he just led to Christ, each one will get a full day’s wage. Don’t be envious because God is too generous for your little mind.
This parable must be the reason behind what Paul later wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9:
“8For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9it is not from works, so that no one can boast.”
It is not just Ephesians 2:8-9. The entire gospel of salvation is based on this truth. Moreover if the righteous must live by faith and not by works, then what are rewards for?
The position of a servant
7“Would any one of you say to your slave who comes in from the field after plowing or shepherding sheep, ‘Come at once and sit down for a meal’? 8Won’t the master instead say to him, ‘Get my dinner ready, and make yourself ready to serve me while I eat and drink. Then you may eat and drink’? 9He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he? 10So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:7-10)
A little while before Jesus spoke these words, we read in Luke 9:46 that His disciples argue among themselves to see who is more important. It was then that Jesus taught them to change their views of God’s kingdom, that there the least significant individual is the most well regarded. It is because they need God the most. And it is because they’re like the weakest members of the human body that need the most care (I Corinthians 12:23).
In the parable of the vineyard workers, the lowliest are those that entered the vineyard last. In this passage of Luke 17:7-10, Jesus reminds each of us to know our position when serving God, for if we serve God doing the works that He prepared in advance, empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, by the power that raised the dead, then “He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he?” Or to put it another way, we are “slaves undeserving of special praise” then what do we have to bring before God for recognitions or rewards?
This passage is about Wages - not Rewards
Before writing this article, I went on the web to take a pulse of the general population to see if I was wrong in making an assumption about what they think concerning this subject. Sure enough, the majority think there are different degrees of rewards in heaven. I do not think so. Because I believe that however a person is saved, by grace and through faith, not works, in the same way shall he live. And because the righteous will live by faith.
I found on the world wide web an author who has a radio program on an AM frequency who writes a very comprehensive article defending degrees of rewards in heaven. Below are some of the Scriptures verses he cited to support his opinion:
“We must perform the deeds of the one who sent me as long as it is daytime. Night is coming when no one can work.”
Before even delving into what “work” means, we see that this verse says nothing of rewards. Jesus must have been talking of something that only He knew; soon the night will come, along with the cup that will be so bitter that He whispered to the Father that He wished could be set aside. Jesus must have talked of the world saving task that He and his discipled must carry on. About rewards? Not mentioned here.
“I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
This author excerpts numerous Bible verses but it appeared he did not have a firm grasp of the foundational truth of salvation. Isaiah 53:6 and Romans 3:10 declared that there is not a single righteous person on earth. Therefore the ninety nine who do not need repentance do not exist because ALL need repentance. Because no one who do not repent can enter the kingdom of God so there is no reward for them. This passage again does not speak of comparison between those who are saved, therefore neither does it speak of degrees of rewards here. Do you radio man really understand what Jesus is saying? I love the way Jesus teaches through parables, to confuse those who rely on themselves for righteousness.
Matthew 5:11-12, Matthew 6:1-6, Matthew 6:16-18, Matthew 6:20
Then this author proceeded to quote some more passages containing Jesus’ sayings which have the word “reward,” to defend his position. But he again did not fulfill the duty of being a diligent student of the Bible to properly interpret the true meaning of this word “reward,” which is “mis-thos’” in Greek, which really means payment, or wage, in their context, very much like the expression “you reap what you sow.” They have no such meaning that we’re debating here. The “reward” in these passages speaks of eternal life. A unique reward without degrees, without measures, without dependance on merits.
11“Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 12Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way. (Matthew 5:11-12)
1“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people. Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. 2Thus whenever you do charitable giving, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in synagogues and on streets so that people will praise them. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 3But when you do your giving, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your gift may be in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. 5“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. way. (Matthew 6:1-6)
16“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward. 17When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
But accumulate for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. (Matthew 6:20)
None of these passages speak of the merit-based rewards. Jesus contrasted the opposing motivations, one for the praise of men while the other is for God’s glory. He’s was obviously not motivating people to do more good works, but he asked them to check their motivation.
If you say, “See, we did not know this,” Does He not consider it who weighs the hearts? And does He not know it who keeps your soul? And will He not render to man according to his work?
Is it possible that Solomon only spoke of rewards in this life? And if there is a spiritual dimension to this reward it must rest on the foundation of the gospel of salvation by grace and through faith without merit.
2 John 4-10
4I rejoiced greatly because I have found some of your children living according to the truth, just as the Father commanded us. 5But now I ask you, lady (not as if I were writing a new commandment to you, but the one we have had from the beginning), that we love one another. 6(Now this is love: that we walk according to his commandments.) This is the commandment, just as you have heard from the beginning; thus you should walk in it. 7For many deceivers have gone out into the world, people who do not confess Jesus as Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the deceiver and the antichrist! 8Watch out, so that you do not lose the things we have worked for, but receive a full reward. 9Everyone who goes on ahead and does not remain in the teaching of Christ does not have God. The one who remains in this teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house and do not give him any greeting.
This passage exhorts us to continue to walk in love while watching out for the deceiver and the antichrist who denies the truth about Jesus. The only reward, and the full reward, is reseved for those who remain in the teaching that Paul labored to make sure they have the full grasp of it. It is through this teaching that they have both the Father and the Son. There is no mention of degrees of rewards here, only either you have the full reward of eternal life, or you do not.
When God opened Martin Luther’s spiritual eye, he realized that the righteous is not only saved by faith, but must live by faith as well (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38). Though he learned he was saved by faith, but it was the living by faith that he had much trouble with. He always relied on works to walk with God, through self restraint, confessions, penances, etc., until the truth of living by faith dawned in his heart that he truly found rest in God, and Christianity was once again communicated to the world.
Paul wrote of this in Galatians 3:3 as follows:
Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?
The Galatians, like many Christians in churches today, came to Christ empty handed, bringing with them nothing to God’s Kingdom, they began their faith relying completely on the Spririt. Then as time goes by, they began to rely on their fleshly efforts, to count their merits, to compare themselves with other Christians, to claim high places in the kingdom of heaven. But Paul called foolish those who possess such mentality. Because if they relied on the Spirit then what is the basis for their rewards?
And if it is by grace, it is no longer by works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.
There is no point in a life of faith that work is ever accepted by God, because if works plays any role at all, grace would no longer be grace.
- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen
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