There is a world of difference between a "gift" and a "reward." A gift is "something given voluntarily without payment in return." A reward is "something given or received for service, merit, hardship, etc." A reward is something you earn. A gift is freely given and is not earned by the recipient.
So why does the New Testament use both words to describe what believers in Jesus are given from God in reference to heaven? It seems rather confusing at first blush. These two words appear to contradict each other. On one hand, "the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:23) But we are also told in the Bible: "Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully." (2 John 1:8)
So what gives? Is eternal life in heaven a free gift, or isn't it? The answer is....absolutely. Salvation is granted to people while they are here on earth the moment they are born again. (see John 3:1-18) This miracle of the new birth occurs in a person's life through the acceptance of the free gift of eternal life. This gift is only given through faith in Christ alone. (see Romans 3:21-26 and Eph. 2:8,9) That fact is driven home over and over again in the New Testament. There is no question about it.
But then why all the references to a "reward" being given to believers upon their entrance into heaven? It is a teaching that is repeated many times in the New Testament, and referred to often by our Lord. Jesus said, "For the Son of Man is going to come in His Father's glory with His angels, and then He will reward each person according to what he has done." (Matthew 16:27) This theme is repeated in Revelation 22:12: "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done."
Jesus said, "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven." (Matthew 5:11,12) Our Lord also said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who gives a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward." (Mark 9:41) When you read what our Savior said about heavenly rewards, it is clear that He placed much emphasis upon the motives of believers. Jesus said, "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven." (Matthew 6:1) Notice the words "your Father" in that passage. That can only be said of those who are already in God's family....and on the highway to heaven.
One of the greatest rewards of heaven will be to celebrate the fruit of our labor on earth that resulted in spiritual blessings for others. The Lord uses His children to reach others for Christ here and now, and we will enjoy fellowship together with one another forever. Are you looking forward to seeing people in heaven that you helped to know Christ, and believers you helped to grow in Christ? What unspeakable joy that will bring God's children in His heavenly kingdom!
A key passage on heavenly rewards is in 1 Corinthians. It describes man's work being tested with fire at the end of time to see if his Christian work was done with the right motives. That is....was it done to shine the light and focus on himself, or to shine the light on Christ and keep the focus on the Savior? "His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames." (1 Cor. 3:13-15)
Did you catch that? It describes the man who gets into heaven because he received the free gift of eternal life....and so he was saved; and yet, he "suffers loss" of certain rewards that he would have received if his motives had been different in his service for Christ. He will still of course have a fantastic life in heaven forever....and he will not be even slightly jealous in heaven of anyone's else reward. (Jealousy and the like are only found on earth....not in heaven.) But before he enters heaven, his work on earth will be tested with fire to see how much of it was noble, selfless, and Christ-centered.
The apostle Paul also wrote these words: "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving." (Colossians 3:23,24) Notice again the connection between a believer's works and the reward. And here is one more interesting statement from Paul: "You know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does." (Ephesians 6:8) This is not in conflict with everything Paul wrote in Romans and elsewhere concerning a believer's justification through faith. Instead, it is dealing with the doctrine of heavenly rewards....which is a separate doctrine from the chief doctrine of justification through faith.
If we are not careful with these texts, it would be easy to confuse these doctrines and end up teaching that man earns his way into heaven. Nothing is more horrendous and harmful than the teaching of "works righteousness." This false doctrine actually keeps people out of heaven altogether, because it leads people to seek to establish a right standing with God based on their efforts and deeds. Read the book of Galatians if you don't think this is a strong temptation for man, even after he has been saved by God's grace through faith.
So given these challenges and these doctrinal dangers, just how are we to distinguish between gift and reward in the New Testament....and should we even address these relevant passages in God's Word? Obviously so. They came from our loving God and were given to His children. God put these doctrines in His Word for a reason. And with that in mind....and with an earnest desire to understand all that God wants us to know....perhaps an analogy would help us wrap our mind around the biblical distinction between gift and reward.
Imagine a couple adopting 7 children....and all 7 children had been orphans in their community prior to their adoption. Now imagine the couple telling their children, "If you treat one another with love and respect this week, you will be given 'an extra surprise' on Saturday when we go to the zoo....and you will love it." This offer would tend to motivate the children to show each other love and respect that week in order to gain the special surprise.
But what if 10 other children in the community....orphans themselves....heard about this offer, and assumed it was for them too? Imagine these 10 other children treating one another with love and respect....and showing up at the family's door on Saturday excited to go to the zoo....and planning to receive the extra surprise. "But wait a minute," you say. "They are not in the couple's family....they are still orphans. The offer didn't apply to them." Exactly.
The trip to the zoo and the extra surprise only applied to those children who had already been adopted into the family. The couple was only offering the extra surprise to their children....and not to other children in the community. If you remain outside the family, none of the benefits which come as a result of adoption apply to you.
This story can help us to understand the biblical distinction between gift and reward. The only way into God's family is through adoption. "In love God predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 1:5) If you are a Christian, then you became a child of God through adoption....through faith in Jesus Christ....through the power of the Holy Spirit. Believers in Christ are like the 7 adopted children in the story. Our works did not place us in God's family....rather, our adoption placed us there. Once in the family, we became eligible for special surprises and a "reward" which God will give out to His children in heaven.
From a human perspective, we are tempted to think that by promising a reward to believers based on our attitudes and behavior....the Lord is in jeopardy of compromising our motives. But who are we to question the Lord's rationale for heavenly rewards? The Holy Spirit didn't seem worried about compromised motives when He inspired the Scriptures to be written....and He is the One who placed the teaching about rewards throughout the New Testament. Just as the Holy Spirit teaches us the proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel, He also can teach us the proper distinction between God's free gift of salvation and the promise of heavenly rewards. These doctrines did not originate with man....but with God Himself. Therefore, these two doctrines are not in conflict with one another....but instead complement each other.
Many Christians may feel a reluctance to teach about heavenly rewards for fear of confusing people. I know I have often been guilty of that reluctance over the years. We don't want to mistakenly lead someone to believe that a person can earn their "adoption" into God's family. You cannot work your way into the family of believers. Eternal life in heaven cannot be earned, no matter how long or how hard you work for it. (see Romans 3:20 and Galatians 3:10)
You can only "repent and believe" your way into the family of God. (see Mark 1:15 and Luke 24:47) You can only get into His family by receiving the gift of salvation....not by trying to impress the Father of believers with your hard work as an orphan. Many unbelievers (spiritual orphans) are working hard to get into heaven....and all of them will miss out unless they stop committing their sin of unbelief....and stop trying to earn their way into the family. Many religious people go to hell....not because of a lack of effort or zeal....but because they relied upon their efforts to make themselves acceptable to God....and yet were never adopted into the family of God by trusting in what Jesus did for them on the cross.
If you or I as believers are tempted to boast about whatever work we are doing for the Lord, we should realize that even this work is only accomplished because of the grace of God which is flowing mightily in our lives. "He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6) We cannot take the credit....nor do we deserve any praise. It is all about God's work in us....and Christ in us. That is where the power and the good works come from....not from us. We are spiritually impotent....and incapable of saving ourselves, and even incapable of producing good works in our Christian life.
The apostle Paul wrote, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!" (Galatians 2:20,21) Without God's grace, there is no salvation....and without His grace, there are no good works in the lives of believers. "It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose." (Philippians 2:13) So how could we ever think that we accomplished this by our own wisdom, talents, or holiness? God is the giver....and we are the recipients. We are just the vessels through whom He accomplishes His purposes.
To brag about what God is doing through me as a Christian would be like bragging because I am a nozzle on the end of a hose....and water is flowing out of the hose to the garden and the lawn. What did I do as the nozzle? The water is what matters. God can use whatever nozzle he chooses to use....but only He can provide the living water. (see John 7:37-39) The next time you or I are tempted to take pride in "what I accomplished" as a Christian, let's remember the hose....and the nozzle....and the water. Our human pride and arrogance will loosen the nozzle from the hose if we are not careful....and then what good will we be in His kingdom?
God not only grants salvation to His children, but He also produces the works in our lives which bring Him pleasure as a loving Father. As a father of four, I can relate. I am sure you would agree with me when I say....parents love to see their children do the right thing. We even give our children extra incentives sometimes to spur them on toward love and good deeds. What's wrong with that? God built that innate approach to parenting into us when He created us. Parents have always sought to motivate their children through the promise of rewards and special surprises.
There is no reason for any believer to be confused about the distinction between gift and reward in the New Testament. Jesus taught both doctrines as part of God's divine plan for His children. God knew what He was doing when He decided to place both doctrines in the Scriptures, which is the Lord's "love letter" to His children.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is widely regarded as North America's greatest theologian. Edwards gave a message in December of 1740 based on Romans 2:10. In it he said, "There are different degrees of happiness and glory in heaven. As there are degrees among the angels, viz. thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers; so there are degrees among the saints. In heaven are many mansions, and of different degrees of dignity. The glory of the saints above will be in some proportion to their eminency in holiness and good works here."
Edwards went on to say, "It will be no damp to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them. For all shall be perfectly happy, every one shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others."
So what are the rewards of heaven? As we search the Scriptures, we find a few clues to this mystery. But let's remember....the greatest reward by far is to be with our Lord....in His presence. What greater reward could there possibly be? If God has special surprises in heaven for his children that are based on their work for Him on earth, then who are we to question His judgment? Don't all parents have that right with their children?
Think about the Christian who endures intense persecution for decades as he or she remains faithful to Christ....and is eventually martyred for their faith. Compare that earthly existence to the thief on the cross, who made it into the kingdom of God during the final hours of his life on earth. Doesn't God have the right to give "an extra blessing" of sorts to the one who endured decades of suffering for Christ? Who are we to question His ultimate decisions on such matters? All we have to go on is what He has told us in His love letter to us. In His Word, our Lord boldly proclaims that He will "reward each person according to what he has done." (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 22:12; Romans 2:6; Psalm 62:12; 1 Cor. 3:8)
If God didn't want His children believing in both the gift and the reward, He would not have placed these teachings in His Word. "God is not the author of confusion." (1 Cor. 14:33) We are the ones who get confused because of our reluctance to believe what He tells us....or to only believe the parts that fit with our preconceived notions.
I know this much....no one who enters heaven will ever be jealous of someone else....and no one will be viewing any special surprises in a selfish manner. Everything there will be about praise, worship, and service to the glory of our King. Beyond that, there is a lot of speculation about the rewards that will be handed out....but we don't have enough information in Scripture to make too many dogmatic statements in this area. We will just have to wait and see.
In the meantime, be sure that you have been adopted....so that you are in God's family. If you are unsure about your adoption, you can come to God right now. Confess your sins to Him. Turn away from them. Believe that Jesus died for your sins on the cross....and that He rose again. He will forgive you today....and welcome you into His eternal family. Do you want to be in His family? If so, believe and receive His free gift of salvation through faith.
And then begin to serve Him enthusiastically everyday as one of His children. This is the purpose for which you were created....for His glory....and for your mutual pleasure in heaven. As David expressed so well in Psalm 16:11: "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand." Everyone in heaven, regardless of particular rewards, will be filled with joy in His presence and will experience "eternal pleasures." What a mighty God we serve!
So go for it Christian as you use the abilities which He has given you. Serve Him wholeheartedly to bring Him glory....and to be a blessing to others Christ died to save. After all....if you are in the family, you might as well enjoy all the perks that come with adoption.