Heavenly Rewards as Motivation for Holiness
Because Paul bases his call to the Christian life on the truth of what Christ has accomplished for us in his death and resurrection (see Ephesians 4:32; 5:1-2; 1 John 3:16, Col 3:13, Rom 15;7), it is common for us to think that any other motivation to holiness is sub-Christian at best and unbiblical at worst.
This is especially true when it comes to rewards. When we have drunk deep from the gospel fountain, we tend to think that being motivated to live the Christian life because of the heavenly rewards Christ has promised is to be a hireling or mercenary – to be in it only because of what we expect to get.
While it is true that one can emphasise heavenly rewards as motivation for holiness to the exclusion of the truth of what Christ has done, the converse is also possible – emphasising the latter to the exclusion of the former.
Kevin De Young, an American pastor and theologian, has identified at least twenty motivations for holiness in the Scriptures. Consequently, we don’t need to choose. Rather, we should embrace all the motivations we find in the scriptures and allow them to lead us on the path of holiness.
In what follows, I want to defend the truth that the Scriptures want us to be motivated to holiness by our heavenly rewards. That is, the truth that we will live forever in God’s presence with all the saints and holy angels in a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 19-21, for example) should motivate us to carry our cross in the here and now. Though it is not a sole motivation (as Kevin highlights), it is an important one.
Heavenly rewards as motivation in Hebrews
In Hebrews 10:32-34, the author of the letter recounts what the believers had suffered because of their faith as a way to encourage them to remain faithful to the faith amidst current suffering.
In verse 34, the author highlights the fact that these believers “joyfully accepted the confiscation” of their property because they knew that they had “better and lasting possessions.”
Rather than berate them for being motivated by rewards instead of by the truth of what Christ has done, the author went on to encourage them in verse 35 to not throw away their confidence because it will actually be richly rewarded.
In other words, the author is saying: “you endured the suffering because you were confident of your heavenly possessions. Keep up enduring and remain confident because that heavenly reward is actually real.”
Or, as he puts it in verse 36, “You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”
In the next chapter, we find examples in the history of the church of people who have been encouraged and motivated in the pursuit of holiness because of their firm gaze on heavenly rewards.
According to the author, Abraham was willing to live in tents as a stranger in a foreign country (verse 8,9) because “he was looking forward to the city with foundation, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Some verses later, we find Moses choosing ill-treatment along with slaves instead of the riches of the palace, regarding disgrace for Christ’s sake of greater value than Egypt’s treasures (11:24-26). Why would anyone make this seemingly unreasonable exchange? Well, the author tells us: “he was looking ahead to his reward” (verse 26). And why was he confident of the reward? Because “he saw him who is invisible” (verse 27).
A chapter later we find Christ himself enduring the cross and scorning its shame for the joy that was set before him. According to John Gill, this joy consists of the spiritual seed that awaited him, “a numerous offspring” that will be with him in heaven. These are “his joy and crown of rejoicing” Albert Barnes took a more expanded view, seeing the joy as “all the honour which he would have at the right hand of God”
In essence, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
Heavenly rewards as motivation in Paul’s writings
Paul agrees with the author of Hebrews.
In Philippians 3:11, we see that the resurrection from the dead was the culmination of his hope. And in verse 14, Paul said he was pressing on towards the goal to win the prize for which God called him heavenwards in Christ Jesus.
Barnes comments that this prize means “the end of the Christian race – heaven” and Adam Clarke writes that “the apostle still keeps in view his crown of martyrdom and his glorious resurrection.”
After recounting his sufferings as an apostle in 2 Corinthians 4:7-15, Paul went on to show where he gets the strength to joyfully endure them. In verse 15, we see that the wasting away of the outer man is compensated for by the renewing of the inner man. What renews the inner man is hope: the fact that our “light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” Paul was able to faithfully live the Christian life in spite of his sufferings because he kept his eyes on “what is unseen,” that which is eternal. That is, the rewards motivated and encouraged him.
Paul was not also ashamed to use the same motivation when addressing the churches. To the Thessalonians suffering persecutions and trials, he wrote: “as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering” (2 Thess. 1:5) The suffering church was encouraged to persevere and endure in view of the rewards that will be theirs when “the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven” (verse 7).
At an individual level, Paul encouraged the church leaders in Corinth to do their work well in view of the truth that each person will be “rewarded according to their own labour” and that “if what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward” (1 Corinthians 3:8,14).
Finally, Paul went beyond church leaders and used heavenly rewards to motivate servants to excel at their work: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 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).
Heavenly rewards as motivation in the Gospels
But this kind of language is not strange to Jesus either.
When Peter asked what benefits those who forsake all to follow Christ can expect, he did not shut him up as a mercenary or hireling. Rather, Jesus told him of the glorious things they can expect in this life and when he sits on his glorious throne, terminating in the inheritance of eternal life (Matthew 19:27-30).
What should God’s people do when they are persecuted and insulted for his sake? “Rejoice and be glad,” said Christ. But whence the rejoicing and gladness? It is because our reward is great in heaven (Matthew 5:12). As with the author of Hebrews and Paul, so with Christ.
With all the pleasures of sin that the world offers, why should anyone forsake them and exchange them for a cross? It is because present sinful pleasures will lead to the loss of the soul while the cross will be exchanged for a crown. “ For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 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 they have done.” (Matthew 16:25-27).
God’s justice and wrath as motivation
In fact, there are times when the Scriptures use the converse of eternal life – eternal destruction – as the motivation for holiness.
First, we have those texts where we are admonished against sin because of the eternal destruction that will result from it. An example is Mark 9:42-43 where we are told to embrace temporal suffering and be saved rather than indulge in sin and be lost for eternity. We have other examples in Matthew 5:22, 29; 7:13; 18:8; Luke 16.
Second, we are encouraged to persevere in the path of trial and persecution because God’s judgments will soon come on our persecutors. The classic text here is 2 Thessalonians 1:6: “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you.” We find similar thoughts in Revelation 6:9-10.
Third, we are urged to not envy wicked men when they prosper because their present “enjoyment” will terminate in eternal destruction. We find this in Psalms 73 and Malachi 3:13-17.
My point here is that God even uses the negative side of rewards to motivate us to overcome sin, persevere in suffering, and avoid/overcome envy.
Rewards as grace: How to avoid legalism
Of course, it is possible to isolate all the above and turn it into legalism. This is why we began with the fact that God uses multiple motivations. Therefore, while we emphasise eternal rewards as motivation, we must not divorce it from the gospel.
One way to ensure this is to remember that whatever rewards we hope to get at the second coming of Christ are products of his life, death, and resurrection.
Romans 5:17 is an important text in this regard: “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!”
We receive grace, righteousness, and eternal life (and reign) because of the obedience of Christ. Everything we receive now and everything we will receive in eternity is all the product of God’s grace as revealed in Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
The rewards should motivate and encourage us (together with the other motivations) but we must always remember that we are putting our hope in the works of our substitute.
But didn’t Revelation 22:12 (and Matthew 16:27, 2 Corinthians 5:10) say that Christ will reward our good works? Yes, indeed. But any good work we do is also a product of God’s grace. As Isaiah 26:12 puts it, “Lord, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us.” Or to take a New Testament example: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).
According to Gill, the reward of Revelation 22:12 is for him whose “work is the fruit of grace, and he has had his conversation in the world by the grace of God, and he is a righteous person, justified by the righteousness of Christ, and a holy, good man, sanctified by the Spirit of God, the reward of grace, the crown of righteousness, will be given to him.”
In essence, our good works are nothing but Christ’s works in us. Therefore, every reward we will ever get for them will remain the reward of grace. More importantly, these rewards are only for those who already have eternal life and eternal life only comes to those who have put their faith in Christ’s finished work.
We must exclaim like the Psalmist: “Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness” (Psalms 115:1).
Yes, what Christ has done for us should motivate us to live righteously for him. But the Scriptures do not isolate this as the only valid motivation. There are tens of other motivations, and eternal rewards (in their positive and negative forms) are one of them.
Therefore, we should not despise God’s promises or undermine our hope by refusing to use what God has provided for holiness. Instead, when our eyes are too fixated on this world and it is leading us on the path to destruction, we should, like Moses, see him who is invisible and, like Paul, fix our eyes on what is unseen.
Let’s end with some words from Kevin De Young:
“God counsels us in a hundred ways, and he exchanges a thousand truths for our lies. Let’s not be hesitant to employ the full arsenal of scriptural threats and promises and examples and commands. Let’s not be smarter than Scripture and say, “Well, I see a warning in the passage, but that doesn’t seem to be gospel centred.” Take Scripture; safeguard it with our theology; test it against one another. But let’s understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat and more than one way to sanctify one too.”
Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace;
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place.
When we all get to heaven,
what a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
we’ll sing and shout the victory.
2 While we walk the pilgrim pathway
Clouds will overspread the sky;
But when trav’ling days are over,
Not a shadow, not a sigh. [Chorus]
3 Let us then be true and faithful,
Trusting, serving ev’ry day;
Just one glimpse of Him in glory
Will the toils of life repay. [Chorus]
4 Onward to the prize before us!
Soon His beauty we’ll behold;
Soon the pearly gates will open;
We shall tread the streets of gold.
 Kevin De Young, How Many Motivations Are There for Godliness? Available at: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/how-many-motivations-are-there-for-godliness/.
 My Sword Bible. Riversoft Systems.
 Kevin De Young, Incentives for Acting the Miracle: Fear, Rewards, and the Multiplicity of Biblical Motivations. Available at: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/incentives-for-acting-the-miracle-fear-rewards-and-the-multiplicity-of-biblical-motivations
 E.E Hewitt, When we all get to heaven, in Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Life Way Worship, 2008), Hymn no #603