By “keeping track,” I mean that God is watching and remembering everything that we are doing. This might seem creepy and a violation of privacy if we consider Google or the NSA watching us, but we should be glad the good God of the Bible is always with us and watching all that we do. We are told that “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good” (NASB). The biblical teaching about rewards for our faithfulness to God is confusing, so I aim at clarifying the topic.
When I was younger, I was in an argument during a Bible study about the topic of rewards for the Christian in the last judgment. Not having known the Bible very well, I was not familiar with the many passages that promise rewards and compensation from God to the Christian for faithfulness in this little phase of life. I took the idea of future rewards as a motivator for behavior in the present to be a yucky appeal to self-interest. When I considered the idea of rewards alongside the gift of everlasting life in the New Creation (Heaven), I thought it was superfluous, a bit like promising a small child she would get a gum ball when we went to Disneyland. What value is a gum ball when we have arrived at Disneyland? Why would I want anything of some rewards in addition to everlasting life in the New Heaven?
The other thing that put me off the idea of rewards alongside everlasting life is that no one explained adequately what the rewards would be. A mystery box does not inspire me. The concept of “reward” is obviously positive and valuable. Disclaimers are often added when people talk about future rewards to say that the rewards—whatever they are—will not be the cause for comparison with others, for pride, or for shame. They will be subjective and private treasures in Heaven. Even the parable statement from Matthew 25:21 did not move me much. It seemed an impersonal commendation: “Well done, good and faithful slave” (NASB). Subsequently, I held my breath theologically without hoping much for these ambiguous promises in a far-off future. I don’t even like gum balls.
Somewhere along the way Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 4:5 gripped my interest in this topic of rewards:
“Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God” (NASB).
Paul had already introduced the idea of being rewarded for faithfulness in response to God (1 Cor 3:10-23). People will be rewarded individually, but Paul does not say what the reward is. The clue comes in this verse (1 Cor 4:5) in a way that expands Jesus’ statements in Matthew 25:21, 23. The individual human being will be praised in detail by the Creator.
Similar statements about the reward show in 1 Peter 1:7, Romans 2:29, and 2 Corinthians 10:18—Jesus the Judge will recount to us a long list of commendations for our responses to him throughout the decades of our life here. This may take some time for Jesus to tell it all for people who have done much in responsiveness to God. (As an aside, it occurs to me that since both Rom 2:29 and 1 Cor 4:5 specify the praise coming from God, theos, and since final judgment is done by Jesus, then these are two more passages using the special term theos for Jesus Christ.)
God has promised to praise his people. Perhaps this praise is the same as simply saying, “Well done, good and faithful slave.” Paul’s language of praise—the very thing we aim to do towards God—goes beyond the commendation in the parable of the talents. Several biblical passages about rewards correspond to specific incidents (John 4:36; Matt 19:29), so I think it must be that the praise of God the Son to each of his people at the Last Judgment is specific, and not the general single statement over a whole life as in “well done.”
The repeated appeal to “Heavenly rewards” as motivation for particular sacrifices in numerous specific incidents of this life pictures commendations of praise that are equally particular and specific. Even for the person who made only one response to God, such as the thief on the cross who believed in the crucified Messiah, Jesus promises to recount the praise deserved. Other people, such as the apostle Paul or the women among Jesus’ disciples, may deserve a much longer list of commendations by Jesus. The specific recounting of a person’s faithfulness could take many hours or longer. I imagine that this could occur simultaneously for all God’s people, speaking to us one-on-one, since God the Son is not limited by time and space in the resurrection. Just as millions of Christians may engage directly with God simultaneously through prayer, he can engage us simultaneously and directly for the long time it may take to praise us for our decades of life here. For example: “On April 24, 2006, you cleaned up the vomit from your sick child, and you were barely able to keep your own retching at bay. I was pleased with your love in that act.”
I am exhilarated with the possibility of hearing my Lord speak to me in specific and detailed ways about all the ways I am living in response to him right now (I am hopeful that I am doing so). So many things that we do in response to God are secret, but he will remind us of them, that he knows of and praises us for them—each incident of suffering and sacrifice, all the little deaths (to our own delusions of godhood) that we embrace as part of trusting him (Luke 9:23). This way of thinking about rewards lifts me out of concern for the ways other people may judge me positively or negatively.
Each one’s praise will come to us from God. I cannot imagine anything in this life more worthwhile than hearing God’s praise to me in direct and specific ways. Any loss of something in the here and now will be compensated by God’s permanent praise to me later. I cannot imagine any greater reward in Heaven. That the Creator and Savior would praise his people on an individual and specific basis seems insane foolishness. Such a reward is better than anything in this world. God himself is the reward we desire most and were made for. God’s praise to us is one dimension the Bible specifies as how we will enjoy God now and forever (cf. John 17:3).