The Pernicious Doctrine of Rewards in Heaven

I don’t use the word pernicious when I am talking. It came to me as I got set to blog. I must have read it lately, or it wouldn’t have popped into my head. But, it is the word that describes the teaching that as justified believers, we can now get busy and work our way to a better deal in heaven. (Pernicious, by the way, means evil and destructive.)

I will be teaching on this Sunday morning before church, so I won’t make this an exhaustive post. I just want to mention a couple of reasons why the idea that we get to heaven by grace, but are treated differently depending on our good works is wrong pernicious. I am on a high horse because when I searched the web, I found this teaching everywhere.

Briefly, my pastoral concerns are centered in three areas, legalism, motivation, and most importantly, the denial of the imputation to us of Christ’s righteousness. As to legalism, guilt trips and pride immediately enter the picture.”God loves me more because I worked harder and I’m getting a better deal in heaven.” Or, “I feel awful that I didn’t volunteer to teach Sunday School. Now God will probably take away one of the jewels in my crown.” The reward system is taught by many as kind of a celestial Federal Reserve System. Each night rewards or losses are tallied up and moved to or from your account. Can you see what this does to your relationship with God? It becomes a relationship much like those we have here on earth—conditioned by how we behave. Lost is the unconditional love of God that comes strictly because we are in Jesus.

Related to legalism is motivation. Remember the parable of the vineyard workers? Everyone worked a different amount of time, but all got the same “reward.” Contrast that with this example of rewards teaching from the web:

God motivates us to continue on the right path with the promises of rewards in heaven, the one thief on the cross who believed in Jesus in his final moments was promised that he would be with Jesus in paradise, he may have received eternal salvation, but he likely had few rewards awaiting him. To provide a crude example; Billy Graham may shine like a 100-watt light bulb for eternity in heaven but this thief while also in heaven after death may only look like 1 watt. We only have this lifetime to make our decisions. Use it wisely!

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Maybe we should all be given cards which say, “Rewards member since 19XX.” Then we will know who is and isn’t a high roller in heaven.

. Paul insists that our basis for good works should be appreciation. (You theologues should borrow my copy of Prof. John Murray’s Principles of Conduct for a better understanding of this idea.) How far from that is the idea of doing good works to get rewards? It makes a labor of love into something akin to earning rewards points on the heavenly credit card I suggested above. The Westminster Confession of faith, Chapter XVI has a great exposition of good works, and helps in understanding this, too.) Look at this ad for Sunday School materials to teach very young children. What do you see as a motivation for good works in this?

Sunday school Lesson 4 Serve Cheerfully! The concepts taught in this lesson include: God gives us special abilities so that we can be really good at doing some jobs. God gives us everything you need to do our jobs well. When we use our abilities to help others, and share with others, God will give us rewards in heaven. This lesson encourages children by emphasizing that God didn’t leave anybody out…he gave us each special abilities. And it gives them ways they can begin using their abilities even at their young age. It also helps children begin to focus on what’s to come – rewards in heaven! The Circle Talk Time uses an object lesson to show children what that means. There is a warm-up activity, two pretend play activities and a rhyme with actions to go with this lesson. There is a sticker craft using the Bible reference of Ephesians 6:8 that tells us that the Lord will reward us for the good things we do. Also, children make a booklet with stickers about their abilities God gave them. The other verse used in this lesson is Romans 12:6-8.

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The biggie for me is how this teaching destroys the value of our receiving Christ’s righteousness when we become Christians. The Bible teaches us that when we believe, our sins are forgiven on the basis of Jesus’s death. He died for our sins. It also teaches us that we receive in the place of our sins credit for his righteous life. (See, Paul’s explanation in Romans 3 and 4.) We are credited with his righteousness. So, his record of works is our record of works. How could we even think we could improve on that? (While I won’t get into it here, those who carry the rewards thinking out logically, decide that we really didn’t get Jesus’s righteousness.)


I will deal with crowns and rewards from the Scripture on Sunday. Simply put, when we look at those passages in context, they are generally speaking about the difference between saved and unsaved, not distinctions in levels of rewards for the saved. After all, our “rewards” are called an inheritance. You don’t get an inheritance from working—you get it from being a child!

See you Sunday!

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17 Comments on “The Pernicious Doctrine of Rewards in Heaven”

  1. paisleyandplaid Says:

    I think I’m clear on the pre-heaven part of the faith. We made it! It’s the post-entry part that eludes.

    It’s hard to imagine a paradigm too different from competition and rewards. It seems archetypal and ingrained. Competition is behind most of what we do. We are constantly being evaluated. The world’s a big Who’s Who contest. Smartest. Fastest. Prettiest. Most likely to Succeed. It’s Haves and Have-Nots. (Hillary Clinton referred to a class of women as “downscale.”) So we get, “What, you’re 38 and not Presidient yet? You’re not trying.” So huffing and puffing we do more.

    But a communistic ideal displeases, too. We didn’t do the task equally well, but we all got the same pay. Mass-produced trophies. “Not fair,” we cry. We work to show we’re worthy, and we expect recognition/compensation for it. Capitalism owes much to the Protestant work ethic, doesn’t it? I’ve always thought of it as God-supported.

    But God has a different economy planned for eternity, I guess. And I’m thankful to Him for his plan. He evaluated Jesus. And He was not found wanting. He performed perfectly. No failings or foibles or regrets. His performance review has my name on it!

    So assuming heaven isn’t another survival of the fittest game — me with my rewards and you with yours as we eye each other from across the street/aisle, surely we’ll experience relief. No more one-upping each other. The gloves can come off. Walls can come down. And no election (the political kind :).

  2. Matt Says:

    I see everywhere -EVERYWHERE!- today, Satan’s cleverness and human weakness, when he convinces so many well meaning but mentally and spiritually lazy people that doing the right thing the wrong way is just an easier way to do the right thing… as long as we get results, right? Satan is a score keeper, the great accuser. He’s the one to bring up our behavior. He’s the one to tell us we can be like God, do something on our own to make God like us, get a few extra watts (is that for real!?!) in the hereafter.

    Between the confident believer and his Eternal Father, though, there aren’t any secrets. God knows what I deserve, I know what I deserve, and we are both so glad I’m not getting it.

  3. sallyi Says:

    I guess I am way too simplistic about this rewards debate. It just seems to me that if you are focusing on your rewards or jewels in your crown or whatever you want to be able to throw at Jesus’ feet, then your focus is on you. But the emphasis is supposed to be on God and Him alone, not on me. I am to glorify Him – “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31) – not so that I’ll get something out of it! It is sufficient for me that I will be with Him. There is nothing that I can bring to Him that is anywhere good enough to give Him; in fact, there is nothing that I can bring to Him that isn’t His already! Let me rest and grow in the knowledge of His love by being “His craftsmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand so that I might walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10) That is enough.

  4. Bill Deiss Says:

    I have to disagree.

    If our reason to discount the doctrine of rewards is due to our temptation for improper attitudes or motivation is the main issue, then I pose a question. If my motivation to tithe is to receive blessings (even though it is promised as a byproduct of faithfulness/ hmmm sounds like a reward) then am I doing it with the right motivation? Or should we just throw out the doctrine of tithe just because it can be done with improper attitudes. Just because people distort the idea of rewards in heaven does not mean that Jesus’ teaching on rewards is false.

    If our rewards are souls in heaven, then most of us will be empty handed anyway when it comes time to throw our crowns at His feet. So isn’t it just convenient to dismiss any doctrine that calls us to be responsible for our inactions or disobedience to Gods commands. We should all be about the Father’s business and let God sort out the motivation of our hearts.

    One day we will find out for sure.

    • Shelly Says:

      The tithe is unscriptural for today. It was to supplement the Levital priesthood Old Testament under the Law. Paul says we give as the Lord prospers out of a cheerful heart. Anyone can make excuses but those of us who are saved have received a FULL reward in Christ. Otherwise Grace is no more Grace. If we don’t believe in a merit system (and we shouldn’t) we can never give or do anything for the Lord with an improper motive!

  5. Bob Says:

    Actually, Bill, my main point was that Rewards in Heaven run contrary to the idea of our receiving the perfect record of Christ which can’t be improved upon. Certainly right living brings with it blessings. My concern on motivation is that focusing on rewards is what keeps us from living from appreciation for grace. Even on giving, the OT law required tithing no matter what your attitude. In the NT, Paul says that God loves a cheerful [appreciative] giver. The focus is on grace, not rewards.

    • Shelly Says:

      AMEN! Sorry I didn’t see this before I posted. The rewards issue actually grieves my spirit and I’m edified to see people who agree…

  6. Bill Deiss Says:

    We are in agreement that no amount of works on our part will change our status of salvation or approval from God. We cannot add to the grace and mercy of the cross. The rest is obedience as christians to do the will of our Father no matter what the motivation…God desires our obedience.

    I guess for me the result of my salvation is eternity with Him and the benefit of obedience is His saying to me “good and faithful servant”. That is the ultimate reward when I finally see Him face to face.

  7. Bob Says:

    Amen to what you said.

  8. Kevin Says:

    I don’t see any scripture presented in your argument to support your position.

  9. Michael Says:

    Absolutely brilliant.

  10. brianhyde Says:

    I came to this site feeling decidedly uncomfortable in my spirit about the whole concept of rewards. This article and most of the comments confirm that I am not alone in sensing that something is not right abou the teaching. I would however like to see a response based on scripture.

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  15. Danielle Says:

    Good article. The doctrine of heavenly rewards doesn’t sit right with me either. I would love it if you could write about the crowns in depth and make another post that I might be fully convinced in my mind. Please consider, thank you.

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