A concerned reader wrote:
“I am writing you to express my concerns regarding Shawn’s FGI blog on December 28, 2022, ‘The Riches You Already Possess (Ephesians 3:8).’ Under the guise of focusing on Christ, this blog is telling believers not to focus on eternal rewards. This is basically a denial of the importance of eternal rewards as motivation in the life of a believer…
“I don't see how this is any different than the attitude that we shouldn't be motivated by eternal rewards. This clearly contradicts biblical commands to have our hearts and minds set on eternal rewards (Matthew 6:19-21, Colossians 3:1-2). Also, a proper focus on eternal rewards necessarily focuses on Jesus Christ, as all eternal rewards will enhance and result in a closer relationship with Jesus. One cannot separate eternal rewards from the Giver of those rewards, the Lord Jesus Christ. They are inseparably linked.”
Thanks for your letter and for the chance to answer your concerns. You wrote:
“Under the guise of focusing on Christ, this blog is telling believers not to focus on eternal rewards.”
I'm sorry if I gave that impression. That was not my intent at all. To be more precise, I urged readers to make sure they were focusing on Christ. My blog was about priorities. My point was that if we had to choose between making Jesus or eternal rewards our priority, we should always put Jesus first. That goes for any doctrine. When Christ is our focus, everything else will come into proper focus.
“This is basically a denial of the importance of eternal rewards as motivation in the life of a believer… I don't see how this is any different than the attitude that we shouldn't be motivated by eternal rewards.”
I didn’t deny that eternal rewards are an important motivation in the believer's life. I think they should be motivating. But believers have multiple motivations for serving the Lord. For example, the woman who kissed Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears loved Him much because she was forgiven much (cf. Luke 7:36-50), so being forgiven by Jesus can be a powerful motivation to serve Him. Or John said that “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), so being loved by Jesus is another motivation to serve Him. And God’s salvific grace teaches us to deny ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12), so grace is another powerful impetus for service. The believer has many such motivations to serve Christ, including the motivation of winning rewards. They’re all important. But notice, Jesus is behind all of them. It is His forgiveness, love, grace, and rewards that motivate us. He’s the focus.
“This clearly contradicts biblical commands to have our hearts and minds set on eternal rewards (Matthew 6:19-21, Colossians 3:1-2).”
I think you see, now, my blog didn’t make the argument you’re objecting to and so doesn’t contradict the commands you cite. In fact, I think Col 3:1-2 illustrates my point:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col 3:1-2).
Why does Paul say we should seek the things above? Because that’s where Christ is. We’re motivated by what we have in Christ (i.e., we’re raised with Him), and by where He is (i.e., seated at the right hand of God). In other words, the things above are attractive to us because Jesus is our focus.
“Also, a proper focus on eternal rewards necessarily focuses on Jesus Christ, as all eternal rewards will enhance and result in a closer relationship with Jesus.”
I’m glad you wrote about a “proper focus on eternal rewards” because that implies there can be an improper focus on eternal rewards. That was the concern of my blog—improper focus. I agree that a proper focus on Christ will include being motivated by rewards because those mean a closer relationship with Christ. But there again, Jesus is the reason to be motivated by the rewards.
But let me come back to the issue of having an improper focus on rewards.
People can improperly focus on rewards when, for example, they think of eternal rewards in a salvation-by-works scheme, or as part of a legalistic spirituality, where they think their salvation depends on gaining enough rewards. I think of Roman Catholics expecting to be saved based on their merits or by the merits of the saints. That’s absolutely wrong because we’re justified by faith apart from works (Gal 2:16).
People can also improperly focus on rewards by thinking they can be gained in the wrong way, such as by lording it over others, which Jesus criticized (cf. Mark 10:35-45). That’s another example of rewards becoming skewed in our minds.
I can also imagine people becoming so occupied with rewards that they use it as an excuse for creating rivalry and division among believers, the way water baptism became a source of division among the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:10-17). If that ever happened it would reflect a spiritually carnal approach to rewards.
“One cannot separate eternal rewards from the Giver of those rewards, the Lord Jesus Christ. They are inseparably linked.”
I think you meant “one shouldn’t separate” rewards from Jesus. Sadly, people can and do separate Jesus from rewards all the time. How? For example, most Christians don’t even teach eternal rewards, so they definitely separate Jesus from them. And that’s wrong because eternal rewards are Biblical (e.g., 1 Cor 3:11-15). One of the great strengths of Free Grace theology is that it rediscovered the doctrine of eternal rewards.
But it’s also possible to separate rewards from Jesus in the sense that they can become more important to you than Jesus Christ Himself. Someone can become so preoccupied with getting treasure in heaven that they’re no longer supremely occupied with Christ. In any list of legitimate priorities, including one with the doctrine of eternal rewards, Jesus should always come first.
In all things, we should strive to have a Christ-centered perspective. And as it happens, that kind of perspective is rewardable!