Image that you’ve just completed a month of work and are waiting on your pay check. The boss hands you an envelope with your wages and says, “here’s your free gift.” Why would that be the wrong thing for the boss to say? Obviously, your wages are not a gift. If they were a gift you should have been allowed to sit on your couch watching TV all month. Instead you worked, and you are receiving a reward for your labor.
Among Bible enthusiasts there are many who remain confused about the difference between eternal life and eternal rewards. Although, hardly anyone misunderstands the difference between a birthday present, and a paycheck. When we see the terms used to describe salvation and discipleship, it should become clear which is which. The two verses that we will examine in this section appear in the the same chapter of the Bible. Let’s look at what Revelation 22:17 has to say about salvation.
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.1
These words of Jesus invite anyone who desires to have everlasting life to come and receive it. He lays out clearly in the gospel of John what is required to have everlasting life. The person who is willing need only believe in Christ for eternal life and they will have it.2 These verses from Revelation are reminiscent of the discussion Jesus had with the woman at the well, when he said a very similar thing.3
What stands out about this verse most sharply is that he offers this gift freely. Some translations render it, “without cost.” The Christ has the right and the means to give away this free gift of salvation. There is hardly any way to misunderstand the price attached to eternal life when this verse and all of the other salvation passages are taken together.
That’s why the one who is confused about the difference between salvation and discipleship might trip over Revelation 22:12. Notice that this verse is in the same chapter as the one we just looked at.
“And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.”4
Verse 12 and 17 are only separated by a short paragraph, but they are so unique from one another that there is virtually no way to see them as saying the same thing. Here we find that Christ, on his return, will give rewards based on work. The nature of a reward is inequality. Just like wages for work, the reward that Jesus will give is based on the obedience of those who he will reward. Since everyone operates at a different level of obedience, Christ’s reward will be different for each person.
Most importantly, we know that he can’t be talking about salvation when he says he is coming with his reward, because we know that salvation is not given as a result of our work.5 Instead, it’s reward that is given for our work.
Any honest person should be able to admit that Jesus is offering both a free gift, and a reward for work. Of course, a free gift is not the same thing as a reward. So, Jesus is giving two distinct offers in Revelation 22. It’s important to see that this dual offer is in the last chapter, and in fact, ends the book. Revelation was the final letter to be written and included in the Bible, so this offer of free eternal life, and a reward for work is the end cap of the entire Biblical narrative. It’s as if he’s saying, “Just in case you’ve missed it, let me remind you one last time before I go.”
As we consider how these two offers fit with the concepts of salvation and discipleship, everything becomes clear. Salvation is linked to eternal life, where as eternal reward is linked to discipleship. Salvation is a free gift, but discipleship is work, and there will be a reward for those who choose it.
1 Revelation 22:17.
2 John 1:12, 3:16, 36, 5:24, 6:47
3 John 4:10-15
4 Revelation 22:12–13.
5 Ephesians 2:8-9