In this chapter we are going to compare the concept of gaining eternal life as a gift and getting eternal life as a reward. Don’t be alarmed. Although these seem as if they are contradictory ideas, the distinction will become plain as we go along.
The first verse that we will consider is this one in Romans 6:23.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.1
Paul, in that verse, cleverly tells us that eternal life is a gift that comes from God and is given in Christ Jesus our Lord. For the believer, the experience of salvation comes at no cost.2 The free gift of eternal life is given at the moment someone believes. If you are a believer you currently have everlasting life.3
However, there are a handful of passages in the Bible that use reward terminology to talk about the future experience of eternal life. The distinction between eternal life as a current possession and a future experience should be noted, because it will be important as we continue. Let’s consider Mark 10:29-30 as an example.
Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”4
In these verses, Jesus is explaining the reward of being a committed disciple. It’s important that we notice the heavily used language of discipleship and reward. He gives a set of cause and effect statements, starting with the concept that sacrifice will be rewarded both in this life and the next. The entire section is laden with reward terminology.
So, why then, does he say that someone will receive eternal life, in the midst of this speech about reward? If we were simply scanning it would be easy to miss the distinction. Many have used passages like this to say that salvation comes as a result of the believer’s sacrifice. We know that can’t be what he’s saying since it contradicts his own words many times over. There must be another explanation, and in fact there is.
When we look at the section in which these verses appear the answer jumps out. This speech follows the encounter with the rich young ruler. If you are familiar with the story, you will recall the dilemma that this wealthy young aristocrat had. Mark tells us that he had “great possessions.” So, this guy was filthy rich. We know that he was quite fond of his possessions, because in the end he chose them over discipleship. Understanding that, let’s look at what the rich young ruler asked Jesus.
Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”5
Is the rich young ruler asking how to get saved? Many who have casually read the story have thought so, but there is a very important word that indicates otherwise. Do you see it? The young man uses the word “inherit.” What is inheritance? It’s about wealth. It’s about land, and houses, and money. For the first century Jew, the idea of the Kingdom was very physical. They understood that people would have differing levels of wealth in the Kingdom of Heaven. So this man is asking, what he has to do to hold on to the wealth he has when the Kingdom comes. That’s why, when Jesus tells him that he can’t hold on to his wealth now, and be wealthy in the future Kingdom, he “went away sad.”
We have another indication that Jesus is talking about Heavenly wealth right there in the same story. As Jesus delivers his famous answer to the rich young ruler, he dispels all doubt that it is, in fact, Kingdom wealth that’s in the young rulers mind. Jesus says,
sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven;6
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say the outcome of selling everything would be salvation. Instead he says, that the outcome would be treasure in Heaven. Clearly the rich young ruler must have already been saved, since Jesus could offer him treasure in Heaven. Otherwise he would have focused on the salvation message. Instead he’s calling this new-born believer to discipleship, and explaining that treasure in heaven comes by sacrifice on Earth. The man refuses Jesus’ call to discipleship, because he couldn’t give up his current wealth. After all, didn’t Jesus say that to be a disciple, one should count the cost? The young man counted the cost and determined that it was too high. So he chose not to be a disciple.
It’s indispensable to understand what was being asked about by the rich young ruler, treasure in heaven. He was asking about his wealth and status in the future Kingdom. We needed to know that because, after the young ruler leaves, Peter asks essentially the same question, as Matthew records it.
Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we [the disciples] have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?”7
By this time, all the disciples except Judas had already believed in Jesus for everlasting life. Peter had already expressed that belief,8 so he was saved at this point. Just like the rich young ruler, Peter was not asking about the free gift of salvation, he was asking about what he will have when he gets there.
Peter, no doubt, noticed that Jesus had just told the rich young ruler to leave all his wealth behind to gain Heavenly riches. This caught Peter’s attention since he himself, and the other disciples, had already left their possessions behind. Now he was hearing that there was treasure in Heaven to be had, and he was in line to receive some of it. Peter wanted to know what that treasure would be.
Peter’s question is the springboard for the verses that we brought up at the top of this chapter. Let’s look at them once more, with this new understanding.
Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”9
The sense in which he means these words is focused on rewards. He’s pointing out that the future experience in eternal life will be a great one for those who are willing to sacrifice now. In this passage, when he says eternal life, he’s connecting it to his previous explanation of treasure in heaven and eternal reward. The current possession of eternal life is a gift given to those who believe in Christ. However, the future experience of a ultimately fulfilling eternal life has to be worked for as disciples.
There is another verse that talks of eternal life as a reward in a very similar way. Paul, in his first letter to his disciple Timothy said this.
Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life…10 storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.11
Once again, the sense in which Paul means, “lay hold of eternal life,” is very close to what Jesus said in Mark 10. You’ll notice that here, like in the previous verses, he’s not talking about the current possession of eternal life, but a future experience. That is the first clue that we are not talking about salvation but discipleship.
Here he uses athletic terms that might be used of a boxer. This “laying hold on eternal life” involves agonizing working it must be done in order that we gain that future experience. For Paul, this fight was the fight of discipleship. One in which there is agony and pain, but there is reward as well.
Notice his words, “storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come…” Once again this indicates that we are talking of work and reward, not salvation. Since the gift of eternal life is gained the moment a person believes and can never be lost, It would make no sense to say that more salvation could be stored up. Instead, we understand that what is being stored up is reward that will be enjoyed in the future experience of eternal life.
We know that believers already have a current possession of eternal life.12 However, Paul means that the greatest experience in the life to come will result from a hard fought spiritual battle. Discipleship is a fight, and it takes a lot of focus and hard work to win. These athletic terms let us know assuredly that Paul is not talking about the free gift of eternal life that every believer currently has, but instead the maximum potential experience that the disciple can experience when they finally come into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The vast majority of times that the Bible uses “eternal life” it means it in terms of salvation. There are only a handful of times that the Bible uses the term eternal life to express the rewarded experience for discipleship. Here is a simple rule to quickly determine which is being talked about. When eternal life is referred to as a present possession, it is a reference to the gift. When eternal life is referred to as something we will possess in the future, it is a reference to reward.
1 Romans 6:23.
2 Revelation 22:17, Ephesians 2:8-9
3 John 11:26, 5:24, 6:47
4 Mark 10:29–31.
5 Mark 10:17.
6 Mark 10:21.
7 Matthew 19:27.
8 Mark 8:29
9 Mark 10:29–31.
10 1 Timothy 6:12.
11 1 Timothy 6:19.
12 John 6:47, 5:24,