One of the mistakes that Free Grace people can make in discipleship is to lose sight of how eternal rewards are also a matter of grace.
In one of the most crucial passages on rewards in the New Testament (i.e., 1 Cor 3:5-8), Paul has something to say about whether we really “earn” our rewards:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given (v 5).
What about Apollos and Paul? We’re tempted to think that such giants of the faith are naturally capable of achieving great things for the Lord, more so than other people. But are they?
The truth is, Paul says they were both servants—diakonos—a word that originally referred to someone who served tables and therefore had a lower status than those being served. Paul and Apollos were being faithful to the roles God assigned, hence the focus should be on the Lord, not on the servants.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (v 6).
Paul was a planter—a church planter. He would go to a new area, preach the gospel, help bring people to faith in Jesus and organize them into an assembly, usually beginning with a single house church that would then multiply across a city. That is what apostolic ministry is.
But after planting those seeds, other workers like Apollos came and watered the growing plants. You plant once but have to water often. In the heat of a North Texas June, my tomato plants will get very droopy near the end of the day. But after I water them, they spring up strong again. Watering probably refers to a teaching and discipling ministry. Apollos (and others) watered the new Christians with the gospel, helping them to grow.
But as important as the work of planting and watering may be, God gives the growth. The Lord does the vital part. As a struggling gardener, I can testify that putting a seed in the ground and watering it are not ends in themselves. What I want are fruits and vegetables. And it’s the same in ministry. You don’t want to go through the motions of doing ministry activities for their own sake—you want growth. And God gives that growth. You might think the worker brings growth. Not so. Only God does it. Don’t overestimate the powers of the planter and the waterer.
So, then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (v 7).
Since God is the one who gives the growth, and that’s the most important thing, the planters and waterers are nothing, and God is everything. He is the praiseworthy one, so instead of occupying ourselves with the servants, we should occupy ourselves with God.
Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor (v 8).
Even though they had different roles, workers like Paul and Apollos were not rivals. The Corinthians were choosing sides and aligning themselves with different personalities (cf. 1 Cor 1:11-12), the same way people today will attach themselves to a favorite teacher, pastor, or theologian. Christendom is filled with groups named after a favorite teacher (e.g., Augustinians, Franciscans, Thomists, Calvinists, Lutherans, etc). I also see that happening in Free Grace circles. That’s the wrong perspective to take on ministry work. The planter and waterer are not rivals but are one. That is, we’re all workers in one field or building (cf. v 9).
Amazingly, God will reward believers for their labor. That’s amazing because God lets us serve, gives us our roles, and then blesses what we do with growth. He is the source of anything good that we accomplish. Elsewhere Paul would say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
This passage should give us a different perspective on rewards. Yes, God will reward you, and that is a proper Biblical motivation for serving Him. But don’t get an overinflated view of yourself as if you were irreplaceable and God was in your debt for your essential work. And we definitely should not develop a legalistic or effort-based approach to discipleship and rewards. Relatively speaking, we’re nothing. We’re given our roles, and God blesses what we do to bring growth we could never get by our own strengths and talents. I like how Harry Ironside put it:
“[The reward] is in addition to salvation. We are saved by grace, but this is for faithful service. After we have been saved, there is superabounding grace for, of course, the reward too is of grace, for we could not have earned anything but by divine power. He enables us and then rewards us” (see here).
Although God will reward you, the real praise is not due to the worker but to the Lord who gives the growth.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.