“Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections” (Westminster Confession of Faith 16.6).
When is the last time you heard a sermon that suggested that a motive for our obedience should be the rewards we receive in heaven? I imagine for most of us it has been a long time, maybe even never. Whenever a sermon (or book) provides a motive for obedience, it is almost always thankfulness for what Christ has done. And certainly that is a wonderful and foundational motivation. But is it the only motivation?
Recently I’ve been working on a commentary on the book of Hebrews and was struck by the role rewards have played in the lives of God’s people. We are reminded that Moses was motivated by rewards, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb 11:26). Why did Abraham obey? We are told “He went to live in the land of promise…For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations” (Heb 11:9-10).
This same motivation is found throughout the New Testament writings. Jesus makes it clear, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Paul states it plainly, “But each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8).
Even Jesus himself was motivated by his future reward: “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2).
It seems that prior generations may have grasped this truth more clearly. Richard Baxter explains the various kinds of motivations for our obedience:
This full subjection and obedience [to God] is difficult, but we should not hesitate to use every effort to attain it. How? (1.) Consider God’s government. Should he not rule the creatures he has created?…(2) God is perfectly fit to govern you. His interest is for your good…(3) Consider how unable and unfit you are to govern yourself. We are blind, ignorant, and biased by a corrupt will and turbulent passions…(4) Consider the rewards prepared for obedience and the punishment for disobedience…(5) Consider the joys of full obedience. All is at ease within us…(6) Consider our endless rewards: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (A Christian Directory, 1:75-77).
Baxter offers a full-range of reasons for why we obey God, but I particularly appreciate #4, #5, and #6. In these, Baxter gives us future-oriented reasons for obedience. Instead of asking us to look back (as we might expect him to do), he asks us to look forward to the rich blessings that God will provide.
But, if rewards are clearly presented as a motivation in the Christian life, why don’t we hear more about rewards in our modern pulpits? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but let me suggest one: we have been convinced that our obedience doesn’t matter.