We all know that grace means getting something we don’t deserve; something we haven’t earned. On the other hand, wages are something we have earned and we do deserve.
That’s why Paul says that the “wages” of sin are death (Rom 6:23). By sinning we have earned and deserved our wages. But the eternal life we are given is described as a “free gift”, meaning that we have done absolutely nothing to earn or deserve it.
But where do rewards fit into this? Many Christians seem to assume that for God to reward us would somehow violate the principle of grace. Isn’t a reward something you deserve? And therefore if God could reward us for behaving in a certain way, wouldn’t that mean he was dealing with us on the basis of law, not grace?
The trouble is, throughout the Bible we find promises of rewards to those who honour and obey God. And they are not just limited to the Old Testament. Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with holding up “rewards” as incentives to his followers. Here’s just a few examples where the word “reward” itself is used (and many others could be given where the concept of reward is clearly found):
The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life (Prov 22:4 ESV)
And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt 10:42 ESV)
If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (1 Cor 3:14 ESV)
I have heard some people try to wriggle out of the implications of these verses by suggesting that God completely ignores everything the Christian does in life, and looks instead and only at what Jesus did. That way every Christian will receive an identical reward (whether now or at judgment day).
However, I do not think that does justice to the Biblical texts, which really do seem to indicate that what we do does matter to God, that we can bring him pleasure or displeasure (for example see Eph 5:10).
The solution is to recognise that rewards operate on the basis of grace, just as as gifts do. God is never obligated to give us a reward, just as an employer is not obligated to give a bonus to his employees. Yes, a reward may be given in response to something that has been done, but it is always given on the basis of grace. It was not “deserved”, nor can it be presumed upon.
Suppose one of my children is very helpful in tidying up after dinner, and I decide to reward them with an ice cream. Did they earn or deserve the ice cream? No. Can they expect another the next day by doing the same thing? Not necessarily. Rewards are not our right.
So if a person decides to honour God by tithing their income, then he might bless them financially as a reward. But he might bless them in a completely different way. He is not obligated to reward them in any particular way (after all, all the money is God’s in the first place).
So don’t be afraid that you are being legalistic by seeking to please the Lord. We cannot earn his love, or our salvation, but we can bring him pleasure, and in his grace he may “reward” us for our feeble attempts at honouring him.