And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away — Revelation 21:4
Will there be degrees of reward in heaven? This is a question around which there has been much controversy throughout the history of the church. Many men whose doctrine has been thoroughly biblical in other areas have been in grave error concerning rewards. I know that I will not settle the controversy surrounding this question in this brief study. That is not my purpose. It is my responsibility to teach those things which become sound doctrine and build up God’s elect in the faith of Christ, so that you will not be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the slight of men, and cunning craftiness!”
The issue by which this question must be settled is very clear. – Is God’s salvation, in its’ entirety, the work of his free grace in Christ, or is it not? If, as the Scriptures everywhere assert, our salvation is altogether the work of God’s free grace, if our works have nothing to do with it, and heavenly glory is but the consummation of that salvation, then there can be no degrees of reward in heaven.
Without question, salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. No part of salvation can be, in any measure, attributed to the will, worth, or works of man (2 Tim. 1:9; Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 11:6). If it is possible to separate heavenly rewards from salvation, then one might imagine that there shall be degrees of reward in heaven; but if heaven and the glorious inheritance of the saints in heaven is only the consummation of salvation, then the doctrine that there shall be degrees of reward in heaven is but another subtle way of teaching salvation by works! It is impossible to separate heavenly glory from salvation.
What is the doctrine of those who teach degrees of reward in heaven? I realize that some who teach that there are degrees of reward in heaven may have slightly different opinions than others; but basically their doctrine is the same. I do not wish to put words into the mouths of others. So, I will give you the doctrine in the words of one of its leading proponents.
“Rewards are offered by God to a believer on the basis of faithful service rendered after salvation. It is clear from Scripture that God offers to the lost salvation and for the faithful service of the saved, rewards. Often in theological thinking salvation and rewards are confused. However, these two terms must be carefully distinguished. Salvation is a free gift (John 4:10; Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9), while rewards are earned by works (Matt. 10:42; Lk. 19:17; 1 Cor. 9:24-25; 2 Tim. 4:7-8). Rewards will be dispensed at the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10). The doctrine of rewards is inseparably connected with God’s grace. A soul being saved on the basis of divine grace, there is no room for the building up of merit on the part of the believer. Yet, God recognizes an obligation on his part to reward his saved ones for their service to Him. Nothing can be done to merit salvation, but what the believer has achieved for God’s glory God recognizes in His great faithfulness with rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ.”
Merrill F. Unger
Here are five things involved in the teaching that there will be degrees of reward in heaven, as stated by Mr. Unger.
1. Salvation is limited to the initial experience of conversion. – In the Word of God no such separation exists. The Scriptures never separate one part of salvation from another (Matt. 10:22; Rom. 8:28-30; 13:11; 2 Cor. 2:10; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 2:4).
2. It is possible for a person to be saved and not be a faithful servant of Christ. – Nothing can be more contrary to the words of our Lord (See Luke 14:25-33). There is no such thing as a believer who does not live in submission to Christ as his Lord. Believers do not always act faithfully; but they are all faithful. To be a believer is to be one who is to be a saint (sanctified) and to be numbered among “the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 1:1).
3. Men and women, by their service to God, put God under obligation to reward them. – What an atrocious statement! Is it possible for a sinful man or woman to do anything to merit God’s favor, to earn God’s blessing? Can a mere man oblige the Almighty? We are debtors to God. He is not, and cannot be made to be, a debtor to us!
4. There will be two judgment days, one for believers and another for unbelievers. – The Word of God never hints at the idea that Christ will come again twice, once in secret and then in open, or that there will be two distinct resurrection days, or that there will be two separate days of judgment. Such fabrications are but the inventions of men, in an attempt to make the Word of God fit into their theological systems.
5. Believers will yet have to suffer for their sins! – The doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven unashamedly declares that those for whom Christ has suffered all the wrath of God, whose sins he put away, will yet suffer in heaven for their sins after God saved them, that they will suffer the everlasting shame of heavens loss in the presence of those who earned a greater measure of glory, those who by their great goodness obliged God to give them a greater inheritance! The Lord God says otherwise. He declares that he will never charge his people with sin (Rom. 4:8; 8:32-34). The doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is nothing less than a Protestant version of purgatory. Heavenly glory is not everlasting sorrow, but everlasting bliss.
Such doctrine is not without unavoidable implications. If the doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is accepted then it must be acknowledged that heaven’s glory is not the reward of grace, but the payment of a debt. It must also be acknowledged that heaven is not a place of unmingled joy as the Scriptures assert (Rev. 7:15-17; 21:1-5; 22:2-5), but a place of mingled joy and grief. If the doctrine of degrees of reward is accepted, it must also be accepted, contrary to the plainest statements of divine Revelation, that God does withhold some good things from them that walk uprightly, and some evil shall fall upon the just (Psa. 84:11; Prov. 12:21). Again, if the doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven were accepted, then we would be forced to conclude, in direct opposition to the universal teaching of Holy Scripture that the blood of Christ and the righteousness of Christ will not alone be sufficient for our acceptance with God, — that some part of God’s favor, some of the blessings of God, must be earned by us, — that salvation is partly a matter of works and not altogether the gift of God’s free grace in Christ. These implications are inescapable, as well as utterly blasphemous. Yet, they must be accepted, if we accept the doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven.
Why has this issue been stated so dogmatically? Why have I dealt with this so pointedly? It could have been passed over with little or no notice. Few, if any, would have realized its omission. Here are five reasons for my decision to write as I have on this matter.
1. The doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven is totally without foundation in the Word of God. Not one passage referred to in support of this doctrine even hints that some saints will have more and some have less in heaven. Not one of the crowns mentioned in the Bible are said to be given only to certain believers. All the saints before the throne have the same golden crowns, crowns which they gladly cast before the feet of the Lamb (Revelation 4:10).
2. It is totally contrary to the plain statements of Holy Scripture. Here are eight passages of Scripture, given without comment, which utter nullify the absurd doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven.
Matthew 20:1-16 “For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. (2) And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. (3) And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, (4) And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. (5) Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. (6) And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? (7) They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (8) So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. (9) And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (10) But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. (11) And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, (12) Saying, THESE LAST HAVE WROUGHT BUT ONE HOUR, AND THOU HAST MADE THEM EQUAL UNTO US, WHICH HAVE BORNE THE BURDEN AND HEAT OF THE DAY. (13) But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? (14) Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. (15) Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?(16) So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”
Romans 8:17 “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.”
Romans 8:29 “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.”
Ephesians 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:”
Ephesians 5:25-27 “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; (26) That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, (27)That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
1 John 3:1-2 “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. (2) Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
Jude 1:24 “Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.”
Can there be degrees of holiness, degrees of perfection, degrees of faultlessness, degrees of glorification? Nonsense!
3. The doctrine of degrees of reward, of heavenly rewards earned by personal obedience, makes service to Christ a legal, mercenary thing.
Such doctrine promotes pride. If one person could obtain a bigger crown, a higher rank, or a greater nearness to God by his works than another, he would have every reason to pop his suspenders, strut around heaven, and have those poor, crownless people, living in the back street slums of the New Jerusalem, bow and scrape before him.
Not only does the doctrine promote pride, it threatens punishment. It attempts to put God’s people upon a legal footing before God, threatening the loss of reward and everlasting shame, if we do not do what is expected of us. This horrendous doctrine would make all God’s saints mercenaries, inspiring obedience and faithfulness by either the threat of punishment or by the promise of reward. I challenge anyone to find a single example of such base, carnal threats against redeemed sinners in the New Testament. Such doctrine is as offensive as it is unscriptural, because both dishonors our God and assumes that God’s people do not really love Christ, that they are not motivated, inspired, and governed by that love and by their hearts’ concern for the will and glory of God.
4. This base, carnal doctrine of earned reward in heaven robs Christ of the glory of his grace and makes room for human flesh to boast before God.
If you and I do something that puts God almighty in obligation to reward us, then we have a right to boast in his presence. If we do something by which we merit a higher standing than others in glory, why shouldn’t we boast about it?
5. The doctrine of degrees in glory has the obnoxious odor of works about it; and there is no room for works in the kingdom of grace. – The God of Glory will not be worshipped upon an altar of hewn stone (Ex. 20:25). He will not be worshipped upon an altar built by our hands. There is no room for the baggage of works in the strait and narrow way.
There is one text of Scripture, which both destroys the doctrine of degrees of reward and assures
every believer ofan everlasting fulness of joy in glory. The text to which I refer is Revelation 21:4. — “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
Without question, there is much weeping in the way to heaven. Faith in Christ brings deliverance from all curse and condemnation, but not from pain and sorrow. There are many things that believers suffer in this world along with other men. Because the world is a world of sin, it is a world of sorrow. God’s saints suffer physical pain and sickness, domestic troubles, financial losses, and bereavement just like all other people in this world.
Added to these earthly sorrows, there are many things that bring tears to our eyes, about which the world knows nothing. We struggle incessantly with inward sin and unbelief. There is a warfare in our souls, a warfare between the flesh and the spirit, a warfare from which there will never be a moment’s truce, until we have left this world.
There are even some precious tears that we shed here that will be dried on the other side of Jordan. Here we shed bittersweet tears of repentance, — but not in glory! Here we often weep in sympathy because those we love are in pain or trouble, — but not in eternity! Here we weep with brokenhearted concern for others, — but not in heaven. Here our hearts often break and our eyes swell with tears because we long for Christ’s manifest presence, — but not in the land of our inheritance!
Even now, our heavenly Father does much to dry our tears. The believer’s life is not a morbid, sorrow-filled existence. Not at all! But we do have our sorrows. Yet, even in the midst of sorrow our Lord gives us great comfort (Isa. 43:1-6). As our days require, he gives us grace sufficient to meet our every need. — He gives us a measure of resignation to his will. — He teaches us to trust his providence. — He reminds us of his gracious purpose. — He causes us to remember his promises. — He blesses us with the sense of his presence. — He floods our hearts with the knowledge of his love (Eph. 3:19). — He reminds us that the cause of our pain is his fatherly love for his erring children (Heb. 12:5-12). – And he causes our hearts to be fixed upon better things (Col. 3:1-3; 2 Cor. 4:15-18).
Yet, in heaven’s glory our God will wipe all tears from our eyes. Impossible as it is for us to imagine, there is a time coming when we shall weep no more, when we shall have no cause to weep. Heaven is a place of sure, eternal, ever-increasing bliss; and the cause of that bliss is our God. Heaven is a place of joy without sorrow, laughter without weeping, pleasantness without pain. In heaven there are no regrets, no remorseful tears, no second thoughts, no lost causes, no sorrows of any kind!
Without question, if our God did not wipe away all tears from our eyes, there would be much weeping in heaven. We would forever weep over our past sins, over unconverted souls forever lost in hell, over all our wasted opportunities, over our unkindness and lack of love to our brethren here, and over the terrible price of our redemption. These things and many others would cause us to weep forever. But God will wipe away all tears from our eyes. It is written, “There shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away!”
Our great God shall, in heaven’s glory, remove us from all sin, remove all sin from us, and remove us from all the evil consequences of sin. He will remove us from every cause of grief. He will bring us at last into the perfection of complete salvation and every desire of our hearts will be completely gratified. — We will be like Christ! – We will be with Christ! — We will see Christ! — We will love Christ perfectly! — We will serve Christ unceasingly! — We will worship Christ without sin! — We will rest in Christ completely! — We will enjoy Christ fully! — We will have Christ entirely!
Will you be among the blessed company of the redeemed? Will you be with Christ in glory? You will only enter into glory if you are worthy of heaven. You can only be made worthy by the merits of Christ. If you are worthy of everlasting glory, you shall have all the glory of heaven itself, without degrees, perfectly. The very glory that God the Father gave to the God-man Mediator, that great Mediator has given to his people (John 17:5; 22). Trust Christ and all the glory of Christ in heaven is yours. All who believe on the Son of God are heirs of God, and more. – We are joint heirs with Christ!
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(1) Salvation involves all that is required to bring a sinner from the ruins of the fall into the glory of heaven.
(2) Let the reader ask himself: “What have I ever done, or even thought, that is worthy even of God’s acceptance?” – If, as every child of God humbly acknowledges, sin is mixed with all we are and do (1 John 1:8-10) and our very righteousnesses are filthy rags in the sight of the infinitely holy Lord God (Isa. 64:6), we certainly cannot “oblige” the Almighty by of deeds!