The Church I grew up in taught me this axiom: People who do bad things are punished, people who do good things are not punished.
From what I hear, they are still teaching that.
This was hard on me as a young Christian. If I screw up, I’ll go to hell. If I work hard and do what’s right, I won’t go to hell. Basically, it framed God in my mind as a vengeful deity who was so angry at us miserable ****roaches that the slightest misstep would invoke His wrath. If we watched our step and minded our manners, He might let us in. Maybe.
It also implied that there were no rewards with God. The “reward” was that you would not be sent to hell for all eternity and go to Heaven instead. Well that sounds great, but there is a catch there. While people didn’t (and don’t) like to admit it, some Christians are working harder and doing better than others. Some in our church avoided known sins and were somewhat charitable. But others gave up their careers and dreams and whole lives for God. Are they all equal in Heaven? If so, why not just obey the commandments and “skim” by with the rest?
The answer I always recieved for such questions was that all such thinking was evil and that I was being selfish and should get my act together.
But I thought “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Hebrews 11:6
Not only is not foolish to talk about rewards, the Bible says that if we don’t believe God will reward us then we have no faith, and if we have no faith we cannot please Him. To understand what the Bible really teaches about rewards, punishment and the escape thereof, we must first define some terms: There are good people and bad people, and good works and bad works. One does not necessarily always go with the other.
Scripture teaches that God desires all things He created to be good: Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31
Scripture teaches us that all humans are bad people: Romans 3:9-18
Scripture teaches us that all bad people are dead spiritually and that these spiritually dead are punished in Hell forever: Ephesians 2:1, John 8:24, Revelation 20:11-15
Scripture teaches us that God has provided an escape from this punishment in Jesus Christ and Him alone: John 3:16-18, Acts 4:8-12, John 14:6, 1st John 5:11-12
Scripture teaches that through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we cease to be bad people and become good people: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 2 Corinthians 5:21
Scripture teaches us that this atonement is a gift of God that cannot be earned through good works: Romans 3:19-20, Ephesians 2:8-9
Scripture teaches that bad people sometimes perform good works: Luke 6:32
Scripture teaches that good people sometimes perform bad works: Romans 7:18-25, 1 John 1:8-10
Scripture teaches that a bad person, whether he does any good works or not, will still be punished: Isaiah 64:6, Psalm 49:7-9
Scripture teaches that a good person, even if he sometimes does bad works, will still be spared punishment: 1st John 2:1-2, 1st John 5:18
Ok, so we’ve cleared the air about many things already. To recap, here’s the deal: Everyone starts out as a bad person. At their core, they are sinful and have no relationship with God. They may occasionally do good works, but always for the wrong reasons, and anyway no amount of them can atone for their sins. The only way to escape hell and go to heaven is through Jesus Christ, who can take the sinful core out of a bad person, nail it to the cross, and then insert his righteousness which then turns them into good people. That is, good at their core. A good person has Christ living within them. Good people, however, still mess up and do bad works, because their flesh is still sinful, but this doesn’t change their core being. So, that being true, why strive (as Paul said to do 1 Corinthians 9:24) to perform good works?
Scripture teaches that good people who do good works are not only spared punishment, but rewarded: Matt 16:27, Revelation 22:12
*Note that Christ in both passages says “according to their works,” this is not a state of being a Christian or not, but according to one’s deeds and works. It cannot refer to salvation, because it is a reward according to works, and salvation is not by works, but by faith through grace – Ephesians 2:8-9.
Scripture teaches that good people who waste their life and fail to do good works are still spared punishment, but lose rewards: 1 Corinthians 3:10-15
Again Paul paints an illustration of building a house, strangely similar to the fable about the Three Pigs, where the house is tested; not by a wolf’s howl, but by the fiery Judgement of God. If it is made of good and proper materials, it will stand the test and the builder will be rewarded. If it is consumed, the foolish builder will still be saved, but it will be like a man escaping from a burning building: singed, half naked, and nothing to his name but his life.
Of course, escaping Hell into Heaven with nothing but your shirt is still a huge blessing, but wouldn’t we rather please God and receive the great rewards He has for us? Pastor Johnny Hunt of Woodstock Baptist once said “If you want to hear ‘Well done faithful servant’ you will have to do well.”
Of course now the question is: what are the rewards? The answer is we do not know, and all the better, for it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” 1st Corinthians 2:9
I can, however, tell you what the reward is not. It is not a really big house in Heaven. There’s been a lot of misguided interpretation regarding the word “mansion” in many older translations, namely the KJV. The word “mansion” back in those days did not mean what it means today. As you should be aware, the English language of today is highly saturated with French loanwords. This is because way back in the Middle Ages, the French Normans invaded and conquered England and ruled it for a considerable period of time. During this time, English picked up lots of French words, such as le maison, which means “home” or “dwelling place.” The word “mansion” in John 14:12 simply means there is plenty of living space in Heaven for all who would accept the Gospel of Christ. Think about it logically. Jesus says “In my father’s house are many mansions.” How could a mansion be inside of a house? Modern translations choose the word “rooms” or “dwelling spaces” which is far more accurate today than “mansion” (and yet another reason it’s not a good idea to read the Bible in a language that hasn’t been used in four centuries without proper education).
Here’s the conclusion of the matter: We all start off with a sinful nature, bad to the core, headed for Hell. Nothing we can do can save us or change our destiny. Only by coming to Christ through faith in Him are we graciously saved from sin and death by God. When this happens, Jesus comes to live within us and make us into “good” people at our core, children of God, citizens of Heaven. From then on, our destiny is to become more and more good, or like Christ, until we are caught up with Him at the Resurrection and made perfect. Along the way, our sinful outer flesh can screw us up and lead us to make “bad” choices to do “bad” works. These things cannot steal our salvation but can cost us valuable rewards from God. Instead we should strive as a runner racing for the prize, in prayer and in the Word to become more like Christ and do the things He did, that is, “good” things. If we run well and do well, we have a promise from God that rewards await us in Heaven unlike anything we’ve ever seen, heard of, or even imagined in our wildest dreams. We have no clue what they are, but they are not big houses or material possessions; stuff like that is what got us in this mess in the first place. The last thing we need is more of it.
Be blessed, run well!