Dr. Richard L. Strauss
March 22, 1992
Purpose: To help us do our good works in the right way and for the right reasons, so they will earn for us eternal rewards.
Periodically the news will carry an interview with someone who has suffered a disastrous fire and lost everything. They are usually standing beside the charred embers of what was once their home, and it is obvious that they are totally devastated. They don't know where to turn or what to do. Sometimes they weep. Sometimes they scream. But one way or another they reveal their pain and anguish: "I've lost everything," they say. "All my valuables, all my precious mementoes, all my possessions. Everything! I have nothing left."
The Apostle Paul paints that sort of picture for some people at the judgment seat of Christ. He taught us that living our lives as Christians is like building a house. Jesus is the foundation, and we build on Him. He says so in 1 Corinthians 3:11. "For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ."
But we can use one of two different kinds of materials--one category is valuable and permanent (like gold, silver and precious stones), and another category is relatively worthless and temporary (like wood, hay and straw). And one day, at the Bema, the Judgment Seat of Christ, our house is going to suffer a devastating fire.
Let's read about it in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15. "Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is. If anyone's work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward." That's a promise. He will receive a reward. "If anyone's work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire."
We are going to be rewarded in heaven solely on the basis of the works which survive that fire. And we will suffer loss of reward for the works that are burned.
Now remember, please, our eternal salvation is not at stake here. Salvation is not earned by works. We know that well. There isn't anything we can do to earn our salvation. It is granted freely by God's grace and received by faith alone. But there is more to the story than that. It looks as though Christians who see their works burned at the Bema--which is the Greek word translated "judgment seat"--suffer the loss of their rewards are going to feel as though they've been dragged to safety through the smoke and flames of a burning house. They will be saved, but so as by fire. They will have little to show for a lifetime of building, because they were using the wrong materials.
That leads us to some obvious questions. What works will survive the fire? What makes them valuable and permanent? How are we supposed to know what in our lives will be eternally precious and priceless?
There are two major issues here: first, the what. What good works should we be doing? Second, the how. How should we do them?
The first question requires a rather lengthy study, for there are many good works in the New Testament for which we are promised rewards. In fact, I want to spend most of the remainder of this series on that subject.
But today I want to deal with the second question: How should we do them? Because that seems to be the major issue at the Bema.
See it 1 Corinthians 3:10, at the end of the verse? "But let each one take heed how he builds on it."
There it is--the HOW! If we do not know how to do them, we may come to find that even the good works we do will prove to be worthless and will fail to survive the evaluating fire at the Bema. So that's the question before us today: What will make our good works fireproof and worthy of the rewards that we have discovered in the Word?
It almost goes without saying that they must be performed in accordance with God's Word. The major theme of the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians is the contrast between human wisdom and the wisdom of God's Word (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:12-13). The first worthless and temporary, the second is valuable and permanent. If you want your works to survive the fire and earn you a reward, then conduct your life according to the standard of God's Word.
The Psalmist said that a thousand years before Paul wrote to the Corinthians. He was talking about the commands of God's word, and He said, "and keeping them there is great reward" (Psalms 19:11). But what does the Word say about the kinds of works that will survive the fire and be rewarded? Let me show you four kinds of works that will survive.
1. Works Done in Faith
It stands to reason that we will not be rewarded for anything that displeases God, only for those things that please Him. And what pleases God?
Read Hebrews 11:6. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."
"But without faith it is impossible..." If we want to please God and be rewarded for the good things we do, we must do them in FAITH! But what do we need to believe? Of course we must believe that God exists, that He is. But note, secondly, we must also believe that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. See the word "rewarder"? This is the only time it's used in the entire Bible. It's a word that literally means "to pay back, to give wages." We talked about that. That's what these rewards are: they're pay-back.
Did you see that? We need to believe that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. We need to believe that He will literally pay us back richly for our faithful devotion to Him. Do you believe that?
I'm of the opinion that many Christians really don't believe that God will repay them for diligently seeking Him--for spending time in His presence, for cultivating their relationship with Him, for living in submission to His will and obedience to His Word. They don't believe that. This whole subject of rewards is so foreign to their thinking that they just sort of ignore it. Besides, they don't want to wait until they get to heaven to receive their paycheck. They want it now! They aren't willing to chance missing out on anything here, because they aren't really sure they'll get it in the hereafter. They can't see the hereafter, and for them seeing is believing.
Oh, they know what verse 1 of this chapter says--how God defines faith. "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). They profess to accept that, but in practical reality they don't buy it. I'm talking about Christians! They want to see it. NOW. So they're living to accumulate wealth that they can see, to have possessions they can see, to go places and do things they can see.
I admit it's not easy to give up present gratification for the prospect of having more in eternity. The world laughs at people who do that. They call it "pie in the sky bye and bye," and they consider us fools for thinking it's all true. So, are you going to follow the crowd and lose your eternal reward? Or are you going to believe that God is truly a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him, even if you can't see the benefits with your physical eyes right now? Paul chose to believe God and focus on the unseen.
Turn over to 2 Corinthians 4:18 to see where he describes that. He's describing his own life. "While we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal."
So what are you going to focus your life on? What you can see? Or what you can't see?
It's like a man lost in the desert who comes upon a deserted town with a well. His mouth is parched from the intense heat. He needs water desperately, so he pumps and pumps, but to no avail. Then he sees a note nailed to a post instructing anyone who wants water to look behind the rock where there is a can of water to prime the pump. The note insists that it will require all the water in the can to prime the pump. If he drinks any of it, there will not be enough to get the flow started. And there is one last word of instruction--"Please fill the can and place it behind the rock for the next thirsty traveler."
What is our friend going to do? He's got a choice to make. Believe the note and pour his last drop of water into the pump, with the possibility that the well has gone dry and he will have nothing to quench his thirst? Or disbelieve the note and drink what is in the can--what he can see, in other words--and have no more for the rest of his journey and no more for anybody else to come?
That is the kind of decision we face. That's not an easy decision to make. Are you going to have a little now for a short time and nothing in eternity, or are you going to defer your gratification now and take a chance at having it all forever? It boils down to whether you trust that Book that you brought with you today: the Bible.
Do you believe that this Bible is God's Word and can be trusted? Are you a true believer or not? That puts it right down where the rubber meets the road, doesn't it? This separates those who are playing games with God from those who truly mean business. Are you willing to believe that God will reward you for diligently seeking Him above all else, and then live in the light of that commitment? Then live like it!
Read Hebrews 11:6 again. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him."
The works that will survive the fire will be those performed in faith. Second, the works that survive the fire will be those done with faithfulness.
1. Works Done with Faithfulness
This is the major point of Christ's parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30. Turn over there, please. We've been there before, and we'll be here again. It's a major passage on rewards.
Now a talent was a unit of money. In today's economy, it would be about $5 million if gold, or about $400,000 if silver. Those talents certainly symbolize the money and materials things God entrust to us. But it probably symbolizes a whole lot more that God entrusts to us, as well--like our physical abilities, our natural talents, our spiritual gifts, our education and training, our time and energy. The master of the house gave a different number of talents to each of the three servants. And in verse 15 we see that it was according to their ability. Don't miss that. That's important. According to their ability, just as He entrust different resources to each of us according to what He knows we can handle. According to what He knows we can achieve with those resources.
And he held each of the three responsible for faithfully using what he gave them. He didn't reward them for their success, but for their faithfulness. The servant who received two talents and gained two more received the same reward as the one who received five talents and gained five more. The master says exactly the same thing to each. You see it in verse 21 and again in verse 23.
Matthew 25:21, 23. "His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.' His lord said to him, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'"
They were both faithful in using what the master gave them, and that was all he asked. Neither one was responsible for using what he didn't have, only what he had. The servant who was rebuked and barred from his inheritance suffered that shame and remorse because he had not been faithful with the one talent he received (vv. 26-30). I'm of the opinion that his lack of faithfulness exposed the phoniness of his faith. He wasn't a real believer. We won't be measured against others--unlike almost every other sphere of life--but against our own individual, God-given ability to achieve. We'll be measured by what God gave to us and our faithful use of it.
The Apostle Paul makes a similar point in his discussion of the Bema, in 1 Corinthians 3:5-8. "Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor."
There it is. "Each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor." We will be rewarded according to how faithfully we used what God gave us. Not what he gave Billy Graham, or Chuck Swindoll, or Elisabeth Elliot, but what he gave us.
Maybe you're a planter, God has given you the ability to sow the seed of the gospel in the hearts of unbelievers and whet their appetite for spiritual things. Then plant! That's what God is going to hold you responsible for.
Maybe you're a waterer. God has given you the ability to nurture young Christians in their faith and disciple them in their walk with the Lord Jesus. Then water! That is what God is going to hold you responsible for.
Maybe what you can do is take attendance for the two-year olds. Then take attendance, faithfully. Maybe what you can do is be caring and a sympathetic listener. Then listen, faithfully. That's the issue: faithfulness. Look at the following context in 1 Corinthians 4:2. "Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful."
I am not going to be rewarded because I happen to be the senior pastor of a large church. Some people don't understand that, but it's true. I'm not going to be rewarded because some people think I have been a success in the ministry. Success is measured in different ways. Maybe I am and maybe I'm not, but that's not the issue, you see. I will be rewarded if I faithfully use what God has entrusted to me until I see Jesus. UNTIL I SEE JESUS!
That is another essential element of faithfulness--steadfastness, perseverance, endurance--hanging in there until we see Jesus. There is much Scripture that ties our rewards to our willingness to keep on keeping on, however tough it may be. We'll discuss this more fully when we get to "crowns." I've jotted down a couple of them on your outlines for you to read on your own: Galatians 6:9; 2 Timothy 2:12; 4:7-8; Hebrews 6:11-12; 10:36 (cf. also Luke 22:28-30; Revelation 2:26-27).
Let me read just the first one, Galatians 6:9. "And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart." You will reap.
So hang in there. Don't quit. I mean, it's possible that God will make it perfectly clear that He has some other way for you to serve Him. But the point is not to get burned out and say, "That's it. I just don't have any more to give." If that's the case, you're using the wrong source of power. You're doing it in your own strength. God's strength never burns out. If you're doing what God wants you to do, He'll give you the strength to do it. And if you quit, don't expect a reward. Rewards are for faithfulness. The works that shall be rewarded are those done in faithfulness.
Works done with faith, with faithfulness, and third, those done with proper motives.
3. Works Done with Proper Motives
God is not only interested in what we do and how we do it, but in why we do it--our motives. If we do the right things for the wrong reasons it isn't going to earn us any praise at the Bema. We have no right to judge each other's motives. No human being knows exactly what is in the heart of another human being. But God does know what's inside us, and when we stand before Him He is going to bring it to light. 1 Corinthians 4:5. "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one's praise will come from God."
"The counsels of the hearts!" The thoughts and attitudes and motives that fester deep down where nobody can see. Someday those things are going to be revealed, and that will determine how much praise we receive from the Lord.
What are the proper motives? Obviously, the highest and greatest motive is to glorify the Lord. "Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What's the alternative to doing it for the Lord? Turn over to Colossians 3:23 and let me show you. We'll be back here again when we talk about doing your secular job. "And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men."
The alternative is doing it for other people, to gain their favor, to receive their praise, and to get their applause. In other words, the bottom line is that we're doing it for ourselves. Jesus warned the people of His day about that very thing. He did it on a number of issues, but let me just use prayer as an example.
Read Matthew 6:5-6. "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly."
It's perfectly proper to pray and do other good deeds for praise from God, but not for praise from men. Now sometimes people find out about some good thing we've done and we get some of their praise for it. That's OK. We can't help that. That's not going to affect our reward any. The question is motive. Why do we do it? Is our purpose for doing it to look good to people? We can't have it both ways. We won't get two rewards for the same good deed. We can either get it from other people, in which case it lasts for about ten seconds. Or we can get it from God, in which case it lasts forever.
Why would anyone opt for getting it from other people? That's so foolish! It doesn't make any sense at all. If you want your works to survive the fire at the Bema and be rewarded, then perform them for the glory of God, not the praise of men. This is basic to this whole study of rewards! I'm not going to say much more about it, but please don't take it lightly. It's the heart of the issue. Do it for the glory of God. That will be rewarded.
There is another acceptable motive I found in Scripture. A good motive is for the glory of God, but another one is love for others. Hebrews 6:10 is a passage we've looked at a number of times, that is sure relevant right now. "For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister."
Work of love. That's a worthy motive. Love always acts for the benefit of the other person rather than self. It "does not seek its own," according to 1 Corinthians 13:5. I know it is possible to minister to other people's needs in order to gain somebody's acceptance or receive somebody's strokes, but that will not be rewarded by God. It is only the true work and labor of love that will receive a reward, what is done for their benefit, not our own.
Paul taught the same truth in the great love chapter. 1 Corinthians 13:3. "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing." Profits nothing. In other words, no reward.
You could conceivably give your entire life savings to charity and receive no reward at the Bema. And that would be the case if you did it to enhance your own image rather than to demonstrate genuine care and concern for the well-being of other people.
Now I suspect that we sometimes have mixed motives for the good things we do. We really do love the Lord and we want to glorify Him. And we really do care about other people and we want to help them. But there may also be a tinge of desire to earn some accolades from the people around us. So we let them know in subtle ways how much we have done, how hard we have worked, how many hours we put in, how many years we've been teaching the class, how many people we led to Christ, how much money we gave to the church.
Just remember, if you did it to get some acclaim from them, don't expect any more from the Lord in eternity. All you will have to show for it then is ashes. The works that survive the fire at the Bema are those that were done with pure and proper motives--the glory of God and the good of others.
Works need to be done in faith, with faithfulness, and with proper motives. Some have suggested a fourth kind if works that will survive the fire: works done by the Spirit's power.
4. Works Done by the Holy Spirit's Power
For this we turn to that great chapter on the Vine and the branches, John 15. Read John 15:4-5. "Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."
We're talking about fruit that shall remain forever. What does this mean? We can obviously do lots of things apart from Him in our own strength. I can stand up here and preach without Jesus. People in the choir can sing without Him. We can usher, we can witness without Him. But we can do nothing of eternal value, nothing that will earn us a reward in heaven, apart from His strength, His power, and His life working through us.
So let's say it's coming up on the week-end, and you're scheduled to teach a Bible class. How do you approach it? "I can handle this. I've got this quarterly that has everything in it that I need. If I get stuck I can always read it back to them. No, I haven't studied the passage. No, I haven't spent any time in prayer over it. Hey, I've been doing this for 20 years. How stupid do you think I am?"
Well let me tell you. You may be extremely bright with bushels of natural talent, but you are not spiritually insightful enough to know what has eternal value and what does not, what will be rewarded and what will be burned. You haven't figured that one out yet.
You see, God wants you to depend consciously on Him, to let the Lord Jesus live His life through you and do His work through you. We make that decision. We decide that we are consciously going to depend on Him. And nothing else will be rewarded.
All we supply is the willingness. He supplies the opportunity, the ability, and the power. It's all from Him. Paul summed it up in 2 Corinthians 3:5. "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." Do you believe that? Believing it and living by the light of it is what brings rewards. Works done by the Spirit's power.
Living in the Light of It
There is a story about a wealthy man who called one of his employees in and told him that he was leaving the country for a year and that while he was gone, he wanted his worker to build him a new house. He told him to build it well, spare no expense. He would pay all the bills for the materials and labor. After the employer left, the worker decided that it was foolish for him to work so hard and spend so much, so he started cutting corners, and squandering the money he saved by his cuts. When the wealthy man returned, he asked his employee, "Are you satisfied with the house?" When the worker assured him that he was, the employer said, "Good, because the house is yours. You can live in it for the rest of your life" (Quote, February 1990).
That's a great illustration of spiritual truth. We are going to live for eternity with what we build here in time. What we will get in heaven depends on how we have built while here on earth. Every day of our Christian lives we are sending materials ahead for our eternal home. What did you send today?
Wood, hay and straw that will be consumed in the fire? Or gold, silver and precious stones that will survive the fire and assure us a reward? What did you send ahead? How did you build this week? Make sure your good works are done in faith, with faithfulness, with proper motives, and by the Spirit's power. And you will receive a reward. That is God's promise.
Trusting Jesus as Your Savior
Are you willing to believe Him? Of course, you gotta get there first. It has nothing to do with the good things you do, as commendable as they may be. It has to do with what Jesus did. It's the major theme of the whole Bible: the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary's cross, and His subsequent resurrection from the tomb. That provided for us forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and guarantees entrance into heaven. Are you putting your confidence in Him? Are you putting your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin? That's where the Christian life begins. That's when you begin to earn rewards. Everything you do to that point is not going to affect entrance into heaven.
So are you putting your confidence in your good works to get into heaven? Or your church affiliation? Or your religious deeds? Or whatever? That won't do it. It is not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy, He saved us. His mercy. His grace.
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). Are you willing to come His way? That's where life begins.
Let's bow together in His presence right now. Bowed prayerfully before Him, can I ask you whether you've made this decision? Have you embarked on the Christian life? Have you begun building on the right foundation? Not the foundation of your good deeds, but the foundation of Jesus Christ.
If you've never made that decision, we urge you to do it today. The decision I'm asking you to make is this: acknowledging your sin--that there isn't anything you can do to warrant eternal salvation--and then putting your faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior. I would suggest you settle that in prayer, just in the quiet of your own mind and heart right now.
"Lord, I'm a sinner. I believe Jesus died in my place and rose again to give me eternal life, and I accept that gift by faith. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and save me from sin."
Lord, I pray that some will make that decision today and enter into new life in Jesus Christ, and that those of us who have acknowledged our sin and opened our hearts to the Savior will live daily in the light of these great truths of Your Word. The light of what Jesus did for us, and then in response, diligently seek Him. Put Him first. Cultivate our walk with Him. Live in obedience to His Word and submission to His will. And bring glory to His name. We ask it for His eternal glory. Amen.
Continue to RW-05: Hope for Suffering Saints