The New Testament teaches us that all believers in the Lord Jesus will someday appear before Him to be rewarded according to what they have done in this life since becoming a believer (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12). Jesus isn’t obligated to give rewards but He has declared that He is going to do so. Rewards are just more of His grace. The Judgment Seat of Christ will be an event that will take place immediately after the Rapture of the Church. At that time, He will evaluate a believer using three criteria (1 Cor. 3:10-4:5): (1) whether we lived our lives according to His standards and commands as found in the Scriptures; (2) whether or not we were faithful (faithfully using all that the Lord gave to us—spiritual gifts, natural abilities, resources, intelligence, etc); and (3) whether or not our motives were good ones, that is, we did what we did to honor and please Christ. The believer who lives well is going to receive rewards of various kinds that will be manifested in the millennial kingdom, and most likely, in the eternal kingdom as well.
The reality of Jesus giving rewards to believers has raised the question of the possibility of losing rewards. Actually, there are two issues here. First, can a believer lose rewards that Jesus had wanted to give to them; and second, can a believer lose rewards for meritorious deeds already done.
The first issue is clearly “yes”. There are scriptural warnings about the possibility of losing reward that is being offered to us. The Apostle John says that we are to be careful not to be deceived by false teachers. One of the consequences of such false teaching is that we will not live according to the dictates of Scripture and this will cause the losing of reward, since we are not living the way God wants us to.
“Watch yourselves, that you may not lose what we have accomplished, but that you might receive a full reward.” (2 John 8)
This is one of the great consequences of embracing false teaching.
The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthian believers about the same matter. You live badly, you lose reward (not salvation). It cannot get much clearer than the way he states it in these verses.
“Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor….If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1 Cor. 3:8, 14-15)
Each has a reward that would be given according to his own works, but not to faithfully do those deeds will mean the losing out on those rewards that would have been given.
Again, Paul shares his concerns for them, and for himself, in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. There he states that he disciplines himself, like an athlete does, because he wants to participate in the “game of life” and be able to receive the “crown” at the end. He is fearful of being “benched” (Gr. adokimos) because of not playing “by the rules”. (See also 2 Timothy 2:5). The “crown” (reward) is available but it may or may not be received, depending on the performance of the athlete.
There is no question that the Scriptures reveal the generosity of the Lord and His desire to give good gifts to His children. He is good and He is a giver. His resources are immense and He delights in sharing them with His children. He is not a tight-fisted miser who reluctantly lets go of His rewards. But He is also just and is the best Father there is. And no good parent rewards the bad behavior of a child in the same way they reward good behavior. So in a number of reward passages, it become pretty clear that rewards are “on the table” and the offer is authentic. But being offered a reward and actually getting it is not a sure thing. So rewards that are available to the believer just might not be possessed by that believer.
The second issue is that of losing reward that has already been earned. So, if a believer has done a good work (such as giving a “cup of cold water” to one in need) where a reward is promised, can that be rescinded? Once earned, can it be lost? The answer to this seems to be “no”. When we look at Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, we see Him saying that it is permanent.
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, whether moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21)
The Lord carefully contrasts treasures accumulated on earth versus those accumulated in heaven. On earth, there is clearly a temporary nature to these possessions. But spiritual investments, placed into the “Bank of Heaven”, are not subject to decay or theft. In other words, they are permanent. The Lord advocates making spiritual investments (“laying up”) because they are, in fact, permanent and cannot be lost. People cannot get at them to borrow or steal, and the laws of decay on earth do not apply to heaven. Once in the “Bank of Heaven” the account remains sealed until the Judgment Seat of Christ where the “dividends” are paid out.
The important issue is our heart. Jesus said that our investments follow our hearts. For many believers it seems that they are not really that interested in laying up rewards in heaven because their focus is on laying up treasures on earth. Their hearts are pursuing the “American dream” or some version of it. (Now there is a very legitimate place for purchasing houses and lands, etc. but these are not life and these are not to be the focus of life). It is, as Jesus declared, an issue of the heart. How we use our time and where we invest our resources tells us in which direction our investments are going. So to each of us there is a crucial question that we must answer: “where is my heart?”
There is no place like the “Bank of Heaven” when it comes to excellent returns on our investments. Hopefully each of us is weekly sending treasures which are being placed into our account!