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by Arnold Valentin Wallenkampf

16. Salvation and Rewards

Jesus says, "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done" (Matt. 16:27), while Paul says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9).

Does the apostle Paul contradict Jesus in saying that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, while Jesus seems to say that each person will be rewarded according to his works? Are we justified and saved by faith or by works?

When we think that the reward Jesus is speaking about in Matthew 16:27 is salvation, we blur the issue and consequently fail to discover the ground of our salvation. Salvation is not a reward; salvation is a gift of God’s free grace. Jesus Himself made this abundantly clear.

He taught this most lucidly in several parables, as in the parable of the wedding garment (Matt. 22:1-14). The wedding garment that entitled the guests to attend the wedding was a gift from the king. Jesus also presented salvation as a gift of His Father’s love in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (see Luke 18:9-14); in the parable about the laborers in the vineyard (see Matt. 20: 1-16); and in the parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-24).

In Romans 6:23, Paul speaks both about "wages" and "the gift of God." The words he uses for both are military terms. "Wages" stands for the pay a Roman mercenary earned fighting for the empire. For "gift" he uses the word charisma. This denotes a totally unearned gift that the emperor might give as a bonus to his soldiers on some special occasion.1

At heaven’s final assize the unrepentant will receive the "wages" that they have truly earned, namely, death. In sharp contrast to the wicked, the saved will receive a "gift" of God’s free grace, namely, eternal life.

There is no possibility that a person who has broken the divine law, the violation of which demands his life, can save himself from death. This is not to say that a person cannot pay for his transgression of God’s law. Any sinner can pay for the debt of his sin. But by doing so he forfeits life for eternity; he becomes a nonentity. No person can both pay for his sin and inherit eternal life. The only way in which a person can inherit eternal life and also have his debt of sin liquidated, is to accept Jesus as his Saviour. "He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life" (1 John 5:12). No one can earn it. "This life is not inherent in man. He can possess it only through Christ. He cannot earn it; it is given him as a free gift if he will believe in Christ as His personal Saviour."2

When a sinner accepts Jesus as his Saviour, then Christ’s death is counted as his death. Jesus died in his place—He died in your place and mine. "A full, complete ransom has been paid by Jesus, by virtue of which the sinner is pardoned, and the justice of the law is maintained."3 Our only hope of salvation is Jesus. Paul speaks about this: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace" (Eph. 1:7).

We should constantly guard against thinking that salvation and eternal life are rewards for faithful service. They are not. There is a definitive difference between God’s gift of salvation and His rewards for service. E. P. Sanders in Paul and Palestinian Judaism aptly observes that "Paul explicitly distinguishes between being saved and being punished or rewarded."4

A gift is of no value to a dead person. The gift is valuable only as long as the recipient is alive. Therefore the redeemed first receive the gift of life. After receiving the gift of eternal life they also receive their just reward for faithful service.

Kelsey Van Kipp told the story in Guide of Maharani Jamnabi and the poor Indian boy, Gopalrao, from the remote village of Kavlana in India. In 1875, Maharani Jamnabi, widow of the maharaja of the state of Baroda, in India, had to choose a male heir. At that time a female could not succeed to the throne in India. To select an heir, the maharani invited many village boys to the palace. At the palace she would test the boys by observing them at a sumptuous banquet. But for the time being the boys were not told of the test, or even the reason they were being taken to the palace.

None of the boys knew anything about etiquette; they were unfamiliar with the manners of princes. In their villages they ate their meals from banana leaves, sitting on the floor and using their fingers for forks. Gopalrao’s mother knew no more about how to act in the palace than her young son. But when he was about to leave for the journey to the palace his mother embraced him and said, "Go, my son. You are not dressed for the king’s court, yet true worth is not in the clothes we wear but in the content of our hearts. You have been a good son to me, and a diligent worker. I need not tell you to act wisely at the palace. Be courteous, gentle, and think carefully before you act. Follow your kind heart, and do not be afraid." Some days later, with that instruction still ringing in his ears, Gopalrao with the other boys was ushered into the palace grounds by uniformed police. The boys stared open-mouthed at the magnificent buildings and beautiful gardens.

The maharani had ordered a sumptuous dinner to be served in the banquet hall. The table was loaded with delicacies, some of which her young guests had never before seen. She knew that these delicacies would probably bring out the best—and the worst—in the boys. Shyly the boys entered the banquet room, full of sparkling chandeliers and velvet-covered chairs. Overawed by the surroundings, they were clumsier than usual. But they did understand what the food was for, and they intended to eat their fill.

Jamnabi seated herself at the head of the table and said to the boys, "You may sit down now. I hope you enjoy the food." While the other boys scrambled into their chairs and attacked the food with enthusiastic hands, Gopalrao watched Jamnabi as she unfolded her napkin and picked up a serving spoon to help herself to something. He had no more training in table manners than the other boys, and never before had he held a piece of silverware in his hand. But picking up his fork and knife, he followed Jamnabi’s example in their use as nearly as he could.

Quietly Jamnabi ate, missing nothing of what the boys were doing. Her eyes swept back and forth over the loaded table, and she noticed Gopalrao without appearing to look directly at him. Unknown to him, before the meal was over she had chosen him to be the future maharaja of Baroda. Jamnabi adopted him as her son and future heir. He ruled for 64 years, until 1939.

Gopalrao’s adoption as her son was a gift of Maharani Jamnabi’s free grace. But in receiving sonship as a gift on the basis of her free grace, he became heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the world, calculated to be worth in excess of $1 billion. These riches became his because he had first received the gift of adoption—the gift of royalty.5

In the same way, repentant sinners become children of God and receive the gift of eternal life. "This salvation comes to us not as a reward for our works, not bestowed because of the merits of sinful man, but it is a gift unto us, having its foundation for bestowal in the spotless righteousness of Christ."6

After having received the gift of salvation with eternal life, the saved will also receive rewards for their work. "Our acceptance with God is not upon the ground of our good works, but our reward will be according to our works."7

The rewards to the fruit bearers will not all be alike. There will be 10-talent servants, four-talent servants, and two-talent servants in the kingdom of God. Every one will be rewarded or judged according to what he has done. According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, some will apparently not receive any reward, although they will receive the gift of eternal life. About this George Ladd writes: "The believer will be judged for his works. Our life will be laid bare before the divine scrutiny that each one may receive the proper recompense for the things done through the life of the body, in accordance with the things that he has done, whether that life record is good or bad. This judgment is not ‘a declaration of doom, but an assessment of worth,’ involving not condemnation or acquittal, but rewards or loss on the basis of the worthfulness or worthlessness of the Christian’s life. This same principle of judgment is expounded in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15."8

Jesus told His disciples that they would be rulers and be rewarded by being seated on thrones in His kingdom (see Matt. 19:28). Others will receive no rewards but be saved "as through fire," while their works will be burnt (see 1 Cor. 3:15). They shall enter the kingdom of God empty-handed, as it were, because none of their works were salvageable for eternity.

The Revelator writes: "And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’ "(Rev. 14:13). Earthly good works or deeds will apparently follow us throughout eternity and our station in the kingdom of God will be affected by what we have done here on earth. "Even if we do not lose our souls, we shall realize in eternity the result of our unused talents."9 For all knowledge that we might have gained but did not, there will be an eternal loss."10

Our achievements, actions, or good works will not, however, be the ground of our salvation, although lack of good works may cause a person to forfeit eternal life. The one-talent servant was judged "wicked and slothful" (Matt. 25:26), because he neglected to work. The son who refused to go and work in his father’s vineyard balked at his father’s will (see Matt. 21:28-31). Works, whether good or bad, are simply the body or concrete substance of a person’s attitude or inward real self. They are evidence whether a person is still dead in sin or has been born again to newness of life. If he remains alive in Christ, he will choose to act in accordance with God’s will and the fruit of the Spirit will grow in his life.

Salvation with eternal life is never merited. It is a gift to every repentant sinner who commits himself to God without reserve and remains in that commitment. It is given on the basis of the quality of his commitment to God; rather than for his quantity of service. The reward, on the other hand, will be based on the quantity of the service rendered in love to God. Jesus says, "he will repay every man for what he has done" (Matt. 16:2 7).

By disallowing the law to be the ground of salvation, or by clarifying that salvation as a gift, we must not discard the law as a standard of life and conduct. No one who is redeemed by the King of glory will despise and disregard the King’s law. Every one who is saved by the grace of God will always remember that in the pre-Advent audit/judgment "all will be justified by their faith and judged by their works."11

William Barclay perceptively writes: "We can say that works have nothing to do with salvation; but we dare not say that works have nothing to do with the Christian life. . . . Christianity was a religion which issued in a certain way of life. Was not its first title The Way?"12

Although justified by faith, all will be measured by the law.


1  See William Barclay, The Letter to the Romans, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), pp. 91, 92. [back]

2  The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, vol. 5, p. 1130. [back]

3 White, in Review and Herald, July 1,1890. [back]

4/font> E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), p. 516. [back]

5  Kelsey Van Kipp, "The Price of a Kingdom," Guide, Sept. 20, 1978. [back]

6 White, in Signs of the Times, Sept. 5,1892. [back]

7 bid., May 30, 1895. [back]

8  George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 566. [back]

9  White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 363. [back]

10  ________, Testimonies to Ministers, p. 147. [back]

11  ________, Testimonies, vol. 4, p. 386. [back]

12  William Barclay, The Mind of St. Paul (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 169. [back]

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