This verse draws our attention to two important things: the Fear of the Lord, and his promise to reward us in addition to an eternal life filled with the joy of God. When we learn to fear the Lord, we learn also to trust Him. And when we have the true fear of the Lord, there is nothing else in all the universe that we ever need fear again.
As to the second thing: we will be rewarded for living out our faith the way God designed us to, and empowers us to, through the Holy Spirit. This is on top of the free grace-gift of eternal life lived in the joy of God. It’s far too much. We don’t deserve it. That’s exactly the point.
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1 PETER #8. 1 PETER 1:17
Last time, we looked at the motivation for living holy lives: the Love of the Father for us, and the Hope that he has given us through Jesus Christ. When we are deeply connected to those two things, the Holy Spirit will enable us to live lives that are different from those around us. Now, Peter reminds us to take this very seriously: “Since we are those beloved children of the Father, let us remember that the Father also judges our works with perfect judgment. Therefore, let us live out our time in this mortal life with a healthy awe of God.”
Depending on the Bible translation you use, this little section might confuse people into thinking that our salvation is dependent upon how we behave. Just before this, remember, Peter was telling us to be holy, because the Father in heaven is holy. Now he’s talking about recognizing that the Father judges everyone according to each one’s works (I think “works” is the better translation of the Greek word here). It’s starting to sound like being a Christian is all about how well you perform at living an outwardly good life.
Before we go too far with that, we need to keep reading: Peter says, immediately afterwards, that we were saved by the precious blood of Christ, who was made manifest for us, so that our faith and hope are in God. So, when we read that the Father judges each one’s works, it cannot mean that this is the basis of our salvation. The basis of our salvation, our hope, are clearly in Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice on our behalf. Our faith and hope are in God, not in our own efforts. Peter has already said much the same thing, in several different ways, in verses 1-16. Of course the rest of the New Testament also says the same thing, many times over in many different ways.
But what does it mean, then, that the Father judges each one impartially according to their works? Why does Peter even say that, if we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ, not our own? This is another thing that the rest of the New Testament makes very clear: in addition to giving us salvation by the grace of God (not by works) God also wants to bless us by giving us the opportunity to have even greater rewards in the New Creation. In other words, we are saved purely by God’s grace, not by anything we ourselves do, or could earn. AND… God also created us to do good works – things which he particularly prepared in advance for each of us to do:
10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.(Ephesians 2:10, CSB)
Those good works cannot earn us salvation, but God lays them out for us, and as we “walk in them” (that is, as we live a life of Hope in Christ, and do the things God leads us to do) God grants us special rewards, in the New Heavens and New Earth. He judges how we have lived our lives in accordance with this plan, and than grants us extra rewards based upon that. Some people want to claim that we get those rewards in this life (not in our eternal lives) but that is not at all the way it is taught by Jesus and His apostles.
Many Christians, especially from Western culture, instinctively cringe at the idea of rewards in the New Creation. But we need to evaluate the source of that cringing: is it really Biblical? I think people from other cultures have less of a problem with this than Americans, and European-originated cultures. Many of us Westerners are deeply egalitarian – which means we have a problem saying one person deserves honor above any other person. We think that if God gives rewards in heaven, it will mean some sort of inequality. Some people will have more, others will have less, and we believe that such an arrangement must be intrinsically unfair, and will cause the New Creation to be less than perfect. But a lot of other people in the world have no real problem with the idea of a heaven where people are given extra rewards for their works. They would say it would be unfair if those who worked harder and better than others to follow Jesus received no extra reward at all. I have to say, the cultures who take that view are probably closer to the kind of culture that existed during the New Testament period.
We need to face the fact that the Bible does indeed paint a picture of people being rewarded in the New Creation, including some people receiving greater honor than others. In the Parable of the Talents, at the end, the servant who did the most was given the most, and honored most, as a reward. The next servant was also rewarded and honored, but not as much as the first. It does not look like an equal-outcome, egalitarian kind of system (Luke 19:12-27; and Matthew 25:14-30).
In fact, we find all over the New Testament, the idea that even after we have salvation, we should be encouraged to work for the rewards of those who follow God faithfully and well. One of the classic passages for this is found in 1 Corinthians:
5 After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. 6 I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. 7 It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. 9 For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.(1 Corinthians 3:5-15, NLT, bold formatting added for emphasis)
10 Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.
12 Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13 But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14 If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15 But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.
All of this is only echoing what Jesus himself taught. Time and time again, Jesus talked about being rewarded by the Father. I’ve already mentioned his Parable of the Talents. Since we know that salvation is a free gift of grace, and we cannot earn it, these rewards must be something additional that we receive in the New Creation. Here is just another one of many examples of Jesus, talking about rewards:
1 “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. 2 When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. 3 But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. 4 Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.(Matthew 6:1-6, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)
5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
There are many more verses and teachings like these. In parables, in direct statements by Jesus, and in the letters of His apostles, the New Testament consistently teaches us that, in addition to salvation, we will be rewarded for walking in the good works that God designed for us. Just in case you need them, here are two more examples:
Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 8 Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.(Ephesians 6:7-8, NLT, formatting added for emphasis)
3 Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 24 Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.(Colossians 3:23-24, NLT)
Now, there is another piece, implied by Peter, and also by the passage I gave you above, from 1 Corinthians. Peter says, because God judges our works impartially, we should live out our time in exile in a certain way. By “time in exile,” Peter means to remind us that this world is not our home; we belong with God in Heaven. When I say “heaven,” I mean, of course, our eternal future in the New Creation which involves perfect, eternal physical bodies, living in a perfect physical universe. We were created for Heaven, not this fallen, temporary earth. So, to put it clearly, by “time in exile,” he means, “this mortal life.”
Peter tells us that we should live that time in fear (that is really the best translation of the Greek). On the face of it, that seems a bit strange, considering how many times in the Bible the Lord tells us: “Do not Fear!” But Peter is talking about one specific, certain kind of fear: the fear of the Lord. Our modern culture does not do well with understanding what the Bible means by “fear of the Lord.” I like to think of it as a healthy perspective on God’s power, or a kind of awe of God that motivates us. One popular way of putting it comes from author C.S. Lewis. “God is not safe, but he’s good.”
The fear of the Lord is a recognition that we don’t control Him, and he can do absolutely whatever he wants. There is a wildness and power in him; he can create, or destroy, entire galaxies in an instant, if he wants to. But pay attention: this means we should recognize that God is more powerful, and more to be feared, than anything else we might fear: loss of loved ones, poverty, wealth, injustice, conflict, loneliness, suffering of all kinds, or even death. The only thing we ever need fear is God. I’ll repeat the thought a different way: When we live in fear of the Lord, we find that there is nothing else in all the universe that we need fear.
But now comes the wonderful part. Unlike the other things we might be tempted to fear, we have a firm basis to trust that God’s intentions toward us are good and loving. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can know for sure that God loves us, and that we can trust him. We can trust a God who has died for us, who has literally walked through hell for us. So our fear of the Lord is not terror – it is a fear that allows us to entrust ourselves, body, soul and spirit, to God, especially in times when we don’t understand.
In the Corinthian verses above, Paul says that if we don’t build well on the foundation of Jesus, we will still be saved, but it will be a harrowing experience. Jesus, in his parables, tells of people who acted as if their deeds were of no concern to God. Those folks did not have ideal experiences, come time for the Father’s judgement.
So, in addition to the blessing of rewards in heaven, there is a kind of warning: “Take this seriously.” We don’t belong in this mortal life – we are citizens of Heaven. We really ought to live like it. This isn’t a demand for perfection, but it is supposed to help us realize that we really should be different people than those who have no hope. God is not some old guy up there who is kind of out of it, and doesn’t know what is going on. Our deeds are of concern for God – in fact, he made us specifically to do certain things and live in certain ways. We really should be living for those things, and for the joy that is coming to us, not for the transient pleasures and shallow satisfactions of our mortal lives. It’s not a threat, but it is a warning: This is serious. Don’t blow it off. There is great reward waiting for those who do live their lives as strangers in this world, followers of Jesus Christ.
Let me briefly address the idea that rewards will somehow cause trouble in the New Creation, and somehow make it less than perfect. We have to remember, that when we are rewarded, we will be free from sin, and we will trust God perfectly. So, if God chooses to give someone a reward, there will not be any part of us thinking, “I’m not sure that’s fair.” No, we will be rejoicing at how God’s reward for an individual blesses that person, and enhances the glory of God. We will not experience jealousy. There will be no injustice in the way that God gives his rewards: that’s part of what Peter means when he says that the Father judges impartially. In the joy and perfection of the New Creation, no one will feel slighted, or forgotten. We will be able to agree wholeheartedly that what God does is perfect and right, including the giving of rewards to those who followed him in this mortal life. When he gives a reward, we will all gasp in awe at the justice, mercy and grace of God, who would not only give us eternal life in the joy of his loving presence, but even pour more joy into us through the struggles and work we have had on this earth. As each reward is given, we will shout “That’s perfect! That’s exactly what it should be!” We will not feel a lack within ourselves, nor envy of others. Trust me, no one is going to be unhappy about the way these rewards are given, or feel that something is unfair, when we stand before the Father.
Some people have another objection: “If I am motivated to be a good Christian by the thought of extra rewards in heaven, isn’t that somehow wrong? Isn’t that self-serving?”
Remember, we begin with salvation. We begin with the knowledge that we deserve worse than nothing: we deserve death and hell and eternal suffering. Then we come to the knowledge of God’s incredible love and grace to us. We are humbled and grateful, and filled with joy and hope. We serve God willingly, connected to the love and hope we have in Him. Finally, the rewards are merely icing on the cake. In other words, we shouldn’t see them as entitlement, but as grace piled upon already giant heaps of grace. They show us that God sees what we do in secret. He knows the silent struggle we have with sin at times, He sees us making the hard choices that no one else sees. He sees the business person not taking unfair advantage of a situation to get a promotion. He sees the young mother working hard to raise her kids as followers of Jesus, when no one is watching. He sees the persecuted Christian losing his livelihood because he won’t deny Jesus. God’s rewards are a way of saying: “It’s not in vain. I see what’s going on with you. I know it’s harder for you to do certain things. Your faith and perseverance will not be overlooked, and they will not be forgotten.”
I think sometimes we need to know that God does indeed take note of the things that no one else does. I don’t think it’s wrong to be sustained, in part, by the knowledge that God perceives everything in your life, and even within your heart and soul, and he will make it up to you for every difficult decision, every struggle, every moment we live for him rather than for ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting motivation from that. Clearly, neither did Jesus, who encouraged us to remember that our Father in heaven, who sees what we do in secret, will reward us for it (see verses above).
What I am trying to say, politely, is that if you have a problem with rewards in heaven, you have a problem with Jesus. I’ve given you some of the verses. You can look up others. Comment, or contact me, if you want to. Wrestle with this if you need to, but this is in fact, a solid, ordinary part of the teaching of Jesus: we will be rewarded for living out our faith the way God designed us to. This is on top of the free grace-gift of eternal life lived in the joy of God. It’s far too much. We don’t deserve it. That’s exactly the point.
Yes, we need to learn to fear the Lord, so that we can be free from every other fear. We can also trust that his intentions are good for us, and that means that it is a good thing to live this temporary life with a heart that seeks not only eternal life, but also to hear the Father say: “Well done! Your life and your choices did not go overlooked. Enjoy even more of my joy!”
Let the Lord speak to you about all of this right now.