There is a saying: “Good is its own reward.” But we may also wonder whether God rewards us in other ways if we obey His Word. Does being good earn us additional blessings and benefits aside from the pleasant feeling? This question can have two answers, so we’ll look at both of them.
First of all, God’s pleasure at obedience is documented over and over in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament (Psalm 91:14–15; Isaiah 58:13–14). God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai was very much conditional, as it was based on their obedience, and His promises to bless them depended on whether or not they kept His commands (Leviticus 3). The Old Testament records the consequences Israel experienced when they kept or broke the covenant (Deuteronomy 8:19–20; Daniel 9:11–12). When Israel obeyed, God prospered them (Exodus 15:26). When they defied Him, He brought judgment (2 Kings 24:2–3). During that time in human history, God offered tangible rewards for obedience to His commands.
By the time Jesus came to earth, the leaders of Israel had added to God’s law and turned it into a religious system without the relationship. They believed themselves righteous because they followed the system of rules they had set up. They assured themselves that they were God’s favorites because they were descendants of Abraham and because they were so religious.
However, Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of the day, saying, “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:7–9). The Pharisees were obedient to the letter of the law in some respects, but they nullified other parts of the law by their own traditions. They were rebuked because whatever show of obedience they had was motivated by self-righteousness, not love for God. Those who were promised rewards for obedience were rebuked many times because their obedience was not from the heart and was incomplete (Isaiah 29:13; Malachi 2:13–17; 3:8–15; Matthew 23:15–28).
So, what about now? Does God reward us for being obedient to His Word? We can better answer this question by recognizing that God’s Word is the instruction manual for our lives. When we apply its principles, our consciences are clean and our lives function as they were designed to function. Consider it this way: a man purchases an unassembled swing set for his children. He is not the engineering type and has no experience in working with tools. But if he reads the manual and consults with people who have assembled such things before, he will be able to set up the swing set the way it was designed, and he and his children will be greatly rewarded for his trouble. If he ignores the owner’s manual, however, he’s courting frustration and possibly disaster. There are built-in rewards for simply following instructions.
Psalm 1:1–4 explains it this way: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away.” When we follow the way of wisdom, we reap better experiences, and those better experiences produce rewards such as material provision, relational benefits, and mental and emotional health. Those are God’s rewards for people who follow His instruction.
God’s reward to those who obey His Word can seem like natural consequences. For example, a child obeys God’s Word and honors his parents. He finds that he is blessed with closer familial relationships, less conflict, and more trust. Are these the direct blessings of God for obedience or the natural consequences of treating parents well—or both? Another example: a teenager obeys God’s Word and avoids sexual immorality. She finds that she is blessed with less complicated romantic relationships, fewer heartaches, and an absence of STDs. Is she experiencing the direct blessing from God for obedience or the logical outcome of choosing the path of abstinence—or both?
God does not always define reward the same way we do. When we think of God rewarding us for behaving well, we usually think of tangible, material goodies. But God has eternity in mind. The Bible and ensuing history are filled with examples of people who obeyed the Lord at great cost to themselves. Scripture’s godly men and women often did not appear to reap any earthly rewards for their obedience, yet many are listed in the Hall of Faith as people whose rewards are in heaven. Hebrews 11:39–40 summarizes: “All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.”
Obedience to the Word includes obedience to the gospel, and that carries great reward. When we accept God’s offer of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, we are pronounced righteous in His sight (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13). There is no longer any condemnation waiting for us because, in His grace, God considered the sacrifice of His Son as sufficient payment for the great debt we owed Him (Romans 8:1; Ephesians 2:8–9; Colossians 2:14). As part of that salvation, we are promised an eternity in glory with Him.
None of salvation’s benefits are a reward for our performance. Forgiveness and heaven are gifts granted to us because of God’s great love. The most unworthy criminal who cries out in repentance on his deathbed will receive the same pardon and eternity in heaven as the missionary martyred on the mission field (Luke 23:39–43; Matthew 20:1–16). However, Jesus does promise many different kinds of rewards in heaven for every deed done in His name on earth (Mark 9:41; James 1:12; Revelation 22:12). When we walk in fellowship with Him, keeping our sins confessed and our lives free of besetting sins, we are rewarded daily with fruit from the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), communion with God (James 4:7–8), and power to resist the attacks of Satan (Ephesians 6:10–17). Whatever struggles we face on earth in order to obey God’s Word will be overly compensated in eternity with rewards we cannot even imagine (Romans 8:18).