Our eternal destinies are determined by whether or not we receive Jesus Christ. Our works have nothing to do with our salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5-7). Still, the Bible clearly teaches that all men—saints and sinners—will ultimately be judged by God according to their works (Job 34:11; Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Jeremiah 17:10; Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:5-7; Revelation 22:12).
If our works have nothing to do with determining our eternal destinies, then why will sinners be judged by their works at the “great white throne” and saints be judged by their works at the “judgement seat of Christ” (Revelation 20:13; 2 Corinthians 5:10)? The answer is obvious; it will be to determine the specific rewards of each saint in Heaven and the severity of punishment for each sinner in Hell. As the Bible teaches, God will both repay the guilty (the unbeliever) by bringing his wickedness upon his own head and vindicate the righteous (the believer) by rewarding him according to his righteousness (2 Chronicles 6:23; Ezekiel 18:20).
Contrary to popular belief, all sins are not the same. Some are more severe than others, as Jesus pointed out to Pontius Pilate (John 19:11). Also, all judgments are not the same. Some people will receive a more severe judgment than others (James 3:1). For instance, those who receive more will be expected to have done more (Luke 12:48).
There are several passages that prove the existence of varying degrees of punishment in Hell (Matthew 11:20-24; 23:14; Luke 12:47-48; Hebrews 10:18-29). Although none of these passages give us specific examples of Hell’s differing severity, each indicates that the determining factor of each sinner’s particular punishment will be the amount of light shunned during his or her lifetime. A sinner who received ample opportunities to come to the knowledge of the truth and to be saved, but repeatedly turned his nose up at God’s offer of grace, will receive a far more severe punishment than one who lacked such ample opportunities during his lifetime.
Just as there are several passages that prove the existence of varying degrees of punishment in Hell, there are also several passages that prove the existence of differing rewards in Heaven. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Christ actually admonishes us to “lay up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Matthew 6:20). While all of us should take Christ’s admonition to heart, none of us should mistakenly believe that heavenly treasures amount to material fortune accumulated for us in the hereafter by our faithful service to Christ in the here-and-now. If, as the Bible teaches, Heaven’s streets are paved with gold and gold so devalued there that we tread upon it, material rewards will be worthless in Heaven. Thus, it is clearly not material fortune that Christ is admonishing us to store up for ourselves in Heaven, but rewards of an entirely different nature that will retain their value in the face of eternity.
Fortunately, the Bible does shed a little light on the nature of the saints’ sundry rewards in Heaven. In 2 Timothy 4:7-8, the Apostle Paul speaks of the “crown of righteousness” that “is laid up” for all of us who love and long for Christ’s “appearing.” Along with the crown of righteousness, other crowns mentioned as rewards for the saints are the “incorruptible crown” earned by the self-disciplined Christian (1 Corinthians 9:25), the “crown of rejoicing” earned by the soul winning Christian (1 Thessalonians 2:19), “the crown of glory” earned by the exemplary pastor (1 Peter 5:4), and “the crown of life” earned by the martyred Christian (Revelation 2:10). None of these crowns are intended to be worn by strutting Christians on Heaven’s golden streets, but all of them are given so that they may be laid at the feet of Him to whom all glory and honor belongs (Revelation 4:10-11).
Along with crowns to be cast at Christ’s feet, there are also other particular honors that will be rewarded to certain Christians for their meritorious service to the Master. For instance, the twelve foundations of the New Jerusalem are graced with “the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:14). Also, the spiritually chaste 144,000 of Revelation 14:1-5 are given a new song that they alone are able and allowed to sing.
Along with certain honors for meritorious service, such as crowns and songs, another reward awaiting some saints in Heaven is that of position and authority. In His parables of the talents and of the ten pounds, Christ explains how the Christian steward who is faithful over the little entrusted to Him by God in this life will be rewarded by God with authority over a lot in the life to come (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). While this is made easily understandable by the extraordinary biblical truth that we shall serve as Christ’s co-regents during His reign upon the earth (Revelation 3:21; 5:10; 20:4), it is made even more stupendous by three specific examples given to us in the Scripture of the kinds of position and authority awaiting the stedfast steward in the hereafter.
First, Jesus promised His twelve disciples—they who had left all to follow Him—that when He sits on “the throne of His glory, [they] also [will] sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:18; Mark 10:28-30). This will undoubtedly be sweet vindication for those once persecuted by their own people for merely proclaiming to them their own Messiah. In the end, Israel’s rejected Messiah will elevate His twelve formerly persecuted Jewish apostles to positions of judgment over their former Jewish persecutors.
Second, the Apostle Paul taught that Christians will one day “judge angels” (1 Corinthians 6:3). Obviously, Paul is referring here to fallen angels, the judgment of whom will be quite rewarding to Christians who were formerly dogged by demons and the victims of demonic buffeting (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Finally, there is the exalted positions at our Lord’s right hand and left hand that will eventually be bestowed upon Christ’s two most deserving devotees. Although Jesus did not promise these positions to the sons of Zebedee, despite their and their mother’s petitioning, He did indicate that these two exalted positions would be rewarded someday by God to a couple of extraordinary believers (Mark 10:35-40; Matthew 20:20-23).
Before concluding this answer to your question, permit me to make a pair of salient points. As Christians we should do everything we do for the glory of God and for Jesus’ name’s sake (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). We should do nothing for personal reward, regardless of whether we’re seeking some reward in the here-and-now or in the hereafter. To serve Christ with selfish and impure motives taints our service and renders it unacceptable to Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, the Apostle Paul teaches us that Jesus Christ is the only foundation for spiritual, abundant and eternal life. Those of us who have come to Christ may build our spiritual lives, which are founded upon Him, with either “gold, silver, [and] precious stones” or with “wood, hay [and] stubble.” The latter represents what we attempt do for God, but the former represents what God actually does through us. If we want the Spirit doing things of eternal consequence through us, things for which we will be eternally rewarded, then we will have to do everything we do for Christ’s glory, since the Spirit is in the world for no other purpose than to glorify Christ (John 16:13-14).
If our works prove to be “wood, hay [and] stubble,” because they are self-made and selfishly motivated, they will eventually go up in smoke and we’ll be left without any eternal rewards. We will still be “saved,” as Paul puts it, “but only through fire.” Our eternal life is assured, since it is based upon Christ’s atoning work for us, but not our eternal rewards, since they are based upon the work Christ does through us. Christ only works in the power of His Spirit to do things of eternal consequence and deserving of eternal rewards through those who selflessly serve Him with a pure heart.
Rewards are good, but they are only the icing on the cake. We should never make them the batter. If we do, our cake will fall and we’ll end up in Heaven with nothing to show for our lives here on earth.