This post is about repayment. The concept is associated with the repayment of deeds – good or evil – in this life or when Jesus returns to judge. The concept is associated with accounting language. Some sort of invisible ledger is tallied up, for good or bad and dished out to people by the Lord.
The concept is interrelated with repentance and reward. When people do good, they will be rewarded. When people sin and do wrong, they should be punished. For that reason, those who have sinned should repent or suffer the consequences.
- Repay each person accordingly
- Repaid for evil (Punishment)
- Sin accrues debts that need to be repaid (Lk 7:37–48)
- Wrongdoing will be paid back (Col 3:22–25; 2 Thes 1:4–10; 2 Tim 4:14–18; 2 Pet 2:12–13; Rev 18:4–6)
- Believers leave it to the Lord to repay evil (Rom 12:17–21; 1 Thes 5:15; 1 Pet 3:8–9)
- Believers are warned against deliberate sin because the Lord will repay (Heb 10:26–31)
- The rich will be repaid for their mistreatment of the poor (Jas 5:1–8)
- Repayment of debts over time
- Repaid for good
- Good making up for evil
Repay each person accordingly
Jesus said the Father will repay each person (Mt 16:24–28)
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
27 For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will REPAY each person ACCORDING to what he has done.
28 Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16:24–28)
This is the first of a few passages which say that when Jesus comes back he will repay people according to what they have done. Consider Mt 25.31-46 as well.
In the passage Jesus warns people about the cost of following him. But if people follow him and take on this cost they will find life. He then speaks about profit.
The cost of following Jesus may be the whole world, but that person will gain his soul.
He says all this because when he comes back again he will judge people and repay them for how they have behaved. Jesus is encouraging people to follow him despite the cost. They have to do something. They have to sacrifice something. Those who follow him will be repaid accordingly, they will gain life and their souls. He leaves it hanging what will happen to those who do not follow him.
Paul said God would render to each according to works (Rom 2:6–11; 2 Cor 5.8-10)
6 He will render to each one ACCORDING to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (Rom 2:6–11)
In Romans Paul’s statement is very similar to Jesus’ God will render to people according to their works. What they have done. It works both ways for Paul.
Jews and Gentiles who do good, will receive eternal life. Jews and Gentiles who do evil will suffer the wrath and fury of God.
In the overall context Paul is speaking about sin. The sin and unrighteousness of Gentiles and Jews. But eventually he introduces Christ and faith in him. Those Jews and Gentiles who believe Jesus is the Christ are forgiven their sins and justified (become righteous).
From this point onwards they are capable of doing good like the people Paul describes in the passage above. Hence in the context of the first few chapters of Romans, the unrighteous sinners are those who do evil and will suffer God’s wrath. Jews and Gentiles who believe Jesus is the Christ, have been justified and forgiven their sins are now capable of doing good, which will be rewarded with eternal life.
Paul also said.
8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is DUE for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:8–10)
Paul encourages his listeners to make it their aim to please God. The reason why is because they must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.
If they have pleased God (done what is good) when they are judged they will receive good things from him. Paul says this is what is ‘due’ them.
It seems according to Paul the more one pleases God and does good things, the more they will receive good things from Christ.
It works the other way too. If one continues in sin and wrongdoing, Christ will give them what is ‘due’ as well. This doesn’t look so good.
John said God would repay each for what they have done (Rev 22:11–15)
11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”
12 “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to REPAY each one for what he has done.
13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (Rev 22:11–15)
Jesus speaks about various kinds of people. He groups them according to their behaviour. The evildoer, the filthy, the righteous and the holy. It was normal in the first century and in the whole bible to divide people up like this.
Jesus says he will come soon and bring his recompense with him. What follows give the meaning here. Jesus will repay each person for what he has done. Again we can assume for good or evil. Its logical to assume this will go two ways. The evildoers and the filthy will be punished, receive something bad. The righteous and the holy will be rewarded, receive something good.
Each of these passages implicitly encourages the hearers to do good.
So that in the end times when Jesus returns to judge they will be rewarded with good things, not to mention eternal life! They also warn them away from sin and evil. Those who persist in sin and evil will be punished according to what they have done.
Repaid for evil (Punishment)
Repayment for sin and wrongdoing involves punishment. However there is also forgiveness. The term ‘debt’ is often used with accounting imagery.
Sin accrues debts that need to be repaid (Lk 7:37–48)
37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
41 “A certain moneylender had two DEBTORS. One OWED five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not PAY, he cancelled the DEBT of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger DEBT.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Lk 7:37–48)
Jesus shares a parable highlighting people who are greatly forgiven are more likely to respond in greater measure those who had been forgiven little. In both cases the people were required to pay off the debt, but each were forgiven the debt.
Jesus relates the cancelling of monetary debts to the forgiveness of sins.
Wrongdoing will be paid back (Col 3:22–25; 2 Thes 1:4–10; 2 Tim 4:14–18; 2 Pet 2:12–13; Rev 18:4–6)
22 Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be PAID back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Col 3:22–25)
Paul encourages his audience to obey their earthly masters as if they are serving the Lord. He says this because of the potential rewards or punishments associated with serving.
They are meant to fear the Lord. He will reward them if they serve him well and there seems to be assurance this will be so (‘knowing you will receive the inheritance’). There is also a warning, wrongdoers will be paid back for what they have done.
The statements should persuade them to serve their earthly masters well in light of the future judgment.
4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. 5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to REPAY with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (2 Thes 1:4–10)
Paul doesn’t have any sympathy for those who persecute and afflict his churches. He knows the Lord will afflict them in repayment for what they have done. They will suffer the ‘punishment of eternal destruction’.
14 Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will REPAY him ACCORDING to his deeds. 15 Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. 16 At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Tim 4:14–18)
Paul’s statement is very much like what he says in Rom 2.6. ‘He will render to each one according to their works’. In this case it only applies to the wrong Alexander has done.
I can only guess Alexander the coppersmith creates copper idols for people to bow down and worship. Paul’s teaching condemned this as idolatry and called people to turn to God through Jesus. Paul’s ministry robbed Alexander of business, so Alexander opposed Paul’s message. In return Alexander sought to sabotage Paul’s ministry and here we see Paul anticipating the repayment (punishment) he will receive from the Lord for doing so.
12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the WAGE for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. (2 Pet 2:12–13)
Peter gets stuck into a group of people who seem to be in various churches (‘they feast with you’). They will suffer wrong as the wage for their own wrongdoing. Those who sin will be sinned against as punishment.
4 Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; 5 for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.
6 PAY her back as she herself has PAID back others, and REPAY her double for her deeds; mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed. (Rev 18:4–6)
John is speaking about ‘Babylon’ and in the historical context he may be referring to Rome or the world in general which persecutes believers. Babylon has dealt out some punishment it seems to God’s people (‘she herself has paid back others’). We are not told what for other than the fact that God’s people are instructed to come out of her and not take part in her sin. Perhaps Babylon resented this and this is why she felt she had to pay her back.
None the less Babylon will be paid back herself for the wrongful treatment she has imposed on God’s people. She will receive double for her sins.
If one were to look at the Old Testament and its use of the word double you would see several instances where people are given double punishment for sin (Ex 22.7,9; Isa 40.2; Jer 17.18) and some where people receive double blessing for various reasons (Dt 21.17; 1 Sam 1.5; 2 Ki 2.9; Isa 61.7; Zech 9.12).
Believers leave it to the Lord to repay evil (Rom 12:17–21; 1 Thes 5:15; 1 Pet 3:8–9)
17 REPAY no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will REPAY, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17–21)
Paul encourages his audience how to live in the present day. From time to time they will be sinned against. Paul does not want them to respond to evil with evil. Preferably he would want them to forgive and to try and get along peaceably. Difficult I know.
But he does refer to the vengeance of the Lord. The Lord is more offended by the evil committed. Paul wants them to give them time, to hold back, do good things for them and perhaps forgive in the hope they will repent. If they don’t all this will make it worse for them because the Lord will repay their evil in wrath.
15 See that no one REPAYS anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. (1 Thes 5:15)
Paul says something similar again. This time he gives an instruction to the whole church to ensure this is obeyed. He does not want his audience to respond in turn to evil. Rather he wants them to do good to people in the church and everyone else. If one person in the church say another repaying evil for evil, then some sort of correction should take place.
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not REPAY evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Pet 3:8–9)
Peter makes the same exhortation as Paul does above with a different motive. I’ve drawn a table to highlight the difference.
|Paul||Do not REPAY evil for evil||rather seek to do good||you will heap burning coals on his head (Rom 12)|
|Peter||Do not REPAY evil for evil||rather seek to do good||you may obtain a blessing (1 Pet 3)|
Both are true. But it seems Paul is out for justice, where Peter wants people to receive a blessing.
Believers are warned against deliberate sin because the Lord will repay (Heb 10:26–31)
26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will REPAY.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb 10:26–31)
The passage is quite serious. The author of Hebrews quotes the same passage as Paul does in Rom 12.19. This time it is applied to ‘the Lord’s people’ as a warning to prevent them from ongoing and deliberate sin. The author would never had said this if he believed it never would happen. That would be logically incoherent.
The rich will be repaid for their mistreatment of the poor (Jas 5:1–8)
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the WAGES of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
7 Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (Jas 5:1–8)
James’ letter meanders around a bit. There does not seem to be much of a logical sequence of thought. In this section James seems to be condemning the rich, then afterwards he encourages his brothers in light of what he just said to the rich. I’m assuming the rich he is speaking to aren’t really part of his audiences and he has said it for the benefit of his brothers.
None the less James brings up the concept of repayment when he speaks about the rich withholding the wages of those who were working for them. They have become rich by exploiting the poor. Righteous people have died because the rich have robbed them of their deserved wages and they have died of hunger. The ‘wages’ cry out to the Lord telling him of the injustice that is happening.
In light of this, James exhorts his audience to wait for the coming of the Lord. Then they will receive what they need (‘rain’) and probably the rich will be punished.
Repayment of debts over time
The concept of payment of debt over time is related in Isa 40.2 and is similar to the the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. I can see elements of it in the following New Testament passages.
Jesus says they will never get out until they have paid their debts (Mt 5:21–26; Mt 18:21–35; Lk 12.57-59)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have PAID the last penny. (Mt 5:21–26)
Jesus uses imprisonment imagery again as the means of punishment for sin. People will remain in prison paying off the debt until they have paid the last penny.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.
24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who OWED him ten thousand talents. 25 And since he could not PAY, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and PAYMENT to be made. 26 So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will PAY you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the DEBT.
28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who OWED him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘PAY what you OWE.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will PAY you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should PAY the DEBT.
31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that DEBT because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should PAY all his DEBT. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18:21–35)
In the first case the debt of the servant (1) was going to be made up by selling himself, his wife, children and all he had into slavery. An exchange of ownership was to be made to pay for his debt. However when the servant (1) pleaded with the king the debt was forgiven.
Forgiveness wipes out debts. No repayment has to be made.
In the second case the other servant (2) was thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. Presumably over time he would work off the sum he owed. Or in some way the punishment made satisfaction for his debt.
This same imprisonment over time is what the original servant (1) received when the king found out about his lack of forgiveness he was sent into prison.
If we relate this passage to Paul’s in 2 Thes 1:4–10 and consider the size of the debt he owed to the master (approx. one gazillion dollars) then we might say the time imprisoned will be forever.
57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have PAID the very last penny.” (Lk 12:57–59)
Jesus describes the punishment as someone imprisoned (‘never get out’) and having to pay for their sins slowly over time to remove the debt.
Paul says the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:22–23)
22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.
23 For the WAGES of sin is death, but
the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:22–23)
Paul refers at the start of this passage to three stages in their Christian life. Back to when they were set free from sin (past tense), their current stage of life where are slaves of God, serving him in righteousness (present) and when they will be sanctified and receive eternal life (future).
These three stages inform us on how we can understand what is next. Paul says the wages of sin is death. Sin accumulates debt that normally is paid out by some sort of punishment. In most cases death is the punishment.
But Paul implies it’s different for them. They have received the free gift of God (cf. Rom 5.15-17) which is Christ’s obedience to death on the cross (‘one act of righteousness’) which has set them free from sin (Rom 6.7). From the start of the passage this has lead to their present state in serving God in righteousness and will lead to sanctification and eternal life.
So Paul has implied the combined effect of God’s gift (Christ’s death) and their current service to God will result in their wages which will be eternal life (cf. Rom 2.6-11).
Repaid for good
The idea of being repaid for good works is more controversial. It seems to be based on the same system of repayment.
It also goes against the trend of being so sin focused that the idea of being rewarded for good works is unthinkable.
Here are the scriptures teaching it.
Jesus says those who work will be paid (Lk 10:3–9; Lk 14:12–14; Jn 4:34–38)
3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’
6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his WAGES. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Lk 10:3–9)
Jesus understands the disciples are going out to work for him. Any good worker deserves his wages.
Jesus wants his disciples to recognize that when they are received by those they come to preach to, this hospitality is the wage they deserve.
12 He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be REPAID.
13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed, because they cannot REPAY you.
For you will be REPAID at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 14:12–14)
Normally people give to others whom they expect will return the favor. Jesus encourages his audience to be hospitable to those who cannot repay them the favor.
Their incentive in doing this is knowing they will be blessed precisely because they cannot repay them.
Since the poor cannot repay them, they will be repaid by the Lord at the ‘resurrection of the just’.
This either refers to their own resurrection as the righteous, or some sort of reward given them at the same time.
34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.
36 Already the one who reaps is receiving WAGES and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.
37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” (Jn 4:34–38)
Using agricultural imagery Jesus speaks about two stages the timeline of a crop. The time of sowing and the time of the harvest, when people reap.
I assume he refers to the ministry of many of the prophets and people of God prior to the coming of Jesus who anticipated his coming. One such example is John the baptist (Mk 1.1-8).
They prepared the way and now that Jesus has come, the disciples ministry completes the harvest.
Their wages are the people who repent and believe their message about the kingdom of God and Jesus as its king.
Paul says those who labour will receive wages (1 Cor 3:5–15; 1 Tim 5:17–19)
5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his WAGES ACCORDING to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
10 ACCORDING to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:5–15)
Paul alludes the final judgment where he and Apollos will be judged for their labour in gospel ministry and given their wages accordingly. Paul is not clear on what those wages will be, but because God is working in their ministry and he is the one who gives the growth I suspect their wages are the fruits of their labour, the creation and growth of the church.
The Corinthian church began when Paul shared the gospel with them and they believed. This is their foundation – Jesus Christ. Now that the foundation is laid, someone else continues to build on it in Paul’s absence.
The people involved in the further development of the church are various members in the Corinthian church. Which is why Paul wants them to know they are accountable for their ministry.
The Corinthians work in developing the church will be tested. If the fire reveals a work of value, then they will receive a reward. Each will receive his wages according to his labour. If the fire burns up their work, that is, if they did nothing worth while to build up the church, they will be saved – as if through fire. That is, by the skin on their teeth. Paul implies their ministry contributes to their reward but their salvation does not depend on it.
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his WAGES.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim 5:17–19)
Paul wants Timothy to encourage the churches he visits to treat their elders well. Because of their ministry for the church they should be given ‘double honour’. The respect they are shown is considered to be their wages, what form it takes could vary. Money, food, shelter, respect, etc.
Just to make things more complicated there are a series of passages which use the same terminology, but seem to throw the underlying system of repayment into the wind. These disregard giving people what they deserve for their good or evil. Rather they describe instances where people are given good things and blessed without them having to do anything.
Jesus death on the cross paid our debts (Col 2.13-15)
13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of DEBT that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Col 2.13-15)
Jesus’ death on the cross has cancelled the debt of our sin. This is an act of amazing grace because he did this when we were dead in our transgressions.
Jesus says people receive without paying (Mt 10:7–8)
7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without PAYING; give without PAY. (Mt 10:7–8)
The disciples are encouraged by Jesus to give in ministry without expecting anything in return. Jesus says they are to behave like this because that is how they themselves have been treated by God. Possibly they will be rewarded in the resurrection of the just (cf. Lk 14:12–14).
God gives to people with no expectation of them paying him back. We should give in the same way.
Jesus says all those who work will be given the same wage (Mt 20:8–16)
8 And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and PAY them their WAGES, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ 9 And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first last.” (Mt 20:8–16)
Each of the labourers were chosen to work by the master. Some were left behind at the marketplace. Only those who worked received a denarius, but they worked varying lengths of time. Some more than others based on when they were chosen. The master was exceedingly generous and wanted to show everyone how generous he is. The labourers hired first begrudged the master for giving a denarius to the labourers hired last because they did not work as long as they did.
They all received a denarius. They were all made equal to one another. But those who worked the shortest became the most grateful and blessed for the master’s generosity. And those who worked the longest became resentful of the master because of his generosity.
The parable describes how things will work out among God’s people in the end times. A denarius was a full days wage, everyone of the labourers needed to work to live. All God’s people will receive eternal life for the varying amount of work they have done. Keep in mind those who were not hired. They did no work at all. They were not paid. Only the labourers received a denarius.
I think it may be helpful to make a distinction between eternal life and other rewards that come with it. All of God’s people serve him. But clearly not all come to faith at the same time in their lives and serve him for the same length of time. There are believers who have come to faith in childhood and live long lives serving him. Unfortunately there are others who come to faith and soon afterwards martyred. However all of God’s people receive eternal life. In addition to this its plausible to say there will also be varying rewards distributed according to what they have done (e.g. Mt 25.14-30).
Good making up for evil
There is only one passage I am aware of where a person’s wrongdoing is made up for by another’s good works. Paul teaches it.
Paul’s credit pays off Onesimus’ debit (Phm 17–19)
Paul shared the gospel with Philemon, he believed and was saved. Philemon should be grateful to Paul’s for the good he has done him. Sometime later one of Philemons slaves Onesimus has some sort of dispute with Philemon and he runs away. Paul eventually meets up with Onesimus and he shares the gospel with him and Onesimus is also saved.
So Philemon owes something to Paul for saving him and Onesimus is in debt to Philemon for their dispute and running away from him.
17 So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. 18 If he has wronged you at all, or OWES you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will REPAY it—to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. (Phm 17–19)
Paul is encouraging Philemon to receive Onesimus back on positive terms. Reading between the lines Paul is putting pressure on Philemon to free Onesimus and send him back.
The reasoning behind Paul’s request is the good he has done Philemon. He asks Philemon to deduct the wrong Onesimus has done to him from his account of the good Paul has done for him.
The passages give a certain perspective on Judgment. Good and evil are accounted for in some sort of invisible ledger.
Evil and sin accrue some sort of debt which must be paid off. Debts can be forgiven (cancelled), taken out as punishment or paid off over a lengthy period.
Good works on the other hand please God and it seems he will reward people for them. Whether he is obligated to is not stated. Lk 17.10 seems to suggest obedience commanded of God’s people will not be rewarded because it is our duty. On the other hand if there are various ‘good works’ which go above and beyond what God has commanded, it seems plausible to believe these deeds will be rewarded using the same system of repayment.
The passages give a certain perspective on people. They assume people are capable of doing either good or evil and are held accountable for their actions. The passages in particular which state the rewards for good weigh against the notion people only sin and the only thing they need is forgiveness. Jesus said there will be the resurrection of the just.
All God’s people had the debt of their sins cancelled by the cross. Without distinction all have received eternal life. They all work as well. God renders to each person according to their work and in addition to eternal life there will be rewards to lesser or greater measure for those who serve him.
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