The thought of ‘rewards’ for the undeserving seems contradictory. And it is, if rewards and ill desert are conceived on the same horizon. The ground of our salvation and our good works are as insulated as heaven is from hell. The two shall not be confused in the heart of the one who treasures Christ.
No one wrote more extensively or reflected more deeply upon this subject than did Jonathan Edwards. It is a theological meditation on the concept of degrees of glory. With ‘degrees’ Edwards signified a quantitative measure or grade, and with ‘glory’ he referred to God’s excellency, dignity, and worth reflected, magnified, and enjoyed. So a higher degree of glory in the creature corresponds to a higher manifestation and personal enjoyment of God.
As redemption relates to eternal life so rewards relate to the enjoyment of God in that life. Merit, entitlement, and boasting are excluded.
Not only is salvation not merited, neither are rewards. Edwards insisted that the giving of rewards was a free and sovereign act of God based not on the saints’ merit but on God’s good pleasure: “he gives higher degrees of glory as a reward to the higher degrees of good works, not because it deserves it but because it pleases him.” He maintains that “the best the saints do is exceedingly polluted, and deserves nothing.” Persistently, Edwards held that merit cannot ‘meddle’ with the matter.
According to Edwards, degrees of glory approximate rewards in heaven. He reasoned, “if the good works of the saints are rewarded in heaven it will inevitably follow that there are different degrees of glory.” That God rewards the good works of the saints is a plain teaching in Scripture (1 Cor 3:9-15; 9:16-27). The deeds of the saints will be examined and rewarded accordingly (Rom 14:12; 2 Cor 5:10). But this examination is distinct from judgment against unatoned sin (Rom 8:1). Redemption is entirely by grace alone, accomplished by Christ alone, and received by faith alone. Yet, for the redeemed, works have an important place in the economy of glorifying God:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. –Ephesians 2:8-10
Edwards said, “I would premise negatively that there are no degrees of imputed righteousness, but that all saints are alike justified in the sight of God by the righteousness of Christ. As there are no degrees in the same person with respect to this but he is as much justified the first moment of his conversion as ever he is how much soever he may increase in holiness afterwards.”
Elsewhere, he explains, “Christ by his righteousness purchased for everyone perfect happiness; that is, he merited that their capacity should be filled with happiness. But this does not hinder but that the saints, being of various capacities, may have various degrees of happiness, and yet all their happiness be the fruit of Christ’s purchase.”
Christ secured the guarantee that each of His redeemed would experience perfect joy and love before God–a truly redeemed life perfectly restored to its perfect design. But we are not to presume that this great gift of grace negates all degrees of personal interest, investment, and labor. The more you crave God, the more satisfying God will be. Christ purchased us to be stewards; we can blame no one but ourselves for poor stewardship. And our stewardship of grace is linked to our capacity to enjoy God. Edwards says, “But the purchase of Christ did not decide how large the vessel should be.”
Christ secured the perfection of our joy, and calls us to be stewards over the joy of our perfection in Christ. Edwards contends, “He purchased eternal life, that is perfect happiness, or which is the same thing, that everyone’s capacity should be filled. The saints are like so many vessels of different sizes cast into a sea of happiness, where each vessel is full: this is eternal life, for a man forever to have his capacity filled.”
Rightly understood, this doctrine is a present encouragement to Godward living. To this end, Edwards was not afraid to appeal to the motives of the heart and self-interest of the saint, especially with rewards of happiness in God.
The key to understanding degrees of glory is the authenticity of delight in God. Glorifying God is the only fitting response from the soul that sees Him for who He is. When we value most what is most valuable, when we delight most in what is most delightful, when we love most what is most lovely, we do what is right because of delight.
So the reward is in answer to our pursuit of God, not rewards. And this itself is a stewardship of grace:
We ought to seek [higher degrees of glory], because God has revealed and offered it in his Word to that end, that we might seek it. Those things that God offers we ought to seek, otherwise we shall show a contempt of the offer that God makes. It would be a great sin for us to show such a slight of any of the blessings God has offered to stir us up to our duty, as not to seek after them. It shows the wonderful grace and love of God, that he will offer such high and superior degrees of glory for such imperfect, miserable services as we perform. But if now, when God has offered them, we won’t so much as seek after them, we shall show a great contempt of this wonderful grace.