Christ warned us against seeking the vain glory of this world as a reward for our good works, saying: “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6: 1, 5). God rejects good works if its motivation is obtaining temporal gain or vain glory and praise of men in this world. In fact, the devil tries to seduce men by the temporal glories of this world (John 12: 43; Matthew 4: 8-9). What then is the motivation of good works that edifies and uplifts the human spirit and pleases God? Is it seeking after the eternal glories and crowns of heaven (Romans 2: 5-11)? Is it the fear of the eternal torment of hell? Or is it the love of God and neighbor?
The eternal Almighty God of the visible and invisible universe is perfect and complete in every way. He lacks nothing. He is infinitely self-sufficient. He needs nothing outside his divine being. Therefore, man cannot confer any advantage or benefit upon God by his good works and services. “Can a man be profitable to God? ... Or is it gain to Him that you make your ways blameless?” (Job 22: 2-3). In fact, man possesses nothing of his own. All that he has and does is a gift from God. Therefore, God is not indebted to any good worker. He does not owe wages to anyone. Humans can never have any claims upon their Creator. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24: 1). Abba Peter the Pionite said: “We must not be puffed up when the Lord does something through our mediation, but we must rather thank him for having made us worthy to be called by him.” "Shall the ax boast itself against him who chops with it? Or shall the saw exalt itself against him who saws with it? As if a rod could wield itself against those who lift it up, or as if a staff could lift up, as if it were not wood!" (Isaiah 10: 15). "It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2: 13).
Are there rewards for good works? The Holy Bible affirms that there are rewards for good works and good moral life. "Your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly. … When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Matthew 6: 4, 6). The Holy Bible also warns of punishment for evil works. The extent and the level of reward are based on the extent and intent of the good works. "The Son of Man (Christ) will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works" (Matthew 16: 27; 1 Corinthians 3: 8; 2 Timothy 4: 8; etc.).
However, the Holy Bible provides very little description of the nature and conditions of heaven and hell? Therefore, the concept of eternal rewards and punishments is not emphasized as the basis of the relationship between God and man. The emphasis is placed upon the love of God and neighbor as the proper and acceptable motivation for obeying the commandments of God, doing good works, and living a moral life. "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him" (James 1: 12). "Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" (James 2: 5). Rewards and punishments are stated as final consequences at the end of the journey, not as motivations at the beginning of the journey. The apostle Paul stated: "Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing" (2 Timothy 4: 8; 1 Corinthians 3: 8; Colossians 3: 24).
A person who demands compensation for his good works, and feels entitled to a payment in the form of a temporal or eternal reward of any kind is proud and self-righteous who feels that he has earned God’s favor. "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain" (Galatians 2: 21). Self-righteousness is a serious spiritual sin. It tends to impede the operation of the grace of God in the life of the person. Amma Syncletica said: “Just as a treasure that is exposed loses its value, so a virtue which is known vanishes. Just as wax melts when it is near fire, so the soul is destroyed by praise and loses all the results of its labor.”
In fact, helping the needy and the sick in order to get the glories of heaven in return is a form of utilitarian exploitation. The person providing the help does not really love or care about the needy. He is merely focused on using the needy as a stepping stone to reach heaven. All forms of exploitation are abominable. They dehumanize the exploited, and reduce them to mere objects to be used. They spring from selfishness, not love.
God has freely promised gratuitous rewards for good works of love performed in the state of grace. These rewards are gifts freely bestowed on man by the abundant grace of God. Because God is faithful, he will grant those temporal and eternal blessings and rewards to those who please him as he has promised. "Your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly" (Matthew 6: 4; 5: 12; 25: 34; 2 Corinthians 9: 6; Luke 6: 38). However, pursuing rewards is the wrong motivation for good works. God does not like mercenaries. There is no spiritual value whatever to the mere external performance of good works motivated by the greed and desire for temporal or eternal rewards, or simply by the fear of hell. These works of self-righteousness are hypocritical and pretentious. "... the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16: 7; Isaiah 50: 11; 64: 6). They do not lead to spiritual edification and growth in Christ.
Jesus refers to the Christian in such intimate relationships as “friend” (John 15: 14-15), “brother” (Matthew 12: 50), “sons of God” (Luke 20: 36), “sons of light” (John 12: 36), and “sons of the Most High” (Luke 6: 35). Unlike a servant, a friend or a brother does not expect wages or payments from his friend or brother for work he does for him motivated by his love toward him.
The ideal motivation for doing good works, which is emphasized repeatedly in the Holy Bible, is the love of God and neighbor. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12: 30-31; Joshua 22: 5; Deuteronomy 6: 5; 10: 12; Luke 7: 47; Romans 5: 5). "Love never fails.... And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13: 8, 13; Colossians 3: 14). "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love" (Galatians 5: 6, 13; Hebrews 6: 10). Christ said: "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15: 12, 10; 13: 35; Galatians 5: 14).
Christ said: "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14: 15, 21, 23, 28; 21: 17). He did not say: “If you fear the torment of hell, keep my commandments.” And he did not say: “If you desire the crowns and the glories of heaven, keep my commandments.” After his resurrection, Christ asked Peter three times, saying: “… do you love Me? …” Only after Peter stated emphatically that he loved Christ, did Christ ask him to serve him (John 21: 15-17). To love Christ is to know and possess him as the life of the believer’s life. As a friend desires to see his beloved friend, so does the loving human soul ardently desires the Beatific Vision (the immediate knowledge of God), not because of craving for reward, but motivated by pure love. “How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 84: 1-2; 27: 4). This is the ideal high standard of morality in everyday life. However, remembering heaven and hell may help keep those who love God from falling at times of grave temptation (Matthew 10: 28; 1 Corinthians 9: 24-25). This transitory disposition is not immoral.
Christ said: "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing" (John 15: 5). The faithful are united with Christ. As life flows from the vine to its branches, the life of the good works of Christ flows through the faithful believer from Christ. The believer freely cooperates with the divine energy of Christ in complete submission to him to do the godly works of love. This constant union with Christ could be effected only by sanctifying grace. St. Augustine explained it saying, “God crowns your merits, not as your earnings, but as his gifts.” A merit is a gift of divine grace rather than the person’s own accomplishment. The faithful owe their entire wisdom, energy and strength for doing good works to the grace of God who bestows on them the gift of good works. Good works of love have their root in the gratuitous grace of God. It cannot be performed without the help of grace. They are accomplished by the power of Christ through the Holy Spirit with which the will of the faithful cooperates and concurs. Good works, the necessary manifestation and fruits of active faith, derive their efficacy from Christ, and are offered to the Father by him, and through him find acceptance with the Father. "Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness" (2 Corinthians 9: 10).
The relationship between the Biblical God and the Christian believers is an intimate Father-child relationship: “You are the children of the LORD your God. . .” (Deuteronomy 14: 1); “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6: 18; John 1: 12, 13); “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father”. . .” (Romans 8: 15-17; 9: 26); “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him” (1 John 3: 1); “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 26; 4: 7; Jeremiah 31: 9; Matthew 6: 9; John 8: 34-36). God is not just the Lord to be obeyed, but also the loving Father to be loved. He expects his adopted children to respond to his love and to love each other. He sanctifies the true followers of Christ, and raises them up to a high spiritual level through his fatherly relationship with them.
In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15: 11-32), the older son was jealous that his father received his penitent younger brother with festivities, whereas he never got anything for his years of service to his father. His father reminded him that he shared with him everything he had, saying “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15: 31). The apostle Paul reminds the faithful of the similar truth saying, "You are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ" (Galatians 4: 7; Romans 8: 17). The legalist self-righteous older son wanted a temporal reward for his service to his father. Although he never transgressed his father’s commandments (Luke 15: 29), he did not love his father and his younger brother. "Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing" (1 Corinthians 13: 3). The parable closes with the older son outside his father’s house.
In ancient times, the Lord God had blessed Job with great wealth, offspring and health (Job 1: 2-3). However, when all these blessings were taken away from him in the severe tests incited by Satan, he did not blaspheme God. But continued to follow him and do good. He did not walk with the Lord in order to gain any kind of rewards. He said: "...Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?..." (Job 2: 10). Job loved and trusted God despite his severe adversities, saying: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him …" (Job 13: 15).
Testing the faith of Abraham, God asked him almost 2000 years before Christ, to offer his son as a sacrifice to please God on a mountain: “Then He (God) said, ‘take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22: 2). Isaac was the son God promised Abraham from his wife Sarah in their old age. Abraham was more than one hundred years old and his wife Sarah was more than ninety years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 17: 17). Abraham did not expect children from Sarah after Isaac. Although God’s command appeared to be diametrically opposed to the promise God had already made to Abraham, and to God’s loving and compassionate character, Abraham did not withhold his only son from Sarah from God and offered him to please God. Abraham was motivated by his love and commitment for God, which were stronger than his love for his son. When God saw this, he asked Abraham to offer a ram in the place of Isaac.
Before his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed earnestly in agony that God the Father may relieve him from the cross, saying: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22: 42; Matthew 26: 39-44; Mark 14: 36-39). Jesus freely chose to advance the will of God the Father to his human will, fully submitted to God’s will and accepted the agony and death of the cross to redeem fallen humanity. Jesus loved God the Father more than his own earthly life. His first and strongest love and commitment were to God the Father. His primary motivation to accept the cross was his love to God the Father, which overrode all other considerations, as he stated: “But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do” (John 14: 31).
On December 6, 1273 at the Dominican convent of Naples, Italy in the Chapel of Saint Nicholas after the matins service, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catholic Church's greatest theologian, lingered and was seen by the sacristan Domenic of Caserta to be levitating in prayer with tears before an icon of the crucified Christ. Christ said to Thomas, "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?" Thomas responded, "Nothing but you, Lord." This is similar to what David the prophet said in ancient times: "One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple" (Psalm 27: 4). Thomas died and went to be with the Lord in eternity three months later on March 7, 1274.
“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it” (John Ruskin). Good godly works are not for temporal or eternal payment, nor for fear of temporal or eternal punishment, but for the love of God and neighbor. Good works, the fruits of active faith, glorify the Father. Christ said: "By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples" (John 15: 8). All is for the Glory of God.