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Wisdom, Fear, and Eternal Rewards

(By Rob McLeod)

If one were to conduct a survey in which respondents were asked “How do you become wise?” one could almost guarantee receiving answers along the following lines: “Become highly educated,” or “Acquire vast life experience,” or “Embrace the teachings of your culture.”

Let’s see how Scripture teaches us to acquire wisdom. Consider the following verses:

Proverbs 1:7 “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Proverbs 9:10-11 “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. For by me your days will be multiplied, and years of life will be added to you.”

In the preceding verses we clearly see that true wisdom is not merely acquired from a textbook or from many years mastering one’s trade. Sure, there are many ‘smart’ people in the world–– say, astronauts and brain surgeons––but that does not necessarily make one ‘wise’. Many highly educated people have made very poor (and infamous) life decisions. And what does Scripture say about ‘smart’ people who deny our Creator’s existence? Consider Psalm 14:1: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” So, how does one acquire true wisdom? In short, it develops out of a relationship with the Lord. Let’s reconsider the preceding verses from Proverbs. To me, the phrase “The fear of the LORD is the beginning…” leaps out of the page. Scripture clearly instructs the reader that true wisdom comes out of respect, awe, and reverence (that’s the meaning here for the underlying Hebrew word for ‘fear’) towards our Maker. The word ‘fear’ can also mean (perhaps unsurprisingly) ‘to be afraid of.’

How does this strike you? We live in a culture where authority figures are disrespected, continuously questioned, and publicly maligned. Obviously there have been many authorities that have abused their position of trust and responsibility. Nonetheless this does not permit one to throw respect and submission ‘out with the bathwater’ so to speak. Unfortunately, this pessimistic attitude toward authority in general has also polluted our attitude to our ultimate authority, the Lord God.

Let’s consider additional Scripture, from the book of Proverbs, to see how the “fear of the LORD” is a necessary condition for acquiring true wisdom:

Proverbs 8:13 “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; pride and arrogance and the evil way and the perverse mouth I hate.”

Proverbs 10:27 “The fear of the LORD prolongs days, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.”

Proverbs 14:26-27 “In the fear of the LORD there is strong confidence, and His children will have a place of refuge. The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, to turn one away from the snares of death.”

Proverbs 15:16,33 “Better is a little with the fear of the LORD, than great treasures with trouble…The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom, and before honour is humility.”

Proverbs 16:6 “In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the LORD one departs from evil.”

Proverbs 19:23 “The fear of the LORD leads to life, and he who has it will abide in satisfaction; he will not be visited with evil.”

Proverbs 22:4 “By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches and honour and life.”

Proverbs 23:17 “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but be zealous for the fear of the LORD all the day.”

Proverbs 29:25 “The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD shall be safe.” The preceding verses clearly teach that having a submissive, respectful, and loving attitude toward our heavenly Father will  allow us to flee from evil and have the deeper riches: confidence through Him, wisdom, fruitful days, and true satisfaction in life.

In an earlier paragraph I mentioned that fear of the Lord can also imply that we should be afraid of the Lord. How can this be? Does not “perfect love cast out fear” (1 John 4:18)? Let’s now consider the times when it is appropriate to be afraid or fearful of the Lord. To properly consider this we must also distinguish between the position of the unbeliever (nonChristian) and the believer before the Lord. Let’s first consider the position of an unbeliever. If an individual has not placed their faith in Jesus Christ, Scripture makes it abundantly clear that they are in a disastrous position. 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10 prophetically describes the Lord doing the following in the future: “In flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe.” Truly an unbeliever should have fear of such a day coming upon him. Thankfully, by the Lord’s mercy, we are not left without a provision for avoiding such doom. Scripture clearly describes the gracious gift that has been offered to all. Consider the following ‘well known’ verses: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten son of God.” (John 3:16-18)

Let’s now consider the position of the believer. Should a believer ever be fearful of the Lord? First, let’s clarify our position concerning one issue that has confused many Christians over the years. It is this: a believer never has to be in fear of their ultimate position in Jesus Christ. That is, a believer can never lose their salvation. We are saved by Christ’s record, not ours. This fact is theologically referred to as ‘eternal security’. Although the fact of eternal security is continually under attack it is clearly supported by Scripture such as the following:

1 Peter 1:5 “Who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Ephesians 2:8-9 “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

Hebrews 13:5 “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”

John 10:28 “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of my hand.”

Romans 8:31-39 also instructs us that a believer can never be separated from the love of Jesus Christ. (Please consider reading this portion from Romans.)

I believe that much of the confusion within the church concerning the teaching of eternal security actually arises out of confusion surrounding the role of eternal rewards for believers at the end of the age. Let me also preface the following discussion by stating that while Scripture teaches that all believers are loved by the Lord it does not teach that all believers are well pleasing to the Lord. This is a crucial distinction that must be understood in order to properly interpret certain key passages concerning rewards and the need to hear “well done” after Jesus returns. Consider 2 Corinthians 5:9-10 in which the apostle Paul boldly states: “Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”

Paul’s objective, his ‘aim’, was to be well pleasing to His Saviour. If every believer is automatically well pleasing to the Lord there would be no need for Paul to have made this his goal! Note also that these verses from 2 Corinthians teach that all people (including believers) will stand before the Lord and give an account of their actions. At this juncture, we must be careful to distinguish between the two judgments that Scripture discusses. The unbeliever will ultimately stand before the Lord at what is commonly referred to as the ‘great white throne judgment’ (see Revelation 20:11-15). At this judgment any person whose name is not found in the Book of Life will be “cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15) and will be eternally separated from the Lord. The judgment taking place at the ‘great white throne’ is for condemnation and eternal punishment. In the case of believers, which is our primary focus, their judgment occurs at what is referred to as the ‘judgment seat of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:10) or ‘bema’ in the original Greek. This tribunal, if you will, is for assessment and distribution of rewards, not for eternal condemnation. That is, at the bema seat, believers will not be assessed to determine whether or not their works merit salvation. Rather believers’ lives will be assessed to determine if they have been found well pleasing to the Lord. Rewards will be distributed according to one’s faithful and obedient service to the Lord. The usage of the bema seat terminology in Paul’s letter is thought to refer to the elevated seat that a judge at the Olympic Games, or at other sporting events, sat upon and from which they distributed awards and crowns to victorious participants. Many other passages, written to believers, plainly teach and exhort us to live God-honouring lives. Failure to do so will come with consequences, primarily the loss of rewards but not the loss of salvation. Please ponder the following:

Matthew 16:27 “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.”

1 Corinthians 3:12-15 “Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Romans 14:10,12 “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat [that is, ‘bema’] of Christ…So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.”

Colossians 1:9-10 “For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

2 Timothy 2:3-5 “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8 “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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.”

Hebrews 12:28-29 “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.”

1 John 2:28 “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming.”

Revelation 22:12 “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work.”

Also, one may read the parable of Matthew 25:14-30 to understand that servants of the master are neither equally faithful nor equally rewarded. So it is amongst believers.

Much more could be said about wisdom, fear of the Lord, and rewards. If we are a believer, our minimum takeaway from this teaching should be a deep recognition that Scripture definitively instructs us that true wisdom and kingdom purpose is found by walking in the fear of the Lord. The faithful lives that ensue will be found to be worthy of His pleasure and receipt of rewards upon Jesus Christ’s return. Therefore, we should live consecrated, kingdom-focused lives while we have breath! Until our mortal body perishes we should be encouraged from the following words of the apostle Peter: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)