“Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18)
The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the most iconic of our Lord’s many recorded discourses with his disciples. It includes many iconic statements, like “Do not give what is holy to the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6. I preached a whole sermon on that verse, entitled “Of Dogs and Hogs”). One of its key themes that I have discovered preaching slowly through this Sermon is that of heavenly rewards or inheriting the kingdom of heaven. But don’t take my word for it. Go ahead and read Matthew 5–7 a couple of times with this theme in mind—that our Lord is teaching us how we are to obtain treasures in heaven, and tell me what you think.
But that our obtaining of these heavenly rewards is by our works would be what is most controversial, particular among Evangelicals. To focus in on just a section of the Sermon on the Mount, namely on the three spiritual disciplines of almsgiving, praying, and fasting (6:1–18), the consistent refrain throughout Christ’s instruction here is on the heart motivation which should drive how we perform each of these spiritual exercises, namely, to obtain a reward from your Father in heaven. Read on to verse 21 and that should become abundantly clear, because Christ says, “for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
The Bible is abundantly clear that God rewards man according to his works, but not so much by observing our actions from the outside, but by searching our hearts.
I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. 17:10)
In other words, your Father who sees in secret shall reward you openly. The Greek construction can literally be translated, your Father who is a Seer-in-secret. It is a particular attribute that belongs to God alone—that he sees the secret parts of you that even your spouse or your surgeon would not be able to see even if he cuts open your chest.
The LORD sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart. (1 Sam. 16:7b)
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb. 4:12)
You who are parents understand this. You spy on your children. You watch them secretly and you love it when they do what is right even when they don’t sense your presence because that reveals their heart. And what do you do when you are delighted in your children? You reward them. With hugs, and kisses, and toys, and food, and outings. Not that they ever did anything perfectly, but still you are more than happy to lavish them with your love. And do you think God is not delighted by our secret obedience, that he doesn’t notice when we do things or even when we simply think of thoughts to please him even though no one else will ever know of it? Do you think God is not so generous as to reward us for this love towards him? If you being evil know how to love your children, then how much more will God reward us, however unworthy we are of anything? And we are unworthy, of course.
The Westminster Confession of Faith says in Chapter 16, Paragraph 6, that “the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.” Earlier in Paragraph 3, it also speaks of how our “ability to do good works is not at all of [our]selves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.” Why does God reward our good works even though they are sinful? Because he is pleased with the work of Christ’s Spirit in us.
It is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. (Phi. 2:13)
It is by the righteousness of Christ which is not only imputed to you, but also imparted to you through the Holy Spirit working in you, which is why you would even want to do anything good for the right reasons. But because it is God who works in you, God is also pleased with what he is doing in you, and he is, in fact, so pleased with it that he would also reward you for it. Can you see how generous God is? He gives you whatever good that you have and then he rewards you for having it.
It is important to note that there are two entirely different ways of thinking about rewards. One is the self-righteous way which focuses on how good I am—so much that I can put God in my debt—, but the other is focused on how good God is—so much that he is delighted to reward us sinful people with unimaginably good things simply for what he himself is helping us to do.
And I make this a point because, as much as it is a subject that Evangelicals tend to avoid, this doctrine of heavenly rewards is absolutely essential to our faith, because it is the doctrine about how good God is to his children. Hebrews 11:6 says that without this kind faith that believes that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him it is impossible to please him, and he who would come to God must believe this! It is necessary, the Apostle asserts, to believe that God will reward you for your good works.
For some, to say that desiring a reward as our motivation for obeying God is less than ideal is to contradict God’s own teaching throughout the Scriptures, which never once suggests that desiring heavenly rewards are less than ideal but constantly and unreservedly spurs us on to run the race in order that we may obtain the prize. It is also to impugn Christ’s own faith and righteousness because the rewards promised to him were also his motivation for giving his life, who “for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God in glory (Heb. 12:2). We don’t have to try to be more godly than Christ. And practically speaking, there hasn’t been one person in all of human history who has desired heavenly rewards too much and just needs to tone it down a little, has there? You simply cannot want it too much.
But why then do we do things to be seen of men, as the Pharisees did? It is often because we don’t believe that our Father in heaven is that good to us. We doubt his love and his promises. We don’t believe that his rewards are worth waiting for. We are not sure they are worth sacrificing the reward that we can have right now from men—things that we can see and hear and touch and taste. We are not sure if we want to give all of that up for God’s rewards which we cannot see and for which we may have to wait our whole lives before we will receive. Logically speaking, you have to be absolutely insane to take a reward from men rather than the one from God. But that is what happens every time you choose to sin. You’re saying, “God, forget your heavenly rewards, I’m just going to do what is most pleasurable now”.
The truth is, we all want a reward. It is only a question of whose rewards you want—God’s or men’s. And that will determine how you live and whether you are more like the Pharisees or more like our Lord Jesus Christ.
And implied in this is the solemn fact that we can lose our rewards by not seeking them diligently or rightly.
Let no man beguile you of your reward. (Col. 2:18a)
He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. (2 Cor. 9:6a)
If we sow for the praises of men, we will reap only the praises of men. If only we could see all the rewards of heaven that we gave up when we chose the rewards of this earth. You would slap yourselves on the face for being such a fool.