This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Monday, June 26, 2006

Randy Alcorn's Doctrine of Rewards Is a Protestant Version of Merit Theology

Recently I posted an entry (Rewards, Randy Alcorn Style) with links to discussions on another blog. I will not duplicate the postings Steve Lehrer has offered on the subject. Some of what I say may overlap with his comments, particularly, if I offer a few more blog entries on distinctive biblical passages. Randy Alcorn's beliefs find expression in Money, Possessions, and Eternity, rev. and updated 2003, (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1989).

For this entry, my purpose is to show that Randy Alcorn's theological formulations concerning "rewards" have a history and that his beliefs are in continuity with those expressed long ago by C. I. Scofield in his notes published in The Scofield Reference Bible in 1917.

God, in the N.T. Scriptures, offers to the lost, salvation, and, for the faithful service of the saved, rewards. The passages are easily distinguished by remembering that salvation is invariably spoken of as a free gift (e.g.) John 4:10; Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8,9 while rewards are earned by works ; Matthew 10:42; Luke 19:17; 1 Corinthians 9:24,25; 2 Timothy 4:7,8; Revelation 2:10; 22:12.

A further distinction is that salvation is a present possession Luke 7:50; John 3:36; 5:24; 6:47, while rewards are a future attainment, to be given at the coming of the Lord ; Matthew 16:27; 2 Timothy 4:8; Revelation 22:12.

The editors of The New Scofield Reference Bible retain C. I. Scofield's theology intact as they reiterate his note on 1 Corinthians 3:14.

God in the N.T. Scriptures offers to the lost, salvation; and for the faithful service of the saved, He offers rewards. The passages are easily distinguished by remembering that salvation is invariably spoken of as a free gift (e.g. Jn. 4:10; Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9), whereas rewards are earned by works (Mt. 10:42; Lk. 19:17; 1 Cor. 9:24-25; 2 Tim 4:7-8; Rev. 2:10; 22:12). A further distinction is that salvation is a present possession (Lk. 7:50; Jn. 3:36; 5:24; 6:47), whereas rewards are a future attainment, to be given at the rapture (2 Tim. 4:8; Rev. 22:12).

Randy Alcorn falls prey to the same false disjunction that led astray C. I. Scofield and his theological children. Alcorn discriminates between salvation and rewards saying,

Whenever we speak of rewards, particularly because we speak of them so rarely, it's easy to confuse God's work and man's. Many mistakenly believe that heaven is our reward for doing good things. This is absolutely not the case. Our presence in heaven is in no sense a reward for our works, but a gift freely given by God in response to faith (Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5).

Actually, within these four sentences there are several issues that I could linger over in addition to the issue of salvation and rewards. I will avoid those issues for now, as I seek to keep my focus.

Alcorn simplistically reduces salvation to regeneration and sketches the following chart on page 127 of Money, Possessions, and Eternity.



Past (1 John 3:2)
Future (Revelation 22:12)
Free (Ephesians 2:8-9)Earned (1 Corinthians 3:8)
Can’t be lost (John 10:28-29)Can be lost (2 John 8)
Same for all Christians (Romans 3:22)Differ between Christians (1 Corinthians 3:12-15)
For those who believe (John 3:16)For those who work (1 Corinthians 9:27)

Following his chart Alcorn reiterates his antitheses between salvation and rewards in prose.

Salvation is about God's work on behalf of humanity. Conversely, rewards are a matter of our work for God. When it comes to salvation, our work for God is no substitute for God's work for us. God saves us because of Christ's work, not ours. Likewise, when it comes to rewards, God's work for humanity is no substitute for our work for God. God rewards us for our work, not Christ's (127-128).

Alcorn's beliefs concerning rewards are in accord with the beliefs that came to be vitally attached to Classic Dispensationalism, at least in America. Several authors who are in agreement with Alcorn are:

  • Lewis S. Chafer, Salvation, 12th printing (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977).

  • Woodrow Michael Kroll, It Will Be Worth It All: A Study in the Believer's Rewards (Neptune, N.J.: Loizeaux Brothers, 1977).

  • Zane Hodges, The Gospel Under Siege: A Study on Faith and Works, 2nd edition 1991 (Dallas: Rendención Viva, 1981);

  • ___________. Grace in Eclipse: A Study on Eternal Rewards (Dallas: Rendención Viva, 1985);

  • ___________. Absolutely Free: A Biblical Reply to Lordship Salvation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989).

  • Robert Wilkin, Confident in Christ: Living by Faith Really Works (Irving, Texas: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999).

  • Charles Stanley, Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990).

  • Erwin W. Lutzer, Your Eternal Reward: Triumph and Tears at the Judgment Seat of Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1998).

Two British authors who hold the same beliefs are:
  • R. T. Kendall, Once Saved, Always Saved (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983).

  • Michael Eaton, No Condemnation: A New Theology of Assurance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995).

Alcorn's beliefs faithfully reflect the beliefs of Lewis S. Chafer who says, "Salvation is not a reward for the beleiver's service. Salvation is God's work for us. Rewards are always connected with the believer's works and merit" (Salvation, 66). Like those who have gone ahead of him to forge his doctrine of rewards for believers, Alcorn commits the same theological errors as he succumbs to an overly-zealous anti-Catholic guardian hermeneutic to avoid any possible introduction of merit theology into his doctrine of salvation. He succumbs to his overly-zealous anti-Catholic method of interpretation by isolating the biblical imagery of rewards/crowns from the biblical imagery of salvation/deliverance so as to preserve his doctrine of salvation from the contamination of merit. Strangely, however, like all who preceded him in his divorcement of rewards from salvation, Alcorn is willing to speak of mere humans, albeit believers, as meriting rewards from God. The notion that mere humans have even a negligible capacity to put God in their debt for anything is astonishing. Yet, Alcorn's doctrine of rewards entails the belief that humans can and do put God in our debt. Otherwise, what does it mean to earn or to merit rewards from God?

Integral to the doctrine of rewards taught by many and embraced by Alcorn is the abstraction of obedience from belief. Alcorn expresses it this way: "Belief (trust, faith) determines our eternal destination: where we will be. Behavior (obedience) determines our eternal rewards: what we will have there. Words do not affect our destination (in other words, our redemption is secured by the work of Christ). However, works do affect our reward experienced at the destination. Just as there are eternal consequences to our faith, so there are eternal consequences to our works" (128). So, as all who embrace the Alcorn-style beliefs concerning rewards isolate rewards from salvation, they also invariably isolate obedience from faith. In their anti-Catholic zeal to oppose a doctrine of salvation enmeshed with the notion of merit, they fall headlong into a doctrine of merit, nonetheless, even if they have located merit at a different place in their theology. Zealous to reject the notion that humans put God in their debt with regard to salvation, they have relocated the concept of human merit in connection with rewards so that humans do put God in their debt, but only with regard to non-salvational rewards. Is not this notion monstrous?

Far better guides concerning the biblical imagery of reward for salvation are John Owen and John Calvin. Owen astutely observes,

Eternal life may be called the reward of perseverance, in the sense that Scripture useth the word. . . . It is a reward neither procured by (properly and morally, as the deserving cause) nor proportioned unto the obedience of them by who it is attained. A reward it is that withal is the free gift of God, and an inheritance purchased by Jesus Christ; a reward of bounty, and not of justice, in respects of them upon whom it is bestowed, but only of faithfulness in reference to the promise of it; a reward, by being a gracious encouragement, --as the end of our obedience, not as the procurement or desert of it (The Doctrine of the Saint's Perseverance Explained and Confirmed, vol 11, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold [London: Banner of Truth, 1966], 503).

Similarly, John Calvin argues,

Lest we should think that the reward the Lord promises us is reduced to a matter of merit, he has set forth a parable, in which he has made himself a householder who sends whomever he meets to cultivate his vineyard. Some are sent, indeed, at the first hour, others at the second, still others at the third, and some even at the eleventh; and at evening he pays them all equally [Matt. 20:1ff]. . . . 'The Lord has by this comparison illustrated the diversity of his manifold calling, pertaining to the one and only grace . . . where it is clear that those sent to the vineyard at the eleventh hour and put on an equal footing with those who had labored the whole day represent the destiny of those . . . whom God's mercy rewards at the decline of the day . . . in order to reveal the excellence of his grace. For he does not pay the price of their labor but showers the riches of his goodness upon those whom he has chosen apart from works. Thus they also, . . . who sweated in much labor, and did not receive more than the latecomers, should understand that they received a gift of grace, not the reward of their works" (Institues, 1.17.3).

Regrettably for all who embrace Alcorn's view, I am compelled by Scripture to disagree at foundational levels with his theology concerning rewards. My disagreements are grounded in thoroughly biblical reasons. Scripture persuades me that the notion of earning or meriting anything from God, salvation and rewards equally, is a horrendous notion. Equally awful is the abstraction of rewards from salvation and of obedience from faith that is integral to the system of theology advanced by Alcorn, Chafer, Hodges, Wilkin, Kroll, et al. Any doctrine, whether Catholic or Protestant, that postulates that humans have the capacity to put God at our debt seems terrible to me and worthy of rejection.

Does not Jesus teach us to repudiate any notion of merit in our obedience? "So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty'" (Luke 17:10).

Given the rewards theology’s notion that “salvation is past” or that salvation is a “present possession” but that “rewards are future,” do you, my readers, recognize why Tom and I devoted chapter 2 of The Race Set Before Us to an explication of the biblical portrayal of salvation in Christ as entailing both present (already) and future (not yet) realities? Given the rewards theology’s abstraction of rewards from salvation, do you recognize why Tom and I devoted that same chapter to a the Bible’s portrayal of salvation with a full array of imageries that entail a variety of metaphors? Also, given the rewards theology’s abstraction of obedience from belief, do you understand why Tom and I devoted a whole chapter (chapter 2) to the biblical portrayal of belief and obedience and their indivisibility? These are no insignificant issues to be grasped. Fail to understand these and one will preach an inferior gospel, if we should call it a gospel.


Nick Nowalk said...

I totally agree Alcorn is off the deep end on this one. However, I do still have questions about more balanced, reformed (i.e. Edwards, Whitefield, Puritans, etc.) views which include different degrees of joy & satisifaction in heaven, without hinting at all that this is merited, or man's work (contrasted to God's work in salvation! pooh.). Edwards, for instance, argues in Charity and Its Fruits that believers will expereince different levels of God's beauty, have different capacaities for seeing and beholding and delighting in God's glory, dependent at least in part on differing levels of obedience in this life. Passages like 1 Cor. 3, parables of Jesus where different servants are given different amounts as rewards for grace-filled obedience, etc., seem to not be as easily explained away as the writer on the other blog thinks.

And just one last confession: I'm not saying I hold this; right now I'm really up on the air on it. Is it possible to say--biblically--that differing levels of obedience in this life will result in fuller experiences of salvation and joy on the last day, without resorting to the vast imbalance of writers like Alcorn?

abcaneday said...


I will endeavor to offer a fuller response to your main question and do so as a regular blog entry rather than as a comment.

For now, however, I have no objection to the idea that believers may experience different levels of joy in the New Creation, the age to come. When I say that I have no objection I mean that I also lean fairly far in the direction. It seems to me that Scripture teaches rather clearly that there will be significant elements of continuity between life in this present age and in the age to come. This surely is the case with the body that will be resurrected (1 Cor 15). It also seems to be the case with regard to our enjoyments of the kingdom.

Romans 12:3 & 6 indicate that God does not give equal portions of faith, or of grace to all his children. Does this not account in large measure for the vast differences of our experiences of faith and grace in the present age? Some have intense desires to be greatly engaged in the ministry of the kingdom in deep and taxing ways. Others are joyful citizens of the kingdom in roles that are noticeably different. Some fit the body like eyes. Others fit the body like toes. Both are suited for their roles.

Thus, if God gives differing apportions of grace and faith in the present age and if Jesus' parables seem to teach continuity between the now and the not yet, it seems to me that we would hardly be missing the mark by much to infer from Scripture that in the age to come our experiences of the delights of the kingdom will vary from individual to individual, yet without any being disappointed in any regard.

But all of what you and I are talking about is distinctly different from what Alcorn, Hodges, Chafer, et al. are talking about, just as you have indicated.

Adam Omelianchuk said...

I picked up your book a few weeks ago, and I really like it (on chap 3). I have some questions, but maybe I can save those for when I take a class with you (I am signing up for FOCUS classes this summer).

Unknown said...

Hi. I just found this blog, and really appreciate it. It's badly needed, to be sure. I see it's been a while since you've posted. I hope you plan to keep it active. Thanks!

David Wayne said...

Hi Dr. Caneday - my name is David Wayne and I pastor Grace Point Presbyterian Church in Severn, MD. I did a sermon today on eternal rewards and though I didn't mention Alcorn by name I disagreed with what I see is his view. I got a little pushback on that and am now going back and covering my bases, and doing a little bit of the extra work I probably should have done before the sermon ;-) I'm from the reformed tradition so I track with Calvin and I also leaned heavily on Craig Blomberg's article on eternal rewards in JETS a few years ago. The reason I am writing you is that you have another post with links to some articles by Steve Lehrer critiquing Alcorn and the links are dead. I am wondering if you have any info on updated links on those or may point me to a fuller critique from yourself or anyone else on the Alcorn type view. Thanks for your time and for your service to all of us.

abcaneday said...


I have made an inquiry to one of the manager's of the IDS site concerning the links. I hope to receive some helpful informtion.

MikePreston said...

Question if i may: what is this "loss" that the guy suffers when escaping though the flames?

in regards to rewards being a merit theology, i don't see any issue with a merit theology if the bible teaches us it. if i promise my son a reward for going his homework, how is this a bad reflection on me as a dad? - if anything it puts me in the delightful position of letting my son know that i'm able to reward him and being able to hand out the reward.

abcaneday said...

Well, if Scripture actually taught the idea tha we earn God's approval, whether salvation itself or some extra-salvation add-ons that some call "rewards," then, of course, we would be obligatd to believe it and to act upon it.

The trouble with your question about rewarding your son is that you simply presume that the idea of "reward" necessarily entails merit.

Enough said. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Quatsch said...

I came across this article while doing a google search for "randy alcorn catholic" because a friend gave me a book of his and I wanted to quickly see what the Catholic opinion on him is.

I would be interested how you reply to St. Thomas's argument in the Summa Prima Secundae Question 114 Article 1.

St. Thomas, I think, would agree with your assessment that, "The notion that mere humans have even a negligible capacity to put God in their debt for anything is astonishing." However, he disagrees with you and says that our actions DO have merit, not because of us, but "only on the presupposition of the Divine ordination". That is, because God ordained it that way. St. Thomas continues, "it does not follow that God is made our debtor simply, but His own, inasmuch as it is right that His will should be carried out."

Here is my source for the quotes:

God Bless

Stephen said...

"But store up your treasures in heaven were neither moth nor pestilence(rust) can destroy. For where your heart is, there your treasure is also". It has nothing to do with putting God in debt or being in debt or being 'good' enough for only God is good. Works based merit can lead to 'competition' and bickering' and a sense of loss of self worth and guilt, and why people might discard religion in general. 1 TIM 6:19 18 Instruct them to do good, to be Rich in Good Works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 storing up for themselves the Treasure of a Good Foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is Life indeed." The purpose of Life is to give it others as Paul wrote that others might be saved. If it is coming from the Heart in Good Faith and not by compulsion out of fear that is one thing for, 'he who is the least of these is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven'. This I think is getting into humility of character and growing strength in Faith through who we are and what we do in our daily lives as well as what we say when and where to whom and as to bring them to Christ. Building up His Kingdom then would be the works worthiness, for "it is impossible to please God without The Faith" Who says anywhere in the bible that there is a 'better place in heaven for some than others"? It says that nowhere. Viz the parable of the workers in the vineyard they were all paid the same amount. This sounds like a scare tactic to put people under their thumbs and to keep coming back.