(1 Cor. 3:12-15) Does a “bema seat” reward contradict the concept of grace?

CLAIM: Some evangelical interpreters argue that the notion of a bema seat reward nullifies grace. If we earn our reward, then doesn’t this conflict with the doctrine of grace? For instance (a commentator that I personally respect) Craig Blomberg writes,

Verses 12 through 15 are often cited as support for the idea that Christians may experience differing degrees of reward in heaven. Without a doubt, here and elsewhere Scripture describes believers having entirely unique experiences before God on judgment day as their lives are reviewed. But neither this text nor any other teaches that we will have different statuses or varying privileges that last throughout eternity. After all, if the life to come is perfect, it is logically contradictory to speak of degrees of perfection. In Matthew 20:1-16 the parable of the laborers in the vineyard portrays all of Jesus’ followers receiving the same recompense for greatly varying degrees of work, precisely what we should expect if salvation is by grace through faith alone and not through good works. Interestingly, the doctrine of eternal degrees of reward in heaven was a Reformation-era carryover from the Catholic notion of purgatory. Martin Luther, however, warned sharply against it.[1]

Is this the case?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, Matthew 20 isn’t referring to rewards in heaven –but going to heaven. In Matthew 20, Jesus is teaching against the person, who is trying to earn their salvation through good works; he is not teaching about eternal rewards. The religious person hates the idea that they worked hard, but a sinner gets into heaven. Jesus is rejecting that notion here.

Second, the context of 1 Corinthians 3 clearly refers to reward. Paul states, “Each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (v.8). Later, Paul writes, “He will receive a reward” (v.14). Moreover, the rest of the NT comments on the eternal rewards that will be given for faithfulness (1 Pet. 5:4; 1 Cor. 9:24; Jas. 1:12; Lk. 14:14; 1 Tim. 6:18-19; Mt. 6:20).

Third, this is an example of speculating philosophically on clear teaching of Scripture. While Blomberg’s reasoning makes sense philosophically (“If the life to come is perfect, it is logically contradictory to speak of degrees of perfection”), it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. When practicing theology, our speculations should begin where Scripture ends. Since we have never been to heaven, we should take God at his Word, regarding the nature of heaven, rather than speculating on what we believe it will be like.

[1] Blomberg, Craig. From Pentecost to Patmos: an Introduction to Acts through Revelation. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2006. 172.