Wages: “The part of total production that is the return to labor as earned income, as distinct from the remuneration received by capital as unearned income.”
Reward: “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.”
While we have to be careful about applying definitions of English words to Greek words used in the New Testament, it seems that these two definitions will serve our purpose.
The word “wage” is used 55 times in the ESV (64 times in the NASV). I am particularly interested in how Paul uses the word in Romans 4: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due” (4:1-4).
There is absolutely no way we could earn our salvation based on our works. The very nature of sin is such that one sin keeps us out of heaven (Isaiah 59:1-2) and all the good works we can accumulate could not erase even that one sin. One sin makes us a lawbreaker and therefore, too impure to stand in the presence of God.
The word “reward” is used 64 times in the ESV (63 times in the NASV). You may, first, observe that this word is used more (in the ESV) or as often in the NASV as the word “wage.” My attention was drawn to the word recently when I was preparing a lesson from Matthew 10: “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. “And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you, he shall not lose his reward” (10:40-42).
Clearly God wants us to understand that, while we can’t earn our way to heaven, there is reward waiting for us there. From Matthew 5:16 – “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” to Revelation 22:12 – “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done,” the New Testament uses the word reward 26 times.
Now, this reward is not based on earnings. But, it is given “according to what [we] have done,” Jesus says in Revelation. Take a look back at the English definition: “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement.”
That reward in heaven is given in recognition of our service. “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11).
That reward in heaven is given in recognition of our effort. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith …” (2 Peter 1:5).
That reward in heaven is given in recognition of our achievement: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).
Salvation is not given based on our earnings but it is given as a reward based on our service, our effort, and our achievement.