QUESTION: Based on Scripture, can bad works or lack of good works cancel out already-earned rewards in heaven?
ANSWER: The verse you refer to is likely: “Look to yourselves, that we do not lose those things we worked for, but that we may receive a full reward” (II Jn. 1:8).
Let’s take a moment to put this verse in context. John calls himself “the elder” (vs. 1), as he does in Third John 1:1. That may refer to his age–the elder one, or (more likely, I think) to his ministry as a pastor. He was clearly so well known in the early church that readers knew who it was who was writing to them.
John addresses his letter to “the elect [chosen] lady and her children.” There, we have a question, and commentators from ancient times have been unsure of the answer. Is he writing to a literal family, a woman and her children? Or is it a way of referring to a local church congregation? I’m not sure.
It’s possible that John is writing to a local church, and purposely disguising which church it is, in case the letter were to fall into the wrong hands. These were days of persecution (Rev. 1:9). If a local church is in view, “the children of your elect sister greet you” (vs. 13) would be a greeting from John’s home church, traditionally believed to be in Ephesus.
If this is literally an older woman, with grown children–ones with whom John has laboured in ministry, in past days (vs. 8), we know several things about her. Some of her children are believers, others seem not to be (vs. 4), and her sister likewise seems to have grown children, from whom John conveys a greeting to their aunt and cousins (vs. 13).
If the addressee is an actual mother and her children, this is the only epistle written to a woman. Whoever the recipients of the letter are, John has great affection for them, and they are well known in the broader Christian community (vs. 1).
The verse in question is about “rewards,” so let me speak briefly to that, first of all.
As to the believer’s rewards, they include the presentation of “crowns” (actually laurel wreaths of gold), for three particular areas–each including a couple of sub-categories. There are Scriptures for each, but I won’t take the time to list them here.
1) The Saint’s Crowns are awarded for practical sanctification (holy living–for saying “no” to our Self and self-will, and “yes” to God).
2) The Servant’s Crowns will be awarded for service for Christ–to the unsaved, and to believers.
3) The Sufferer’s Crowns will be awarded for steadfastness in trials–for patient faith in suffering in general, and for endurance in persecution.
Now, what about Second John 1:8? There is some question in the manuscript evidence whether the first and third “we” (NKJV) should maybe be “you.” Then, it would read, “Look to yourselves, that you do not lose those things we worked for, but that you may receive a full reward”
Most of the modern Bible versions seem to have followed the latter reading, but in either case it doesn’t change to overall sense. For John to include himself (“we”) in a possible loss of rewards would certainly show great humility.
John is warning about false teachers (vs. 7), and exhorting the recipients of the letter to remain faithful to the truth they have received. Otherwise, not only they themselves are in danger, but also those to whom they have ministered, those they have won to Christ and nurtured in the faith. The work they have done could suffer a setback, if they do not oppose those who teach error and are trying to win new followers in their community.
Further, if they were to fail at this point, they could miss out on the full reward that could have been theirs. This does not mean a loss of salvation, which depends on the work of Christ, not our own. Nor does it mean, I believe, that rewards already earned will be canceled. (This answer also applies to Revelation 3:11, “Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.”)
What God has given us is reserved and kept safe in heaven for us, as though these things were locked away in a heavenly safety deposit box (I Pet. 1:4). Neither we nor any other person can take that from us. Rewards I’ve already earned are placed in that safe place, and will not pop out of there every time I sin! That would make them very arbitrary and insecure indeed since, speaking for myself, I am daily far less that I ought to be.
But there are two ways in which these verses can be understood.
1) That John, in both texts is writing about rewards we have the potential of earning. If we falter in our spiritual lives, it could be that rewards we might have won will be lost to us.
2) There are rewards we are in the process of earning. Ones that are not ours yet, but we’ve come some way in earning them. These might be diminished if we do not continue on the right path. Notice that John wants his readers to receive a “full reward”–“that you may be rewarded fully” (NIV). This suggests the possibility of a partial or diminished reward.
Consider another passage, First Corinthians 3:13-14. “Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day [of Christ’s return, cf. Rev. 22:12] will declare [or reveal] 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 [i.e. is not burned away as waste, vs. 15], he will [definitely] receive a reward.”
This, of course has nothing to do with the fires of hell, or with a loss of personal salvation. It is strictly about the rewarding of Christians. The fire imagery takes us to the fires used by refiners of precious metals to burn away dross. The things we have done will be assessed at the judgment seat of Christ. Those unworthy of any reward will be passed over, but there is nothing there about rewards for worthy actions be canceled because of sin.