In his Christianity Today article that we considered in the “Should We Be Emerging?” series, Scot McKnight said something very intriguing –
Jesus declared that we will be judged according to how we treat the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46) and that the wise man is the one who practices the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:24-27). In addition, every judgment scene in the Bible is portrayed as a judgment based on works; no judgment scene looks like a theological articulation test.
This reminded me of something N. T. Wright wrote –-
The third point is remarkably controversial, seeing how well founded it is at several points in Paul. [I]t seems that there has been a massive conspiracy of silence on something which was quite clear for Paul (as indeed for Jesus). Paul, in company with mainstream second-Temple Judaism, affirms that God’s final judgment will be in accordance with the entirety of a life led –- in accordance, in other words, with works. He says this clearly and unambiguously in Romans 14.10–12 and 2 Corinthians 5.10. He affirms it in that terrifying passage about church-builders in 1 Corinthians 3. But the main passage in question is of course Romans 2.1–16.
Now, neither McKnight nor Wright are legalists. Both would strongly affirm that we are saved by faith. It’s just that neither is willing to deny that we’ll be rewarded for our works.
Does this mean that they affirm the teachings of the 20th Century Churches of Christ? Does this mean that being in error on, say, instrumental music or who can be an elder or whether to accept a divorced and remarried couple into membership damns? No. Of course, not.
Wright explains himself -–
The ‘works’ in accordance with which the Christian will be vindicated on the last day are not the unaided works of the self-help moralist. Nor are they the performance of the ethnically distinctive Jewish boundary-markers (sabbath, food-laws and circumcision). They are the things which show, rather, that one is in Christ; the things which are produced in one’s life as a result of the Spirit’s indwelling and operation. In this way, Romans 8.1–17 provides the real answer to Romans 2.1–16.
Ahh … This I agree with. True salvation leads to the fruit of the Spirit, which demonstrates the reality of our salvation.
Why is there now ‘no condemnation’? [Rom. 8:1] Because, on the one hand, God has condemned sin in the flesh of Christ (let no-one say, as some have done, that this theme is absent in my work; it was and remains central in my thinking and my spirituality); and, on the other hand, because the Spirit is at work to do, within believers, what the Law could not do –- ultimately, to give life, but a life that begins in the present with the putting to death of the deeds of the body and the obedient submission to the leading of the Spirit [Rom. 8:13-14].
Romans 8 is critically important, indeed. And I think Wright has it right, thus far -–
(Rom. 8:13-14) For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14 because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
Wright seems to take a particular delight at poking a stick in the eye of his Calvinist and evangelical friends–
I am fascinated by the way in which some of those most conscious of their reformation heritage shy away from Paul’s clear statements about future judgment according to works. It is not often enough remarked upon, for instance, that in the Thessalonian letters, and in Philippians, he looks ahead to the coming day of judgment and sees God’s favourable verdict not on the basis of the merits and death of Christ, not because like Lord Hailsham he simply casts himself on the mercy of the judge, but on the basis of his apostolic work. ‘What is our hope and joy and crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus Christ at his royal appearing? Is it not you? For you are our glory and our joy.’ (1 Thess. 3.19f.; cp. Phil. 2.16f.) I suspect that if you or I were to say such a thing, we could expect a swift rebuke of ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling’. The fact that Paul does not feel obliged at every point to say this shows, I think, that he is not as concerned as we are about the danger of speaking of the things he himself has done -– though sometimes, to be sure, he adds a rider, which proves my point, that it is not his own energy but that which God gives and inspires within him (1 Cor. 15.10; Col. 1.29). But he is still clear that the things he does in the present, by moral and physical effort, will count to his credit on the last day, precisely because they are the effective signs that the Spirit of the living Christ has been at work in him. We are embarrassed about saying this kind of thing; Paul clearly is not. What on earth can have happened to a sola scriptura theology that it should find itself forced to screen out such emphatic, indeed celebratory, statements?
Well, this takes me back to my childhood. I mean, we often spoke of earning “jewels for our crown” in heaven or simply of being rewarded for our good works. And there are plenty of passages that certainly seem to say exactly this. And yet, as grace has been more and more taught in the Churches of Christ (which I celebrate), we’ve lost the concept of reward for works done.
(Matt. 5:11-12) “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
(Matt. 6:6) But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
(1 Cor. 3:12-14) If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.
(Eph. 6:7-8) Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.
And so, Wright is correct, at least in my experience, that our emphasis on “faith only” and on not meriting our salvation has sometimes disconnected us from the Biblical doctrine of rewards for works done -– that is, for allowing the Spirit to use us in God’s service.