Now, I’ve taught for some years now that rewards and punishment should not be the primary motivator for living righteously. Rather, we should yield to the Spirit’s remaking of our hearts so that living as Jesus would have us live gives us joy.
Hence, we should live righteously because it’s what we want to do –- we enjoy being good! And in this, there is true freedom. I mean, what could be better than getting to do exactly what you want to do, and knowing that it thrills God, whom you love deeply?
On this analysis, the reward is present as well as future. And that’s very Biblical.
Now, back to the earlier question. Does this doctrine of works, plainly found in scripture, support 20th Century Church of Christ theology? No. Notice the kinds of works that are rewarded —
* The famous Judgment Day scene of Matthew 25 rewards us based on our concern for the poor and needy, the hungry and thirsty, the naked and imprisoned.
* Revelation 21:8 tells us that heaven will be denied to “the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars.” Notice that it’s not just the unbelieving. It’s also the morally sinful. Revelation 22:15 adds “those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
* Jesus declares in Matthew 12:36-37 that we’ll give an account on Judgment Day for “every careless word” and “by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
* Galatians 6:8-10 assures us that we will be rewarded for “doing good” with eternal life, but by sowing to please our sinful nature we’ll reap “destruction.”
* In Ephesians, Paul teaches,
(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 in Colossians, Paul says we’ll be rewarded for working.
(Col 3:23-25) Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism.
Now, the point is that God promises to reward our works, but not just any kind of works. He rewards service, working for God, doing good, Godly speech, and care of the poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned.
God punishes those who do wrong, those who please their own flesh (sinful nature), and who engage is various kinds of immoral behavior.
Now, this is not works salvation, as discussed earlier. But neither is it legalism. Nowhere are we told that we’ll go to hell if we sing with an instrument, have the wrong number of elders, or take the Lord’s Supper too infrequently. Of course, any sin engaged in rebelliously can damn (Heb 10:26), but the sins the scriptures emphasize as characterizing the damned are sins of self-love, as opposed to compassion for others.
And here’s where the Churches of Christ missed the turn. It goes all the way back to the middle of the 19th Century, when men such as Benjamin Franklin (the preacher, not the 18th Century inventor, scientist, printer, and diplomat) argued that God’s laws may be classified as “moral” or “positive.” Moral laws define those sins that are inherently wrong in all dispensations. Positive laws are law solely because God commands them. Hence, baptism is a positive law, as is communion. So would be the 5 acts of worship and the divine plan for church organization.
Franklin reasoned that grace is necessary for moral sin, as we all fail in this area. But positive laws are given by God to test us and these must be honored perfectly because they can be honored perfectly. Thus, failure in positive laws damns, whereas a non-rebellious failure of moral law does not.
It’s a clever argument. Too clever, because it’s not found in the Bible. Rather, the Bible plainly and repeatedly assures us that we’ll be judged by God’s moral law — not because our obedience saves us, but because obedience to the moral law is the true mark of the church — that is, because the Spirit in our hearts marks us as God’s, and the Spirit changes us into people who want to live morally.
We, of course, also want to obey God’s positive laws, too, but we are no more capable of obeying them perfectly than we are capable of loving or evangelizing or serving or doing good perfectly. I mean, which church has elders who perfectly fit the requirements found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2? Which church does only five acts of worship, never once doing anything else — such as, say, a baptism, a confession, or an announcement. Who has been baptized with perfect understanding of its meaning? Or even perfect understanding of Acts 2:38? I dare say most of us went under deeply misunderstanding the work of the Spirit — but I’m certain the baptism took anyway. God doesn’t demand perfection.
Having been wrongly taught that we much have perfect obedience to these positive laws, we quite naturally deceive ourselves into thinking we’ve done this (it’s either that or admit that we’re all going to hell by that standard). And so we sometimes become proud, even arrogant, supposing that we’ve earned our salvation and find ourselves amazed that so many refuse to do what is so easily done.
But when God humbles us, holding us to account by his moral will — which is the essence of his holy nature — we crumble. We realize that we can’t make it on our own and we either give up, leaving the faith, or else have the good fortune to find grace.
And grace does this wonderful thing for us. It softens our hearts so that we can feel gratitude, humility, and God’s love. And this allows us to extend grace to others, to become gracious people. And — finally — God’s Spirit molds our hearts so that we want to do good. More than that, we find joy in right living, in service, and in good works.
But we aren’t amazed that others don’t. We know that they’ve not yet been changed by God. Our joy is not our own accomplishment. It’s a gift. But we know that if we can help others find God, God will change them too, so that they too will experience a joy in service and in good works that can be found no other way.
And in the end, we’ll be rewarded. But not just in the end. Death will be for us a transformation from joy in service to God to a greater joy in service to God. It’s all joy.
(1 Pet 1:8-9) Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
(Rom 14:17-18) For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.