In a comment on my post Still Trying to Get the Gospel, Misty from Tin Can asked me to follow up on the subject of good deeds, sanctification and rewards in heaven. First of all, let me say that I am honored that she would care what I think on the matter. I do have a few thoughts on the matter and hopefully they will be coherent enough to be of some help to someone.
First of all, there is a sense in which we could split up Misty's question into three separate parts - what place do good deeds have in relation to the gospel, how does sanctification relate to the gospel and how do our eternal rewards relate to the gospel. Each is deserving of it's own discussion, but I think what Misty was getting at is the relationship between good deeds and our rewards in heaven. Do our good deeds, post salvation, earn us rewards in heaven?
Joel recommended Bruce Wilkinson's book A Life God Rewards, for an answer to that question. I haven't read the book so I won't be able to interact with it. I'll be left to my own thoughts and the modicum of study I have done on the subject.
First of all, the whole notion of eternal rewards, as is understood in typical mainstream conservative evangelicalism, has always posed a problem for me. Before I began to get a grasp of the gospel (see my prior post referenced above) I would have said that we are justified by faith and sanctified by obedience. Sure, I knew we had to live by faith. But, whereas faith carried the whole weight of justification and obedience carried no weight in it, my belief was that obedience carried a lot of weight in the sanctification process. Certainly, rewards were a big factor in that view of sanctification. Obedience would earn me "crowns" in heaven. Using the mistaken King James translation of John 14:2 I often heard that we would have "mansions" in heaven and the size of our mansion would depend on our obedience on earth. I often heard folks say, rather humbly, that they would be happy to live in a shack in heaven because a shack in heaven was better than a mansion on earth (or in hell!). But, by their obedience they would improve their lot in heaven. This view is stated explicitly by Charles Stanley in his book Eternal Security. In his book Christ the Lord, Mike Horton quotes Stanley as follows in reference to Matthew 25:30:
The final verse of this parable is so severe that many commentators assume it is a description of hell. It is not . . . The point of this parable is that in God's future kingdom, those who were faithful in this life will be rewarded and those who were not will lose any potential reward . . . Before we can understand the full impact of this parable, we must first determine what the "outer darkness" refers to in the context of the parable. It certainly does not mean hell in the parable. How could a master throw a slave into hell? . . . But what actual place was Jesus referring to in the parable? He gave us only one hint: "In that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." . . . To be in the "outer darkness" is to be in the kingdom of God but outside the circle of men and women whose faithfulness on this earth earned them a special rank or position of authority.The idea that there is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth in heaven is a breathtakingly egregious mishandling of the text. But, that consideration aside, Stanley's take on rewards is pretty much standard evangelical fare. Stanley goes on to say:
We cannot conceive of the agony and frustration we would feel if we were to undergo such an ordeal: the realization that our unfaithfulness had cost us eternally would be devastating. And so it will be for many believers. Just as those who are found faithful will rejoice, so those who suffer loss will weep.Later on, Stanley does qualify his remarks by saying that this weeping will not go on for eternity, there will come a time when God comforts those who suffer loss. But the point is, in his view heaven is a place that, for some (probably many!) will be a place of agony, frustration and weeping. Horton points out that this view of rewards is basically the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, with a change of location. Purgatory has now become a suburb of heaven.
Horton's book really turned me around in my view of rewards and I would recommend it highly to anyone who can get a copy. This view of rewards pretty much nullifies grace, and it nullifies important biblical doctrines like imputation, and the meritorious work of Christ. In that view grace doesn't get you very far. It does get you in the door of heaven, which I suppose is better than hell, although you apparently have to go through a little hell in heaven before you can really enjoy heaven. Furthermore, it destroys the biblical teaching on indwelling sin. If our position in heaven is determined by our faithfulness where does that leave someone like, say, the Apostle Paul. Here is a man who confesses to being unspiritual, and who even in a justified state confesses that, though he delights in the law of God in his inner man finds himself being a prisoner of the law of sin in his members. In light of all this, did Paul expect weeping, agony, frustration and gnashing of teeth in heaven? In this life all our righteousnes is as filthy rags and it is hard for me to conceive of something that could be meritorious. That doesn't mean that God holds His nose and despises our works on His behalf. I do believe that our efforts to serve Him bring Him pleasure. But this pleasure is not because of the worthiness or meritoriousness of the works themselves, it is the result of His decision to view us through the lens of grace. When a parent hangs their 3 year old's coloring book picture on the refrigerator, that is a reflection of the parent's love for the kid, not the kid's artistic ability.
This view of rewards nullifies the doctrine of imputation. When we talk about "imputation" by this we mean that our sins are imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to us. When we speak of Christ's work on our behalf we usually focus on His death on the cross for our sins. That is the imputation of our sins on Christ and His atonement for them. What we often neglect is that this is only one side of the coin. Not only does He take our sins, but He imputes, or credits His righteousness to us. Romans 5:19 says:
19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.We are made sinners by the disobedience of Adam, we are made righteous by the obedience of Christ. Another way that theologians have discussed this same fact through the years has been to distinguish between the passive and active obedience of Christ. His passive obedience takes place in His receiving the penalty for sins on the cross. His active obedience consists in His perfect obedience to the law of God. Both are credited us and together form the basis for our acceptance by God. So, in the typical evangelical view of rewards, the active obedience of Christ is of no account. His passive obedience is enough to get us through the door of heaven, but advancement in heaven depends on our obedience, not His.
The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996, c1984 . Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Here is John Calvin on the nature of rewards:
There is nothing in the term reward to justify the inference that our works are the cause of salvation. First, let it be a fixed principle in our hearts, that the kingdom of heaven is not the hire of servants, but the inheritance of sons (Eph. 1:18); an inheritance obtained by those only whom the Lord has adopted as sons, and obtained for no other cause than this adoption, “The son of the bond-women shall not be heir with the son of the free-woman,” (Gal. 4:30). And hence in those very passages in which the Holy Spirit promises eternal glory as the reward of works, by expressly calling it an inheritance, he demonstrates that it comes to us from some other quarter. Thus Christ enumerates the works for which he bestows heaven as a recompense, while he is calling his elect to the possession of it, but he at the same time adds, that it is to be possessed by right of inheritance (Mt. 25:34). Paul, too, encourages servants, while faithfully doing their duty, to hope for reward from the Lord, but adds, “of the inheritance,” (Col. 3:24). You see how, as it were, in formal terms they carefully caution us to attribute eternal blessedness not to works, but to the adoption of God. Why, then, do they at the same time make mention of works? This question will be elucidated by an example from Scripture (Gen. 15:5; 17:1). Before the birth of Isaac, Abraham had received promise of a seed in whom all the families of the earth should be blessed; the propagation of a seed that for number should equal the stars of heaven, and the sand of the sea, &c. Many years after he prepares, in obedience to a divine message, to sacrifice his son. Having done this act of obedience, he receives the promise, “By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son; that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore, and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice,” (Gen. 22:16–18). What is it we hear? Did Abraham by his obedience merit the blessing which had been promised him before the precept was given? Here assuredly we see without ambiguity that God rewards the works of believers with blessings which he had given them before the works were thought of, there still being no cause for the blessings which he bestows but his own mercy.The punch line in that passage is where Calvin notes that the rewards the Bible talks about for believers are the rewards of inheritance, not the rewards of servitude. In other words, there are rewards for believers because they are sons of God, not because they have earned them. I suggest that passages like Matthew 25 do not teach a gradation of merit based rewards in heaven. In the three parables of Matthew 25 - the parable of the Ten Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats - the point of the parable is to distinguish between two types of people. The distinction is between believers and non-believers, not between different kinds of believers, or different ranks of believers. In each case there is a group of people who enter into the kingdom of God and, contrary to Stanely, a group that enters eternal damnation. The point is that these parables distinguish between true believers and false professors, not different ranks of Christians.
Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. 1997. Institutes of the Christian religion. Translation of: Institutio Christianae religionis.; Reprint, with new introd. Originally published: Edinburgh : Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846. Logos Research Systems, Inc.: Oak Harbor, WA
One could make the case that the parable of the talents implies a gradation of rewards when the one who managed the five talents well gets a greater reward than the one with the two talents. But a closer look reveals that this is not the case at all. In both cases, the commendation was the same - "you have been faithful with a few things," and the reward is the same "I will put you in charge of many things." In the parable of the talents, the way one manages the talent(s) given to them reveals the state of their hearts, whether or not they are true believers. The ones with five and two talents revealed they had a believing heart that delighted in their master, the one who buried the talent revealed a hostility toward his master, an unbelieving heart.
Bottom line, I would say that the doctrine of rewards, as commonly understood in typical mainstream conservative evangelical circiles, is a pernicious doctrine. It nullifies grace, nullifies the doctrine of imputation, nullifies the active obedience of Christ and ultimately decimates the gospel. The gospel is reduced to something that can only get you in the door of heaven, but doesn't enable you to share the joy of your master, at least not until you have gone through a purgatorial time of remorse over all of your failures to live the Christian life.
This notion also has many deleterious effects on Christian living. It leads to a kind of "caste system" in the church where you have some who are earning higher ranks in the kingdom than others. It leads to the unbilbical idea that there is such a thing as a "carnal" Christian and a "spiritual" Christian. I would even argue that it leads to the mistaken idea of the "good" Christian or a "strong" Christian. How can we speak of a "good" Christian when Jesus says that no one is good and the apostle Paul says that "nothing good dwells in me." How can we call ourselves "strong" when Paul said that his weaknesses were the only thing he would boast in.
This notion of rewards also lends itself to legalism. When I worked as an insurance adjustor we had regular performance evaluations where we went over our objectives for the quarter, or year, and were rated according to our performance. We were then rewarded accordingly with raises based on our ratings. This kind of mindset can be fostered when we get fixated on rewards. We'll start looking to create lists of things we can do which will gain us rewards in heaven. We'll check off this that and the other and feel good or bad about ourselves accordingly, and we'll judge our friends accordingly. The trouble is that the most important things in the Christian life really can't be measured.
I think ultimately this notion leads to anxiety and burnout. With this kind of mindset you really can't be sure where you stand with God. Of course you believe that God loves you in some kind of generic way that parents love their kids, but you are never really sure if you are in the status of "favored child" or not. My guess is that there are a lot of Christians out there who walk around with a lot of guilt, feeling like they must be the black sheep of the Christian family. I can only speak for myself and say that this has been my own experience. I live a good deal of the time with this vague sense of guilt, knowing that I am not being all I can be for Christ. For some it gets so bad that they burn out and quit the Christian life. I have a sneaking suspicion that many of those who leave the evangelical or fundamentalist movements do so more because they are tired and worn out than anything else.
Again, speaking only for myself, I can only deal with my anxiety and guilt by resting on the gospel, and by resting on the active obedience of Christ. Those things are my only real source of peace because I just can't be good enough long enough to ever feel like I have merited a reward from God. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ I don't have to!