Distinct but Inseparable Series, No. 11
“Grace and Reward”
Philippians 3:7-11; Romans 14:10-12
November 4, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
This morning we conclude this short series of sermons on matched pairs of biblical truth, strikingly different, if not virtually contrary biblical emphases, each requiring the other to maintain its biblical integrity. Theological ideas such as law and grace or justification and sanctification are such matched pairs, but so are spiritual states such as love and hate or peace and fear. The two together make for the biblical mind and the biblical life; one without the other invariably weakens until it destroys that mind and life. Our concluding matched pair is grace and reward. I could have greatly lengthened this series, but I think I have done enough to make the general point clear. We Christians live and must live in the tension of a complex reality. Today I’m reading two very short sections from two of Paul’s letters; I will refer to a number of other related statements found throughout the Word of God.
The entire passage of which the few verses I am reading is the climax has been described as containing “the essence of Paul’s theology.” [Silva, 155] In a few deft strokes he outlines what it takes him five chapters of Romans more fully to describe.
In these verses Paul is summing up the argument he has made so far requiring Christians graciously to bear with believers with whom they disagree. It is not our place to judge another brother or sister and we will have much less zeal to do so if we remember that we too must stand before God and give an account of our conduct toward one another. That such a statement should be found in Romans is clear enough evidence that there is no conflict between the doctrine of justification by faith and the judgment of our works on the last day. We are saved by grace, but God will still reckon with the lives we live as his children and still make appropriate distinctions between us based on how faithfully we served him while in the world.
The central interest of Paul’s life – personally, as a man and ministerially as an apostle – was that righteousness before God that makes men acceptable to a holy God. As a Jewish man and rabbi, he had thought such righteousness was achieved through God’s grace aided by human performance, especially obedience to the laws of Jewish life. The great discovery of his life, a discovery that turned his life upside down, and the burden of his message ever since his conversion was that this justifying righteousness comes not through human effort or achievement in any part – however religious, however moral – but through faith in Jesus Christ. The only way for us to be righteous before God is to receive by faith the righteousness Christ.
You don’t have to read very far in Paul to realize the extent of Paul’s preoccupation with this fact that men and women cannot be right with God in themselves – no matter how hard they try – but only by means of the righteousness that God gives them when they believe in Jesus. This theme dominates his letters and, as Paul’s thirteen letters form the center of the New Testament, this same fact dominates the New Testament. To be righteous in Christ; right with God in Christ and only in Christ: this is the central proclamation of the New Testament, the heart of the good news. Jesus Christ is the savior of sinners. “God forbid,” Paul said, “that I should boast except in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This understanding of salvation was, as Paul himself teaches, revealed in the Old Testament and that in a great many ways, but in the New Testament and especially in the letters of Paul it is proclaimed and explained as the heart of the God’s Bible’s message to mankind. You can be right with God and live forever, but in one way and one way only: through your confidence in what Jesus Christ accomplished on your behalf.
But we know that. That comes as no surprise to you. Most all of you know what the Bible teaches us about how to be right with God. But do you also appreciate how often and how emphatically Paul and the rest of the Bible teach that we will be judged according to the life we have lived as Christians and that our reward in the world to come will be in accordance with how well we have lived our lives as Christians, how obedient we have been, how faithfully we have served the Lord.
You have this already in the ancient Scriptures. In Jeremiah 17:10, for example, we read:
“I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
And it was the Lord again, in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 who says a similar thing. In the middle of the middle letter of the seven, the letter to the church in Thyatira, and in the only sentence in those seven letters addressed to all the churches, the Lord says this:
“And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works.”
And then, in a place of terrific emphasis at the very end of the Bible, the last chapter of Revelation we read him say, once again:
“Behold I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done.” [22:12]
But perhaps nothing arrests our attention in regard to this teaching so much as the fact that Paul, the champion of salvation by grace and justification by faith, did not hesitate to say that “God will give to each person according to what he has done” [Rom. 2:6] and that “each of us will give an account of himself to God.” [13:12] Later he tells the Corinthians both that a believer’s reward in heaven will be more or less according to how faithfully he served the Lord on earth (1 Cor. 3:14-15) and that they must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive what is due him for the deeds done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). But then the Lord Christ spoke similarly. We read him saying, in Matt. 16:27, that when the Son of Man comes in his Father’s glory he will reward each person according to what he has done. We have many other such statements. I won’t weary you with reciting them all: they are found in the OT and the NT alike. I have common-placed my Bible on this theme at John 5:29 and have listed there in the margin some 23 texts but could have listed many more. Suffice it to say that it is a characteristic exhortation of the Bible that, as Peter puts it (1 Pet. 1:17):
“Since you call on a Father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear.”
I think this is a very wise observation of Archbishop Richard Trench, the 19th century Anglican cleric and biblical scholar.
“It is one of the gravest mischiefs which Rome has bequeathed to us, that in a reaction and protest, itself absolutely necessary, against the false emphasis which [Rome] puts on works, unduly thrusting them in to share with Christ’s merits in our justification, we often shrink from placing upon them the true [emphasis]; being as they are, to speak with St. Bernard, the ‘via regni,’ [the way of the kingdom] however little they may be the ‘causa regnandi…[the cause of belonging to kingdom]’” [Letters to the Seven Churches, 153]
Clearly, we do not get to heaven on the strength of our own obedience. We get to heaven on the strength of Christ’s obedience on our behalf. But it remains a fundamental principle of God’s justice that “whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap.” And that principle is demonstrated in two different ways in the Last Judgment. In the first place, real believers will have lived lives of real godliness; not perfection but real godliness. In saving sinners, the Lord transforms their lives. He recreates them to walk in good works. That is why again and again the Bible can distinguish between the saved and the lost according to the kind of lives the two respective groups live. In this way works and conduct, reviewed at the Last Judgment, vindicate believers. They prove their faith in Christ.
In the second place, it is clear that God’s perfect justice requires that there should be distinctions made at the Last Judgment between members of the two classes. Just as in hell, as Jesus taught, some will be beaten with many stripes and some with few – a metaphor for differing degrees of punishment, whatever punishment consists of in hell – so in heaven some will receive a greater reward and others a lesser reward, whatever those rewards may be. And the greater or lesser measure of a Christian’s reward in the world to come will be determined by the faithfulness of his or her life in this world.
It may well be – it is no doubt the case – that our good works are Christ’s work in us, and that we cannot take credit for them because we could not perform them without his help. As Augustine reminds us, when God rewards our good works he is only crowning his own gifts. Nevertheless, Christ will reward those gifts in keeping with their measure. In other words, he will crown his own gifts in keeping with their measure. Mystery, perhaps; fact indeed! “Let few be teachers,” James warns Christians, because teachers will be judged more strictly. That is, a greater opportunity to influence the thinking of other believers means, inevitably, a greater accountability for whether that work is done poorly or well. And for a Christian teacher greater accountability can only mean a greater or lesser reward in heaven.
Heaven will not be a place where everyone occupies the same rank. The angels don’t occupy the same rank now. And here on earth Christian believers, as we all know, don’t live in equal faithfulness; they don’t display equal measures of zeal; they don’t practice equal measures of godliness, devotion, and good works. They do not display equal measures of love for God and man. They don’t have the same place or spiritual rank in the body of Christ now and they won’t in the world to come either. Or, in other cases, some Christians are more devout than we give them credit for, we judge their fidelity to Christ wrongly and the Last Judgment will reveal that they were all along better Christians than we thought them to be; perhaps much better Christians that we were!
There is much that will be the same in heaven for every believer. It is for us all a place of joy and rest, of fellowship with God and with the saints, of the fulfillment of life. But it will not be the same life in every respect. That the Bible makes very clear. Some will rule ten cities and some but one. This is because the Christian’s reward will be linked with and proportionate to his or her faithfulness and obedience. [Bavinck, Ref. Dog., iv, 728]
In his Paradise, Dante meets the nun Piccarda on his passage through heaven, a woman who inhabits the lowest level of heaven but with perfect contentment. Upon this observation Dante then reflects:
…it was clear to me that everywhere
in heaven is Paradise, though the high good
does not rain down its grace on all souls there
It is something to ponder: how this works out; what sort of levels or stations or measure of reward there may be; and how we will rejoice in the reward of everyone however different from our own. As with so much else about heaven, as we have already seen, we are left with little more than our speculations. What we do know is that the life we have lived in this world will come up for review on the Judgment Day and that our being in Christ and righteous in his righteousness does not preclude our being given a reward proportionate to our obedience and our service of God in this world. If words mean anything at all, the Bible teaches this prospect with unmistakable clarity.
Glorious as the Bible’s proclamation of salvation by grace and justification by faith truly is, nothing is more certain than that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit care deeply about how we live our lives. It matters to them, it matters a very great deal how we live our lives!
Paul, the champion of justification by faith alone, understood that the great temptation of that doctrine, the great mistake that people would be inclined to make who believed it, would be that it would cause them to relax, to make less of an effort to practice holiness and to serve the Lord because they would know that their efforts do not get them into the City of God. Christ makes the difference for them, not they themselves! If their conduct didn’t get them to heaven, then how they lived day by day couldn’t be that important. Paul was so sure people would make that mistake, would misunderstand his doctrine in just that way, that he anticipated the misunderstanding in Romans 6 and carefully disposed of it. And if Paul thought this would be a likely misunderstanding, it should come as no surprise that you and I must face the fact that the greatest reason why people would misunderstand the doctrine in just that way is because they would want to. Life is easier if you don’t have to do the most difficult things and putting on holiness in the fear of God is the most difficult thing a human being ever does. It requires immense amounts of mental and spiritual energy every single day of your life. It requires attention; it requires the labor of the heart, the heaviest labor of life. Life is less burdensome to you as a Christian if you don’t have to carry with you through the years the weight of your moral failures. As the Puritan, John Flavel put it,
“Our actions, physically considered, are transient, but morally considered they are permanent.” [Flavel, Works, I, 306]
We wish it weren’t so. It is a burden to think that a record is being kept that will eventually be opened; that our works will follow us to heaven; that our behavior through our lives as Christians will have permanent consequences. We find it very easy to wish that weren’t so. We are quite ready to have Christ’s righteousness as our righteousness and that be that. To hear that the way we live our lives still counts, still matters for time and eternity strikes us as a disappointment.
But the question is not whether we wish it were not so. The question, the only question, is what are we to do with this truth about our lives, for truth it is? And the answer must be that we are to take it to heart and make use of it as the motivation for obedience and for the pursuit of godliness and for the service of the kingdom of God that this truth is meant to be. The fact is, as we all know, we need every motivation, every reason, and every goad to spur us on in the living of the Christian life. And here is a terrific motivation. Here is a goad if ever there were one!
I have no difficulty believing that both truths, so emphatically and comprehensively taught in the Bible, are true. I am a sinner and I know I cannot save myself or even contribute to my salvation if salvation requires that I meet the standards of a God as holy as I know God to be. But I am also a Christian and I know that my heavenly Father, holy and wise and good as he is, perfect Father that he is, must and will take with full seriousness how I live my life and that, as my Judge, his perfect justice makes it inevitable that he would note and reward a greater or lesser faithfulness.
But, what is more, I can see very clearly how the two of these doctrines together make for that Christian life I want with all my heart to live. What is that life? Is it not two very different things? Perfect humility before God and man in the awareness of my terrible need, my utter hopelessness in myself, the immensity of my debt to the grace of God and, at the same time, perfect zeal in the performance of my duty as a servant of God, in the demonstration of my love for my savior, and in my obedience to his law as his subject and servant.
I do not want one truth or the other; I don’t want one state of mind and heart or the other; I want them both. I want the life that both together alone can create. I never want my reliance upon the grace of God to make me lazy or careless in my devotion to and service for God. But I never want my Christian service, to the least degree, to diminish my sense of absolute obligation to the love of God in Christ. It is far too easy to spend our lives, as one Christian man said he spent his, “laboriously doing not much of anything.” The prospect of giving an account will concentrate our minds and set us to doing those things which our flesh may resist doing but our spirit knows we are so much going to want to have done and done well and done at length and done with zeal when we are standing before the Lord Christ on his holy day.
That is always and everywhere the point the biblical writer is after, as Paul was when he spoke of our having to give an account to God. He intends to galvanize us to action. He intends to warn us away from idleness or half-heartedness in living the Christian life. He intends to provoke us to greater and more consistent effort in putting our sins to death and in bringing to ever greater expression the attitudes, words, and deeds of a genuinely Christian life.
We work hard at teaching our children that there are long term consequences to the choices they make when they are young. Lackadaisical studying, the unwise choice of friends, bad behavior when one is young can mark and reduce and greatly diminish a life to its end. Well, that is the point here. You don’t get away with anything. There is a consequence, an everlasting consequence. Even God’s grace, even Christ’s righteousness, even the free gift of life does not eliminate all the consequences of our choices. So, choose wisely and well; obey the Lord; remain faithful to him; do the hard work that godliness requires; walk in humility before others, devote yourselves to prayer, and all the rest. You will be so glad, so very glad you did when the books are opened, and you are standing before your Savior to receive what is due you, the measure of God’s reward that is determined by what you did or did not do.
I know you. I know you want to live for Jesus Christ. But you also have learned how difficult it is to live that Christian life as it ought to be lived. You are far enough along the road to know that you need every motivation you can find to keep you at this hard work; a basket of motivations. We read some of the most important of them from the Heidelberg Catechism in our worship earlier this hour. Well here is a very important one. Peter says that knowing that Christ judges our lives with impartiality will cause us to live our lives in reverent fear. You want to live in reverent fear. Every Christian does. Well, think of the Last Judgment and the account then you must give of your life. Think of the rewards, greater or lesser, that will be given to believers then. Paul also said the thought – that prospect of his standing before Christ in judgment to receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad – caused the fear of the Lord to rise in his heart. I want the fear of the Lord to rise in my heart; don’t you?
Let there be no thought – in my own heart or in yours – that we have in some way contributed to our own salvation or reward. If God gives us any reward whatsoever in heaven in return for our faithfulness to him, he will be crowning his own gift and rewarding his own grace. No one in heaven will think he got there by his own effort; no one will ever think that the good he or she did was by one’s own doing. “Without me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing!” And nothing will be clearer to the saints in heaven that just that fact. He or she will be fairly bursting with love for God and gratitude to him. But the summons comes nevertheless to each one of us. Live now as you will want to have lived then. Lay up your treasure in heaven, for, with God’s help, you can! You actually can!