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Rewards and Works
By David A. DePra
Most Christians are convinced that even though we cannot earn our salvation from God, we nevertheless must, after we are saved, earn our eternal REWARD. I’ve heard it said time and time again – that your rank in heaven, or level in heaven, or the AMOUNT of your eternal reward, is going to be determined by your Christians works. Many accept this as a Bible doctrine and rarely question it.
The same Christians who believe this error – and it IS error – probably believe that the Bible is filled with teaching to support it. Well, actually the Bible is filled with teaching to REFUTE it.
Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began. (2 Tim 1:9)
This issue is NOT a small one. The quest to earn a bigger reward drives many Christians. But in addition, if we don’t see the Truth on this matter, I’m not sure we can have a well-rounded and harmonious knowledge of the purpose and plan of God. It strikes at the heart and core of GRACE, indeed, of God’s own character and love towards us.
Work? What Works?
Those who believe that we must earn our heavenly reward usually say that we must earn it through our good works – included in which is Christian ministry and service. But the problem is, if we are going to be, "rewarded according to our works" – and I’ll get to where that sentence appears in the Bible later – if we are truly going to be, "rewarded according to our works," then doesn’t this mean that ALL of our works, both good and bad, must be taken into account? Sure. It has to mean that. For if we are going to be, "rewarded according to our works," then, by definition, this means that our good works will ADD to our reward, and our bad works will SUBTRACT from it. In fact, we might even say that every time we do a good work, our reward goes UP, and every time we do a bad work, our reward goes DOWN. There is simply no other way it could work if God is going to give us an eternal reward, "according to our works."
Perhaps you have never thought of it that way. But it is a fact that if our works – as saved Christians – is determined by our works and service to God, then the BAD works we do must subtract from our eternal reward, just as the GOOD works supposedly ADD to it. Surely, we don’t expect God to completely ignore our bad works and count only the good? But even if we are silly enough to expect THAT, then we would still have a problem within our good works -- because surely some of those good works are MORE good than others, and God would have to gear our, "reward-meter," accordingly.
This is only the beginning of the problem. For once say we are to be eternally rewarded according to our works, we must define WORKS. According to scripture, works include the obvious – every thing we DO outwardly. But works also include every thought, attitude, and intent of the heart. So if we want God to reward us according to our works, then He must take into account every imperfect thought and attitude and intent we have, and weigh them against the good ones. The question is then clear: How much of a reward do you think you will end up receiving? I think it ought to be clear that we would find ourselves in a deficit position – which, incidentally, God already tells us is the case, exposing the folly of the whole suggestion.
An added problem is the question as to what defines works as GOOD. I submit that if there is even a shred of the flesh involved, or any selfish motive at all, or really, if there is the slightest imperfection in what we do, then those works are not GOOD. At least they are LESS good than perfect. And since our works are determining our eternal reward, well, our reward will go DOWN to the degree that our works are less than perfect.
So this is the first problem and question – if we are going to be rewarded according to our works, then God must take ALL of our works into account to determine that reward. And if He does that, none of us would come out with any reward at all.
A second question is this: Can works that were not good enough to SAVE us, be good enough to earn us the eternal things of God? Actually, this question exposes the whole error for what it is – this error is based on a misunderstanding of what salvation IS, and what the Christian life IS. Salvation is Christ in us. The Christian life is salvation, or Christ, experienced. In short, the Christian life is an experiencing of the SAME Christ we receive for salvation. It is not something different. Thus, to say that we are saved by grace, but must earn everything else by works, is based upon ignorance of these basic Truths. It puts salvation on one basis, and the Christian life on another. This is error – the Truth is that this is all about the SAME basis, Christ in us, the hope of glory. (Col. 1:27)
The idea that we are saved solely by grace through faith, but UNTO a Christian life that requires that we earn our eternal reward by works, is nonsense. It is contradictory, not only from a logical standpoint, but it runs contrary to the nature, plan, and purpose of God in Christ. God has NEVER demanded we earn anything. In fact, the whole point of grace is that we CANNOT.
Do you want to be rewarded according to your works and service for God? Well, then be prepared to be faced with ALL of your works – every thought, intent, deed, and outcome – and be prepared for God to do a tally on them to determine your eternal reward. And then hope that you managed to do just a few more good works than you did bad works – or you will receive nothing.
It is here that we can begin to bring in some scripture on this matter:
What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things? (Rom 8:31-32)
And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. (Rev 21:6)
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. (1 Cor 2:12)
These passages are
clearly referring to more than just the fact of our salvation by grace. Sure.
Otherwise, how else can we explain away the phrase, "with Christ freely
give us all things?" We can’t. In fact, in these passages we see a great
Truth – it is in Christ that God gives us all things freely. We receive them
all IN HIM at salvation, but as Christ becomes real to us, so do all those
things that are freely given in Him. For, as Paul says,
That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ; In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Col 2:2-3)
There is NOTHING God has for us outside of His Son. Indeed, we might rightly say that ALL that God has for us is His Son, but that in Christ is all that God has for us. Christ is the summation and embodiment of all that God wants to give us. Therefore, if you have Christ in you, you have all things in you that are of God. The key therefore is NOT to earn those things, but to know Christ and come into a living relationship with Him. For IN HIM all these things are HID – as Christ is unfolded and made manifest, so are the THINGS that are in Him.
Again we see the basic principle – all things that God has for us are realized and experience only in Christ. We can have no authority, eternal reward, or anything else of God, except it be based in, and extend from, a personal relationship with Christ. Get into business with Christ and everything else that is of God will come into your possession.
In short, our works do not earn anything. Rather, our relationship with Christ forms the basis for all rewards, inheritance, and the purpose of God. Works are to be, not the means of earning a reward, but the result of Christ in us.
We can only do good works if we have the embodiment of good in us, Jesus Christ. And we received Him free of charge.
And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely you have received, freely give. (Mat 10:7-8)
According to scripture, you cannot do truly good works unless there is the material in you to produce good works. That will never be found in the flesh. Rather, it is found in Christ in us. Paul said, "Yet not I, but Christ lives in me." Thus, rather than say that God is going to reward me for the works I do, it is the Truth to say that Christ in me is the means by which I do these works to begin with. I have freely received Christ by grace through faith. Works are the result – works that I should freely offer to God.
Actually the whole idea of being able to earn something from God is crazy. But we buy into these things because we do not know Him, or our need for Him. Are we so unrighteous that we will do good works only if they earn us something from God? Good grief. The Christian life is one where, because I have freely received all things from God in Christ, I give all things from myself to God’s glory. THAT is faithfulness to God. THAT is the result of being rightly related to God by faith.
Can We Indebt God?
So many Christians take Bible verses out of context and build doctrines around them, and NEVER think them through to what they really say about God. The notion that we could earn anything from God, indeed, the notion that God withholds blessings from us until we do, well, this is total nonsense. It is not what God is about. It is not what His purpose is about.
The Truth is, if my works can earn me a reward from God, then, by definition, my works indebt God to me – even if I want to say God is ok with that. Sure. If I am able to earn a reward, then I am entitled to it through those works, and God OWES it to me. Where are we ever told that God owes us anything?
The Bible shows that EVERYTHING of value that we have, we have received by grace.
Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates? (2 Cor 13:5)
For what make you any different from another? And what do you have that you did not receive (by grace)? Now if you did receive it (by grace), why do you glory, as if you did not receive it by grace? (1 Cor 4:7)
So if our works are really good, they are not the product of us, but of Christ. Everything in the Christian life that is good or righteous is the result of what we freely received to begin with – Christ in us. Have we recognized the HE is our righteousness?
But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Cor 1:30-31)
Christ IS all of these characteristics – WE are not them, or given them as THINGS. No, we are given Christ by grace, and if these things are made manifest through us, it is HIM being seen. So why are we trying to earn things from God? They are already in Christ. Lose yourself to Him, and these things will be made manifest through you.
Now, if all of this is the case, that the Christian life is to be the outcome of Christ in us coming to live through us, then why would that entitle us to a reward? Why would we NEED one? If Christ is in us, what other reward do we need? If Christ is in us, what do we lack? What are we missing? NOTHING.
If we are to earn our reward, then we are nothing more than a hireling. Is the relationship that God desires between Himself and His children supposed to be that of an employer to a hireling? Notice that we are CHILDREN of God – not hirelings. AS children, we INHERIT all things in Christ. We don’t have to EARN them. The fact is, if you have to earn from God what Christ has already won, you don’t really need a relationship with Him. You could just DO to earn. And God would have to pay you.
But again – do you think your BEST works can be good enough? And what about your sins and failures? Do you want them to subtract from your reward. Well, if you want to be rewarded according to your works they WILL subtract from it.
If we truly valued what God has for us in Christ, we would never think we could possibly earn it. Indeed, we would not WANT to try to earn it. The thought would be abhorrent to us. But we don’t value it. We DO value what WE DO for God. Thus, we see the problem.
The need to serve God in order to earn a bigger reward is contrary to the love of God. Actually, it is contrary, not only to our love for Him, but also to His love for us. Any way you want to slice it, if I am serving God for a reward, I’m not serving Him out of love. I can’t be serving Him out of love – because as scripture says, "Love seeks not her own."
If you and I serve and obey God out of love – and this is exactly what the new birth makes possible, to serve Him out of love – then the whole notion of rewards and punishments attached to our works are out the window. Sure. If God has attached rewards and punishments to every work we do, then we are UNDER THE LAW. Love is impossible. And the Bible takes great pains to explain this fact.
If we needed to earn anything from God, it would also cast a shadow over God’s love for us. The Bible states that everything that God has for man is found in Christ – because Christ has already purchased ALL through His redemption. This was the greatest price ever paid, or that ever could be paid. The motive of God in providing this was, "For God so loved….." To suggest that, yes, Christ has won everything through His shed Blood, but now we must EARN it – this is contrary to grace itself. Do we actually believe that God won’t give me what Christ has won, even if I am IN CHRIST – but that I must earn it?
Now, of course, the big protest against this Truth is that God cannot just give everything freely because people would abuse it. This is always the argument against grace. People say that if God gave grace freely that we would be able, "to sin because grace abounds." Thus, the same people say that if God gave us our inheritance or reward freely, completely detached from works, then we would grab it and waste it away. And you know what, they are right. People would do that – and Christians DO that all the time. Christian people DO sin because they believe grace abounds, and Christian people DO take the things of God and corrupt them. But if we really examine that, those people who, "sin because grace abounds," and those people who corrupt their own inheritance in Christ – who are they hurting? Well, in the end, they are hurting themselves. And this is the whole point. God gives freely to all who are in Christ. But if we squander it, WE lose.
Now, perhaps you think I’m saying that if a person places little value upon grace or their inheritance that God is going to get mad and yank back what He has for them. Well, I don’t think this is the way it works, although God certainly can and does chastise us. There ARE consequences for sin. But rather than a punishment from God, I think what happens when Christians squander the grace of God is that they don’t EXPERIENCE the grace of God – by their own choice to abuse it. In other words, God has freely given us all things in Christ, but the very NATURE of grace is that if you abuse it, you won’t know it. Grace is of value to you only if you see your need for it. If you don’t see the value of grace, you will never experience it.
Our inheritance in Christ is sitting there for us – IN Christ. But if we neglect Christ, and ignore Christ, we will live outside of our inheritance. Whose fault is that? It is OURS. It is not a matter of God yanking back our inheritance. It is a matter of us neglecting it in favor of other things.
When God led Israel to the promised land, and they refused to enter in, God did not deny them the promise. No. THEY denied the promise and did not enter. But the promised land was always there for them. They did not enter because they did not believe. So it is with Christian people. We don’t take what God has given. It is not a matter of NOT earning. It is matter of not being rightly related to Christ by faith.
And so we fall for the enemies suggestion that we must EARN what God has freely given. This is deception. It is so bad for some Christians that their entire lives are spent under THE LAW that governs earning God’s blessing and their reward.
What if you discovered that not a single work or act of service you will ever do shall earn you one ounce of a bigger reward from the Lord? Would you still serve Him? The fact is, LOVE would still serve Him and obey Him. Indeed, if love is our motivation, we will give all of ourselves to God no matter whether it earns us a thing. We will give ourselves to Him because of love. Isn’t that what God did for us – gave Himself for us?
If you have walked with God in any depth at all, you are going to discover that one of the primary things He does is crucify OUT OF US the motive of following Him because it PAYS us. This is not a maybe. God absolutely will do that – He wants all of that kind of motivation out of us. Indeed, you will find that one of the central purposes of any trial is to get you to surrender unconditionally to God – without any demand of reward. And if you do, you find out that what you get is NOT so much a big reward of some type, but more importantly, what you get is FREEDOM, and a deeper relationship with God. Thus, it becomes clear: If God is seeking to set us free from all motives of trying to earn from Him through works and service, do we think it is likely that THIS VERY THING would be the law under which we must earn our eternal reward? I mean if we are supposed to earn, through works and service, our eternal reward, then why is God trying to set us free from that VERY MOTIVATION?
You can serve God for pay and never have a relationship with Him. But only if you love Him will you serve Him free of charge. And the reward for that is left up to God. But that being said, the greatest reward for serving God free of charge is BUILT INTO that motivation – I learn what loving God means, and I experience true freedom. Once you experience THAT, you won’t be fussing around foolishly thinking God owes you something for what you have done for Him.
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ gave Himself to purchase for us ALL THINGS. Those things are entirely bought and paid for by the Blood of Christ. So why do we have to AGAIN pay for them by doing works? Does God want double payment? Furthermore, if God loves us so much that He sent His Son to pay the price for all, then why would He withhold from us what Christ has won – and demand that we EARN them? Why would Christ die for us, but God still demand that we earn what Christ died for?
Make no question about it, the moment you introduce rewards and punishments as the MOTIVATION for obeying God, you are making LOVE impossible as the motivation. Love cannot be the motivation when you’ve got rewards and punishments hanging over your head – with eternal stakes. In fact, what you are really doing is replacing the love relationship God has for us through Christ with a new kind of law – that of working to earn your reward.
Christians often fail to think through these easily accepted teachings. But once you truly examine them in the light of scripture, you find out that what is so easily accepted is actually the very antithesis of the true knowledge of God in Jesus Christ. God is not a God who demands we earn anything from Him! When will we learn that? And it is a moot point anyways, because there is nothing you and I could possibly do to earn anything from God!
Legalism is the use of MY works to make myself righteous before God – instead of my putting my faith in Christ. But if we really examine what that means, it will open our eyes wide to the Truth.
Paul uses a term for legalism – "under the law." But what does it mean to be, "under the law?" Well, it means that the law I am under is going to determine my standing before God, whether it be regarding righteousness, or regarding my reward. The law I am under is going to examine my works and compare them to it’s own standard and pronounce judgment accordingly. Thus, if we are talking about righteousness, the righteous law will probe my works to see if they measure up, and pronounce its verdict. Or, if we are talking about my eternal reward, the law I am under for determining that is going to examine my works and service to see what I deserve as my reward. In either case, I am under A LAW.
If we believe we are earning a reward through our works and service, then we are UNDER THE LAW the governs the determining of that reward. If we meet the standard of that law, then our reward increases. If we fall short of that law, then our reward decreases. This is legalism.
I have known hundreds of people bound up in legalism in my life – I used to be one of them. But I have never known any of them to actually admit that they are trying to earn their salvation – or that they have earned their salvation. Most of them, as was the case with the Galatians, believe they are saved by grace. But then they try to MAINTAIN what is given them by GOD’S grace through their OWN works.
Now, I realize that most people who are legalists don’t think they are legalists. Usually, they think they are holy, with high standards, and take pride in the fact that they obey God – while others don’t. Or, if they don’t think they are doing a good job keeping themselves righteous, they live in defeat. But both of these kinds of legalists – the prideful, and the defeated -- are based in the SAME belief that I must keep myself righteous through works. Both are legalism.
But what I want us to see is this: If I think I must maintain my righteousness through works, then this is exactly equal to trying to keep my salvation through works – for those who are righteous are the saved, and the saved are the righteous. You cannot have an unrighteous saved person, nor a saved unrighteous person. Not in the eyes of God. Righteousness and salvation go hand in hand – as Paul, throughout the NT makes clear. Thus, I say again, if you are trying to keep righteous through works, you are trying to keep saved through works. This is undeniable – and it doesn’t matter if you think so, or realize what you are doing.
Yet notice: If I am trying to KEEP my salvation through works, then, on a continual basis, I am trying to earn my salvation. Sure. It is exactly what I am doing. For to try to keep salvation through works means I am trying to continually EARN salvation through works – for I must keep righteous through works to keep saved. Many might disagree. But in the end, legalism comes down to maintaining salvation – it comes down to CONTINUALLY earning salvation.
The issue of eternal security comes into view in this matter as well. If I must keep righteous through works – if I must continually earn salvation through the good works of righteousness – then I can LOSE my salvation through bad works. Sure. You cannot have this one way and not the other – if you KEEP saved through works, you can become unsaved through works. If you stay righteous through works, then you can become unrighteous through works – and thus become, once again, UNSAVED. In other words, if you think you must keep saved and keep righteous through works, then you are, by definition, saying you can LOSE your salvation through bad works. But once again, people don’t see that this is what they are saying when they live under legalism. But it is nevertheless true. They are actually putting everything OUT of the grace of God back under the law.
Now, if you are grasping what I am getting at, you will see that this is ALL or NOTHING. It is ALL of grace or none of grace. If you are trying to keep righteous through works, then, by definition, you believe you must keep your salvation by works, and thus, you believe you can lose your salvation by works. Likewise, if you believe everything you have from God is by GRACE, you will realize that works determine NOTHING. Indeed, works are the outcome of the grace that determines everything.
What all of this brings us to is rather wonderful: It is ALL of grace. You are saved once for all and forever by grace, and cannot lose your salvation. You cannot, must not, and need not try to continually keep saved by earning your own righteousness through works.
One of the things Paul was trying to show the Galatians was this, "all or nothing," Truth. He ask them, "Having begun in the Spirit, or you now made complete by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:3) No. If you have begun by GRACE, things don’t then switch to a basis of works. Rather, the Christian life is lived on the same basis as it begins. The Christian life begins when we receive Christ by grace. It is lived as we experience Christ through grace. The basis is never works.
The notion that we, as saved people, must earn our eternal reward IS legalism. And despite the fact that most believe who teach this error deny that salvation is in question – but only their reward – you cannot separate salvation from eternal rewards. Indeed, eternal rewards are nothing more than the fullness of the SAME salvation you receive by grace through faith.
If you must earn your reward by works, then you are under the law – you are under the law that will determine your reward BY your works. And even though you might not put in down in words, you ARE absolutely trying to keep yourself righteous through works! Of course you are. How so? Well, you are trying to be righteous enough to merit a reward from God. Sure. In trying to earn a bigger reward from God, you are working and serving – and thus, through your own righteousness in doing these things, trying to merit a bigger reward.
No one who is trying to earn a bigger reward from God is going to say that his or her righteousness doesn’t matter. Even those who say, "I am righteous by faith. But now I must do good works to earn a reward," – even those who say THAT are betraying their contradictory thinking. For if you are righteous by faith alone – and the Bible says you are – is not the righteousness of Christ that comes by faith a perfect righteousness? Sure. Well, if it is, then would not the perfect righteousness you have IN CHRIST, accrue to you all of the inheritance that belongs to Christ? Sure it would – and this is exactly what the Bible teaches, that in Christ, we inherit all that HE inherits. But if you must still EARN from God what Christ has inherited, then you are clearly NOT righteous by faith. In fact, you have nothing you haven’t earned.
The Meaning of Salvation
As I mentioned earlier, a huge part of the problem in the misunderstanding on this matter is that many Christians do not understand what salvation IS. If I think that salvation is merely a legal classification, or a condition of, "being forgiven by God," or simply a, "ticket to heaven," then it is obvious why I think I must go on to earn a bigger reward. For in that case, to me, salvation is a THING – merely a destiny – and nothing else is included. So let the EARNING begin!
But the Truth is, salvation is CHRIST IN US. It is nothing more and nothing less. Any other definition is ERROR. Salvation is CHRIST IN US. And if Christ is in us, then everything that is IN CHRIST is also in us. That is why the Bible is able to say that we inherit all things in Christ. There is NOTHING to earn. In Him, God has freely given us all things.
So how does my inheritance – that which is already IN CHRIST – come into my possession? Simple. I come to know my inheritance as I come to know Christ. I come to experience my inheritance as I come to experience Christ. As my relationship to Jesus Christ unfolds in Spirit and in Truth, all that is included in the inheritance becomes manifest. It happens no other way.
God has wrapped up ALL THINGS that He has for man in His Son Jesus Christ. You cannot earn them from God, or earn them from Christ. If Christ is in you, your inheritance is in you – but only IN HIM. That means that you must submit to Christ as Lord, and grow in His grace and knowledge. As Christ grows in you, the inheritance in Christ, is released and made manifest.
But you see, Satan has successfully misdirected so much in the Christian church along lines OTHER THAN Christ. Instead of all things being IN CHRIST, Satan has offered other ways by which we must obtain a bigger reward, etc. The result is bondage, and blindness.
Our eternal reward is not SEPARATE from Christ – it is not a thing we earn in addition to salvation in Christ. No. Salvation IS Christ in us. And thus, our reward is our salvation – who is Christ – experienced and brought into fullness. You are saved ONLY because you received Christ. You will have an eternal reward ONLY because Christ in you carries that. It all comes back to Him.
Everything God has for man is found in Christ – and our eternal reward is nothing more than an extension, and a result of, our relatedness TO Christ. Whatever you think is your eternal reward is only going to be possible as the outcome of, and as the by-product of, being rightly related to Jesus Christ.
For example, do you want to reign and rule with Christ? Are you foolish enough to think that God is simply going to hand you authority as a reward for some WORKS or SERVICE you have done in this life? Nonsense. You will reign and rule with Christ only to the degree that Christ is reigning and ruling IN YOU and OVER YOU. Works and service are NOT going to be, "tallied up," to determine your place in the eternal ages. The only thing that will matter is who you ARE to Christ – the real you – and who Christ is to you. It could be no other way.
Actually, we need not imagine the eternal ages to see this fact. RIGHT NOW, those who have victory in Christ, and who have allowed Him to be Lord of their lives – RIGHT NOW these are people who are reigning and ruling with Him. You can see that reigning and ruling has little to do with an office held or being in a governmental position. It has to do with spiritual authority that is the result of being rightly related to Christ by faith.
There is a principle wrapped up in this. We know that for this age, Christ in us through the Holy Spirit is called the, "down payment," of our inheritance. The fullness will be possible only in the eternal ages. But the fact remains that what is true of the down payment is true of the full inheritance – for we are talking about nothing less than levels of relationship with God Himself. Thus, what I do with the down payment sets the stage for the fullness. If I have been faithful over the down payment, I will be faithful over the fullness. This is a principle stated over and over in the parables of Jesus.
Salvation is Christ in us. In this age, because of OUR limitations, this is like a down payment on a greater fullness. Clearly, we are going to experience the fullness of our salvation in the eternal ages in a way we cannot experience now! But despite this limitation, we nevertheless have in us all of our inheritance if we are, "complete in Christ." Sure. The key therefore, is not EARNING a bigger reward through works – that would be equal to saying we must earn more of Christ through works! No. The key is to come into a relationship with Jesus Christ NOW – and this will set the stage for the fullness THEN. This is all about Christ.
Losing to Find
To listen to some people, you would think that the Bible is filled with teaching to the effect that we are going to be, "rewarded according to our works." But actually, that statement is made very few times. I want to look at some of them to see exactly what is being taught.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matt. 16:24-28)
This particular passage is probably the one that best illustrates the meaning of the phrase, "reward every man according to his works." If you read what Jesus is saying to His disciples, what WORKS do you imagine He is talking about? Well, it is clear that the, "works," Jesus is referring to are that of, "denying oneself," "taking up one’s cross," and, "following Him." But really, all of these can be summarized in His one statement – "Whosoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it." THAT is the work that Jesus is talking about when He says He will, "reward every man according to His works."
Now, if you don’t believe this, then read again the passage. Can you possibly read this passage and emerge thinking that you are required to do WORKS in order to EARN your eternal reward? Not hardly Indeed, Jesus clearly states, "IF any man will follow Me…. whoever will lose his life for My sake shall find it." According to Jesus, if you want to FOLLOW Him, you have to LOSE your life – and THEN, and only THEN, will you find it. The question is therefore plain: Do you think you can earn a bigger eternal reward without following Jesus? And since the answer is NO, then it is clear that no matter what else you believe about this matter of eternal rewards, it is clear that you must lose your life to follow Jesus, and thus, receive ANY reward.
I’m going to say that again because it is so important. Jesus tells us directly in this passage that there is only ONE WAY to follow Him. We have to LOSE our lives. But if that is the only way to follow Jesus, then that is clearly the only way to, "earn a reward" – that is, if you think you must earn it! Sure. You surely cannot, "earn a reward," without following Jesus! Right? So if you think you must earn a reward from God through your works, you MUST concede that right up front it means following Jesus that way Jesus said we must follow Him – and Jesus said the only way to follow Him is by losing your life for His sake.
But what does it really mean, "to lose you life for Christ’s sake?" Well, it means that you are no longer in charge. You determine NOTHING. You don’t have the right to decide anything you do, or even have the right to decide WHO YOU ARE. It means that everything about you must go the way of the Cross – you must lose all of yourself into the hands of Christ. In short, to, "lose your life," means that you fully relinquish possession of your life. You are no longer your own. You belong to HIM.
Now, once we realize what losing ourselves to Christ really means, does it seem likely that Jesus would then add, "By the way, you still have to EARN your inheritance through good works." No. Does it seem likely that Jesus would say, "You have to lose your life to find it, but you have to earn your reward to find it." No. In reality, in this passage we find the principle that not only governs this whole idea of eternal rewards, but which governs our entire relationship with God. That principle is this: We find what lose. Whatever we fully relinquish into God’s hands and let HIM determine, God gives back to us according to His will and fully in His grace. In other words, do you want a big eternal reward? Then relinquish the whole idea of a reward to God, and let HIM decide.
The Christian life that will emerge from losing everything into the hands of God, and letting Him decide is one of FREEDOM, LOVE, and Truth. Christ has set us free from the need for trying to EARN! This will result in our being able to obey God and serve Him – not to earn anything – but because we have received ALL. It will result in a life that can freely give ALL because we have freely received all.
True Christianity is the freedom to walk with Jesus Christ to His glory. It is not a contest. It is not a competition to see how much of a reward I can earn before I die. It is not a scorecard. It is not a duty. It is not me trying to pry out of God’s hands what He is so hesitate to give – through my works. No. True Christianity is based on the fact that ALL is by grace – and that this will free me to be able to live to God’s glory free of charge.
You will notice that Jesus said, "Whoever loses His life for My sake will find it…when the Son of Man comes, He will reward each person according to their works." Well, can’t we see that this principle of, "losing to find," is made to apply directly to rewards in this passage? Sure. Indeed, we are at perfect liberty to paraphrase the passage and read, "Whosoever loses his reward for My sake will find it, when I return to this earth." Can we see this great Truth?
True freedom to live the Christian life can ONLY come about if all the stakes of rewards and punishments are put aside, and we LOSE all of that, and simply give our all to God. God wants us to LOSE all of ourselves into His hands – to the complete disregard of rewards and punishments – and to leave all of that up to HIM. Can we serve God free of charge, out of love? Or must we demand that we are going to receive a reward from Him?
People that do not understand what salvation is, or what the new birth is, tend to believe that the only way God can keep us under control is by BRIBING US. They think that unless God rewards for good works, and punishes for bad works, that the Christian will, "sin because grace abounds." So they bring in LAWS to keep Christians in line, and call this kind of thing, "a life of holiness." Or they will say that they have discovered the, "basic principles," from God’s Word that will keep you in His favor. Usually people like this preach a God that is always on the verge of a temper tantrum, or instead, take the approach that if you keep all of these laws, that you are one of the, "special ones," who REALLY knows Jesus. Usually BOTH. But God’s Word could not devote much more space than it has to once and for all rid us of such false thinking! What I have just described is the very essence of legalism, and being under the law. And yet there are Christians by the millions who continue to think that it IS Christianity. It is not. It is, "another gospel."
If Christianity were a religion designed to simply alter our conduct, and give us a bunch a doctrines to believe in, well, then God might have to put us under law to keep us under control. But actually, I’m not kidding, you can train any animal with a big enough whip, or a big enough chewy treat. This is NOT Christianity. Through the new birth a miracle happens in us that begins to RELATE us to Christ. And as we go along, Christ comes to govern us, and the result is that we obey God because we know and love Him. I’m not saying that this happens all at once, or is ever perfect. But it is the Truth – this is what Christianity is. It is a love relationship between ourselves and God.
Practically speaking, I will obey God and do good works. But this will be out of love. It will NOT be because I think it PAYS me to do so. I will be LOSING all of that – I will be LOSING myself continually into the hands of Christ. And as I do, I will be FINDING Him, and all that He has for me. All of this will come back to my personal relationship with Christ. Because I am rightly related to Him by faith, works emerge. And because I am rightly related to Him by faith, whatever REWARD God has planned for me will be insured.
It is entirely possible to do many works for Christ, including ministry service, but to NOT be rightly related to Him. Isn’t this the whole point of the teaching against legalism in the NT? Sure. The NT teaches that ALL obedience is supposed to be the OUTCOME of being rightly related to God by faith. Obedience is NEVER to be the MEANS of getting rightly related to God. Well, plug rewards into this. If all obedience is supposed to be the outcome of being rightly related to Christ by faith, then certainly any rewards that are attached to the same must go back to being rightly related to Christ by faith. That is the root – our relatedness to Christ. But in contrast, if works are never the MEANS by which we become rightly related to Christ, then works could never be the means by which we earn a bigger reward.
Here we again remember Paul’s rhetorical questions to the Galatians:
This only would I learn of you, Received you the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh? Have you experienced so many things in vain? If it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministers to you the Spirit, and works miracles among you, does he do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Gal. 3:2-5)
Having BEGUN…are you now MADE COMPLETE….? What do we imagine the Galatians believed, such that Paul had to ask this question? Clearly, we see from the epistle that the Galatians were trying to KEEP righteous through law keeping – which we have seen means they thought they could LOSE their righteousness, and thus, lose their salvation. And all of that includes them thinking they could LOSE their eternal reward – they wouldn’t get a reward if they did not keep themselves righteous, would they?
All of this is legalism – it is being under the law, any law. Frankly, there really isn’t much difference between a life that is lived trying to keep righteous through works, and a life that is lived trying to earn a reward from God. In fact, we might even say they are the SAME life, for don’t you have to become righteous through your works in order to earn your reward? – don’t these two things go together in the same error? You bet they do.
We have seen that legalism, at it’s root, is not merely a theological problem. Neither is it a works problem. Legalism is actually a RELATIONSHIP problem – WITH GOD. Those living in legalism of any kind are doing so because they do not KNOW Jesus, and do not KNOW the grace of God. Oh, they might know the DOCTRINES. But they don’t know – the reality of these Truths have not yet broken through to them in a way that will, as Paul says, "form Christ in them." (Gal. 4:19) In other words, there has not taken shape in them the true revelation of Jesus Christ. They are still living Christianity as if it is a religion – based on a false knowledge of God. The result is legalism.
The Measure of Christ
I Corinthians 3 is another passage often used to prove that we are going to be rewarded according to the works and service we do for the Lord. But again, we don’t read what it says.
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. } So then neither is he that plants any thing, neither he that waters; but God that gives the increase. Now he that plants and he that waters are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are laborers together with God: ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds thereon. But let every man take heed how he builds thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. (1 Cor 3:5-17)
You will notice, first of all, that Paul refers to himself in this passage as, "a wise master builder." Get that – a BUILDER, not an earner. There is nothing in this entire passage that speaks to the possibility of EARNING from God. Rather, the emphasis is upon what we BUILD – and then upon whether what we build is able to pass through, "the fire," into the eternal ages. THIS is the point of the passage – whether what is built is eternal.
You will also note that everything being BUILT in this passage is built upon the foundation of Jesus. Paul is talking in a Christian context – he is not concerned about false religions. Rather, he is concerned about what is built upon Jesus. Indeed, he warns, "but let each man take heed how he builds upon Christ."
The passage contrasts temporal materials being BURNT up, and then eternal materials that abide through the fire. These form the basis for, "reward," and therefore, we must look at them. What makes the materials I build upon Christ ETERNAL? As opposed to TEMPORAL?
That which is eternal is always resurrection life in Christ Jesus. All else is temporal. Here we can get help from Ephesians:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: (Eph 4:11-13)
Ephesians shows gifts for ministry and what they are supposed to produce or BUILD. They are supposed to EQUIP the saints for the work of the ministry, and to BUILD Christians up in Christ. And this all has a purpose – the unity of the faith, the knowledge of the Son of God, unto maturity, UNTO the fullness of the measure of Christ. THAT is what is eternal, and THAT is what God wants to build through us.
It should not be a surprise that only that which is OF Christ ought to be built upon the foundation OF Christ. Christ IS the foundation and so that which is built OF Christ must be upon Him – and this alone is eternal. Thus, to make it simple, only that which is of the measure of Christ – whatever is built out of HIS LIFE – can pass through the fire. Only what is of God from THIS age is going to pass through to the next.
This is something that is both good news, but scary to some people. Yet we must come to terms with it. NOTHING except that which is of Christ is going to survive. The rest is going to be completely obliterated. I think that’s great. But it is going to surprise a lot of people.
Now to the, "reward," aspect of this passage. We read that if what I have built is of Christ, that I, "will receive a reward." So the question is, HOW do I build that which is eternal in Christ?
Well, it is not by entering into the things of God and trying to use them to earn myself a reward. No, in fact, this will, in the end, prove to be OF THE FLESH. God won’t be in it. Rather, the way in which I build up what is of Christ is by being in a relationship with Christ. In other words, Christ has to build ME, and then build THROUGH me. It is the same Truth we have been seeing – all ministry is supposed to be the by product of MY relationship with Christ. All that is built is supposed to be the fruit of my relationship in Christ. A branch cannot bear fruit of itself – a builder cannot build that which is eternal of itself. All that is spiritual value can only become manifest as the result of individuals who have given themselves to Jesus.
When Paul talks about, "each man’s work," he is getting at the outcome of each person’s walk with Jesus Christ – THAT is going to produce a work, or a building. It will produce a product of ministry or something that seems of God. The necessity that our relationship with Christ produce this is clearly stated, which is why Paul says, "We are laborers together WITH God." It is from out of that relationship with Christ that spiritual ministry emerges. And if the minister is fully given over to God’s will, then God can build something eternal – of Christ – in His church. THAT will pass through any fire. The reward comes in because if a person is so centered in Christ that God can build through them NOW, it is certain that this same relationship with Christ will form the basis for reward THEN.
It is an absolute fact that unless the minister is right with God through Christ, God can build nothing through Him that is eternal. This is because only God can build that which is eternal, and if we aren’t right with God – fully given over to Him – we will take what is God’s and use it according to the flesh, and man’s interests. No. I cannot be used of God unless I am one with God in purpose. This is a fact stated continually throughout the Bible:
Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not….but we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor 4:1-12)
Here we see the statement, "Death in us, but life in you." THAT is true ministry – it is why Paul starts this passage by saying, "We have THIS ministry." Thus, if you want to be used of God for real ministry, be prepared to have DEATH work in you for the sake of others. This is the same teaching that we saw earlier – that we must lose our lives to find them. Paul is simply saying that we must lose our lives for the sake of others to build the true life of Christ in them. This is because of where we all begin in the flesh and in darkness. Life cannot come unless there is death. This wasn’t an arbitrary decision by God to make it so. It is reflective of the way that creation is, and what it takes to bring it all back to God. It is redemptive being ministered.
So, we see that true ministry isn’t simply a matter of studying the Bible and parroting it to others. It isn’t a matter of being able to preach a real good sermon. It isn’t stirring people up and getting them excited. Neither is true ministry necessarily doing good things for people, or even doing good works. I’m not putting those things down – because there is so much apathy in the church today the way it is. But TRUE ministry is whatever ministers CHRIST. It is whatever builds people in Christ – this is the TRUE building of God. True ministry fills up the measure of Christ. That alone is eternal. That alone will abide the fire.
You will notice that in Paul’s illustration, he concludes by telling us what is being built: God’s temple. And he adds, "You are God’s building." Well, Christ is the foundation of that temple. Thus, the building that is built must be the outcome of our relationship with that foundation – the building must be what we build as we give ourselves to the Christ who is in us. And if it is, then it will be eternal and it will survive the fire.
The reward comes into play as the eternal outcome of the relationship that I have with Jesus Christ. The relationship I have with Christ HERE is eternal. It will pass through any fire. Likewise, all that God has built through that eternal relationship HERE passes through the fire into the eternal ages. But once I pass through into the eternal ages, my relationship with Christ, and all that has been built through it, doesn’t go away. Rather, it forms the basis for infinitely MORE. God will take all that is in me of Christ and release it to His full purpose – and THAT is the reward.
We saw earlier how the Holy Spirit in us is like a down payment on the fullness. Well, one might say that whatever God has built in me of Christ is like a SEED, or down payment, on a full release. That is my reward.
Now, can we see that we cannot earn this by mechanically doing good works, and trying to keep score? We cannot earn points with God by doing things. This is about relationship with God – and it all starts by losing one’s life – including the whole motivation of obeying God for pay – into the hands of God. I lose all of that and enter into a relationship of grace with God. And then, because I have, God is free, not only to build in me, and through me, but He is free to determine whatever my place will be in the eternal ages. He is free to do that because of my relationship with Him. He knows that I will be faithful over much, because I have been faithful over little.
Over and over, Jesus said, "You have been faithful over little NOW, so you are given the responsibility of being faithful over MUCH in the eternal ages." Faithfulness is a RELATIONSHIP between myself and God, whereby I refuse to take ownership over what belongs to Him, but instead, allow Him to use me to His glory and purpose. Thus, if I am faithful over what God gives me NOW, the measure of Christ can be built up through me – that which is eternal. And because I am faithful NOW, God can use me for the same purpose THEN – He can use me to glorify Himself in the eternal ages.
So what we see is that the issue isn’t the little, or the much, it is the FAITHFULNESS. That which is able to pass through the fire isn’t historical WORKS – it is what is eternal, i.e., that which is of the measure of Christ.
The sobering Truth is, that so much of what we think is Christianity, and, "the church," and, "ministry," today, is all going to be burned up. Jesus CONTINUALLY warned people that, "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first." He CONTINAULLY tells us that we cannot substitute things we do for coming under Him as our Lord. We cannot call Him Lord in word only, but stand outside of Him as Lord.
Not every one that says unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. (Mat 7:21-27)
This warning from Jesus is almost exactly what I Corinthians 3 is teaching. Jesus illustrates many people coming to Him calling Him LORD. They even rehearse the many things they have done in His name – all of which ARE good things. But there is a big problem. Jesus said to them, "I never KNEW you." In other words, despite the works these folks did, they never opened themselves to Jesus. They never gave Him access for a relationship in which Jesus could KNOW them. One might say that they maintained a religious façade – played the game if you will, that so many Christians play. And according to Jesus, they never did the will of God, indeed, He calls them, "workers of iniquity." Is it just a coincidence that Jesus ends this story showing how the house we build must be built upon the solid foundation of the Rock? No. Just as is the case in I Cor. 3, the foundation for all that we build and do must be a right relationship with Christ.
So again, what is the foundation of that right relationship? Good works? No – good works are the OUTCOME. The foundation is that we LOSE everything about us into His hands, that we might FIND Him – and then OUT OF THAT Jesus Christ can build IN and THROUGH us. That is the only kind of house that will stand. It is the only kind of building that can abide the fire. And that kind of ETERNAL house is the only kind that can provide the basis for expanded relationship and responsibility in the eternal ages.
Paul ends the passage in I Cor. 3 with this statement:
Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's….Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. (1 Cor 3:21- 4:2)
This is all about our relationship with Christ – of faithfulness. And faithfulness to God is not a relationship wherein I serve only to EARN a reward. No. Faithfulness is a relationship based in love, wherein I freely give because I have freely received. Any reward that is eventually given is only possible if that foundation is there between God and myself.
In Matthew 19, Jesus has a conversation with a rich young ruler. The outcome of that exchange stands as a teaching all unto itself, but really, the full measure of what Jesus is saying is only understood if we continue on into Matthew 20 and listen to His parable – the one usually called, "The Laborers in the Vineyard." This parable speaks directly to the issue of the rewards for Christian works and service.
First, the conversation with the rich young ruler:
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (Mat 19:22-27)
You can be sure that the disciples were paying close attention to this conversation between Jesus and the rich young ruler. In fact, the narrative says, "the disciples were exceedingly amazed…." Amazed at what? Amazed at Jesus’ statement, "Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." Well, let’s ask – WHY would this amaze them? Actually, it would NOT amaze them – unless it contradicted what they believed about the kingdom Jesus preached. But it DID contradict their hopes and ideas about the kingdom. The fact is, the disciples thought that the kingdom of God was a soon-coming PHYSICAL kingdom – in which they would receive important positions. They believe they would rule with Jesus from the temple in Jerusalem, and more to the point, they thought that this was going to result in great fringe benefits, including lots of money.
Now, we do have to get into the minds of the disciples and see that THIS is where they were coming from. You can actually see it all through the gospels. The disciples of Jesus had NO CLUE as to the real purpose for which Jesus had come – when He was crucified it completely blind-sided them, despite the many times Jesus warned them that it was going to happen. No. They expected what most Jews of that day expected – a physical Messiah who had come to restore the physical kingdom to Israel. And they thought that they were going to be the primary ones in that kingdom. They WERE Jesus’ apostles, weren’t they? Can we blame them?
We can all empathize with the disciples at this point. They just didn’t know. And certainly their motives for following Jesus were beginning to be exposed. How many times in the gospels did they debate as to which of them were the greatest? In fact, later in Matthew 20 we have the mother of James and John coming to Jesus and asking for positions in the kingdom for her sons! Over and over again, it is clearly laid out – the disciples were, at least in part, and certainly in the beginning, following Jesus for a reward. They thought that this was going to PAY them. I’m not sure that we cannot all relate to that. How many of us have been exposed as following Jesus – as those who do works and service – because we think that we are going to given a reward for it?
After the disciples were amazed, and presumably huddled together to try to figure this thing out, Peter emerges from them with a question for Jesus. We must see that this question has a story behind it, really, it has behind it all that I have just stated. The disciples were largely, at this point, expecting to get a big reward for following Jesus. Why else would Peter, having heard Jesus’ comments to, and about, the rich young ruler, come to Jesus and ask, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?"
Peter was exposing their motives for following Jesus. He was essentially saying, "Jesus, we have followed You at great cost. We’ve left everything. We admit we did it because we thought there is going to be a big pay off when You start Your kingdom. But now we wonder about that. Just exactly what are we going to have out of all of this?"
The parable of the laborers is told by Jesus in response, yes, to this question, but it is told more to correct the attitudes and motives of the disciples – that which stood BEHIND the question. Jesus knew that they had been, in large part, following Him for a reward. But now He knew that it was time to begin showing them the Truth.
So what we have here is a parable that speaks DIRECTLY to this matter of the reward of the saved. And we are going to see that what is revealed agrees exactly with everything we have been seeing on this issue.
Jesus begins, not by telling them that there will be NO reward, but begins by telling them that there ARE rewards. He says:
Verily I say unto you, That you which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.
If this were the entire answer of Jesus to Peter’s question, we might be left thinking that we had better start living the Christian life for the sole purpose of what we will GET out of it. But having promised that there ARE rewards, Jesus goes on to correct the motives and reasons why these disciples, and us, might serve God.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.
In reading this much of the parable, we can divide those called into the vineyard into TWO groups. First, we have those who entered into service under a set agreement with the householder. In other words, the laborers offered to work for the householder for a penny a day. And the householder agreed. But all of the others who were called into the vineyard had no, "agreed to amount." Instead, they agreed to allow the household to decide what was right.
What a clear picture of the BASIS of a relationship with God as it pertains to our works and service for Him. Right off the bat, there are those who enter into service for the Lord for the pay they demand. But there are others who enter for whatever the Lord decides. Law vs. grace. It could not be more clear.
Now, if you think about the picture given in the parable, this teaching become even more clear. For example, those called right in the beginning could afford to bargain. They had options, for it was only the beginning of the day. But those who had to wait were progressively MORE desperate for the work. Thus, when they were called, they were happy to work for anything the boss wanted to give them. Is this not a picture of our coming to our NEED – and a picture of how our realization of our need is directly tied to our faith in the grace of God?
There are many professing Christians who don’t seem to have any sense of personal need for Christ. They operate in church, and in life, and in relationships, as if Christianity is a hobby – sort as if it is what respectable people do on Sunday. They serve God as a part of a social outlet – it is a way of keeping busy and of being with friends. All of these benefits are the PAY they are getting now, along with something eternal which they expect to come. I have known professing Christians who serve themselves into exhaustion, but don’t know Jesus. I’ve known people who serve totally to earn points from God.
I’m not saying there are not people who serve God for the right reasons. I’m just saying that many don’t. Many serve God for reasons other than His will and glory. But what is wrong with these folks isn’t theological. Rather, their relationship with God is wrong at some point. Most often, it started out wrong – they never came to Christ as a spiritually bankrupt sinner who NEEDED HIM.
If you come to Christ because you need Him – if you come as the Bible states you must come – you won’t bargain. The idea of payment or reward is about the last thing you will consider. You will come knowing that it is ALL by His grace or you are lost. You will come realizing that there is nothing you could do or offer in exchange for Christ and His purpose. Indeed, you will willingly LOSE your life, your entire self, into His hands FREE OF CHARGE. You won’t bargain, or want to bargain.
It is here that the greatest irony is -- it is precisely because you have NOTHING to offer God in exchange for all He offers – it is precisely this relationship with God that makes it possible for you to RECEIVE ALL by His grace. When you get to the place where you know you cannot bargain, it is then that you see the Truth of grace. When you begin seeing the lack of value in what you can offer God, it is then that you begin to see the value in what He has done for you.
People walk with God in this attitude of, "I will do this for God, in exchange for what God will do for me," all the time. It is dangerous. It certainly isn’t of the Truth. It is a wrong basis for relationship with Christ. And it is exactly what these first laborers were saying. They offered to work for an amount that THEY determined. And you know what, God let them do it.
Again – is this not the attitude and perspective that Jesus saw in His disciples? Sure. It was exactly that. Peter had said, "We’ve left everything, what are we doing to get as a reward?" In other words, to plug his words into the parable, Peter was saying, "We have agreed to enter into the vineyard for a reward – and we have notions as to what that should be. But now we aren’t so sure. What are we going to get out of following You, Jesus?"
We are going to see that the danger in this attitude is not that God must lift a finger to punish such a one. No. The danger is that the person’s motives from the start is going to destroy both their relationship with God, and even destroy their appreciation for their reward. But let’s read on.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
Jesus pictures the PAY as being the SAME for each laborer, regardless of the amount of work done. Why would this be just? Well, for two reasons. First, the one stated openly in the parable – no one was cheated. Those who entered the vineyard for a set pay got that pay. Those who entered for, "whatever is right," got what the householder determined WAS right. But there is a second reason why it was just that the pay was the same for all: EACH did the will of the householder, regardless of AMOUNT.
Those who worked only one hour were not at fault for working only one hour. They were simply not called until the last hour. But once called, they came into the service of the Lord and DID HIS WILL. The same can be said for each group, with the various amounts of time worked. Each did the work to which they were called – whether it was more or less. And that is all God cares about.
This is such a great Truth. The Bible teaches that each of us have a different calling. ALL of us are called to the same Christ, of course, and to experience Him. But the outworking and extension of that, as far as ministry, differs according to the will of God. Read I Corinthians and you will see this clearly stated. Our responsibility is not to compare ourselves to each other. It is not to compare the amount of service, or years of service – we are not to compare even the number of years we have been a Christian. Rather, the question is, "Are we IN the will of God?" Have we been responsible to God for what He has given us?
You have only one life to give to God. Jesus says, "Lose yourself into My hands and you will find true life." Well, your life is different than mine. But each of us must nevertheless lose THAT one life that we have into the hands of God. Each of us must allow God to get His will and His glory through our lives. And if we do this – enter into THAT relationship with God – then TIME isn’t an issue. Amounts are not at issue. What matters is that we have been expressions of the will of God. And if we have been expressions of the will of God, then to God, those who do much are equal to those who do little. For both the little and much were the will of God.
Now, we must be clear. This isn’t about what we DO, or the amount we DO. It is about our relationship with Christ – which results in the doing. Go back to the parable. This is the entire reason Jesus told it – relationship with HIMSELF. In the parable, those who were NOT rightly related to Christ were the ones who did the most. Those who were rightly related to Christ did less. But at the end of the day, all received the SAME. All of a sudden, things were on another basis than that of how MUCH was done in the vineyard.
What basis? Relationship. But we see this more clearly in the conclusion of the parable:
But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. (Mat 19:27 – 20:16)
The PAY was the same for all, because all had done the will of the householder – regardless of AMOUNT of work. The person who did ONE hour of work was paid for doing the will of God. The person who did, say, nine hours of work was paid the same, because he did the will of God. So again – the pay was the same for all. But there was one thing – other than the amount of work done – that was NOT the same. What was it? Not the pay given, but the attitude of the worker’s towards the pay, and towards the householder.
This is an amazing conclusion that Jesus gives to this parable – a parable we must remember is told to correct those who would serve God for pay. The conclusion is that if we serve God only for what we are going to get out of it – if our relationship is with Him is on that basis – that in the end we will NOT value the very pay for which we worked, and we will actually end up resenting God. We will resent the grace of God because we were never ON that basis to begin with.
Those that were called FIRST that day were never on the right basis of relationship with God. And because during their time in the vineyard they never repented, they just got worse. In fact, it is said that their eye was EVIL. In other words, they were seeing evil in the grace of God – all because their pay was not based on the amount they did for God.
These evil workers had placed more value in what they did for God than what God had done for them. Sure, this is always behind legalism. We think that our works, service, and suffering are of more value to God than what He has done for us. But if so, we are blind to the fact that any works or service in Christ are only possible because of what God has done for us. Who called who into the vineyard? The laborers wouldn’t have been in there in the first place except by God’s grace.
The key here is that we are to enter the vineyard on the basis of, "whatever is right." The truth is, we are not qualified to decide what our eternal reward or responsibility is to be. We are not called upon to earn it from God. Rather, we are to lose all of ourselves, reward included, into the hands of Christ. We are to obey Him, serve Him, and live with Him – all completely free of charge and free of all thought of rewards. And you know what? – WE WILL DO THIS if we truly know Him. Love will guarantee it. And because of it, God will determine our place in His eternal purpose and plan. Can we trust Him to do that? We will not lose our reward if we lose our lives into the hands of Christ. Get Christ and you get all that comes in Him.
God’s Present Work
Any one who has picked up his cross and followed Jesus will tell you that one of the main things God deals with is our motive for following Him. If I am following or serving Jesus because it pays me to follow Him, at some point God is going to remove the pay. Then I will be tested – and I will choose whether to follow Christ WITHOUT pay. It must come down to a relationship with Christ based upon love and eternal commitment.
Does it make any sense at all that the work of the Cross would be to RID us of this motive of following Christ for a reward, but that God nevertheless wants us to do works to earn that reward? On the one hand, does the Cross put to death the motive of earning, but on the other hand, does God establish the entire basis of rewards upon it? This would be contradictory. And of course, it isn’t the Truth.
God wants those who will give all of themselves to Him – not for a reward, but for Himself. He wants those who come into a relationship with Him of faithfulness – wherein they will obey and serve Him without any strings attached. They do it out of love for the glory of God. To people like that God will give a great reward because they are in a relationship of faithfulness with Him – and He can trust them with His inheritance.
Faithfulness to God means that I do not take ownership over the things of God and use them for my ends. Rather, I realize I am a steward and desire that all things be used for God’s will and God’s glory. The AMOUNT and the TIME is not at issue. It is whether I am faithful.
Faithfulness is not a term that applies to the THINGS over which I am faithful. No. Faithfulness is a relationship word – it speaks of my relationship with God Himself. If I am faithful over little – in this age over the down payment – then God will know I can be faithful over much in the next age. But again, the fundamental root of all faithfulness to God is that I lose all of myself to Him and serve Him without the motivation of PAY. I give freely because I have freely received.
You will note that what I have described here is not a METHOD, or a SYSTEM, or a theological construct. Just like everything else in Christianity, it is based in a relationship with God Himself. Get into a relationship with God in Christ – according to the Truth – and all of these things fall into place. Get THAT and you will never want to bargain with God. You will rejoice to all Him to decide these matters of reward, and that will set you free to live for Him to His glory.
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