When is the last time you heard a sermon that suggested that a motive for our obedience should be the rewards we receive in heaven? I imagine for most of us it has been a long time, maybe even never. Whenever a sermon (or book) provides a motive for obedience, it is almost always thankfulness for what Christ has done. And certainly that is a wonderful and foundational motivation. But is it the only motivation?
Recently I’ve been working on a commentary on the book of Hebrews and was struck by the role rewards have played in the lives of God’s people. We are reminded that Moses was motivated by rewards, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Heb 11:26). Why did Abraham obey? We are told “He went to live in the land of promise…For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations” (Heb 11:9-10).
This same motivation is found throughout the New Testament writings. Jesus makes it clear, “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). Paul states it plainly, “But each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (1 Cor 3:8).
Even Jesus himself was motivated by his future reward: “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2).
It seems that prior generations may have grasped this truth more clearly. Richard Baxter explains the various kinds of motivations for our obedience:
This full subjection and obedience [to God] is difficult, but we should not hesitate to use every effort to attain it. How? (1.) Consider God’s government. Should he not rule the creatures he has created?…(2) God is perfectly fit to govern you. His interest is for your good…(3) Consider how unable and unfit you are to govern yourself. We are blind, ignorant, and biased by a corrupt will and turbulent passions…(4) Consider the rewards prepared for obedience and the punishment for disobedience…(5) Consider the joys of full obedience. All is at ease within us…(6) Consider our endless rewards: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ (A Christian Directory, 1:75-77).
Baxter offers a full-range of reasons for why we obey God, but I particularly appreciate #4, #5, and #6. In these, Baxter gives us future-oriented reasons for obedience. Instead of asking us to look back (as we might expect him to do), he asks us to look forward to the rich blessings that God will provide.
But, if rewards are clearly presented as a motivation in the Christian life, why don’t we hear more about rewards in our modern pulpits? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but let me suggest one: we have been convinced that our obedience doesn’t matter.
No doubt, the downplaying of Christian obedience is borne out of good motives—some think Christ is glorified the most when we disparage our own obedience. Our good works are just “filthy rags” (Is 64:6), we are reminded.
But, this whole line of thought misses the distinction between an unbeliever’s attempts at law-keeping and that of regenerated believer. Granted, neither can merit salvation or justification. Both fall woefully short of God’s perfect standards. But, that does not mean that the believer’s obedience doesn’t matter. God can still be pleased with it, even though it is imperfect. Consider John Piper’s comments on this point:
It is terribly confusing when people say that the only righteousness that has any value is the imputed righteousness of Christ. I agree that justification is not grounded on any of our righteousness, but only the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. But sometimes people are careless and speak disparagingly of all human righteousness, as if there were no such thing that pleased God. They often cite Isaiah 64:6 which says our righteousness is as filthy rags…[But] when my sons do what I tell them to do—I do not call their obedience “filthy rags” even if it is not perfect. Neither does God. All the more because he himself is “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:21). He does not call his own, Spirit-wrought fruit, “rags” (Future Grace, 151-152).
Of course, Piper simply reflects the standard Reformed view on this matter. The Westminster Confession of Faith is plain:
Yet notwithstanding, the person of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.6).
This recognition that God’s delight in the works of his people is not, as some might think, a recipe for pride, but rather a tremendous (and much needed) encouragement to those of us who are laboring in ministry (whether we are pastors or laypeople). Truth be told, ministry can be difficult. Our efforts can seem futile. We often find ourselves spent and exhausted.
What a refreshment to our souls to know that our father in heaven actually delights in these labors. It is like salve on our blisters, and a balm to our aching muscles to know that he is pleased with the faith-driven works of his children.
He is like a Father who sees the painting his five-year old brought home from school. He doesn’t pour scorn on the effort because it is not a Rembrandt. Instead, he takes the painting, with all its flaws, and sticks it on the refrigerator for all to see.
Indeed, it is this very hope–that God might be pleased with our labors–that Jesus lays out as a motive for us in our ministries. For our hope is that one day we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25:23).
It is only when we recognize that the obedience of the believer really does matter, and that we really can please our Father, that the rewards passages in the Bible will make any sense. When we toil for the cause of Christ, we want to hear, and are bolstered by hearing, the encouraging words of Paul: “Your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58).