False Dilemmas 2 – Gifts versus Rewards

We all know that grace means getting something we don’t deserve; something we haven’t earned. On the other hand, wages are something we have earned and we do deserve.

That’s why Paul says that the “wages” of sin are death (Rom 6:23). By sinning we have earned and deserved our wages. But the eternal life we are given is described as a “free gift”, meaning that we have done absolutely nothing to earn or deserve it.

But where do rewards fit into this? Many Christians seem to assume that for God to reward us would somehow violate the principle of grace. Isn’t a reward something you deserve? And therefore if God could reward us for behaving in a certain way, wouldn’t that mean he was dealing with us on the basis of law, not grace?

The trouble is, throughout the Bible we find promises of rewards to those who honour and obey God. And they are not just limited to the Old Testament. Jesus didn’t seem to have a problem with holding up “rewards” as incentives to his followers. Here’s just a few examples where the word “reward” itself is used (and many others could be given where the concept of reward is clearly found):

The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honour and life (Prov 22:4 ESV)

And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt 10:42 ESV)

If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (1 Cor 3:14 ESV)

I have heard some people try to wriggle out of the implications of these verses by suggesting that God completely ignores everything the Christian does in life, and looks instead and only at what Jesus did. That way every Christian will receive an identical reward (whether now or at judgment day).

However, I do not think that does justice to the Biblical texts, which really do seem to indicate that what we do does matter to God, that we can bring him pleasure or displeasure (for example see Eph 5:10).

The solution is to recognise that rewards operate on the basis of grace, just as as gifts do. God is never obligated to give us a reward, just as an employer is not obligated to give a bonus to his employees. Yes, a reward may be given in response to something that has been done, but it is always given on the basis of grace. It was not “deserved”, nor can it be presumed upon.

Suppose one of my children is very helpful in tidying up after dinner, and I decide to reward them with an ice cream. Did they earn or deserve the ice cream? No. Can they expect another the next day by doing the same thing? Not necessarily. Rewards are not our right.

So if a person decides to honour God by tithing their income, then he might bless them financially as a reward. But he might bless them in a completely different way. He is not obligated to reward them in any particular way (after all, all the money is God’s in the first place).

So don’t be afraid that you are being legalistic by seeking to please the Lord. We cannot earn his love, or our salvation, but we can bring him pleasure, and in his grace he may “reward” us for our feeble attempts at honouring him.

False Dilemmas 1 – Discipline versus Delight

I have been meaning for some time to start a series of posts on what I call “false dilemmas”. These occur when we are presented with an either/or choice, when in reality it is possible to have both/and. Or maybe that we’re presented with a choice from two options, when in fact there is a third option.

My first one is delight versus discipline, with regards to obeying or serving God. Thanks largely to John Piper, many have embraced the notion that we can only fulfil our life’s purpose of glorifying God if what we do for him flows out of treasuring him and delighting in him. Thus to teach people to discipline themselves to behave in certain ways without them delighting in God is pointless.

So far, so good. But a problem arises when it is assumed that delight and discipline are polar opposites, or mutually exclusive. For example, the suggestion that a Christian should make a daily habit of prayer and Bible reading is viewed with suspicion in some circles. Is disciplining myself to read the Bible when I don’t feel like it simply legalistic behaviour?

To show that delight and discipline are not incompatible, a simple example will suffice. Consider a professional sportsman at the top of his sport. Doubtless he will say that he plays his sport because he loves it so much. He is motivated by delight. But at the same time, if you ask about his training regime or diet, you will find evidence of a very disciplined life. It may be more pleasurable for him in the short-term to lounge around eating cake rather than spending a rigorous day of training, but he refuses himself that luxury because his eyes are on a greater prize.

So delight and discipline are not opposites. A more helpful distinction could be drawn between delight and duty. They are competing motivations for serving and obeying God. Either can be motivations for living a disciplined life. To go back to our original example, daily Bible reading can be a discipline that flows merely from a sense of duty, or a discipline that flows out of delighting in God.

In essence, being disciplined is being deliberate about your priorities. George Mueller spoke of “glad self-denial”. His priority was to delight in God, and so he ordered his life accordingly.