skip to Main Content

Aggressive Sanctification

Part 9: The Doctrine of Rewards

When the doctrine of sanctification is confused with the doctrine of justification there is often an apprehension, if not a disdain, for the doctrine of eternal and temporal rewards. It seems hard for Christians who promote “gospel-centered sanctification” to find a place in their theology for God’s tangible remuneration for their good works, if in fact all of God’s “blessings” that could possibly be granted were already secured for them by Christ’s work and not theirs. But such thinking fails to see the difference between the blessings which relate to our justification and the blessings which the Bible says are related to our ongoing sanctification.

In Jesus + Nothing = Everything Tchividjian speaks of the right of every person in Christ to receive all the “full blessings” of God – all of them for all of us. In a section entitled “Every Blessing”, he comments on the verses from Colossians regarding Christ’s deity, saying, “For Christians, Christ’s fullness means everything for everyone” (p.68). If there is any experiential variation of “blessing” for Christians, he tells us, it is not based on our behavior; it is simply based on our lack of knowledge. He writes: “With every new perception of Christ’s fullness that we receive, we open ourselves up to be blessed with even more” (p.69). Tchividjian summarizes his point in a section entitled “All We Need” with the words: “Christ is all—and all we need” (p.70). Ironically, he then enlists the familiar quotation from C. S. Lewis which reads:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (p.70)

But this quote from Lewis’ sermon, entitled Weight of Glory, delivered in 1941 at Oxford University, is not referring to uniformed “rewards” or “blessings” that are “all, for all of us”. Lewis was in fact speaking of our need to “work”, “sacrifice” and “deny ourselves” to receive the kinds of varied blessings that are given by God in response to our varied obedience in sanctification. (Beyond being with Christ and being like Christ, Lewis’ sermon references the biblical and proportional reward of “wealth imagery” or “glory”, the “feasting” and “entertained” language of reward, and the “positional” rewards of ruling, judging, etc.) In this sermon, just before the section that Tchividjian quotes, Lewis is seeking to counter any charge that might be raised against those who desire and pursue these varied blessings. And in the next sentence after the quoted section Lewis states, “We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair” (Weight of Glory, Harper Collins, 2009. p.27). What Lewis is pushing for in this classic sermon is not for Christians to simply rest in their justification, but to vigorously pursue their sanctification so as to hear “well done good and faithful servant” and to receive the varied gifts that go along with hearing that praise. Lewis’ quoted text is actually contrasting indolent sin versus faithful obedience, not resting in Christ versus “performancism”. Lewis’ line of reason in this sermon is certainly not, as Tchividjian attempts to utilize it, a call to return to perpetually ponder justification, while avoiding any strenuous efforts in sanctification.

The Bible’s Two-Fold Use of the Word “Blessings”

Unfortunately, most who are promoting what they call “gospel-centered sanctification” utilize the word “blessings” in a much narrower sense than the Bible does. When Christians say “we cannot earn God’s acceptance or his blessings in our lives” they are using the word “blessings” to refer to God’s salvific favor and those gifts of God related to our adoption and acceptance before him. And of course I fully agree, our works can in no way curry any favor related to our justification. But the word “blessing” is also used in English and in the biblical languages to describe “some beneficial thing for which one is grateful” (New Oxford American Dictionary. Third Edition. Oxford Press, 2010.) or something “pertaining to being happy, with the implication of enjoying favorable circumstances” (Louw & Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT, UBS, 1996, vol.1, p.301).

In speaking of justification the Bible says that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph.1:3). But if those absolute, heavenly “blessings” which relate to our salvation are not differentiated from the varieties of temporal and eternal “blessings” which are said to be granted based on our daily choices, decisions and behaviors in sanctification, then we will inevitably err in dismissing or ignoring a large category of conditional promises that relate to our daily Christian choices and decisions. Most commentators are careful to note this distinction. For instance, Peter O’Brien reminds his readers in the Pillar NT Commentary on Ephesians that they must not forget the context when they consider the parameters of the phrase “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places”. He writes, “The nature of these gracious gifts is made plain in the following words of the eulogy (vv. 4–14), and include election to holiness, adoption as God’s sons and daughters, redemption and forgiveness, a knowledge of God’s gracious plan to sum up all things in Christ, the gift of the Spirit, and the hope of glory” (p.95).

To distinguish, note how in the following verses the varied blessings of “enjoying favorable circumstances” are persistently tied to how we respond to the commands and directives of God’s word.

But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. James 1:25

A faithful man will abound with blessings… Proverbs 28:20a

So may the Lord reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. 1 Samuel 24:19b

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. Galatians 6:9

Whoever despises the word brings destruction on himself, but he who reveres the commandment will be rewarded. Proverbs 13:13

For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do. Hebrews 6:10

…lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. Matthew 6:20

Because, contrary to justification, there is a contingent, conditional, “this-for-that” relationship tied to the blessings and rewards which are part of our sanctification, many pushing “gospel-centered sanctification” loathe to think about them, talk about them or teach on them. (Outside of his misuse of Lewis’ one quotation on rewards, Tchividjian only mentions rewards in one other paragraph of his book, which he defines as something uniformed and guaranteed for all Christians, even though his reference to Matthew 5:12 is actually about the varied rewards for those who are variously persecuted.)

Ignoring the doctrine of rewards in a book on sanctification is worse than unfortunate, because so much of the Bible speaks of these rewards. These promises are designed to motivate, encourage and spur us on to choose to do what is right. They are not base motivations or fleshly. They are a part of God’s parental strategy, which is a part of his kind and generous oversight of our lives. Some of these “just” rewards (as Hebrews 6:10 calls them) for our obedience and faithful service are realized now, but most are realized in the next life. As John Wesley writes,

There is an inconceivable variety in the degrees of reward in the other world. Let not any slothful one say, “If I get to heaven at all, I will be content:” such a one may let heaven go altogether. In worldly things, men are ambitious to get as high as they can. Christians have a far more noble ambition. The difference between the very highest and the lowest state in the world is nothing to the smallest difference between the degrees of glory. (John Wesley’s Notes on the Revelation of Jesus Christ, cp. at Revelation 7:9).

The doctrines of grace do not annul these kinds of rewards. These blessings should not be ignored or disdained. They are a part of the Christian’s godly thoughts and noble desires. They can and should rightly be utilized in the Christian life to drive us on in our sanctification.

Each day our decisions are making an impact. They are either a fragrant offering to God (Phil.4:17), to which he responds with numerous blessings, or they are grievous to him, which may provoke his loving discipline. We are either serving him with “gold, silver and precious stones” that bring glory to him and store up treasure in heaven, or we are piling up “wood, hay and straw”, which will result in a loss of reward on our day of accountability (1Cor.3:11-14). Our choices are not irrelevant, unimportant or inconsequential – they matter to God and will always make a difference in heaven and on earth.