|September 15, 2002|
For the (Highest) Benefits
The Hope for Reward
Is Essential to Faith
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Is it right to follow Christ for the sake of personal advantages that result? Or is this a vain and selfish motive? Is it better to live for him without any expectation of reward? Which motive is the higher one?
For most Christians the push-button response is that our commitment to Christ shouldn't be based on any hope of personal benefit. "You should serve God for nothing," as I once heard it proclaimed in a sermon. Yet this comes dangerously close to missing the essence of the biblical idea of faith.
Hebrews 11:6 declares, "Without faith it is impossible to
please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he
exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." The
writer states not merely that it's okay to desire benefits from
following Christ, but necessary if we're going to be able to
live effectively for him. Faith, as Scripture understands it, is an
outlook which believes that the rewards of following Christ are
greater than those that come from disregarding his will. Without the
expectation of personal benefit, the motivation to stay faithful to
Christ when his will strongly conflicts with our own simply won't be
In his The Unity of the Bible, Daniel
P. Fuller explores this concept of faith, which he notes permeates
both the Old and New Testaments. In a superbly helpful analogy, Fuller
compares the relation between faith and obedience in Scripture to the
attitude with which we follow a doctor's prescription. We obey a
doctor's orders not because we're duty-bound to do so, but because we
trust the doctor's insights and believe we will be better off by
following his or her advice. This is precisely the motivation that
should underlie our obedience to God.*
Some years ago I had a terrifying experience. For one traumatic
week my 20-20 eyesight gradually faded, growing dimmer each day, until
it was 20-400--I was almost "legally blind." By the end of
that week I could barely see to read or drive, and Evie was afraid to
be in the car when I was behind the wheel. I was greatly relieved when
an ophthalmologist not only diagnosed the problem (optic neuritis) but
confidently prescribed a cure--the wonder drug prednisone. I eagerly
took the first dose, then followed the prescribed regimen for several
weeks, even though it meant discipline and the inconvenience of
getting up in the night to take a pill. It was one the greatest joys
of my life to watch the world around me gradually come into focus
In this case my obedience to the doctor sprang from one motive--the
belief that I would benefit from following his counsel. That belief,
of course, involved faith--faith that his prognosis was correct.
I agree with Dan Fuller that this is how faith and obedience relate
in Scripture. God gives us his diagnosis of our situation and
prescribes a remedy. We follow it with the hope of improving our life.
Our obedience flows from faith that God understands our condition
better than we do and that his plan of action is infinitely better
than any we could dream up on our own.
More Than Obligation
This motive differs from one that is often suggested as a basis for
following Christ--that we have an obligation to do so. It's
said that we should obey him simply from a sense of duty, without hope
I don't deny that obeying from obligation is better than not
obeying at all. Yet somehow this brings to my mind inmates in a penal
institution obeying out of desperation because they have no other
choice. Surely this isn't the spirit in which Scripture calls us to
"the obedience of faith" (Rom 1:5, 16:16), any more than I
took the prednisone out of obligation to my doctor. I did so because I
believed I would benefit as a result.
There's no question that we have an extraordinary obligation to
Christ. But Scripture stresses that it cannot be fulfilled through
compulsion but only through faith. "Without faith it is
impossible to please God." When my primary motive for obedience
is obligation to God, I lay myself bare to pride and a "works
mentality," from thinking that I can fulfill my obligation to God
through my own effort.
More Than Gratitude
A more subtle motive for obeying Christ that is sometimes suggested
is gratitude. Because Christ has done everything for me, I ought to
obey him out of gratefulness for his gift.
Of course we are called to undying gratitude to Christ. We ought to
do everything possible to increase our thankfulness. But if gratitude
is our primary motive for obedience, we're in trouble--just as
I would have been if my only reason for taking the medicine were
gratitude toward my physician. While I was extremely grateful for his
help, gratitude would not have inspired me to swallow a single pill.
The young man who goes off to the mission field purely out of
gratitude to Christ, for instance, runs at least two dangers. One is
burnout, when his gratitude becomes hard to maintain. The other
is--again--a works mentality, as he begins to think that he is somehow
repaying Christ for what he has done.
My decision to go into missions--or into any profession--ought to
be based on the conviction that I will be the most fulfilled and
fruitful person possible in this role. If it be feared that this is a
self-serving notion which will keep me from loving others effectively
for Christ, I would argue just the opposite. We do our very best work
for Christ when it's a reflection of our deepest levels of motivation.
We give ourselves to others much more naturally, joyfully and
creatively than when we're laboring purely from a sense of duty or
Usually when those who are motivated and gifted
for a vocation settle for another option which, say, seems less risky
or more financially rewarding, the problem isn't that they are too
concerned with their own happiness but not concerned enough.
They settle for a measure of fulfillment that's less than what God
holds forth for them. C. S. Lewis argues this point forcefully in his
essay "The Weight of Glory":
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 halfhearted creatures .
. . 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 sea. We are far too easily pleased.*
Don't Settle for
Our lack of confidence in the benefits of staying faithful to Christ is the problem behind most moral failure in the Christian life. The Christian man who believes as a matter of moral principle that he shouldn't cheat on his wife will obey that standard and tout it proudly as long as it's convenient to do so. Yet when an alluring opportunity comes along, to everyone's surprise he may give in. While he winces at renouncing the code he has held so highly, he is drawn by a higher motive--that of gaining happiness. Scripture teaches that he'll be happier staying faithful. Only if he believes in the depth of his heart that Scripture is right will he find the strength of will to turn his back on this immediate enticement.
Again, modern moralistic
Christianity too often preaches the requirements of the
Christian life without adequately stressing the rewards of
obedience. It's little wonder that we see so much moral failure in the
body of Christ today.
God has put within each of
us the instinct for happiness. The desire to be happy is a God-given
motive, inseparable from the will to live. Only as I come to believe
that Christ's path for my life is infinitely better than any
substitute will I have the sustained motivation to follow in his
steps. The ultimate human problem is not disobedience but unbelief.
From this angle it becomes so important to continue doing those things that rekindle my enthusiasm for following Christ and for enjoying the benefits that come from obeying him. My devotional time, fellowship with other believers and regular worship experiences are so essential--not for "appeasing God" (another misplaced motive we could talk about) but because they help keep faith alive.
The greatest demonstration
of this faith which looks to the reward is that of Jesus himself,
"who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of
God" (Heb 12:2). He couldn't see or feel that joy in those dark
days when he steadfastly moved toward the cross. It was faith. Let us
be inspired by his example.
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This article is adapted from chapter 4 of Blaine's The Optimism Factor: Outrageous Faith Against the Odds (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994).
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|Copyright 2002 M. Blaine Smith.
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