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 heard it proclaimed in a
sermon. Yet this comes dangerously close to
missing the essence of the biblical idea of
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 which 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 there.
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 again.
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
More Than Obligation
This motive differs from one
which 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 of reward.
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 which is sometimes suggested is gratitude.
Because Christ has done everything for me, I
ought to obey him out of gratefulness for his
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
was 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 gratitude.
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":
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
Don't Settle for Reduced
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 which
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.