January 15, 2009
Serving Christ
For the (Highest) Benefits

The Hope for Reward
Is Essential to Faith
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s 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 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 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 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 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 or woman 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 she begins to think that she 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":

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 Reduced Benefits

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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