Last post, we saw how the good that we do in this life is inadequate to make us right with a holy God. When we are weighed in the balance, even our very best deeds add nothing to tip the scale in our favor. In fact, our salvation depends entirely upon the righteousness of Christ.
“Wait a minute,” you protest. “If that’s true, then what difference does it make whether I try to live a life that honors God or not?! If my salvation depends on Christ, and Christ alone, then I might as well just go on sinning!”
If that’s your reaction, then I think it’s pretty safe to say that you are beginning to understand the good news – and the scandal – of the gospel. The apostle Paul actually anticipated this response from those who understand the gospel correctly (Romans 6).
Continuing through the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 63 asks: How can you say that the good we do doesn’t earn anything when God promises to reward it in this life and the next? Answer: This reward is not earned; it is a gift of grace.
Questions 64 continues: But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked? Answer: No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.
Let’s look at Question 64 first. The assumption here is that if our salvation is dependent on Christ’s righteousness and not our own good works, then we can just “get saved” and then keep on sinning like the devil. But that is in fact impossible. In the parable of the vine and the branches (John 15), Jesus clearly states that those who abide in Him will bear good fruit, the fruit of righteousness. If we truly are saved – if we trust Christ’s work for our salvation – we are new creatures, with new desires. Indeed, it will be impossible for us to not desire to obey and please God.
Does that mean that once we are saved, we will never sin again? No. Certainly, sanctification is a process – we are learning to walk with new legs, so to speak, and rather prone to stumble. But if we are Christ’s, we will most definitely find ourselves increasingly dissatisfied with sin and more earnestly desirous of God-honoring holiness.
Now, back to Question 63: what about rewards? Yes, God’s children are promised rewards in Scripture. But again, these rewards are gifts of God’s grace, not something that God owes us. Even though our good works do not merit God’s favor (because even our best works fall far short of the perfection He requires), God is pleased to reward His children when He finds us striving to please Him.
Consider the description of the final judgment given in Matthew 25. The sheep and the goats will be brought before Jesus. The saved (the sheep) will be ushered into Glory, while the lost (the goats) will be sent away to eternal punishment. When Jesus commends the sheep for their good works, they are amazed: “When did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?” (verse 37). But when Jesus condemns the lost for their lack of good works, they are shocked: “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name…?” (verse 22).
G.I. Williamson comments on this passage in his Study Guide to the Heidelberg Catechism (P&R Publishing, 1993): “…the ungodly look upon their best works as having merit. For this very reason they are perfectly obnoxious to the Lord Jesus. The godly, on the other hand, see nothing meritorious in their own works. On the contrary, their hope is built on the righteousness and sacrifice of the Lord Jesus alone. For this very reason, the good works they do are pleasing to God. In their case it is Jesus himself who is pleased to keep the record and to reward them on the Day of Judgment. The only good works that can ever please God are the ones that we do with no thought whatever of merit.”
Do you ever feel like God owes you something for your good behavior? Sometimes I feel that way, too. When this ugly lie rears its head, let us be quick to repent, to run to the cross, to rest in Christ’s righteousness, and to praise God for His amazing grace toward us.
Soli Deo Gloria!