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Incentives to good works

I am writing out of concern that the idea of “incentives” for good works can be taken in a wrong way. Rev. K. Koole addresses this idea in his recent series on H. Witsius—I appreciate his willingness to continue down the road to understanding these issues better.

My concern is that we might think of the personal blessings promised in Scripture as a separate goal. Personal goals should not be an extra motivation alongside our thankful love for God. Rather, they must be completely subordinate to and must not exist apart from the one motivation of love. We are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind—there is no room for any other motivation. Even the love for myself and my neighbor is found within that love for God. Making personal benefits into a separate goal diverts us from that calling.

The commands and “rewards” of Scripture could be called incentives because they provoke us to good works by directing and supporting the love we already have in our new man. But the word incentive often means “additional motivation”—like the incentive of some cash back when financing a new car. A loving husband gives encouragement to his wife who is burdened with the overwhelming demands of motherhood, but he does not offer her “incentives” based on fulfilling her duties. That would imply that her love for her family is not enough motivation so a little more is needed. Our new man is already 100% motivated by love. We do not have a lack of motivation, we have a competing motivation— our sinful old man.

An added motivation is not only unnecessary but also cannot possibly result in good works. The idea of doing good works so that we get a personal reward is self-contradicting—it demands that we perform selfless acts for ourselves.

Perfect love means that it does not matter whether a good work benefits myself or my neighbor. It is hard for us to imagine a perfectly good work since our old man buries all our good works in filth. But we do have one example—Christ, in perfect love, gave us all His personal benefits (even spiritual ones) on the cross.

Of course, we desire and give thanks for all of God’s gifts. But rather than directly seeking personal benefits of any kind, we should be seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matt. 6:33), while trusting our Father to provide all things necessary for body and soul (LD 9).

Doug Wassink

First PRC, Holland

 

RESPONSE:

Dear Brother Wassink:

You are right, incentives for good works, or if you will, incentives unto godliness can be taken the wrong way and can be used in an improper fashion, especially when tied in with blessings associated with them and with promised rewards. But because such can be abused does not mean the benefits of the godly life serving as incentives ought not be preached. The fact is there are instances when such incentives are to be emphasized and must be preached, namely, when it’s the text of God’s Word. And when the text requires it, that means the Holy Spirit Himself requires the preacher to do justice to the text that the Spirit Himself has inspired.

The Holy Spirit in His wisdom certainly knows what Christ’s people in their weakness need to hear time and again. To His exhortations unto godliness, the Spirit frequently affixes promised blessings and rewards to encourage believers in the life of discipleship and its demanding, often costly way. When He does, we must not pretend to be wiser than He, not when it comes to our Lord addressing His people for their encouragement. And what must not then happen, when the preacher holds before God’s people these added incentives, is that he is subjected to criticism for bringing too much of man’s doing into the picture and charged with not emphasizing grace enough or not being Christ-centered. Not if what he is doing is being true to the text.

For example, consider I Peter 3:1-6, where the apostle calls believing wives to submit to their husbands, even to unbelieving ones, pagan men who were anything but happy that Christianity had been brought into their homes. For their faith, these newly converted women would often suffer injustices. Yet they were not to divorce these harsh, unhappy husbands. They were required to continue in meekness to serve and live with them, if such would have them.

Why?

The apostle could simply have declared to these wives, “Because Christ is your Lord, and He commands you to do so!” End of argument. But he does not. To their Lord’s authority and their calling to love Him the Spirit directs the apostle to give added incentive. The apostle says that Christ may very well use their Christian submission to their harsh, unhappy husbands (their returning good for evil) to convert these husbands to the Christian faith. To whose benefit? To the whole household’s, of course, but to that of the faithful wife’s especially, as she has returned good for evil and love for harshness.

Wonderful incentive! Which, by the way, has served as a third point in many Protestant Reformed sermons of the past. It’s the text. For us to dismiss or minimize this incentive because we judge it not to be Christ-centered enough would border on impertinence. Ironically, and importantly, what the text is making plain is that it is in the way of self-denial that one actually benefits, that is, spiritually. As Scripture declares, “Whosoever will [be willing to] lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24).

Maybe you judge that a wife married to a harsh, unbelieving husband should not need such incentive. Thankfulness for her own salvation should be enough. Maybe I as a preacher am inclined to tell the wife that remaining married and submitting is commanded by her Lord! And that should be enough. But the Lord in His wisdom and mercy, knowing what such wives sometimes have to suffer, deems otherwise. He, in effect, says, “I, unlike marriage counselors of today, forbid you to divorce that unbeliever. This means, for my sake, you will have to suffer a difficult marriage. But to encourage you to endure in the self-denying way, I give you incentives to suffer for My Name’s sake. I may use the obedience I require of you to gain to Myself that husband of yours. And such obedience will serve as a blessing to you and your children as well. But even if I do not use it to convert your husband, it will still be to your spiritual advantage and well-being in the end, as well as a good example to your children. Press on!”

To this we could add I Corinthians 7:13-16. There the believing spouse is commanded not to divorce the unbelieving spouse, thinking perhaps then to marry a Christian instead. In that passage God states His own covenant promise as an incentive not to do so. Even if the unhappy spouse never converts, consider this: your children are not unclean, “but now are they holy.” Strong incentive to be obedient to the Lord’s demanding commandments, because out of such soil (the life of godliness, doing good even to those difficult to love and respect) the Lord will bring blessings for self and good fruit.

And, another example: how often Scripture uses the figure of planting and harvesting. As it is in the agricultural realm, so in the spiritual. Scripture points out more than once that according as the believer sows (uses his time and talents), so he shall reap. He who sows sparingly unto the Lord and His kingdom, shall reap sparingly. Consider Lot. He who sows abundantly (his time and energy for kingdom purposes) shall reap abundantly. Consider Abraham and Joseph.

One can turn to the Proverbs and find texts almost at will as they contrast the life governed by wisdom versus the way of the fool. Proverbs underscores wisdom’s benefits as promised and received by those who in obedience to God wisely hearken to His Word. This is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit as He gives God’s children instruction and then gives them incentive to pay heed. It is evidently something He sees we have need of and can profit from.

You state “The idea of doing good works so that we get a personal reward is self-contradicting—it demands that we perform selfless acts for ourselves.”

As you phrase it, your statement is deficient and improperly phrased.

“Perform selfless acts for ourselves”? No, Scripture states that we, as Christ’s disciples, are to deny ourselves (“perform selfless acts”) for Christ’s sake. But then Christ assures His disciples that this will also profit them, that is, benefit them spiritually. Such will serve their (our) spiritual health, strength, and growth. Surely this is not improper or to be dismissed as being motivated by something that is self-serving in some self-centered way.

Consider God’s Word calling us to pray and also to keep the Sabbath Day holy, “frequenting” the means of grace. Why? Out of a love for God to be sure, and in gratitude for being delivered from “the house of bondage.” Such are primary. But also, such will benefit one spiritually, strengthening one’s faith and arming one for the spiritual battle. Proper incentives, benefiting self spiritually, and not to be dismissed. We should be interested in our own spiritual growth.

In the end, what is going to be served by obeying these precepts of God is our ability to serve Christ and His body, our fellow saints. This is not self-centeredness. And this is pleasing to the Lord.

In conclusion, we underscore two points.

First, to speak of incentives being given by God for the doing of good works (walking in love and godliness) that benefit ourselves spiritually does not displace the primary motivations for such a life of obedience, namely, gratitude for so great a grace shown to us as sinners and the knowledge of God’s surpassing love. They always remain primary as motivation. The promised blessings that tie in with the life of obedience to God are added by God Himself as incentives. The point is, when a Scripture passage presents such, we must not be hesitant to declare it is so. Our Christ is that kind of a gracious, benevolent Lord.

We think, for instance of those facing martyrdom, enduring pain and agony for who knows how long. Simon Peter’s martyrdom comes to mind. His primary motivation certainly was what his Lord had forgiven him, and hence, his willingness to so suffer in gratitude and out of love for his Lord. But we must not then disparage or dismiss the promised reward of glory. In the gospels, Christ Himself, responding to a question by Peter, gave this incentive of reward to those who would follow him and have to “count the cost” (read Matt. 19:27-30 and Matt. 5:11, 12). It is not selfish or simply self-serving to live holy or to suffer for Christ’s sake with such in mind. Rather, the believer does so knowing it will be to his spiritual profit, and that means, doing so with one’s relationship to God in mind for this life and the life to come. There is a glorious reward of grace to follow. So, whatever you may lose in this life or your Christianity may cost you, press on. Great will be your reward in heaven.

Of this message Scripture approves.

And second, such incentives for living unto God do not detract from salvation being all of grace or being to the glory of God, as some, it seems, fear. The very works we perform are the fruit of the power of grace that saves, of grace that transforms and has enabled one to begin to live unto God. And living unto God means one ceases being so singularly self-centered and self-serving.

When one who is newly converted, for instance, sees this whole transformation in his life and realizes he has a whole new perspective on life with an interest in godliness and spiritual things, to whom does he give the glory and the credit? Not to self, but to the God of transforming grace. And when others see Christianity in action, that which the apostle calls the life of good works, they are compelled, in the end, to magnify the power of grace as well (cf. I Pet. 2:12).

The point we make is, as believers are faced with all the difficulties of life and living unto God faithfully, Scripture gives incentives to encourage them (us) along the way—to make the right choices and to “eschew” evil. Surely this is the point of Hebrews 11 throughout and particularly Hebrews 11:26, which speaks of Moses choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God (to be identified with God’s Israel), “for he had respect unto [valued highly] the recompense of the reward.” And as Hebrews 12:1ff. makes plain, what is set before us in Hebrews 11 is for our instruction and example.

If Scripture is our rule (and it is), then it cannot be said that these considerations detract from or threaten to displace our undeserved redemption and God’s love as the primary motivations to live as Christians unto Christ. Not when these incentives are embedded in the text, and must be preached as such.

Rev. Kenneth Koole