Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
The truth that God rewards us according to our works does not contradict the truth that salvation is entirely of God’s grace. We must not be afraid to confess that God does indeed reward us for the good works that we perform. We simply must go on and state, as we do in Lord’s Day 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism, that “This reward is not of merit, but of grace.” God does reward us, but this reward is entirely of His sovereign and particular grace.
Although this subject is closely related to the subjects of both justification and sanctification, it is treated under sanctification in Article 24 of the Belgic Confession. In this article Reformed believers confess from the heart that,
In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts.
Let us consider what this means.
There are many passages in Scripture that speak of the fact that God rewards our good works. God says that if we give our offerings as the Lord has blessed us, and do it by faith, without desiring the praise of men, then our heavenly Father “will reward us openly” (Matt. 6:4). In Colossians 3:23, 24, we find the exhortation: “And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.” The more we renounce our own will, and submit to God’s will, performing the works that are good and pleasing in His sight, the greater our reward will be.
We are commanded to believe this. In fact, we are told that God will not hear our prayers unless we believe that God rewards our good works. Scripture says that “he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
But what is this reward? The reward that God gives to us is the gift of heavenly life. Jesus tells us that to know God and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent, is to have this everlasting, heavenly life (John 17:3). This glorious life is something we begin to enjoy even now, in this life. The more we perform good works, the more God causes us to enjoy close communion with Him. He draws us nearer to Him, and gives us the grace to become more like Him, so that we reflect His glory in what we think, say, and do.
When God sanctifies us, He delivers us from the dominion of sin and causes us willingly to perform good works. Then He rewards us for those good works with the grace we need to perform even more good works. Just as God punishes sin with sin, He rewards good works with more good works. He punishes a person for his sin by giving him more over to that sin, and he rewards a believer for his good works by giving him the grace to perform even more good works.
Thus we see how the reward of grace is related to sanctification. The more we receive of this gracious reward, the more we are experiencing the blessing of sanctification.
This reward that we receive is not a reward of merit, but a reward of grace. What does this mean? It means that even though God gives to us a reward, it is not a reward that we personally have earned. It is a reward that Christ has earned for us, and that we receive as a gift of grace.
Our good works are entirely a gift of God from beginning to end. In eternity, God determined all the good works that we would perform throughout our life (Eph. 2:10). He not only determined that we would perform good works, but also before ordained the very works that we would perform. In time, God sent His only begotten Son to save us by His perfect obedience even unto the accursed death. By His obedience He not only paid for our sins, but also earned for us the right to receive the grace to perform these good works. He earned for us faith, as well as the grace we need to perform good works that proceed from this faith. All these blessings Christ merited for us by His atoning suffering and death.
But the gift does not stop there. Christ is also the one performing the good works that we do. We confess in Article 14 of the Third and Fourth Heads of the Canons of Dordt, that God not only gives to us the will to believe, but also produces in us the act of believing. Similarly, when we perform good works, it is God who not only gives us the will to do them and the power to do them, but also produces within us the very act of performing them. This is clearly taught inPhilippians 2:13, which says that it is “God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
We can and do say that the good works we perform are our good works. Yet we say this while being conscious of the fact that it is Christ who is performing these works in and through us. We do not do them like a lifeless marionette. Rather, Christ causes us to do them in such a way that we willingly and cheerfully perform what is pleasing to Him. In the first answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, the believer says that the Spirit of God “makes me sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.”
This gift is referred to as a reward, even though we did not earn it. Someone did earn it. It was our Lord Jesus Christ who earned this reward for us. The Scriptures refer to this reward as Christ’s reward. Christ declares to us that He is coming for us, and that His reward is with Him, to give unto every man according as his work shall be (Rev. 22:12). Christ refers to the reward that we will one day receive, and the reward that we right now are already beginning to receive, as His reward. Jesus Christ earned it, and as a man He has received it from the triune God. This reward He then gives to all those, and only those, who are members of His body. As those chosen to be in Christ, we receive Christ’s reward. He merited it for us as our Head, and He has risen from the dead, so that He is able to give this reward to us by the work of His Holy Spirit within us.
There are many who say that if you teach people that the reward they receive from God is entirely a reward of grace, that they will then proceed to walk in sin. In other words, if a pastor preaches to his congregation and tells the people that both justification and sanctification are entirely God’s work from beginning to end, and that it is God that works in us not only to will but also to do of His good pleasure, that the people will then decide that they really do not need to strive against sin, and that they can go ahead and give in to the lusts of their flesh.
Our Heidelberg Catechism deals with this important question. In Lord’s Day 24, after explaining that the reward we receive is not of merit, but of grace, it then goes on to ask the question, “But doth not this doctrine (i.e., the doctrine of the reward of grace, JAL) make men careless and profane?” The answer that is given is, “By no means; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”
This is an answer that we must remember and truly confess from the heart. The proclamation of this glorious truth does not make men careless and profane. Rather, it works in them more faith, and causes them to bring forth more fruits of thankfulness out of this faith. The more we hear this truth, the more we desire to perform the good works that are pleasing to our God.
We believers do not delight in sin. We delight to do what is pleasing to our Father in heaven. And the more we hear and understand that not only our justification but also our sanctification is entirely a work of grace from beginning to end, the more our hearts are filled with gratitude and we desire to show our gratitude in a life filled with good works that honor the name of our heavenly Father.
Knowing and believing that the reward is entirely of grace, we diligently seek it. When we, for example, pray from the heart that God’s name may be hallowed, that His kingdom may come, and that His will may be done, we are truly seeking this reward. For when we bring to God these petitions, we are asking God to cause us to know Him rightly, to rule us by His Word and Spirit, to grant us the grace to renounce our own will and to submit to His will, so that we order and direct our whole lives, our thoughts, words, and actions, so that God’s name is never blasphemed, but always honored and praised on our account (Lord’s Days 47-49).
The more we seek this reward, the more He certainly grants it to us. This is our confession, and this is also our experience. Although in this life we will always have only a small beginning of this new obedience, we do make progress in our battle against sin, and we find that we are being more and more conformed to the image of God’s dear Son. We see that God really is sanctifying us. And, seeing this, we desire even more so to live to the honor of His great and holy name.