Conflicting Absolutes Revisited (Part III)

Erich clearly pointed out, “we can do NOTHING without sinning.” Hard to be more clear than that (although one could jest, “Ok, I’ll just do nothing and I should be fine – after all, I can do nothing without sinning! :) )

Anyway, Erich’s point raises a question I need help answering. What do we make out of the promises Scripture gives to reward Christians for our good works?

Let me try to explain:

I agree with Chemnitz, “God loves the regenerate not because their nature is in every part perfectly pure, unspotted, and harmless but on account of the Son, the Mediator, whom we have put on in Baptism. (Examination of the Council of Trent I, 356)

Later he says, “the good works in the reconciled, since they are acceptable through faith for the sake of the Mediator, have spiritual and bodily rewards in this life and after this life; they have these rewards through the gratuitous divine promise; not that God owes this because of the perfection and worthiness of our works, but because He, out of fatherly mercy and liberality, for the sake of Christ, has promised that He would honor with rewards the obedience of His children in this life, even though it is only begun and is weak, imperfect, and unclean.” (Examination of the Council of Trent I, 653)

Apology IV states, “Works are meritorious for other bodily and spiritual rewards, which are bestowed both in this life and in the life to come. For God defers most rewards until He glorifies saints after this life, because He wishes them in this life to be strengthened through mortifying the old creature. The gospel feely gives the promise that a person is justified and made alive on account of Christ. However, in the law rewards are not free; they are offered for works and owed to works. Since therefore works constitute a kind of fulfillment of the law, they are rightly said to be meritorious, and it is rightly said that a reward is owed them. And these rewards produce degrees of return, according to that passage in Paul [I Cor. 3:8], “Each will receive wages according to the labor of each.” These degrees are rewards for works and afflictions.” (Apology, Article IV, paragraph 366ff)

And Solid Declaration IV states, “It is God’s will and express command that believers should do good works which the Holy Spirit works in them, and God is willing to be pleased with them for Christ’s sake and He promises to reward them gloriously in this and in the future life. (Formula of Concord; Solid Declaration, Article IV, paragraph 38)

Okay, God promises to reward the works of those regenerate in Christ. Yes, our works are only begun, imperfect, and unclean, which we could call sin. And yes, the rewards aren’t offered because we are so good in and of ourselves. The rewards are offered to those redeemed by Christ – Christ makes works good. Having said that, I think “we can do nothing without sin” might be going a bit far (even if it is technically right). No offense to Erich.

Good works done by those redeemed by Christ are good because of Christ and will be rewarded. Yes, I am a wretched man who needs to be saved from this body of death, but I have been redeemed from the law of sin and death and have been given the Spirit. Certainly those controlled by the sinful mind cannot please God, but Paul says those baptized into Christ are “controlled not by the sinful nature.” We are controlled by the Spirit. And the Spirit works good works in us which fulfill the law. As Paul later says, “he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law.” Yes, the good works are only begun, imperfect, and unclean (even sin), but in Christ our works are indeed good and will be rewarded. In fact, Jesus says anyone who has faith in Him will do “even greater things” than He did!

So, if in Christ our good works will be rewarded, aren’t they in some sense free from sin? If not, is God rewarding sin?

So, I guess I’m just trying to complement Erich’s picture. Yes, we’re hopelessly wretched, but we’re redeemed wretches with the Spirit of God who will be rewarded for the good works we do in Christ.

Your thoughts?


Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I agree with your complimentary expositions on the subject of conflicting absolutes, Pr. Conner. So, I guess I'm not sure why you wrote:

Having said that, I think “we can do nothing without sin” might be going a bit far (even if it is technically right). No offense to Erich.

I take no offense, but I am having difficulty figuring out what specifically it is you are disagreeing with me about here (if even, in fact, you are). ;-)

My point that "we can do nothing without sin" is simply to defend the position that there's nothing wrong with asking forgiveness even for our good works - for even our good works are filthy rags standing in need of forgiveness. It is a point I made in response to the claim that we should not ask forgiveness for the actions taken in moral dilemmas if we believe we are making the best choice of action we can.

So, what is it you are taking issue with in what I said?

Pr. Conner said...


I suppose I was unclear because I am unclear. Is that clear? :)

I think "we can do nothing without sin" presents only one small part of the picture and perhaps over emphasizes the sin part (I'm almost certain you agree). I guess it can leave people saying, "Why try?" instead of leading them to try their best and beg for mercy as they fall short. And it helps them to know God will reward their good works done in Christ.

So, we should take sin seriously (more seriously than much of our antinomian world does); but we should likewise embrace grace fully.

So, am I disagreeing with you? I don't think so. I think I was just trying to paint the rest of the picture (which I'm sure you have painted elsewhere).

Thanks for your thoughts.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Yes, I think we agree on all this. But I'd like to tease a bit more out on this statement of yours:

"And it helps them to know God will reward their good works done in Christ."

I'm sure you'll agree that if the good work is done for reward, it is no good work. So how, exactly, are you saying knowledge of the reward "helps them"?

There is no "motivation" for good works. Good works are the natural fruit of faith. The fact that we know this fruit will be infected with sin is no excuse to avoid producing it.

It is certainly right to compliment our discussion of good works by adding the fact that God is pleased with our works (and us) on account of Christ. When done in faith, even brushing our teeth is a good work pleasing to God. Flossing is extra credit! ;-)

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

I meant to quote this above, but didn't have time to look for it at the time. This is my favorite Confessional passage about good works (SD IV 10-12, emphasis mine):

For, as Luther writes in his Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, “Faith is a divine work in us that transforms us and begets us anew from God, kills the Old Adam, makes us entirely different people in heart, spirit, mind, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. Oh, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good. Likewise, faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them and is constantly active. Whoever does not perform such good works is a faithless man, blindly tapping around in search of faith and good works without knowing what either faith or good works are, and in the meantime he chatters and jabbers a great deal about faith and good works. Faith is a vital, deliberate trust in God’s grace, so certain that it would die a thousand times for it. And such confidence and knowledge of divine grace makes us joyous, mettlesome, and merry toward God and all creatures. This the Holy Spirit works by faith, and therefore without any coercion a man is willing and desirous to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything for the love of God and to his glory, who has been so gracious to him. It is therefore as impossible to separate works from faith as it is to separate heat and light from fire.”

This quote is also found in its greater context in the American Edition of Luther's Works, Volume 35, page 370.

Pr. Conner said...

You might be surprised, but I strongly disagree that being motivated by rewards is sin.

Moses “regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.” (Heb. 11:26).

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to “Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:24b-25)

Paul encouraged the Galatians, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

Paul wrote to slaves, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free." (Ephesians 6:5-8)

And Jesus said, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great…” (Luke 6:35)

Yes faith is a “living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good.” And yes “faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them…” But that says nothing about being motivated by the rewards that God offers.

If rewards were conditions that WE established for obedience then being motivated by them would most certainly be sin, but God has offered the rewards. If God doesn’t want us to be motivated by them, why does He offer/promise them? Even more, if we consider it sinful to be motivated by the rewards God offers aren’t we implying that God tempts us to sin every time He offers to reward us for faithfulness?

Personally I’m very motivated by the rewards God offers. I’m always motivated by His promises. Now, I’m not motivated by rewards so that I will be praised in heaven. Rewards are given so that we can bring glory to Christ. I think of the second verse of the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy that says, “Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee, Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea…” Where did they get their crowns? They were rewarded for their works.

I’m motivated to bring glory to Jesus and my rewarded good works will do just that. Is that sin?

GL said...

During our last discussion of this, I mentioned the Hebrew midwives and asked whether their disobeying Pharaoh and then lying to him in order to save the male Hebrew babies was a sin. I do not believe it was.

Last night, the bedtime reading for my children was Exodus 1. I quote verses 15 through 21 from the ESV:

15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

Note verses 20 and 21. God rewarded the midwives for what they did. Does God reward sin? (That's a rhetorical question.) I would assert that the midwives chose the greater good and, by doing so, they avoided sin altogether rather than merely choosing the lesser sin, as conflicting absolutes would have it.

GL said...

As an aside per the immediate topic, but appropo to the site, note that God's reward to these women was families. Again, we see that families are a reward from God, not a curse. (I said "curse," not "burden." Often times God will give us a burden as a means of blessing us.)

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


The midwives were rewarded for saving lives, not for disobedience. In a situation of conflicting absolutes you are disobeying one absolute and obeying another. Obeying the one absolute is a good work. Disobeying the other absolute is a sin. In order to save lives (a good work) the midwives had to disobey Pharaoh (not a good work).

I know you disagree, but I'm trying to help you understand how one looks at these moral dilemmas under the principle of conflicting absolutism.

I find no difficulties in holding to this ethical principle grounded in the sure forgiveness of Christ. I do find difficulties in holding to the Roman Catholic unqualified absolutism or your Calvinist graded absolutism.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Pr. Conner,

Yes, I am VERY surprised you hold that true good works are rightly motivated by rewards. This goes against a great deal that I have been taught and believe I have learned from all my studies of Lutheran theology.

Let me try to pick myself up off the floor on which I just fainted and I'll try to respond more later. ;-)

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

OK. I've recovered. And, I've reread what you wrote. On second reading I do not find anything in general to take issue with in what you've written.

I suppose it's a matter of perspective. Is it a sin to be motivated to do good works because of the rewards? There is a problem with this question in that it is too abstract and general rather than specific to me or any other soul.

I still think it is best that we not focus on rewards as "motivators" of good works. But I certainly do agree that the promise of rewards provide an impetus to keep us at work. God is not "tempting" us with them. He's simply showing us his graciousness. As the Small Catechism states, faith understands that God is under no such obligation but rather He does all this only out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in me.

It is God who provides all the power to do good. If He was to take away his hand for a moment, we would fall flat on our faces.

If, as our Confessions state, “faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them…”, I believe this poses a problem for individual good works done with the forethought of rewards telling us we should do them. The right motivation for good works is the love for our neighbor which faith works in our hearts.

That said, I do not believe we sinner saints EVER have any pure altruistic good works. If I don't do a good work motivated by reward, I always am ready to pat myself on the back after I realize I have done one. Our good works are always tainted with sin (as you agree), but I believe this sin includes the selfishness of doing good mainly for the sake of reward. The fact that my mind gravitates toward thinking of rewards is, to me, proof of my selfishness.

Again, this all leaves us in constant need of forgiveness.

Good discussion.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Back to your main point this tangent of mine sprung from, the fact that God will reward our good works is proof that he sees them as good even though they are tainted with sin - and this only on account of Christ through the faith God supplies us with to believe in his mercy and grace. This keeps us from despairing and saying "why try?"

So, in reality, isn't this another aspect of FAITH? I believe it is more appropriate to speak of FAITH as motivating good works? Nowhere do I find Lutherans talking about good works being "motivated" by rewards. That's just not how the Confessors spoke to my knowledge.

Here's Luther on "motivation" of good works:

But in a brief summary he draws a conclusion about the Christian life, saying: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love,” that is, a faith that is neither imaginary nor hypocritical but true and living. This is what arouses and motivates good works through love.

Lectures on Galatians, Luther's Works [AE 27:30]

Now, excuse this next long quote, but I think it is very instructive as to what "motivates" good works:

[Philemon 8:] 5. because I hear [of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and all the saints]. This is Paul’s general method of arranging his epistles, to begin with thanksgiving. But he adapts this rule to his purpose here, since he wants to motivate Philemon to a good work. Look at the individual words. I thank my [God] always. . . . He praises them very highly, but in Christ he attributes faith and love to them, as though he were saying: “I thank God that you have faith and love toward God and the saints.”

The faith which you have toward the Lord. Hearing of this refreshes me and compels me to give thanks, because Satan is lying in wait for you as [he is for everyone]. . . . 6. [And I pray that] the sharing [of your faith may promote the knowledge]. This is what he wants to say: “I give thanks and pray for the love and faith of which I hear, namely, that this faith and love may grow and become more effective from day to day, in that you acknowledge all the good that is in you in Christ Jesus.” The good, that is, the universal faith which you and I have and which all those who are with you have, the same faith, the universal faith that is shared by all the saints who are in your church, the faith that is especially present in you. This sharing is not spiritual, as some say; but it means that everyone has [what everyone else has], that he has the body which you have, which even I have. Here he speaks of faith, which is a thing distributed among many; that is, the body is something distributed in that bread which you and I have. But such people are tropical, or, more precisely, topical, subverters. May promote: that the faith I hear about in you may not grow lazy, but rather may become richer, more splendid, and more active. Why? Because I want to propose a good work to you. You have shown your love well. You must go on with your faith, so that it may promote. Soon he will turn to the specific good work about which he is writing in connection with Onesimus.

Luther's Works [AE 29:95]

I read Luther talking about FAITH motivating [or promoting] good works, and nowhere do I remember hearing Lutherans talk about rewards "motivating" good works.

So, though you are accurate that the looking forward to our rewards can be a help in keeping us doing good works, I feel it is less helpful to speak of it that way.

Again, Luther:

What good works can one think of that the Holy Spirit does not teach in Scripture, such as humility, patience, gentleness, mercy, faithfulness, faith, kindness, peaceableness, obedience, self-discipline, chastity, generosity, readiness to serve, etc., and in summary, love? [Gal. 5:22–23]. What good work could one imagine that is not included in the commandment of love? What sort of a good work would it be if it were not motivated by love? For love, according to St. Paul’s teaching, is the fulfillment of the whole law [Gal. 5:14] — as Christ himself says in Matthew 5.

Church and Ministry III [AE 41:123]

And again:

Now faith is the master workman and the motivating force behind the good works of generosity, just as it is in all the other commandments.

Treatise on Good Works
[AE 44:109]

Faith working through love is the proper channel of "motivation" if we must speak in terms of "motivation." The Confessions preferred speaking in terms of good works being the natural FRUIT of faith, not being "motivated" by it.

While not denying the rewards, I feel this would be a good practice for us to emulate.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

Here's an applicable quote from Chemnitz [emphasis mine]:

Thus it is a papistic fantasy by which they are persuading themselves that if good works were not to be done in order to merit adoption and eternal life, then they should be entirely omitted. Thus they publish the notion that they do not want to serve God, as becomes obedient children, out of a free and spontaneous spirit, but insist that our works be done in a slavish manner for a reward and the hope of a reward. This idea should be the farthest thing from the mind of true Christians.

Loci Theologici [p. 576 - emphasis mine]

And here is a quote from the Formula of Concord:

As long as a man is not regenerate, and conducts himself according to the Law and does the works because they are commanded thus, from fear of punishment or desire for reward, he is still under the Law, and his works are called by Paul properly the works of the Law, for they are extorted by the Law, as those of a slave; and these are the saints after the order of Cain, that is hypocrites. But when a man is born anew by the Spirit of God, and liberated from the Law, that is, free from the driver, and led by the Spirit of Christ, he lives according to the immutable will of God comprised in the Law, and so far as he is born anew, does everything from a free, cheerful spirit; and these are called not properly works of the Law, but works and fruits of the Spirit.

[SD VI, 16. 17, Triglot, p. 967 - emphasis mine]

Gauntlets said...

Pr Conner:

You have no idea how many times this very topic comes up in conversations with extended family members, good Lutherans all. It seems that somewhere in their Lutheran educations the ideologies of Democracy took hold, and the idea of the twelve holding thrones of judgment over the rest of us became reprehensible. Ethereal equality is the spirit of the day . . . which makes reading, say, the Book of John a rather scary undertaking. They'd rather read Joyce Meyer.

So thanks for compiling all this information. Your post will come in very handy next family reunion. ;)

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...


You'd also enjoy Rev. David Petersen's sermon on Heaven from All Saints Day 2007.

Pr. Conner said...


Thanks for the quotes. You seem to be a veritable fountain of quotations.

I don’t think rewards should be proclaimed as the primary motivation for good works, but they should certainly be preached as one of the multiple motivations for good works.

Obviously, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone must be primary/central/foundational, but the notion that what we do on this earth is of no eternal consequence needs to be expunged from people’s minds. Our works will be judged and those judged to be good will be rewarded. Not to share this with people is a grave disservice to them.

I’m sure you agree.

My concern is that Lutherans never talk about rewards (they’re terrified of “works righteousness”). In fact, every time I’ve mentioned the Scriptural doctrine of rewards for good works, life-long Lutherans are shocked that their works matter. That’s terribly unfortunate. Perhaps the “Sleeping Giant (LCMS)” would wake up if they thought their lives mattered for eternity.

Wouldn’t you agree?

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

No, I'm not sure I do agree, given all the quotes I have provided above. The main objection I have here is not the existence of rewards, but the word "MOTIVATION." I do not think it is biblical (or confessional) to speak about good works being "motivated" by anything but faith working through love. Good works are the natural fruit of faith, not rewards.

Methinks a review of Luther's Bondage of the Will would provide some helpful perspective.

Pr. Conner said...

I agree works are the fruit of faith – faith simply does good works like fire produces heat. Rewards don’t start the fire – the Spirit does, but rewards could certainly stoke it. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) Sounds like Paul is stoking the faith fire a bit – maybe even motivating the Galatians?

Jesus promises rewards and I (by grace through faith) believe His promises and am motivated by them. Is this sin? I just can’t see how being motivated by Jesus’ promises is sin.

Let me simply repeat my original questions:

Is it sin to be motivated by the rewards God offers?

Is it sin to be motivated by God’s promises?

Is it sin to be motivated by the fact that the rewards God gives for my good works will be offered to Jesus to bring Him glory? Shouldn’t I run in such a way to win the prize and be motivated by the prize?

Your quotes are wonderful (as they usually are). In the first Chemnitz spoke about the “papistic fantasy” that good works be done “in order to merit adoption and eternal life.” I agree “This idea should be the farthest thing from the mind of true Christians.” We should never “insist that our works be done in a slavish manner for a reward and the hope of a reward.” That’s exactly my point: we don’t insist on rewards (it’s not our idea); God graciously offers them and we believe His promise and are motivated by them.

In the second quote, the SD spoke about the unregenerate man being motivated by reward. I’m not talking about the unregenerate; I’m talking about the redeemed in Christ who find their greatest joy (part of the fruit of the Spirit) in Christ and His promises and are motivated by His promises.

Erich Heidenreich, DDS said...

"Is it sin to be motivated by the rewards God offers?"

Perhaps not, but I just don't think this is a good question. It's too abstract and general rather than specific to me or any other soul. A more pointed question might be: Have I have ever been purely motivated to do any good work, whether for the good of the promised reward or out of love for God and my neighbor?

I'd have to answer that question with my head bowed in shame. My every motivation, thought, action, word — in fact my very being - is tainted with sin and needs forgiveness, which is no reason to stop doing “good works” but rather to do them all the more freely both resting in forgiveness and anticipating with gratitude any rewards God might deem to bestow out of His kindness - rewards He bestows only out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy without any merit or worthiness in me.

Forgiveness frees us to do good works, enlivening us with the faith and love from which good works flow. Yes, there are rewards for these good works, and the hope of these rewards rest firmly in the hope of eternity, for most of these rewards are deferred until then.

"...God defers most rewards until He glorifies saints after this life, because He wishes them in this life to be exercised in mortifying the old man..."
[Bente, Ap III, 245]

In general, I have no doubt we agree. I sense our perceived disagreement is simply a matter of semantics. Here is another quote which I'm sure we both subscribe to and agree as to its interpretation:

76] Paul, Eph. 6, 2, commends to us the commandment concerning honoring parents, by mention of the reward which is added to that commandment, where he does not mean that obedience to parents justifies 77] us before God, but that, when it occurs in those who have been justified, it merits other great rewards. Yet God exercises His saints variously, and often defers the rewards of the righteousness of works in order that they may learn not to trust in their own righteousness, and may learn to seek the will of God rather than the rewards; as appears in Job, in Christ, and other saints. And of this, many psalms teach us, which console us against the happiness of the wicked, as Ps. 37, 1: Neither be thou envious. And Christ says, Matt. 5, 10: Blessed are they 78] which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. By these 79] praises of good works, believers are undoubtedly moved to do good works. Meanwhile, the doctrine of repentance is also proclaimed against the godless, whose works are wicked; and the wrath of God is displayed, 80] which He has threatened all who do not repent. We therefore praise and require good works, and show many reasons why they ought to be done.

[Bente, Apology III: Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law]

Yes, we praise and require good works, and show many reasons why they ought to be done - but the essential component is faith working through love.