Good Works, Debt and Reward

Good Works, Debt and Reward

By Georead

 The Debt That No Good Works Can Repay

The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life (Romans 6:23). Why is eternal life a gift? Why can’t we earn it like one earns wages?

In the financial crisis of 2008 some very large companies went bankrupt. They could no longer keep up with their debts which were spiralling out of control. A few very large companies went into liquidation. They were carved in pieces and swallowed up by other companies. In addition, many individuals went bankrupt. They could no longer keep up with the payments on their houses. Banks started repossessing houses at a record rate. Many people were left homeless and living out of their cars. The value of houses plummeted. Some were left with enormous debts much more than the value of their house. They ended up having to pay back debt worth more than the value of their homes. Others were forced to go bankrupt and lost their homes.

Sin is like a very large debt. Some people are very conscientious in trying to pay back the debt of sin they owe. They do many good works in an effort to pay back the debt of sin. Others find the debt of sin a burden all too much bear. Whatever good works they do, they feel it is hopeless. They cannot keep up with their burgeoning debt of sin. They end up spiritually bankrupt. They give up. They feel it is impossible for them to ever enter into heaven.

Matthew 18:23-26  Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.  But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. 

In this parable the servant is bankrupt. He can no longer keep up with his debts. He’s going into liquidation. All of his possessions were to be divided up and sold. Worst of all both he and his family were to be sold into slavery. Thus some of the debt could be recouped by the king. This is like sin. It is a large debt that we have no hope of ever paying back. Our very best works are not enough to keep up with the payments. It is the same for every one of us. Humanity is spiritually bankrupt.

Even though the servant had no hope of ever repaying the debt, he still pleaded for time saying, “have patience with me, I will pay thee all.” This is like the sinner that is fallen in sin and spiritually bankrupt. He pleads with God, “Have patience with me. I’ll turn my life around. I’ll do many good works to pay back the debt of sin I owe. From now on I’ll be good!” But the sinner needs to realise he can never pay back his debt of sin. Every one of us has reached the point of impossibility. Sin has gone too far. The debt is too great. When debt gets out of control things get repossessed and go into liquidation. The wages of sin is death and we can liken death to the final liquidation of all our earthly assets.

Matthew 18:27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. 

Here we see that the king forgave this impossible debt. He was moved with compassion and had mercy. The servant’s debt was cleared without him doing any works. It was a gift, an undeserving gift. God knows we have an impossible debt of sin and that we can never pay it back. The only way for it to be cleared is through a gift of mercy. This is why eternal life is the gift of God.

Matthew 18:28-34 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.  And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.

The servant does not trust the gift of the king. He doesn’t seem to appreciate it. Why isn’t the servant rejoicing and happy to be free from the great debt he owed? He ought to show faith in the gift of the king by performing works of mercy toward others and forgiving their debts. Instead he becomes extremely judgmental toward them. He is ready to cut them off from mercy. Perhaps he is fearful he might fall into the same debt again. Thus he feels he must collect debt from others to cover himself. He doesn’t really trust the gift of mercy. This is like the sinner who pleads with God and receives forgiveness for the debt of sin  owed. Afterward not trusting or appreciating the gift they become extremely judgmental toward others, seeking to cut them off from the mercy of God. They doubt the gift of God, thinking the debt of sin may return to their own account. Therefore they feel it necessary to collect debt from others. They shift blame to others in order to cover themselves. They seek to minimise their own sinfulness saying to God, “I am not as this publican. I am not like this debtor. His debts are greater than mine.” However collecting and enlarging other people’s debt of sin can never cover our own debt of sin. The only solution is trust in the gift of God.

There is no way we can possibly earn salvation by good works; therefore it is a gift of mercy to be received by faith.

Works of Faith Are Duty We Owe God

James 2:14 What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?

While good works can’t earn anything they are an essential component of saving faith.

Martin Luther writes, “Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever . . . Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”

Even when Christians are constantly doing the works of faith, these are not something by which they gain merit.

Luke 17:7-10  But which of you, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink?  Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. 

The above parable shows the place our works have before God. The master of the estate does not thank the servant for doing his duty. Likewise when good works are done in faith these are simply the duty owed to God. We deserve no thanks. God owes us nothing. He cannot be indebted to us for our good works. God created all things and all things exist because of Him. All righteousness and grace come from Him. God gives us strength to do good works, none of which we could have done in our own sinful natures.

It is the fragrance of the merit of Christ that makes our good works acceptable to God, and it is grace that enables us to do the works for which He rewards us. Our works in and of themselves have no merit. When we have done all that it is possible for us to do, we are to count ourselves as unprofitable servants. We deserve no thanks from God. We have only done what it was our duty to do, and our works could not have been performed in the strength of our own sinful natures.  {Review and Herald, January 29, 1895 par. 4}

The Reward for Good Works

Matthew 19:27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? 

The disciples had forsaken all to follow Christ. They endured hardship and trial to follow him. They felt that God owed them a reward. Peter asked, “What shall we have?” Jesus addressed this question with the following parable.

See Parable of the Vineyard workers Matthew 20:1-15.

In the parable, the householder’s dealings with the vineyard workers represents God’s dealings with human beings. The householder goes out at different hours to find workmen at the market place. Those hired earliest in the day agreed to work for a stated sum. Those hired later in the day left their wages to the discretion of the householder. They believed the householders promise, “Whatever is right I will give you” v. 4 and v. 7. They showed their confidence in him by asking no question in regard to wages. They trusted his justice and equity.

Those hired at the eleventh hour were thankful for the opportunity to work. They had no work all day. For someone to hire them at such a late hour, for an hours work, at the end of the day, was highly unusual. They were full of gratitude because of this unusual opportunity. At the close of the day the householder paid the eleventh hour workers for a full day’s work. They were really surprised. They knew they hadn’t earned these wages. It was a gift. It is the same with those who are converted late in their experience. Their time of service is short. They feel undeserving of reward. They are thankful that God accepts them at all. They work with a humble trusting spirit.

The first workers hired in this parable represent those who, because of their services, claim preference over others. They are foremost in enduring hardship and trial. They work a full twelve hour day, through the heat of the day. This they think entitles to a greater reward than others. They feel they have gained more merit than others. When this claim is not recognised they are offended. They have a grudging spirit toward the late comers that haven’t done as many works as them. God’s goodness and liberality is murmured against. They complain that the householder owes them a greater debt.

Romans 4:4  Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. 

Ephesians 2:8,9 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:  Not of works, lest any man should boast.

In the parable of the vineyard workers Jesus teaches his disciples that the reward is not of works, lest any man should boast, but it is all of grace. The first worker had his reward in the grace given him. The last worker had the same grace. The work was all of grace, and no one was to glory over another. There was to be no grudging one against another. No one was privileged above another. Nor could any one claim the reward as his right.

Although we have no merit in ourselves, in the great goodness and love of God we are rewarded as if the merit were our own. When we have done all the good we can possibly do, we are still unprofitable servants. We have done only what was our duty. What we have accomplished has been wrought solely through the grace of Christ, and no reward is due to us from God on the ground of our merit. But through the merit of our Saviour every promise that God has made will be fulfilled, and every man will be rewarded according to his deeds.  {Review and Herald, June 27, 1893 par. 15}

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