Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 24 - Good Works and Rewards
Question 62: But why can our good works not be
our righteousness before God,
or at least a part of it?
Answer 62: Because the righteousness
which can stand before God’s judgment
must be absolutely perfect
and in complete agreement
with the law of God,
whereas even our best works in this life
are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
Question 63: But do our good works earn nothing,
even though God promises to reward them
in this life and the next?
Answer 63: This reward is not earned;
it is a gift of grace.
God acquits us only by grace. We may receive the righteousness of Christ for free.
And it continues to be so. People who have already received forgiveness of their debts hundreds of times may continue to place their faith in him who justifies the ungodly.1 Except for believing, nothing needs to be done by us. That faith is the only condition that God sets before us. It could not be any more generous.
That is what Lord’s Day 23 confesses.
However, note how Lord’s Day 24 comes with three “buts”! These are three critical questions about that generous and radical speaking about grace without any merit. That God cancels the debt of beginners for free is already surprising, but will he continue to do so? Or does he slowly but surely add, as a new condition, that we should be doing good works? After all, we cannot ignore the fact that the Bible, for instance in Hebrews 11, speaks highly of men and women who accomplished so much through faith? And apparently God is expecting something similar from us as well. Hebrews 12 begins with the exhortation to also follow that way and to run the course that lies ahead of us. We should take that exhortation seriously. However, this raises the question of the extent to which running the course becomes a new and additional condition for our exoneration. It is very important to know how we use the term “condition” in this context.
Does God continue to grant us acquittal by grace alone and without any merit on our part? Or do we perhaps have to compromise on the assurance that was given so generously in Lord’s Day 23?
And Yet: a Reward
God rewards good works.
The Bible says so plainly and plenty of times. Nowhere is there a trace of circumspection for fear that otherwise grace would be compromised. Both the OT and NT speak openly about “reward” and “retribution” and “good works”. We will give some examples.
The book of Proverbs repeatedly speaks of retaliation for good deeds: “He who reveres the commandment will be rewarded.”2 If your enemy is hungry and you give him food to eat, “the LORD will reward you”.3 It is striking that he who takes care of the poor lends to the LORD: he has, as it were, a credit with God and can count on it being repaid to him.4 In one of his psalms David can say freely: “The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me.”5 That is, because he had not soiled his hands in some crime. One more example to conclude the sampling from the OT: “I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”6
Jesus continues this line of thought. He speaks of a great reward for those who suffer reproach because of their faith.7 Also, God will reward you when you provide financial support without giving it full publicity.8 He says the same of sincere prayer and fasting.9 He exhorts us to store up treasures in heaven.10
We may be surprised that Jesus spoke so positively about rewards and good works. That could easily be misunderstood, because the Jews had given these words a place in their deadly doctrine of retribution. According to them, people had to earn their own salvation. They no longer knew what “grace” meant. Jesus opposed this teaching with all his strength. But then it is all the more remarkable that he did not get rid of terms such as “reward” and “retribution”. In line with the OT he gave them a legitimate place in his doctrine of grace. This line is also continued further in the NT, in spite of the never-ending error that God would demand some merit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one flaming protest against this notion. And yet in another letter he writes, “You know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward”.11
But also in the letter to the Hebrews we hear that Moses, as an Egyptian prince, chose the reproach of Christ rather than the temporal treasures of Egypt, and in doing so he kept his eyes on the reward.12 Right to the end of the NT, we hear Jesus speaking of reward and retribution.13
In spite of all potential misunderstanding, the OT and NT speak unflinchingly of rewarding good works. It can make us feel uneasy, because up to now we always heard that we get our acquittal for free, without any merit on our part. But the Bible speaks so patently about reward that even the Catechism asks: but do our good works not have any merit? Surely God wants to reward them? Not only in this life but also in the life to come! That is why we would like to get some clarification on the question whether all this talk about merit and reward does not irrevocably imply that more is expected of us than simply to have faith.
A Reward — Yes — But Out Of Grace
To our human logic, it would have been simpler if the Bible had deleted or at least provided quotation marks for words like “reward” and “retribution”. For wages and grace have nothing to do with each other. Wages are earned, while grace means that something is given free of charge. How can such words be left serenely next to each other here?
This is not a matter of naiveté. Paul knows full well that wages are not normally imputed by grace but by virtue of obligation.14 Work has been done to earn it. Wages serve as compensation for the services rendered. Yet this same Paul writes that every co-worker of God will receive his own reward.15We cannot avoid it: on the one hand the Bible puts the full emphasis on grace which excludes all merit, but in the meantime it does not hesitate to speak of wages and rewards.
The Catechism sums it up in this way: it is a reward, not from merit, but through grace. How is that possible? Is it not one or the other? Merit or grace? Scripture makes no issue of it, and therefore neither does the Catechism. God rewards our good works: in this life and in the life to come. We can even say that they are rewarded with eternal life.16 But it is not a reward of merit. It cannot possibly be. Our best achievements are stained with sins. They do not get us out of the red but plunge us even deeper into our guilt!
And imagine for a moment the impossible; that we had done everything perfectly, all according to his will. Then what? According to Jesus we would then be no more than the servant who merely did his duty. Nothing special. Even then we did not earn anything.17
That is why the Catechism speaks of the reward being a gift of grace. Suppose someone promises to take care of our unpayable debt. The only condition he sets is that we take him at his word. We do that and show it in all kinds of ways. After some time the bank reports that our debt has been paid. Then our trust is rewarded. It has been rewarded with the cancellation of the debt. But it would be foolish to claim that we had earned that gift — even if only in part. We want to illustrate this with the example of the prodigal son from the parable of Jesus. He returned to his father with repentance. We can safely say that his father rewarded him with new clothes, a ring and a festive meal. But it was, and at the same time remained, grace. The son had not deserved it — even with his repentance — and he realized it as well.18
The Lord rewards our trust without us making even the smallest contribution to the high cost. In addition, this trust does not come from ourselves but is also a gift from God.
Therefore, there is never anything to be earned from believing. It is not paid per hour or based on every good deed. The parable of the workers in the vineyard leaves no room for misunderstanding. When the daily wage was paid, it made no difference how long one had been working during the day. Everyone received the same pay.19 Meanwhile the question arises why God nevertheless attaches so much importance to terms such as “merit” and “retribution”.
What purpose does he have in doing so?
Why God Rewards Us
God wants to reward us.
In doing so, is he perhaps speculating on our greed? If that were the case our religion would be a sophisticated form of selfishness. That can never be his intention. However, we should not try to force a problem where there is none.
The LORD wants us to trust him, for the full one hundred percent. He has promised us much. But we hardly see anything of it. No prognosis points to the coming of the new earth. In the harsh reality we cannot find a single clue to what we are promised. Therein lies our difficulty. God’s promises are very strong, but our faith in them is often so weak. And it becomes doubly challenging when we have to make sacrifices for those promises. Moses gave up his future as an Egyptian prince for it. Many have given their lives for it. This is only possible when we expect everything from God’s promises.
It is in that regard that the LORD wants to help us! To encourage us he says: believe my word. Trust in it. Your sacrifices are not in vain. Everything will be made all right. Rewarded! Repaid!
This is why God speaks of reward and retribution, to stimulate our faith.20
Question 64: [But] does this teaching not make people
careless and wicked?
Answer 64: No.
It is impossible
that those grafted into Christ
by true faith
should not bring forth
fruits of thankfulness.
There seems to be a strong practical objection to the doctrine of grace. As opportunity makes the thief, so this doctrine would make people careless and ungodly. Once people know that they are saved freely they are tempted to live as they please.
This reproach is rather ancient. Paul was already criticized for making matters far too easy for people.21 The fact that God acquits the ungodly was considered a direct invitation to remain ungodly.
But is there not something to this? Are we not being made to feel rather comfortable? Why should we even bother?
Does Grace Make People Careless?
The Catechism did somewhat provoke that question. It has strongly assured us that the reward is not earned by merit but is a gift of grace: free of charge. Does that not breed easy-going people?
But the questioner makes the mistake of focussing exclusively on the word “grace” while the Catechism has spoken two words: grace and reward. Those two words need each other. Otherwise either the one or the other gets out of balance. That is happening here with the word “grace”. All the tension is removed from it when it is turned into a cheap giveaway for lazy people.
The Catechism is particularly firm in its answer. It could have said that the doctrine of grace does not have to make people careless or lazy at all, because it provides plenty of room for spontaneous gratitude. Then it would have taken a defensive stance. But instead it takes the offensive route and says that it is flat-out impossible to become careless and wicked. It is precisely this teaching that makes us very active. It is inevitable that we come into action. After all, a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, or a bad tree good fruit, and those who are implanted (”grafted”) into Christ will bear much fruit.22
Of course the prodigal son went to work after his festive homecoming. It could not be otherwise. And the tax collector who left the temple without guilt has fought against his greed when he was back at his office. It cannot be otherwise. The doctrine of grace does not make careless and lazy people. If they are, there has to be another cause. So do they actually exist? Alas — yes! Jesus says of the members of the church at Laodicea that they were neither cold nor hot.23 We encounter this careless type also in the parable of the invitees to the wedding feast. In the hall a striking figure was seated. The man had not declined to come, unlike so many others. He had come — but do not ask what he looked like. Everything indicated that the invitation had meant little or nothing to him. Other attendees had been considering carefully and joyfully what they should wear to the feast. He had not bothered. He had been too lazy to get changed. Nonchalantly he had entered the hall. Not a pretty sight! That is why he was promptly removed.24
The only thing God expects of us is that we put on festive clothing! But that is also something he insists on!
Call it the condition he sets. But do not make it appear as if the invitation to this man was not as generous as it seemed afterwards. The only condition God sets is that we show what his heartfelt invitation is worth to us.
This means that all of the things we do or do not do are to be dominated by the Feast, which can start at any moment. Therefore, our joyful expectation of the Bridegroom is this:
There’s a wedding feast preparing
For the saved of all mankind;
All the wedding garment wearing,
Will a hearty welcome find.25
Lord, let us be clothed with your festive garment as we look forward to your wedding day!