Natural Motivation

4 April 2023

I was part of a discussion of heavenly reward recently. The Bible speaks quite a bit about heavenly rewards for faithfulness here on earth, but most Christians don’t teach on the subject. Some skip it because they foolishly think only the faithful will be in heaven to start with, so they conflate conditional rewards with the gift of eternal life. Others skip it because it seems to debase obedience: “We ought to serve out of love,” they will say, “not to fill up some celestial piggy bank for ourselves.”

Jesus does not agree: He directly taught people to lay up treasure in heaven.

Paul does not agree: He encourages us to compete for “an imperishable crown.”

The author of Hebrews does not agree: he holds up Moses as an example to follow, “for he looked to the reward.”

Why, though? God could simply command our obedience: certainly we owe it to Him. Why does He bother to offer reward?

First of all, because rewards move us. This is basic to human nature; from the very beginning God built us to tend and keep the Garden; we’re supposed to notice what generates a return and what does not, and do more of the former. God wants us to know the good results that come from our labor, so the better we understand the rewards God has in store for us, the more we are moved to do what He has for us.

There’s more to it, though:

  • People climb Everest every year; at this point enough people have done it that there’s little prospect of meaningful reward, but people keep doing it. It’s a magnificent achievement, and that’s enough.
  • Soldiers run into enemy fire to drag a wounded buddy to safety; it’s not like they’re gonna get a Nike sponsorship out of that. Everybody I know who’s done that gives the same reason: “He’d do it for me.”
  • Farmers work like nobody in the world at harvest time, to get the crop in ahead of the storms. Random people at the beach will dive into dangerous surf just to pull a total stranger out of the water. Why? In both cases, they say the same thing: “It had to be done.”

Rewards are not arbitrary; they’re coupled to God’s mission in the world. It’s a bit like a car salesman getting the “Salesman of the Year’ trophy for selling more cars than anybody else. There’s no point in false ‘humility’ about it (“I don’t want the trophy; I just want to sell cars.”) The trophy is happening because he just wants to sell cars; the bonus is happening because he made a ton of money for the boss; it’s a share in the spoils of victory.

God crafted our psyches; all our basic motivations come from His hands. We labor for a return. We attempt crazy, ridiculous, enormous tasks because He does, and we’re like Him that way. He likes it, and so do we. We risk ourselves for each other because He loves, and we love after Him; we risk ourselves for outsiders because Jesus did the same for us. We do difficult and necessary work because God does; when we fell; He set about the mending of the world because it needed to be done, and only He could do it. At our best, we’re like Him that way; we do it because someone has to, and we’re there. God loves all of that, and rewards are designed to ‘cut with the grain’ of the motivations He implanted in our natures to start with.


He Planned to Succeed

7 March 2023

John tells us his purpose in recording the signs Jesus did: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn. 20:30-31)

John is unique among the books of the New Testament in that it contemplates an unbelieving audience. Does that mean that once we believe, we have nothing further to learn from the book? Not at all!

In a modern evangelical setting, we tend to think that John’s evangelistic purpose means it’s a gospel tract – when they believe, John has accomplished what he set out to do. Not quite. John is not a modern evangelical, and this is not some 100-word “Ticket to Heaven” pamphlet.

John intended to succeed, and he had no intention of leaving his new, baby believer readers to their own devices. His gospel is meant to be read, believed, and then re-read as a believer. What happens when they believe? John tells us: “…and that believing, you may have life in His name.”

This “having life” thing — how does it work? Well, John’s already told us that too: this is not something that happens when you die; the life Jesus gives begins now, when you believe (3:36) and continues forever (5:24). If John convinced you before you got to 20:30-31 — which he’s certainly trying to do — then your life has already begun!

Moreover, Jesus has already told us that simply possessing life is not His goal for you: “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” And earlier: “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.”

How does one live abundantly, you ask? Especially now that Jesus is gone?

The Last Discourse to the rescue! In 13:1, John frames the discourse in such a way that it also advances his evangelistic purpose, but let’s not miss what this whole teaching is. Starting in 13:31, Judas has left the room. Jesus is speaking only to believers — the 11 faithful disciples — and He’s teaching them how they will live when He has returned to heaven. As we listen with their ears, we learn how to conduct abundant lives today.

So listen! I just sat down and re-read John 13-17. I’d encourage you to do the same today.

“And such were some of you”

29 November 2022

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.
(1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

There are two ways to abuse “…and such were some of you, but you were washed….”
1. think it’s an instant, automatic transformation
2. think that it doesn’t really happen

Both of these are mistakes. I’ve known no shortage of addicts who want to believe that #1 is their reality. God can really do that, and sometimes, He does. More often, He shows you the possibility of success, and then lets you walk it out the hard way. He doesn’t just want you off yoru substance of choice; He wants to make the non-addictive life a part of your character. He wants to teach you how to feel your feelings rather than numb them — and cast them on Him when they’re too much. Whatever the hungry darkness that waits to consume you, He wants you to know that He can walk you through it. Not theoretically; He wants you to know it in your bones. He wants to walk through it with you. In the words of C.S. Lewis, He is making you fit for the Kingdom of God, and He doesn’t care what it costs Him, or what it costs you.

The opposite error is to think that being a “Christian drunk” or a “Christian kelptomaniac” or a “Christian lesbian” is just who you are as a person, that that’s that. No, I have the worst–and best–possible news for you: you were washed. These things about you–nobody is saying they weren’t really true. But that was then; you were washed. There is nothing inevitable about your sins, not anymore.

What are we to do with this? Tell the truth, of course. If you fit the definition of a drunk, then there’s nothing wrong with copping to it, as long as you do it in a spirit of confession. “Hello, my name is Jack, and I’m an alcoholic,” may be true today, and you shouldn’t hesitate to tell the truth if it is. But when the Kingdom of God has fully come, it won’t be true anymore. Which is to say, that’s not who you are. Your identity is something else; “alcoholic” is a barnacle clinging to you. You will enter into the Kingdom; the barnacle will be scraped off in due time. You should be looking forward to it, not investing your identity in the barnacle.

If you pray “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” and mean it, then you need to admit the possibility that the barnacle could be scraped off sooner than later.

So call your sins out for what they are and really confess them. Nothing wrong with that. And then, having laid your sinful desires at the foot of the cross, don’t pick them back up. Don’t identify with them, because God says you were that, but you were cleansed from it. Confession isn’t the whole process; the next step is accepting the identity God has given you.

The Kingdom of God Has Come

30 September 2012

“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the Kingdom of God is come upon you.”

With these simple words, Jesus raised the stakes on the religious leaders. He had just cast out a mute demon, a difficult feat that some rabbis maintained could only be done by Messiah Himself. Rather than believing, the Pharisees had rejected Him again and accused him of casting out demons by Satan’s power. Jesus pointed out what a foolish thing it would be for the ruler of demons to cast out his own demons, but the real challenge was yet to come.

The real challenge was simple: What if He wasn’t using Satan’s power? What if it was the Holy Spirit? What then?

Then the Kingdom of God is come. God’s rule, already firmly established in heaven, is breaking into earth, and where that is happening, the agents of the kingdom of darkness are being driven away.

The Kingdom is future. One day, we will see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and Christ’s enemies will be His footstool. As Hebrews 2:5-9 observes, that day has not yet arrived, and so we can confidently say that the Kingdom has not yet come.

But then again, there are little pockets where we see exactly those things happening — God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and Christ’s enemies crushed under His feet. Jesus was pointing out one such pocket. In that place, at that time, the rule of God was being asserted, which is to say that the Kingdom had arrived.


Abram’s servant, seeking a wife for Isaac, met her at a well. Jacob met Rachel at a well. Moses met Zipporah at a well. In the Bible, when a man meets a woman at a well, you can practically hear the wedding bells in the background. So when Jesus meets a woman at the well outside Sychar, we know what is about to happen.

Jesus is going to marry Samaria.

Samaria has had five “husbands,” five nations who possessed her (see 2 Kings 17:24*), and the nation that dominates her now, Rome, is not really her husband. The emperor is just using her for the tax revenue. She’s defeated, hopeless, oppressed — a captive, trapped in the kingdom of darkness.

She meets Jesus, and her world changes. Finally, a man who knows her: “He told me everything I ever did,” she later says. He bypasses the theological smokescreen she throws up on the Gerzim-Zion question (there was a right answer, but she didn’t really care about it anyway). Instead, He speaks to the deep need of her heart: to have reality in her relationship with God, to have life. She drinks the water that He gives, and as He promised, it wells up in her and becomes a fountain of life. All her neighbors hear about it from her, and then meet Jesus for themselves, and He remains a few days in Sychar.

Now here’s the key question: In terms of the kingdoms of light and darkness, what just happened?

Obvious, isn’t it? Yahweh’s reign has come to Sychar, which is another way of saying that the Kingdom of God has come to Sychar. Has it come perfectly? No. Has it come fully? Nope. But has it come truly?

Of course. Where Jesus is, the Kingdom is already forcefully advancing.


So the question is, do we believe His promise?

Jesus sent His disciples out, not just with a commission, but with a promise: “All power is given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and disciple the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to do all the things that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Do we believe His promise?

If we do, then we know that He is with us wherever we go. As He cast out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, so we have the indwelling Holy Spirit in us, always.

If the Kingdom breaks out wherever Jesus is, then why shouldn’t the Kingdom break out wherever His Body is?


If we understand that it’s God’s will for the Kingdom to break out wherever we go, then we can pray boldly. He wants to break the domain of darkness through us. From driving away oppressing spirits to freeing broken people, we are agents of God, seeking to establish His reign. Knowing that He sent us out, that He is with us, and that He wants to establish outposts of His reign on earth, we pray as Jesus taught us: “Thy name be hallowed; Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

*many thanks to Michele for pointing out the 2 Kings 17:24 connection.

Mystical Union: Eternal Life is a Dimmer Switch

31 July 2011

When we begin to talk about eternal life (or for short, “life”), we often adopt binary language — you got it or you don’t, end of story.  Then, as a separate issue, we discuss the matter of sanctification. There is, of course, a reason for this.  In the End, there are only two places to be, and two sorts of people to be in them.  Those who have life will live on the New Earth, where God will dwell with His People, and those who have chosen death will die in the Lake of Fire, eternally quarantined away from the God they so despised.  Among the folks who live on the New Earth, some of them will be spiritual giants like Deborah or Peter, men and women who receive great reward.  Others will be…how to put it?…largely spiritual failures.  People who, like Samson, might have shown a great deal of early promise, but frittered it away.  There is a sense in which these are separate issues, the one decided in an instant of faith and the other worked out over the course of a person’s whole life.

In deference to that separateness, many folks will drop “eternal life” language entirely when they start talking about sanctification.  Growing up, I can’t recall ever hearing anyone use “eternal life” language in connection with walking with God: “life” was always about justification, never sanctification.

This gets into your hermeneutics, and you begin to read any passage that discusses “eternal life” or “life” as if it were talking strictly about the new birth, which is a serious problem.

But a growing number of commentators have begun to realize that Scripture doesn’t quite speak in that way.  In many passages, eternal life isn’t something you get when you die; it’s something you have now (e.g., John 5:24).  So there is a growing desire to respond to those passages, but at the same time a great fear of impairing justification by faith alone by confusing justification and sanctification, and the result is an odd blend.  These folks discuss the new birth in terms of having eternal life, and then discuss sanctification/growth in terms of experiencing eternal life.

This is a quantum leap forward from where we were, and we should applaud it.  However, it doesn’t quite go far enough to really be following the way Scripture speaks of the issues.

In brief, it’s not enough to talk about having/not having eternal life, and then, separately, experiencing eternal life.  That’s helpful, but it’s not the way the Bible talks.  The Bible talks about not having life, then having it, and then having more life (e.g., John 10:10).

Here’s the difference.  The “having/not having vs. experiencing” model is like a conventional light switch and a blindfold.  The light is either on or off, but how much you experience the light depends on something totally separate — the blindfold.  Maybe it’s on good and tight, and you can’t see a thing, even though the light is on.  Maybe it’s slipped upward just enough that you can see down along the sides of your nose.  Maybe it’s gone cockeyed, and you can see out of one eye, but not the other…and so on.  The light being on is one concern; the blindfold is another, entirely separate set of concerns.

The “not having/having/having more” model is like your basic dimmer dial switch like you might find in a suburban dining room.  Turn the dial just a little, and you’ll feel the click as the switch goes from ‘off’ to ‘on.’  But there’s just a trickle of current flowing; you can barely see the light.  Keep turning the dial in the same direction, and the flow increases, the light gets progressively brighter.  On and off are still distinguishable states, but it’s all on one continuum, not two totally separate issues.

Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.  He gives us a gift in the new birth, and sanctification is, in this sense, a distinguishable, but not separate, affair.  It’s getting more of what you got to start with.

Preparing for the Kingdom

15 May 2011

Thanks to the controversy-mongering of a certain fellow up in Michigan, heaven and hell are in the news of late.  I don’t intend to spend much time on that here; suffice it to say I take a C. S. Lewis-esque view, myself.  Hell is real, eternal, and utterly horrifying, and nobody is going to enjoy being there.  But I believe they will find it infinitely preferable to being in the presence of the God whom they have hated and avoided their whole lives, in whose presence their cherished illusions must die.

What I’m interested in, in this post, are similar implications of judgment for believers.  1 John presents a picture in which this life is an opportunity to learn to walk in the light.  If we avail ourselves of the opportunity to face God and have our sins exposed by Him now, then when He appears, we will not be ashamed before Him at His coming.  This will not be because we will have arrived at some sort of sinless state — “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” — but because we will have parts of our lives for which there is no reason for shame, and even more important, because we will have acquired the habit of standing in the light and being exposed for who we are.  When Christ is finally revealed and the last illusion is dispelled, the last self-deception uncovered, we will not be ashamed, but relieved.  It is a process we will embrace, because we have been embracing it all along.

By contrast, a believer who spends this life skulking in the shadows is doomed.  The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already dawning; the time will come when it is full day and there are no shadows left to hide in.  When day fully comes, the believer who has spent all his time in the shadows will be caught unprepared, and will shrink away in shame before Christ at His coming.  The Sun of Righteousness will be risen with healing in His wings — but this man cherishes his sickness and will have to be healed against his will.

Now consider how this will matter when it comes to eternal rewards.  The doctrine of rewards is often presented as motivation, as a heavenly profit-sharing program.  Good boys get a city; bad boys get a push broom.

Roughly speaking, that would appear to be true as far as it goes, but it’s a long way from the whole story.  If you have kids, or you’ve ever worked with kids, then you’ve seen them do astonishingly stupid things with the best of intentions.  In the resurrection, we will all be morally perfect, which is to say that our intentions will be good.  But it takes more than good intentions — even perfect intentions — to govern a city.  Results matter, and to achieve good results, you need wisdom.  To whom can Jesus hand the administration of a city?  To whom can He say, “Here, run this city the way I would,” and be confident that it will get done?

To someone who has spent this life growing in the wisdom of the Kingdom.  To a person who has walked in the light, and grown mature through a lifetime of dwelling in Christ, and Christ in him. This is the ethical dimension of the doctrine of rewards.  If the prize is to rule by Christ’s side, then the task today is to make the choices that will cause you to become someone who rules as Christ would rule.

Here, by the way, is how we dodge the classic dispensational foolishness vis-a-vis the Sermon on the Mount.  Now the old folly about how the Sermon is ‘Kingdom law’ and therefore not for today ought not even be considered seriously; the Great Commission is sufficient to refute it completely.  But just to be talking about it, let’s suppose that the Sermon is Kingdom Law, and can’t be applied fully in this present sin-filled age.  Nonetheless, this age is our training ground for the next, which means that we can’t afford to defer all application of the Sermon to later.  If we would be ready to apply Kingdom Law in the Kingdom, we have to begin by doing the best we can to apply it now.

Happily, it turns out that when we do that skillfully, the result is compelling evidence in this world for the reality of the world to come, along the lines of the witness chronicled in Hebrews 11, or the witness Jesus prayed for in John 17.  We are already the citizens of a Kingdom that has not yet come.  But all authority is committed to Jesus, sitting at the right hand of the Father, and we are already His subjects.  By living as His subjects in a world at war with Him, we walk in the light and carry that light out into the dark places of the world, that the kings of the earth may be rebuked and kiss the Son before it is too late.

By words and water, bread and wine, by the sacrifices of praise, by remembering to do good and to share — by New Covenant sacraments and sacrifices — we make war on the powers of this world.  The weapons of our warfare, although not carnal, are weapons, and they are weapons for which God’s enemies have no defense.  Let’s use them, that we might be priests in this life, and joint heirs with Christ as priest-kings in the life to come.

Telos of the Gift: The Christmas Pocketknife

3 April 2011

Once upon a time there was a man named Dan.  God was kind to Dan, and in due time gave him a wife, and then a son — a red-headed, freckled bundle of mischief named Russell.  Russell could barely sit still.  They had to hold him back a year in school because he wasn’t learning to read — not because he couldn’t, or from any lack of intelligence, but because he just had such a hard time focusing.  He didn’t start to like reading even a little bit until Dan introduced him to Tom Sawyer and Br’er Rabbit.  He was that kind of boy.

When Russell was 8 years old, Dan got him a pocketknife for Christmas.  Russell thought it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen: a bright red Swiss Army Tinker.  Large blade, small blade, bottle and can openers, screwdrivers — flat and phillips heads! — a leather punch…the list just went on and on.

Dan set Russell up with a chunk of balsa wood, a cardboard box, and an old leather belt so he could cut things, and Russell had the most wonderful afternoon of his young life reducing all three items to tiny, tiny pieces.  As far as Russell was concerned, heaven had come to earth.  Sitting at the kitchen table with an old cutting board, surrounded by bits of leather, wood and cardboard, Russell wondered what he could do next with his knife.  He looked down at the scarred surface of the cutting board in front of him, a hash of intersecting lines, and the idea struck him.  He went to work, and soon the cutting board sported a crudely carved “Russell” in one corner.

Flushed with success, Russell looked around the room, and his eyes lit on the china cabinet.  It towered to the ceiling, easily twice as tall as he was, a solid rosewood and glass giant looming over him, a tiny David with a Swiss Army knife.  Russell giggled.  Wonder how Goliath would feel about having “Russell” carved into his foot?

Still giggling, Russel lay down on the floor in front of one of the massive claw-feet and went to work….


Now: was the pocketknife a gift?  Was it free?

Of course.

Does ‘gift’ imply that Russell was free to do whatever he wanted with it?

Of course not.

Russell’s father had some general purposes in mind for the gift, and vandalism was a sin against the intentions of his father, the giver.  Russell failed to honor his father.

Of course, had Russell been better educated, he might have thought to argue: “Hey, Dad, wait just a minute!  I thought this was a gift!  You can’t back-load a gift with a whole bunch of rules.  Was it really free, or wasn’t it?”

Happily, Russell’s foolishness was just the ordinary kind, and hadn’t been raised to a fever pitch by a theological education.