by Mark Horne
It seems almost human nature to think that we can find something to do for God that will make Him do us favors. If we live more virtuously, or cut down on a vice or two, then God will have to reward us.
But the problem with this notion is that it doesn’t really comport with the idea of God at all. If God is God then He is infinite, independent, and eternal. He is self-sustaining. He doesn’t need anything we have to offer. We deal with fellow human beings all the time in ways that both obligate them to reward us and obligate us to reward them. Because we all have unmet needs, we require one another for life and happiness. Obviously, God is not in that sort of relationship with us. He doesn’t need anything from us so that we could put him in our debt.
The pagans believed their sacrifices fed the gods the food they needed, so they could imagine that they really were in some sort of equal arrangement. In one of the pagan myths of the near-east there is a version of the flood story. In that tale, when the Noah-figure gets off the ark, and offers a sacrifice, the gods are said to be so hungry that they swarm on it “like flies.” The god who caused the flood is repudiated because by threatening the human race he threatened the source of food for the gods.
In that belief-system of finite gods it makes sense that people thought they could bribe these gods to do them favors and merit a reward. The Apostle Paul deals with this degenerate form of religion when he preached in Athens, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17.24, 25). God gives Himself to us over and over. We are in no position to trade. Everything we have comes from Him.
Some people think that, before sin entered the world, man was in a position to earn or merit blessing from God. But, while it is true that sin corrupts everything we do now, even apart from sin our works could never put God in our debt. The older Protestant theologians knew this. One of them, James Fisher, authored a “catechism”–a series of question and answers for the purpose of teaching children Christian doctrine–which included a question about the first human being: “Was there any proportion between Adam’s obedience, though sinless, and the life that was promised?” The answer is: “There can be no proportion between the obedience of a finite creature, however perfect, and the enjoyment of the infinite God.”
The catechism goes on: “Why could not Adam’s perfect obedience be meritorious of eternal life?” and answers, “Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound to, by virtue of his natural dependence on God, as a reasonable creature made after his image.” Finally, the questions is asked: “Could he have claimed the reward as a debt, in case he had continued in his obedience?” The answer is that all rewards are of God’s grace, his unmerited favor: “He could have claimed it only as a pactional debt, in virtue of the covenant promise, by which God became debtor to his own faithfulness, but not in virtue of any intrinsic merit of his obedience, Luke 17:10.” By “pactional” the author means that it was a only by an gracious decision to bind himself to a promise that God could be obligated in the first place.
This last answer is accompanied by a Scripture text, Luke 17.10: “Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'”
James Fisher was only one of many who understood the true God and therefore rejected all human merit. Reformed theologian John Ball writes the common consensus, appealing to the same text that Fisher uses:
In this state and condition Adam’s obedience should have been rewarded in justice, but he could not have merited that reward. Happiness should have been conferred upon him, or continued unto him for his works, but they had not deserved the continuance thereof: for it is impossible the creature should merit of the Creator, because when he hath done all that he can, he is an unprofitable servant, he hath done but his duty (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace).
Unworthy servants are what we are, even when we have done all our duty! How much less can we ever rightfully claim to obligate God to reward us when we both fail to do our duty and actively violate God’s commands every day?
The fact is, when human beings are attracted to the idea of dealing with God on the basis of their merits, they are not only denying their own sinfulness before a Holy God, but they are denying who God is. Make no mistake, the issue here is not merely the sinfulness of sin but the deity of God. As the Westminster Confession states in chapter 2, paragraph 2:
God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made, nor deriving any glory from them, but only manifesting his own glory in, by, unto, and upon them. He is the alone fountain of all being, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things; and hath most sovereign dominion over them, to do by them, for them, or upon them whatsoever himself pleaseth.
To claim that we can earn from this God, that we can intrinsically merit from him some reward, is truly insane–an exchanging of the creature for the Creator. We might as well worship beasts as pretend that we could ever, under any circumstances, offer God works that are truly meritorious before him when he himself has enabled and ordained for us to do every good deed we produce.
Thus, our the Westminster Confession goes on to affirm that we can never merit anything from God, not only because of our sinfulness in comparison to God’s holiness, but also because of our finitude in comparison to God’s transcendance:
We cannot by our best works merit pardon of sin, or eternal life at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come; and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom, by them, we can neither profit, nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins, but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants: and because, as they are good, they proceed from his Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment (16.5; emphasis added).
Happily, God is gracious. Before sin entered the world, God established a gracious relationship with humanity in Adam whereby he would inherit eternal glory if he persevered in faith and obedience.
But Adam did not remain in the vine (John 15.1ff). In the words of the sixteenth-century Protestant French Confession of Faith, “by his own guilt he fell from the grace which he received.” Rather than destroying Adam and Eve in condemnation, God gave exponentially greater grace to deal with sin and restore man to the glory that he had failed to inherit. He sent His own Son to die in our condemnation on the cross in order to give Jesus the exaltation for us that Adam had failed to trust Him to give him.
Repenting and believing the Gospel is never about earning God’s favor or putting him in our debt by some sort of good work. It is simply the only appropriate response to the clear fact that God has already revealed that He loves us and freely offers us both salvation from sin and an eternal inheritance of incomprehensible glory. And even our response to that offer is God’s gift. If his Spirit did not overcome our obstinancy we would go on asserting the possiblity that we could merit something other than death from Him.