A Gift to Unworthy Servants
“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’” (vv. 9–10).- Luke 17:7–10
God’s Word is clear that our good works play no part in our justification — the Lord’s declaration that we are righteous before Him (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 3:21–26; 4; Gal. 2:15–16). Thus, eternal life is ours only when we renounce all our attempts to earn divine favor, turn from our sin, and place our faith in Christ Jesus alone. Nevertheless, as the Heidelberg Catechism recognizes in question and answer 63, God promises a reward for our obedience. How is this possible?
Without question, our Creator promises to bless His people for their obedience throughout Scripture. Deuteronomy 28:1–14, for example, contains God’s pledge to the ancient Israelites that He would cause them to prosper if they followed the Mosaic law. Psalm 19:11 explains that there is a great reward for those who keep the Lord’s commandments. Furthermore, Hebrews 11:6 tells us that true faith includes the belief that God rewards those who seek Him.
Yet such passages are not at odds with the doctrine of justification by faith alone because these texts have to do with sanctification, not justification. Fundamentally, justification is about how we get into the kingdom. Sanctification describes what happens once we are in the kingdom. No sinner becomes a citizen of heaven through his good deeds, as citizenship is only for those who are perfect. Therefore, we rely on the perfect righteousness of Christ alone, received by faith alone, for our place in heaven (2 Cor. 5:21). Yet as in any kingdom, true citizens of heaven act in certain ways. In sanctification, our growth in holiness, we practice God’s law, not to earn our place in heaven but to thank Him for granting us citizenship by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. We must carefully distinguish justification from sanctification, but we cannot separate them. It is impossible for justified people to lack the desire to keep God’s law, and it is impossible for people to have a true desire to follow the Lord’s commandments unless they have been justified (James 2:14–26).
God promises to reward us for our obedience, our attempts to do His will in our sanctification. Even this is ultimately by grace, however. In His goodness, the Lord rewards the obedience of His justified-by-faith-alone children. But even in our sanctification, we are but servants who have no claim upon God (Luke 17:7–10).
The abundance of God’s grace is seen not only in that He declares sinners righteous through faith in Christ alone but also in that He rewards His justified children for their obedience, imperfect as it is. We do not become citizens of heaven based on our good works, but we do good works to thank God for the citizenship that is ours only through faith. Let us obey the Lord, but let us not think that this obedience secures our righteous status before Him.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 5:3