Virtue is Its Own Reward
Christians agree that our growth in godliness is important, but not everyone agrees about why that is true or what is at stake. In recent years, discussions within the Reformed community about the role of our good works in relation to the final judgment have been prominent, some suggesting that our works play a role in a so-called “final justification” and others arguing that our good works are simply evidence of having been justified once and for all by faith in Christ. One subsidiary issue within this discussion has been about whether we receive rewards at the last judgment for our Spirit-induced good deeds. Some say that the reason that some do not speak about rewards for believers at the last day owes to a lack of concern for obedience. This post cannot settle all of these issues, but aims to address the issue of whether an insistence that growing obedience requires that we link that insistence to the notion of final rewards. In other words, is there another way that we can explain why Christians need to pursue godliness regardless of whether we affirm final rewards?
I believe that this question raises the issue of motivation. It seems to me that many assume that the only reason for doing something is if we get something in return for ourselves. After all, I would not exercise if it did not result in better health. I would not pay my bills if it did not result in keeping my utilities running. But is it the case when it comes to godliness that we need to think that we get something in return for our godliness in order to have powerful motivation to pursue it?
Christian ethical theory has seen various changes over the centuries, but I believe that one of the reasons why some think that we need to teach the idea of final rewards in order to make obedience important owes to the dominance of “divine command theory” in the modern era. Divine command theory teaches that we must do something simply because God told us to do it. On the surface, that may seem well and good, since we should do what God tells us to do. Still, one of this theory’s underlying premises is that there is not necessarily a reason for what God has commanded. This principle is very easily illustrated with the common experience of parents and children. When a parent instructs a child to clean his or her room, the potentially endless questions that the child may ask about why they should obey may eventually prompt the parent to conclude, “Because I told you so.” Although that is not wrong in itself, it may suggest that the instruction is a bit arbitrary. I think it is the case, however, that evangelicals have in many ways thought that God worked the same way as a frustrated parent. At the end of the day, many evangelicals think that the ultimate reason for pursuing various good deeds is simply because that is what God told us to do.
Once this divine command theory is in place though, it does not automatically make the questions stop. People are still prone to ask why we should do specific good deeds, and are often left feeling that “because God said so” is a shallow answer. One plausible response to supplement what can appear like a superficial answer is to add the prospect of final rewards as the reason that we should pursue holiness. The rationale is that we obey not just because God said so, but now because you get something for your obedience too. Again, this post is not about whether there are final rewards, but whether that is the necessary premise in order to make Christian obedience important.
I believe that the Scripture offers other reasons that undergird the Christian pursuit of godliness, which means that the prospect of final rewards is not the defining motivator for sanctification. Specifically, being made in the image of God entails that we were made to be a certain way and work towards certain ends, namely in this case to reflect the good character of our holy God. Without entirely disregarding a place for divine command theory, this vision for Christian holiness rests upon an understanding of virtue ethics. This ethical paradigm holds that certain things are good in themselves, which means that there does not need to be a higher end than the good thing itself. Just as we do not need a higher justification for spending time with our loved ones other than the intrinsic good of enjoying those for whom we care the most, so too godliness should not really need a deeper motivating factor more than the intrinsic good of godliness itself. Virtue is developed as our natural disposition toward a habit of doing good is strengthened throughout the process of sanctification as God renews us in our whole person.
We can explain this idea more fully though by thinking about biblical texts about how humanity was made in God’s image. In Genesis 1, the creation of humanity does have special emphasis. Certainly, the whole story is important, but Genesis records God’s self-deliberation only in regard to his creation of humanity in his image:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26–27)
Humanity is specifically formed in God’s image in order to bear God’s likeness. There is something inherent in humanity that makes us God’s image, but there is also a functional dimension in which we are to reflect God’s image in creation. After all, God is the sovereign Lord and humanity is called to exercise (responsible) dominion within creation as God’s vice-regents.
In this regard, it is significant that throughout the creation narrative, God saw that the things that he made were good (verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25), and that the completed creation was “very good” (verse 31). The relevant point for our discussion of virtue is that God noted that there are some things that are good as such. At least part of humanity’s function is to reflect God’s goodness within creation. The New Testament descriptions of the divine image establishes this point. Colossians 3:10: “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Ephesians 4:24: “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism 10 summarizes this biblical data well: “God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” The Scripture is clear that the image of God contains an investiture with goodness as such.
How does this reflection on the image of God help us think about motivation for holiness? The fact that humanity was created in God’s image with an imbedded purpose of reflecting God’s holiness and righteousness indicates that we are being properly human only as we instantiate God’s goodness. After all, creation is “very good” only after God has placed his own image on earth and consecrated the sabbath so that we are properly ordered toward everlasting, supernatural communion with him. If God made us so that his goodness would be refracted into creation through us, then it means that God ordered us by nature to be good. This means that when we are wicked, that sin is not only a lack of conformity unto or transgression of God’s law, but it is also a way of functioning in a truly less-than-human manner.
Goodness, therefore, is an end in itself. Regardless of whether (or in what way) we affirm the prospect of final rewards, that should not be the primary reason that motivates our obedience. If we properly understand the reasons for which God made us, we should not need a higher goal to motivate our efforts at obedience other than being more like what we were made to be: a reflection of our God who is good. Since Christ is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3), and God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son, our highest goal simply is to be more like Christ our Savior.
From this Christological perspective, we also see how Christ himself provides the model for thinking about obedience. Even Christ, who as the Son of God did not owe obedience to the Father in the divine essence, learned obedience in his role as our mediator (Heb. 5:8). In Philippians 2:3–11, Paul outlines how the Son had perfect equality with God, but gave it up and learned obedience precisely in order to benefit others. Christ did not grasp his natural equality with God, but became a servant and became obedient. But Paul explained the Son’s act of humility precisely in order to support an ethical point: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3–4). Christ became obedient precisely in order to benefit others. Paul says that is supposed to be our model as well.
So, perhaps Christians should think far less about any potential final rewards that we may receive for our obedience, and think more about how it is Christlike to pursue obedience to God because it benefits others. Godliness should not be about ambition for ourselves, but about looking out for others (Phil. 2:3–4). It is inherently good to progress in sanctification, since that is the end to which God has predestined us in Christ (Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:29). Regardless of whether we receive rewards on the last day, it is intrinsically right and proper that we grow in goodness. As Paul exhorted in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Christians are to think about that which is in itself true, honorable, just, and so forth because these things themselves are “worthy of praise.” There is something intrinsically wonderful about learning to be more like our Savior, quite apart from something further that we might gain from it.
Obedience to God is good in itself, and Christians are meant to love what is true, good, and beautiful. We do not have to look for a higher reason for pursuing godliness than that we were meant for it from the beginning in the way that we were made. Although our right relationship with God is founded only on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, we thrive in our relationship with God when we are properly obedient. Unsurprisingly, since being properly human includes reflecting God’s goodness as those made in his image, we also tend to find that we are more joyful when we are properly ordered in our walk with God in a pattern of obedience. In that respect, virtue truly is its own reward because the reward is an unfettered enjoyment of our relationship with Christ, who guarantees our everlasting life by grace alone.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Work: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition