If you have read through the book of Romans you will notice something striking about how Paul arranges his letter. He uses a rhetorical device known as hypophora where he anticipates the next logical question and answers it. It is almost as if he is trying to have a conversation with the reader and wants them to understand that what he is teaching makes complete sense and also that what he is teaching can be easily misunderstood. Being clear in what we teach is important and so anticipating questions is often used as a way to teach. The Heidelberg Catechism uses this same rhetorical device in some of its questions and answers. The next question in the catechism is often a logical follow-up question to the one before it. The questions that we are looking at this week are those types of questions. Last week we looked at the scriptural understanding of justification by faith alone and started to look at how our works cannot contribute to how we are saved. This week we will look at two of the follow-up questions.
After having clearly stated that our works cannot contribute to our justification because of the stain of sin that affects everything that we do, the catechism asks;
"But do our good works earn nothing, even though God promises to reward them in this life and the next?"
Another translation of the catechism puts it this way;
"What! do not our good works merit that which yet God will reward in this and in a future life?"
The idea here is that when we first learn of salvation and justification that we are made righteous before God through the work of Christ it is wonderful news. We then hear about how there is an eternal reward that is given to all those who receive this salvation by faith and we tend to think if it is a reward then it must be something that, at least in some part, is earned. This is a reasonable question. In our everyday experience, we think of a reward as something earned. We go to work and we earn the reward of our pay. Perhaps you have participated in something like a summer book club where you would earn rewards for how many books you read. This is a normal part of how we talk and how we act. In our culture rewards are often earned. But this reward, the reward of eternal life with Christ, is not one that can be earned.
It is a Gift Not A Reward
The Catechism answers the question by simply saying;
"This reward is not of merit, but of grace."
You cannot earn a gift. What we often fail to understand is that we cannot earn the gift by doing what is required of us. In Luke 17 Jesus tells a short parable about a master and a slave. In the parable, Jesus says that if a man has a servant whose responsibility it is to watch over the sheep or to work in the field, the man does not ask the servant to come to the table and eat with him, but commands him to come and serve as is his duty. Doing one's duty does not earn anything extra. Jesus goes on in verse 10 to tell us that when we have done what is required of us we should remind ourselves "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty." Everything good that we do in this life cannot earn grace, because even if we were to live perfect lives, and we cannot do that, then all we could be able to say is that we have done what was our duty. Good works do not earn anything, they are what is required of us as God's creation.
The But of Question #64
Understanding that grace is not something we can earn can often lead to one of two outcomes. The first of the two is sadly the most common. It is the carnal answer. It is the answer that Paul heads off in Romans 6, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Question 64 asks;
"But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane?"
Another way of saying this would be to say something like, people do not work as hard if there is nothing extra in it for them. This is very true. The sinful man is always looking for handouts and extra things. We see this when we ask someone for help and they ask what is in it for us. To think this way and to ask this is to misunderstand what true faith is in the first place. The catechism answers by saying;
"By no means: for it is impossible that those, who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness."
Getting back to Paul in Romans 6 he asks a rhetorical question to get to the same point, he asks "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?" His answer starts the same way the catechism answer starts. "By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Our old sinful self would be made careless by knowing that we cannot earn a reward, but the new creation, who is given a new heart and raised to walk with Christ, is one who lives a life of thankfulness.
Grace is a wonderful gift. It is a truly amazing and undeserved gift. When we have truly come to Christ through faith this is one of the things that we understand. Our hearts sing with John Newton, that famous hymn writer, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I found, was blind but now I see." Grace opens our eyes to who we truly are and who Christ truly is and we see ourselves as the wretches that we are, deserving death but given life. And our whole lives become about serving the one who gave us the gift of life. Not because it will earn us anything but out of gratitude and thankfulness for what has already been done. You cannot earn a single drop of grace by any of your works, and yet the grace is given freely. And the proof of having received that grace is a life lived in service to the one who gave you that grace. So give him praise in both word and deed. Obey his commands because he has already given you a reward beyond measure.
Soli Deo Gloria