Many Bible passages speak of God rewarding his people while many others call such redeemed individuals sinners. When you consider who we are by nature (sinners), and who God is in his nature (holy, righteous, just), it seems a little presumptuous – perhaps even delusional? – to speak of God “rewarding” us. Jesus came to save sinners, but does he give such people rewards for their works? Impossible! Or, if it is true, maybe it would be best not to discuss too much. Hence the shortage of books on the topics of good works and rewards.
In North American circles especially, I have noticed that Christians (even pastors) tend to be squeamish about the topic of rewards. There are likely many reasons for this phenomenon such as the fear of appearing Roman Catholic, legalistic, or self-dependent. As a result, we can approach passages that are talking about sanctification and read them in the hope of finding the doctrine of justification.
I want to provide an example of this in some recent literature, which I will be highlighting in a forthcoming volume on good works and rewards. Professor J.V. Fesko at Westminster Seminary California has written some good stuff and I commend his book on the Westminster Assembly. But I was a little surprised in one of his recent publications to see him find justification in Professor G.K. Beale’s work where Beale was speaking clearly of sanctification.
Here is the example:
For the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints…
“Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out: Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints” (Rev. 19:8).
Here is a test, in light of reading the words above. When you read this passage, do you think of the “fine linen” as the righteous deeds of Christ imputed to the saints? In his book on justification, J.V. Fesko makes this argument.1 Fesko actually cites G.K. Beale in support of this view. However, Beale actually takes a different view to the one propounded by Fesko. In Beale’s view, he thinks that “good works are a noncausal necessary condition” for entering heaven” (as he points the readers to Rom. 2:6–8; 2 Cor. 11:2)/2 Specifically, the “fine linen” in Revelation 19:8 is, according to Beale, “the reward for (or result of) the righteous deeds of the saints.”3
However, whereas Fesko appeals to Beale in favor of imputation, Beale’s exposition does not go in that direction. Instead, his next remarks are:
Consequently, the saints are clothed with pure linen as a symbol of God’s righteous vindication of them because, though they were persecuted, they were righteous on earth. The full meaning of the pure garments is that God’s righteous vindication involves judging the enemy, which shows that the saints’ faith and works have been right all along. The dual sense of ‘pure linen’ in 19:8 suits admirably the rhetorical purpose of the entire Apocalypse, which includes exhortations to believers to stop soiling their garments (3:4–5) and not to be ‘found naked’ (3:18; 16:15). This underscores the aspect of human accountability, which is highlighted by 19:7b: ‘his bride has prepared herself.’ … From the human side, the good works focus on the saints’ witness to their faith in Christ, which is supported by the focus on witness in v 10 and by the direct linkage in 3:4–5 of white clothing with the notion of witness (cf. likewise 3:14 with 3:18).4
Good scholars, theologians, and pastors can sometimes have such an aversion to the dangers of moralism, “neonomianism,” or legalism, etc., that they seem to approach the Scriptures in a way where they see “imputation” in places where the Scriptures are speaking rather obviously about the habitual righteousness of God’s people (cf. Matt. 5:20 as an example).
A “justification–centrism” approach to the Scriptures is robbing us of a doctrine of good works and rewards that God intended to be a blessing to his people and not a curse. I think we actually harm the doctrine of justification by faith alone (whereby our sins are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us) when we find this doctrine in places where the Scripture is speaking about sanctification. Opponents of this Reformation doctrine end up finding our case so weak that we have to strain for the doctrine in places we have no business finding the doctrine of justification.
A wise man once said, we should not turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
We should also not let our proper concern about legalism turn sanctification into justification. The moment that occurs, you are dead (i.e., a gospel threat).