Gifts For Sale?
Yep, another oxymoron. Normally people know the difference between gifts and earned wages; even the IRS can figure that one out. But somehow, when it comes to the Bible, ordinary words transform before our eyes into their opposites. And nobody seems to notice.
Salvation is clearly taught as a gift in scripture (Eph. 2:8-9), and yet many try to earn all or part of it via good deeds, penance, or some other method. Why? How? Do we consider the receiving of a gift from another person to be the earning of a wage? Then on what basis does accepting a gift from God become a
work or something we earn? Conversely, if scripture tells us to work or strive or make an effort, can it be talking about the gift of salvation? And if it speaks of things we did in this life, can we not conclude that it is about earned wages?
Probably the most famous verse that illustrates how easily we gloss over this important understanding is Phil. 3:12-14 (along with 2 Tim. 4:7), which many cite as being about salvation. But in addition to the
works language here, we have in Acts 20:24 Paul’s own explanation of what he was striving toward: the task Jesus gave him of testifying to the gospel. And speaking of 2 Tim., verse 8 speaks of a crown that will be awarded. Are gifts awarded, or are they given? Are medals of honor given to just anyone, or do people have to earn them?
Now let’s look at some scriptures concerning judgment, because then things get a little more complicated. In Mt. 5:21ff and Mt. 12:36 Jesus talks about it, but notice that it’s in conjunction with what people do and say, not what they believe. Yet in Mt. 12:41ff He speaks of it in terms of faith or the lack thereof. And when Paul said in Rom. 6:23 that
the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, he contrasted wages with gifts, but described death as an earned wage. Again, in Rev. 20:11-15 we read that people are judged by what they did, yet the criterion for throwing people into the Lake of Fire is that their names were not found written in the book of life. (I’m well aware of debates on what that could mean, especially on the topic of Eternal Security, but the point is that their eternal destiny is determined by this one factor, not their deeds. Why their names are not written is a matter of great speculation, but I think the bulk of scripture points toward acceptance or rejection of Jesus as the key.)
On the happy side of judgment, we read in 1 Cor. 3:10-15 that our deeds will be tested, and even if we are found to have nothing of value in terms of earned wages, we ourselves are still saved by faith. And in case anyone objects that this passage is only about teachers, we can add Rom. 4:4-5, Rom. 5:1ff, Rom. 11:6, and 2 Cor. 5:10. But notice verse 9 there:
So we make it our goal to please him....
That is the bottom line of Christian motivation. We will get rewards, and this is portrayed as a positive motivator for us. But the ultimate motivation should always be
to please Him. If we have been reconciled with God through Jesus, that relationship will be exhibited in our determination to do that which is pleasing to God, with rewards being mere icing on the cake.
So let’s try to be careful when we read scripture, making sure to pay attention to the terminology so we don’t confuse that which is received freely and that which is an earned reward.