Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Crown of Righteousness: Justification and Reward

I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
Paul's Second Letter to Timothy, 4:6-8, part of the second reading for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (24th October, 2010) in the LCA's version of the RCL.

"We confess that eternal life is a reward, because it is something due on account of the promise, not on account of our merits. For the justification has been promised, which we have above shown to be properly a gift of God; and to this gift has been added the promise of eternal life, according to Rom. 8:30: Whom He justified, them He also glorified. Here belongs what Paul says, 2 Tim. 4:8: There is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me. For the crown is due the justified because of the promise. And this promise saints should know, not that they may labor for their own profit, for they ought to labor for the glory of God; but in order that they may not despair in afflictions, they should know God's will, that He desires to aid, to deliver, to protect them. Just as the inheritance and all possessions of a father are given to the son, as a rich compensation and reward for his obedience, and yet the son receives the inheritance, not on account of his merit, but because the father, for the reason that he is his father, wants him to have it. Therefore it is a sufficient reason why eternal life is called a reward, because thereby the tribulations which we suffer, and the works of love which we do, are compensated, although we have not deserved it."
Defence of the Augsburg Confession, V, 241-243

I wonder how many pastors will be preaching on Paul's text this Sunday? I certainly am. I've found there is a great need to clearly expound the relationship between justification and reward to our Lutheran folk, as this is a question on which they are not clear, and often much confused. As the Confessions urge: "the preaching of rewards and punishments is necessary. God's wrath is set forth in the preaching of punishments...Grace is set forth in the preaching of rewards."

Perhaps in the past there has been too much "we are unworthy servants...poor miserable sinners" (true enough in its proper context), and not enough "we are sons and heirs of the kingdom" (note how the Confessions pick up this theme)? Too much law, not enough Gospel? Older folk tell me this was the case. The preacher needs to diagnose his hearers rightly, lest he apply the wrong medicine! (Or, rather, it might be better to say that he needs to have a word for both the self-righteous and the repentant sinners.)

The Confessions provide helpful guidance on properly distinguishing Law and Gospel on this matter, and can steer the preacher on the proper course between the Scylla of denying scripture's teaching on rewards out of (understandable) concern to keep the sola gratia (grace alone) pure, and the Charybdis of the Roman Catholic importation of human merit into justification. The sermon might have to clearly reject the Roman concept of Gnadenlohn ("gracious merit"), as the Germans call it, whereby human works merit an increase in grace and/or justification (sic!). This scholastic innovation has even crept into popular theology ("God helps those who help themselves").

An interesting challenge is whether/how to fit the Gospel (Luke 18:9-14) in as an illustration? This parable, which so clearly teaches justification based on God's mercy and faith alone, could be a good place to start the sermon: "In our Gospel this morning we hear of a man who was justified freely by God's grace and mercy...yet in our second reading Paul writes to Timothy about rewarded for keeping the faith, which reminds us that elsewhere in scripture, rewards for works we do are mentioned (cite examples)...What's going on here? Is salvation and eternal life a gift or a reward? How do we reconcile these teachings of scripture?" Such an intro might seem unduly theological, but we should not underestimate the theological nature of the questions many laity have, including on faith and works.

The key to exegeting the Pauline text is the place he assigns to faith.

The Confessional teaching that works should be done to the glory of God could be brought in at the conclusion of the sermon, and might bring the sermon to a close on an eschatological theme - the crown of righteousness...the glories of heaven... praising God (for himself, and also for works done in his name).

Note - This is really just me 'thinking out loud' as I meditate on the text in preparation for my sermon this Sunday. I find it helpful to write these thoughts down and kkep them, so why not blog them? It is not intended to serve as a replacement for any other preacher's own reflections, but if it helps...SDG. Think of it as 'one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread' (hopefully not too stale!).

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