Obedience is hard. We need all the help God gives. He gives us multiple reasons to obey. Some Christians in the name of being Christ-centered or in attempts to avoid legalism won’t use all the God-given motives. While their intentions are admirable this is immature at best, foolish at worst. It’s always unwise to attempt to be more spiritual than God.
The Old and New Testament uses rewards to motivate obedience and threats to warn us from disobedience. (See Psalm 34:11-16; 37:8-11; Matthew 5:5; Ephesians 4:30; 6:1-3, 1 Peter 3:8-17 etc…) There is a legalistic way to approach these motivations. But there is a grace centered way to be motivated by Gods rewards and threats.
Think about how parents motivate children. Parents want kids to obey “because I said so!” Parents want kids to obey out of sheer love for mom and dad. Parents also rarely reach these goals.
Good parents won’t give rewards that would spoil the kids. Good parents don’t threaten consequences that will do long term damage to their kids. There is a place for consequences to help spur obedience. This is how God parents too. John Piper says we should see “biblical identification of sin’s consequences as the gracious revelation of a loving Father.”
Why doesn’t God just say “I’m your Maker and Savior, obey Me!” He certainly could and at times essentially does. But God is so gracious and kind that he loves to sweeten the deal with extra motivations.
He knows our frame that we are but dust. He knows how weak, sinful and fickle we are. So, He graciously goes the extra mile for us by trying to encourage us in the hard road of obedience as much as He can. We are foolish to ignore the motivations He graciously gives us.
John Calvin says in the Institutes, “…because the eye of our mind is too blind to be moved solely by the beauty of good, our most merciful Father out of His great kindness has willed to attract us be the sweetness of rewards to love and seek Him.” He comments on Ephesians 6:2-3 saying, “promises annexed to the commandments are intended to excite our hopes and to impart a greater cheerfulness to our obedience…Paul uses this as a kind of seasoning to render the submission…more pleasant and agreeable.”
Imagine a parent teaching his child to eat healthy. Broccoli may be the best food for the kid’s growth but most kids hate the taste of broccoli. Dad can sternly demand the child immediately consume the foul tasting green food. Or dad can sweetly encourage the children by putting cheese on the broccoli to improve the taste.
Grandparents love to visit grandchildren. Grandparents often bring gifts. Grandparents want their grandchildren to spend time with them just for who they are. They also know grandchildren are immature. A grandparent might bring a child a gift because the child will love the gift, but also to encourage the child to spend more time with them. This is a reflection of God.
God knows that sin still dwells in us and we are thus often sluggish in obedience. He is so kind, gracious and patient that He gladly offers extra motivations to spur us along. Sometimes He threatens us with pain if we disobey.
Calvin comments on Ephesians again. “Paul pricks us out of our apathy with this needle…that an inevitable curse threatens all stubborn and disobedient children.”
Matthew Henry says, “1. The gospel has its temporal promises, as well as spiritual ones. 2. Although the authority of God be sufficient to engage us in our duty, yet we are allowed to have respect to the promised reward: and, 3. Though it contains some temporal advantage, even this may be considered as a motive and encouragement to our obedience… It’s lawful to consider temporal advantages as motives and encouragements to religion.”
The Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6 states, “These blessings do not accrue to them as their due from the law considered as a covenant of works. So it follows that a person cannot be said to be under law rather than under grace merely because he is motivated to obedience by the law’s promises, or refrains from evil out of regard to its threatenings.”
This immediately demands another question, “What kind of threats would a loving God give to His children?” The Westminster Confession is helpful again. It states in 17.3 that when Christians sin they, “incur (God’s) displeasure and grieve the Holy Spirit. They lose some measure of their graces and comforts, have their hearts hardened and their consciences wounded, hurt and offend others and bring temporal judgements on themselves.” Christians should hear this and be more sober minded and doubly warned to avoid sin at all cost and pursue righteousness.
The key is not to ever think you are earning anything by your obedience. Christians ought to take the words “earn, deserve, merit” out of their vocabulary when thinking of their relationship with Christ. All the rewards we might gain are a blood-bought gift and are graciously and freely given.
Thomas Boston says, “since sin dwells in him…the promises of fatherly smiles, and threatenings of fatherly chastisements, are still necessary…being influenced to obedience by the promises and threatenings of the law of Christ, is not indeed slavish, yet it is plainly childish” This is similar to C.S. Lewis teaching that duty is like a crutch as far as a motivation. It is not sin to use a crutch if you need it. Don’t try to be stronger than you are. Use the gracious aids your Father has provided.
Boston also teaches that the freeness of our obedience (meaning we obey just because we love Christ) will always bear proportion to our faith, but that our faith is never perfect in this life. So, we will always need some of the secondary motivations in this life, such as rewards.
Samuel Bolton makes the helpful distinction between primary motives that serve as the “spring” to action, and secondary motives that serve merely as “oil” to keep the wheels turning after they are already moving. Some secondary motivations such as these are given to help us especially when our faith is lowest and trials and temptations run highest. “God gives us these in order to help faith against sense, to furnish faith with arguments against the carnal reasonings of the flesh, and to strengthen us in the greatest straits and distresses the world can bring upon us…to cheer him in his way and give him encouragement, lest he should think of the great things he had refused and lest the flesh should begin to tell him that he had made a hard bargain…By this he renews his strength and gets new and fresh encouragement to continue his journey. He does not make this a reason why he undertakes the journey.”
The greatest motive remains Christ love for me and my corresponding love to Him. This is why I start my journey of pursuing Christ. But I should see His promises of reward and even His threats as flowing from His gracious love as the extra motivation that I’ll need, especially in the hard seasons of life.