A motive is “that which moves or induces a person to act in a certain way” (Oxford English Dictionary). In the negative context of criminal life “means, motive, and opportunity” (MMO) is a popular summation of the three aspects of a crime that must be established to determine possible culpability. The motive is what moved the perpetrator to commit the crime. People commit crimes because of greed, anger, jealousy, etc. In the positive context of the Christian life, what motive(s) could move a believer to live in obedience to Christ if heaven is assured?
Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 4:24; cf. 6:47). When people hear that eternal life is a free gift that is not dependent on good works to get it, keep it, or prove that one has it, they sometimes wonder what would motivate a person to live a life pleasing to Christ once they are assured of heaven. We can begin by first considering what might become a primary motivation for obedience if heaven is not assured.
WHAT MOTIVATES US IF HEAVEN IS NOT ASSURED?
Fear might become a primary motivation for obedience if heaven is not assured. There can be the fear of the loss of justification in an Arminian system of theology. There can be the fear of being among the non-elect in a Reformed system of theology.
John Wesley believed that faith and salvation could be lost. He said, “It is incumbent on all that are justified to be zealous for good works. And these are so necessary, that if a man willingly neglects them…he cannot retain the grace he has received”[i] In a Q and A session he expressed:
Q. 9. What sins are consistent with justifying faith? A. No willful sin. If a believer willfully sins, he casts away his faith. Neither is it possible he should have justifying faith again, without previously repenting....Q. 11. Are works necessary to the continuance of faith? A. Without doubt; for a man may forfeit the free gift of God, either by sins of omission or commission.[ii]
Representing the Reformed belief that all true Christians persevere in faith and holiness, R. C. Sproul cited a personal fear of not being “one of the redeemed”:
"There are people in this world who are not saved, but who are convinced that they are. The presence of such people causes genuine Christians to doubt their salvation. After all, we wonder, suppose I am in this category? Suppose I am mistaken about my salvation and am really going to hell? How can I know that I am a real Christian?
A while back I had one of those moments of acute self-awareness that we have from time to time, and suddenly the question hit me: “R. C., what if you are not one of the redeemed? What if your destiny is not heaven after all, but hell?” Let me tell you that I was flooded in my body with a chill that went from my head to the bottom of my spine. I was terrified.
I tried to grab hold of myself. I thought, “Well, it’s a good sign that I’m worried about this. Only true Christians really care about salvation.” But then I began to take stock of my life, and I looked at my performance. My sins came pouring into my mind, and the more I looked at myself, the worse I felt. I thought, “Maybe it’s really true. Maybe I’m not saved after all.”[iii]
By contrast, Jesus asserted, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). We don’t look at our performance for our assurance of heaven but at Christ’s promise. But, what can now motivate our perseverance and faithfulness if heaven is assured?
WHAT MOTIVATES US IF HEAVEN IS ASSURED?
Believers have a multifaceted motivation for dedication and faithfulness to Christ. We can organize these facets of our motivation under a focus to the past, present, and future aspects of our salvation.
Past-Focused Motivation for a Believer’s Dedication and Faithfulness
We can be motivated to obey and serve Christ when we reflect on the past aspects of our salvation. Our past-focused reflection on what Christ has done for us can stir up love and gratitude.
Gratitude can induce dedication and service. The Apostle Paul based his appeal for a believer’s dedication on the mercies of God, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). A believer can show appreciation for what has been freely provided him by dedicating himself to a life of service to Christ. We can serve out of thankfulness for what has been done for us.
The love of Christ can move a believer to live for Him. The Apostle Paul testified, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5:14-15). The Apostle John certified “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Jesus said “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word” (John 14:23). We desire to please the One we love.
Present-Focused Motivation for a Believer’s Dedication and Faithfulness
We can be motivated to obey and serve Christ when we reflect on the present aspects of our salvation. There are positive and negative aspects of a believer’s present-focused motivation. God rewards the obedience of His children with present blessings. God disciplines His children when they disobey Him.
Positive Consequences in the Present Life
God rewards faithfulness with present blessings. Faithful believers experience joy, peace, and confidence of God’s provision of their needs. Jesus exhorted His disciples to cease being anxious about what they would eat, drink or wear, for their heavenly Father knows that they need them all, but instead they were to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things would be added to them (Matt 6:31-33). This was not a guarantee of health and wealth, but a general promise of God’s daily provision for believers who put God’s priorities first in life. The Apostle Peter linked righteous living with present blessings by quoting from Psalm 32, “Whoever desires to live life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit; let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet 3:10-11).
The peace of God guards the hearts and minds of those who pray and who think about things that are true and commendable (Phil 4:4-9). Paul declared, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:17-19).
Believers who keep Jesus’ commandments experience an increased level of spiritual intimacy with the Father and Son and an increased level of joy. Jesus put it this way, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10).
Believers can be positively motivated by a filial fear of the Lord’s discipline. God disciplines His children (Heb 12:7-9).
God’s discipline can take various forms. The first form of discipline can be simple reproof. The Word of God reproves and corrects us as we are exposed to it (2 Tim 3:16-17). God may use a fellow believer to restore us in a spirit of gentleness when we are caught up in a transgression (Gal 6:1). If we fail to respond to a fellow believer, God may then use the leaders of the church to correct us (Matt 18:15-20).
God may discipline us by bringing affliction into our lives. Paul told the believers in Corinth that some of them were sick due to God’s discipline (1 Cor 11:30). James gave this advice to believers who may be sick due to the Lord’s discipline:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (Jas 5:13-16a)
God’s discipline may be preventative, corrective, or instructive. All of God’s discipline is for our good, to conform us more and more into the likeness of Christ (Heb 12:10). Such discipline for the moment seems painful rather than pleasant, but later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those trained by it (Heb 12:11). This is the grace of discipline.
Negative Consequences in the Present Life
Unfortunately, believers can fail to obtain the grace of God needed to benefit positively from the discipline of God. “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God . . .” (Heb 12:15a). This is the watershed phrase of the passage. All that leads up to it leads to one result. All that follows it leads to another result. When in our difficulties and trials we obtain God’s grace to meet those trials, the results are positive. When in our difficulties and trials we fail to obtain God’s grace, the results are negative.
How do we obtain God’s grace? The writer told us earlier in this letter. He encouraged us in Heb 4:14-16 to come to the throne of grace that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need. We find the grace of God when we turn to Him in our time of need.
When we fail to obtain God’s grace in our time of need we may become bitter and immoral (Heb 12:15b-16a). We fall out of fellowship with the Lord and lose the joy and peace He provides in the present age. The Psalmist described the emotional fallout of failing to deal with his iniquity, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4).
When we fail to obtain God’s grace, we also might become godless like Esau and develop ways to live life and fulfill needs apart from God (Heb 12:16b). The result will be a loss of blessing (Heb 12:17). God may even prematurely take the physical life of a sinning believer. This was the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 and some of the believers in Corinth (1 Cor 11:30).
Esau lost the birthright (inheritance of the firstborn) and no matter how much he later regretted it, he could not change this fact. Believers can lose their inheritance. This is not the loss of eternal life but the loss of the inheritance of reigning with Christ in the life to come.
Future-Focused Motivation for a Believer’s Dedication and Faithfulness
We can be motivated to obey and serve Christ when we reflect on the future aspects of our salvation. There are positive and negative aspects of a believer’s future-focused motivation. Believers will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Bema) to be recompensed for the deeds done in the present life, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
The judgment at the Bema is not for the purpose of determining who has eternal life, but to test the quality of each believer’s work, “. . . each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:13-15). A believer is secure in his possession of eternal life. The evaluation of how he spent his life can have positive or negative consequences in the life to come.
Positive Consequences at the Bema and in the Life to Come
There is the positive promise of rewards. Among the last recorded words of Jesus in the New Testament were “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Rev 22:12). Jesus exhorted His disciples, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:19-20). This is an actual command to pursue rewards. Jesus stated the reason, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). Jesus knew what would captivate our hearts for Him. The hope of rewards has a significant role to play in this. Jesus will reward faithful believers with praise, the special joy of having pleased Him, and the privilege of ruling in His kingdom (Luke 19:11-19; Matt 25:14-23).
Is it selfish to be motivated by the promise of rewards? The fact that Jesus promises rewards for faithfulness and perseverance makes it a good motivation. The special rewards that Jesus promises to overcoming believers involve the garments they will wear, the food they will enjoy, the intimacy they will experience with Him, the status and authority they will have, the name or title that will be given to them, the jewels and crowns they will wear (Rev 2—3). If Jesus wants believers to have these privileges of a lifetime well spent for Him, then it is a shortsighted spirituality that does not value them. It is good to want what the Lord obviously wants us to have. Jesus Himself endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb 12:2). Every believer should desire to hear the Lord’s words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:23).
Negative Consequences at the Bema and in the Life to Come
There is the possibility of shame at the Bema. The Apostle John challenged believers to abide in Christ and avoid shame at His coming, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming” (1 John 2:28).
There is the possible loss of rewards. Jesus will withhold from unfaithful believers praise, the special joy of having pleased Him, and the privilege of ruling in His kingdom (Luke 19:20-26; Matt 25:24-28). Eternal life is free; rewards are earned. Every believer should dread to hear the Lord’s words “You wicked and slothful servant!” and the accompanying consequence of losing what could have been his reward. The loss could be an eternally diminished capacity to serve the Lord and an eternally diminished level of intimacy with the Lord. The Apostle Paul was motivated by his hope of gaining an imperishable crown and his fear of disqualification:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Our reason for doing something is our motive. There are powerful motives related to the past, present and future aspects of our salvation that can move and induce our perseverance and faithfulness in the Christian life. We do not need the fear of losing eternal life or having to prove we have eternal life by our works to motivate us to live a life pleasing to Christ. We can be motivated by orienting our focus to the past and respond in gratitude and love for what He has freely provided for us. We can be motivated by orienting our focus to the present knowing that God blesses obedience in this life and disciplines disobedience in this life. We can be motivated by orienting our focus to the future and the rewards promised in the life to come for our faithfulness in this life.
The words of the Apostle John and the Apostle Paul are a fitting conclusion. John declared, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). Paul wrote as his departure drew near, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up 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 loved his appearing” (2 Tim 4:7-8). Live today in light of that Day. Run with endurance the race that is set before you (Heb 12:1).
One of the most demanding of all races is the annual bicycle race Le Tour de France. Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle, a cyclist in that event, described it in a National Geographic article entitled “An Annual Madness”.[iv] The race covers about 2000 miles, including some of France's most difficult mountain terrain. Cyclists eat and drink as they ride. To train for the event, Lassalle rode his bicycle 22,000 miles in a year. What prize makes the contestants endure so much hardship? Just a special winner's jersey! What motivates the contestants? Lassalle sums it up: "Why, to sweep through the Arc de Triomphe on the last day. To be able to say you finished the Tour de France.”
Believers have so much more to motivate them. Believers who fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith, will receive an imperishable crown at the Bema having pleased the Lord who redeemed them with His precious blood.
[i] “The Twenty Five Articles of Religion”, John H. Leith, Creeds of the Churches, Third Edition (John Knox Press, 1982), 367-368.
[ii] “The Minutes”, Leith, 374-375.
[iii] Tabletalk Magazine Tuesday November 7, 1989.
[iv] “Tour de France – An Annual Madness”, National Geographic, July 1989.