Repentance and Rewards
I'll get back to the topic of hearing the voice of the Lord soon, but I want to change subjects for the moment and respond to a discussion in which I've engaged on another blog.
Recently, an article was posted by Mike Russell on the Theologica blog with the title "Happily Divorced, Remarried, and Rewarded". In that article, Mr. Russell relates an experience he had with someone who was trying to rationalize a pending divorce. This person excused their divorce by saying, in essence, that God would be obligated to forgive him for getting divorced for "unbiblical reasons". Mr. Russell's response was that it was definitely true that God would forgive the divorce, but that this man could in no way expect to receive any kind of eternal rewards for being a good husband in any future marriage. He states, in part:
In situations where there is an unbiblical divorce, the guilty party - not the innocent one - can expect to be forgiven but cannot legitimately expect for there to be eternal rewards for being a good husband or wife in the next marriage.
The decision to end a marriage for less than Scriptural reasons has consequences. The loss of future rewards - which is no small matter - is one of them. We may not think such rewards are all that important but the stress of the New Testament tends to argue otherwise.
His biblical launching pad for this conclusion was the statement of Jesus in Matthew 6 where Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the spiritual leaders who did their tithing, fasting, etc. in ways that would guarantee they would be noticed by others. In that situation, Jesus says, "They have their reward in full."
In the comments section following Mr. Russell's post, I took issue with the statements that were made and expressed my opinion that not only were Jesus' statements taken out of context and misapplied, but that an issue which is not cut-and-dried in Scripture (that of eternal rewards and their relationship to believers who repent of sin) was being made cut-and-dried by Mr. Russell in a dangerous way.
Rather than continue to post lengthy comments to another person's blog, I opted instead to post here on my own and flesh out my response a little bit more. I hope to demonstrate not only that I believe the exegesis used in the original post is faulty, but also that the position set forth has damaging ramifications to our view of others in the Body of Christ.
First of all, the exegesis. As I pointed out in my second response to Mr. Russell, we must look at the context of the comments by Jesus and interpret them in light of that context. This is a basic rule of hermeneutics. In the teaching of Matthew 5 and 6, the overarching concept is that the Father looks at the heart, and it is the motives of the heart which are judged. Matthew 6:1 even starts off this passage by stating very clearly: "'Be careful not to do your "acts of righteousness" before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in Heaven.'"
Now, the first leap that Mr. Russell makes in his exegesis of this passage is that this passage can be applied to situations where a truly repentant believer performs "acts of righteousness" from a genuine heart of service to God. (In his example, he is apparently using the concept of "being a good husband or wife" as an example of "acts of righteousness".) Yet, it seems to me that this is comparing apples with oranges. Jesus is clearly talking about heart motivation. Acts of righteousness done with impure motives vs. acts of righteoueness done with pure motives. This distinction is completely lost in Mr. Russell's exegesis because he changes the argument to be "acts of righteousness done with impure motives = acts of righteousness (irrespective of motive) done by someone in an area of their life in which they formerly sinned and repented." This is a huge leap and immediately takes us away from the context of the passage at hand.
The second leap that I see is that Mr. Russell makes the assumption that, since Jesus implies that there are circumstances in which rewards will be withheld, that this applies to the particular issue of divorce and remarriage. Now, I must be clear in saying that I am not arguing the other side, and insisting that those rewards will not be forfeited. My point is not to prove an opposing view. But, the burden of proof rests solely on Mr. Russell, and in his replies to me, I feel like he has insisted that I give proof of my viewpoint, even though I was not making a point other than the logical fallacies in his argument. Mr. Russell is the one who made the assertion that a believer who divorces "for less than Scriptural reasons" and then remarries forfeits the opportunity to earn rewards in a future marriage for honoring God in that marriage.
The third leap is that because the New Testament teaches some rather general concepts about rewards for our lives here, Mr. Russell assumes that there are rewards for being a "good husband" that can, therefore, be forfeited in eternity. I may be wrong on this, but I cannot recall any Scripture that specifically mentions rewards for something so specific. I see rewards mentioned for overcoming, for running the good race -- in other words, I don't see specific rewards mentioned for specific things. Mr. Russell, in his responses to me, has taken the approach of saying that in situations like this, God has given us wisdom to figure it out. While I certainly accept that God gives us wisdom, I think that we head down a very dangerous path in issues such as this. Let me explain:
Mr. Russell chose to introduce a distinction between "unbiblical" and "abiblical" -- in other words, teaching that is contrary to that of Scripture vs. teaching that derives from "wisdom" based on Scripture. I'm not sure if I even agree with this use of "abiblical", but I do understand where Mr. Russell is coming from on the use (or even coining, perhaps) of that term, and so I will use it for the sake of discussion.
When we attempt to justify something as "abiblical", however, we must be careful not to build that conclusion on logic that is strictly based on faulty exegesis or other "abiblical" thoughts. As I demonstrated with the leaps taken in Mr. Russell's logic, the very foundation of his argument rests on a questionable application of Jesus' words, and then leads to more conclusions based on this application. If the foundation is not solid, the building is not solid.
In areas such as this, then, we must tread very carefully and not form dogma. His comments in reply to mine notwithstanding, the original post demonstrates dogmatic statements on a topic which, at best, is conjecture. In fact, Mr. Russell even recounts how he dogmatically made a statement that he wasn't sure he believed himself. This illustrates my point very clearly.
Humility in our approach to Scripture enables us to say, "This is not clear. Therefore, I cannot dogmatically state it." All too often, theologians end up making dogmatic statements on areas that are not clearly derived from Scriptural principles. Frankly, I think that claiming that "wisdom" allows this is a misuse of the concept of biblical wisdom. Wisdom will allow us to apply Scripture to our lives and determine what the Spirit is saying to us. But wisdom does not give us the right to point a finger at someone else and say, "You will not have rewards for anything you do in a future marriage because your divorce is wrong." We must, with humility, acknowledge that, because of Scripture's silence on the issue, we cannot say for certain how God will deal with those "acts of righteousness" that might occur in a second marriage.
Additionally, the concept of rewards being withheld from a repentant believer sends us down a path of identifying which sins have eternal consequences (despite being forgiven) and too narrowly defining what forgiveness really entails. This puts us in a dangerous position of "playing God" and creating a man-made system of "levels" of sin and their consequences. Mr. Russell admits that some consequences are removed some of the time upon true repentance, yet believes that consequences for "unbiblical" divorce are not removed. This is very dangerous ground, indeed.
I hope that some of this makes sense. I'm not asking Mr. Russell to agree with me, nor am I saying that his conclusion is necessarily wrong. The burden of proof, as I stated earlier, is not on me. But I believe that his conclusion is based on faulty logic and poor exegesis, which causes the conclusion to at least be suspect. Any thoughts in response?
Until next time,