I’ve always loved the drawings of MC Escher. His pictures are so simple and neat, but when you look again, you realise that what you’re seeing is physically impossible. Then you look more closely to work out how he’s managed to bamboozle you.
Jesus’s parables are like that, simple and neat. Then you read them again, and consider them. Then they start to confound and perplex you and you are invited to work out why.
Next week, I’m going to look at the Parable of the Ten Minas in Luke 19. It’s about a nobleman who goes off to be made a king. Some citizens don’t want this. Some servants are summoned and given a few thousand pounds, and when he returns, he sees how they’ve done, and rewards them accordingly. Elements of this parable remain enigmatic for me, for reasons I shall explain.
But this week, I need to explain how my theological heritage makes me kick against this parable, and many others like it: it is the idea of rewards in heaven.
So here’s the big question:
Does the idea of being rewarded in heaven make you feel nervous?
If you’ve never really thought it about, and you don’t think much about Christian things, you’re probably puzzled by this question. After all, you’ve seen the sketches about people arriving at the Pearly Gates meeting St Peter, there’s a chat about how the deceased has lived their life. Maybe you’re with Russell Crowe’s Maximus, that what we do echoes in eternity. That line had such resonance with the audience that it seems to be self-evidently true. To deny that is basically nihilism.
But if you’re conversative evangelical, or Calvinist, like me, the idea of being rewarded in heaven can be troubling. Calvinists believe in the Total Depravity of humanity. It’s the T in the Tulip of the Five Points of Calvinism.
And it’s not just Calvinism. It’s the Bible which says we are not good. Not even one. (Romans 3:10-18) We are sinful, and we need to be rescued from God’s righteous wrath. This isn’t just Calvin and Paul. Jesus’s first words in probably the earliest Gospel, Mark, says “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent, ye sinner!
Romans makes it clear the penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and that Christ died on the cross in my place to pay for my sins, so that I can be forgiven and be with God for ever in the New Heavens and the New Earth. The technical term for this doctrine is penal substitutionary atonement. My death penalty is paid by a substitute dying in my place, a sacrificial lamb of God (John 1:29), so that God’s wrath is satisfied (Romans 3:25). Amen.1
Put a sock in it, Maximus
It’s grace. Not works. Read more Paul in Ephesians 2 and see we are saved by grace through faith. And that we don’t earn faith. That too is a gracious gift from God. You will never been good enough for God, for faith or salvation. You are dead in your sins and transgressions. Defibrillator machines are not self-operated. The dead cannot wake themselves. So stop trying. What you do does not echo in eternity. Put a sock in it, Maximus. Because what you do is sin. And that echo you’re hearing is eternal death. You need God’s grace.
Again, I agree with all that, and so would Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Owen, Spurgeon, Edwards, Whitefield and any other spiritual pin-up you care to mention. But this theology on its own makes it hard to grasp that idea that there can be any level of reward for our deeds in heaven, because we were dead in our transgressions.
This is confusing salvation with sanctification, which is easily done, and we talk about this on the Cooper and Cary podcast.
The side of effects of emphasising Penal Substitutionary Atonement (#PenSubAtones) is firstly that the whole thing can get quite individualistic. Christ died for my sins. In my place. Soon it becomes all about me, my spiritual walk, my Bible, my Jesus, my saviour.
We also run the risk of making theResurrection redundant. If the important thing is the death of Jesus, the wonder of his resurrection is diminished. It’s like his death on the cross sealed our 5-0 victory over death, and the resurrection is a couple of extra goals.
That clearly isn’t the case, and I’m not for one moment saying conservative evangelicals have a poor theology of the resurrection but- oh, wait, yes, I think I am. I think we do. And this is what happens when you emphasise one important and central doctrine over all the others, in this case, Good Friday over Easter Sunday.
Saved From/Saved For
But here’s the implication that is relevant to Jesus’s perplexing parables: Christ’s death on the cross saves me from sin, death and hell. But what does it save me for? What am I meant to do as a follower of Christ? What does life in the kingdom of God look like now?
Many evangelicals will say that it’s all about telling others about Jesus, and helping them to repent and believe, and experience the forgiveness of sins. And, yes, Jesus tells his disciples to ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’. But is that the purpose of life? To tell others, so that they can tell others, and they can tell others? If this is case, it’s a bit of spiritual pyramid scheme. There must be more to it.
Why do evangelicals want people to become Christians?
To save them from eternal separation from God which we call Hell. It’s a real place and not somewhere you want to be. But if that’s the main motivation, Heaven is essentially Not Hell. And life now is waiting for Not Hell. It’s not very inspiring, is it?
Jesus’s parables consistently challenge this view. He does tell stories about evangelism, like the Parable of Sower, and tales of repentance, like the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
But there are a lot of parables about waiting. Waiting for a king, a prince, a vineyard owner, a groom. And what we do while we wait, and what we make of the resources we have been given matters. They echo into eternity. When the king returns, and the wait is over, they are rewarded for faithful service. This is what we see in Luke 19, along with a few other surprises, which we will take a look at next time.
You know how when you cut up a bull in the first act, and place it on an altar, you need to fire that altar in the third act? That’s just Checkov’s gun but applied to Old Testament prophet showdowns. In the Sacred Art of Joking, my YouTube mini-series, I discuss Elijah vs the Prophets of Baal with comedian and preacher, Andy Kind.
Sidenote: A surprisingly large number of people don’t like this idea, including some Anglican clergy. I have a hard time understanding how you can be an Anglican and not believe this, since you’re having to cross your fingers when you say an awful lot of Common Worship. This doctrine is woven all the way through the liturgical tapestry. But that’s one for another time.