A hard heart despises God’s goodness. It is self-serving, self-seeking. It desires only what it desires and will go to whatever lengths it can to obtain those things. Theologically, a hardened heart is the heart that will view the cross as “what can I get from this,” or, more frequently, “what can I get away with and still cling to this for salvation.” It’s important to recognize these things, because it is a very obviously willful decision that one makes to seek after these desires. Note how Paul explains this to the believers, that those whose hearts are hard are “treasuring up” for themselves wrath. It’s this idea that, though they know the repercussions of seeking to satiate these desires, they still continue to do so; thus in seeking diligently these fleshly desires, they are willingly “treasuring up” the due punishment. Treasuring up for themselves the “wrath on the day of wrath and judgment in the day of judgment.” Paul is stressing here that it is not the Lord who is condemning them, but they themselves are doing so. Knowing the punishments due to them because of their disobedience, they are knowingly continuing in that disobedience, thus it is they who are heaping this condemnation upon themselves. A man commits murder, is caught, tried, and sentenced. Who do we blame for the man’s sentencing? Do we blame the victim for being present to be murdered? Do we blame the judge, who pronounced the sentence? Do we blame the court who created the sentence for that indiscretion? Or do we blame the man who committed the crime? In earthly, legal affairs, we would obviously proclaim that it is the man who is to blame for his own punishment; yet, so often, we blame God when we apply this theologically. It becomes so easy to question, “how can a loving God sentence a man to eternal damnation?” It becomes almost a default for a lot of people to say that a “loving God would never punish anyone,” because “punishment isn’t loving.” And yet, what we so often overlook is that not only has our loving God given us these laws and commandments to obey, but He has also given us a very easy way to escape from this judgment. To walk with Him, to obey His commands, to be His children. We need only accept these ways. He has even offered to forgive us all of our previous trangressions, and even forgive us our future transgressions, so long as we truly repent of them, turning away from the ways of the flesh and walking in the Holy Spirit. As the beloved apostle admonishes us, “Let us walk properly, as in day, not in revelry and drunkeness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill it’s lusts.” (Romans 13:13-14).
Paul also goes on to curtail this thought of the wrath of God being an exuberant, emotional punishment and response. Paul reiterates that it is the “righteous judgment of God,” lest we equate this to our own personal, impulsive, emotional reactions when someone wrongs us. See, over and over in the Scripture, we read that “God desires that no man should perish but that all should turn to Him in repentance.” Through Ezekiel, He tells us that “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked would turn back from his ways and live.” (Ezekiel 18:23;33:11) and Paul teaches us that God “desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4). See, He isn’t sitting upon the throne rejoicing each time that someone falls from the path and into sin, but rather, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7). It’s this idea that more than anything else, the Lord wants, desires, longs for each and every person to turn to Him in true repentance, because He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked; however, we must make this decision to turn to Him in obedience, to walk with Him, abiding in Him, obeying His commands and denying ourselves. Turning away from our previous way of life. As He explained to Nicodemus, “unless one is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (John 3:3). To be born again implies that one must first die. As Paul explains, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; behold the old things have passed away and the new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17). St Mark the Ascetic puts it this way, “we who have been considered worthy to receive the washing of regeneration ‘offer’ good works not as repayment, but as a means of preserving the purity that has been given to us.
And, this is what we see Paul stressing here. This idea that we have to put away this old man, to become this new creation in Christ. I love that he goes directly from warning about the “righteous judgment of God” to stating that “God will render to each according to their deeds.” See, while our salvation does in fact come through the grace of God, and that through our faith in Him, it is a faith that must be accompanied by works, a faith which must be displayed by our deeds. I think about a married couple. If a man and woman are married and the man constantly says to his wife, “I love you,” but never displays this love at all, what does that love actually mean? If there is no intimacy, no kissing, no anniversary celebrations or any other show of love, then is there truly love? Similarly, if we claim to love the Lord and yet our lives are a showcase of disobedience to His commandments, and through our actions we show that we actually despise Him, then what are we truly saying to our beloved Lord? Jesus warns us against those who “honor (Him) with their lips, but (their) hearts are far from (Him).” (Matthew 15:8), meanwhile explaining that to love Him is to obey His commandments (John 14:15). Having just explained the punishment due those who have hardened their hearts, however, Paul begins on the other side of the fence. He begins by detailing the amazing reward of those who, instead, choose to obey.
“Eternal life to those who by doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality” he writes. He shows exactly how incorrect it is to trust in faith alone, by teaching that these rewards come to those who “by doing good.” As a disciple of Christ, our lives must be characterized by love, and that love displayed through our deeds and actions, as John teaches. John, in his letter, teaches us, “let us no longer love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3:18). Our love must be characterized by actual deeds that display that love. James asks us to consider, if we find someone naked and hungry, and bid them to depart and be warm and fed, but don’t actually give them what is needed for that, then what have we done? Have we displayed the love of Christ by acknowledging someone’s need and providing nothing to help them beyond mere words? Thus, James teaches us that our faith, in absentia of works, is dead. When we find someone in need and do nothing beyond wishing them well, we have done nothing to display the love of our neighbor, much less the love of Christ, to them. Jesus taught us that to love Him is to obey His commandments, the greatest of which being to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, and might; thus to fulfill that commandment, we must obey all that He commanded. To choose anything else over His commands is to display that we love those other things more than Him. We must always ask ourselves, who are we serving? If I choose my pride or my desires over the Lord, and I loving the Lord or am I loving myself? If I choose to obey the world over obeying the Lord, who am I loving then? The Lord or the world? If I choose to feed my greed over the Lord, am I loving the Lord or my greed? A man is a slave to whatever he obeys, and thus we choose our own master; to which the Lord speaks when He says, “you can not serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:24).
“But to those that are self-seeking, who do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness.” Look at how the apostle weaves this statement together. So as to remove any excuse, whether intentional or unintentional, he states that to those who are self-seeking and “obey unrighteousness.” Exactly what defense can one offer when put to the stone? When one chooses to flee the light and walk in darkness. Notice what he DOESN’T say. He doesn’t say to those who are forced into unrighteousness, or in any way compelled by it, but rather, for those who obey it. For those who choose obedience to unrighteousness over obedience to the Lord.
This is so important for us to understand, because our generation seems convinced that we have no control over these impulses, no power to resist them; that every person still walking the earth is totally depraved and thus unable to combat these sinful urges. And, this ideology is so detrimental to us, because it convinces us that we are incapable of making the right decision, thus removing any accountability that we would have concerning those actions. See, if we have no power to choose correctly, then how could a just God judge our actions as right or wrong? How could Abraham be rewarded for being willing to sacrifice Isaac if he were not the one to make the decision; likewise, how could a sinner be punished for sinning if they had no power to choose to do otherwise? How could the nation of Israel be punished in every book of the Old Testament for turning away from God if they had no ability to walk with Him? If there is no decision, no free will, then for God to punish those whom He chooses to punish is unjust and truly cruel. If, however, those people had the free will to choose, then those who choose disobedience are deserving of righteous judgment and those who choose to walk with Him are deserving of righteous rewards. The doctrines of election and predestination remove the ability to choose, and thus make the punishment of the guilty unjust, and the rewards of the righteous unjust, because there is no will to choose the opposing path. And this theology is so detrimental because we, convinced that we will never make the right decision, seldom even try. The heroin addict that believes that he is saved because he made a confession of faith has no reason to ever try to leave that life behind, because even if he were to perish from his drug abuse, he still believes that he is “saved.” The adulterer that feels that his lifestyle will have no effect on his eternity will never feel the need to leave that lifestyle, and I am very fearful of the eternal consequences of that mindset.
All of our lives must be characterized by the love of Christ, given by us to others as it was received by us from Him. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes that “it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:13). To the Colossians, he writes of himself, “to this end, I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” (Colossians 1:29). Our lives must be the unity of intentions and actions, faith with works. We can not work our way to salvation, but to attain to salvation requires work. It requires work, discernment, sacrifice, holiness, charity; in a word, love. His love. We must stop thinking about salvation as being about us, and what we can gain out of it. We must stop asking what the barriers are and how far we can push them before we “lose” our salvation. It is for Him. Paul says that we are “doing good seeking for honor and glory,” and I ask, whose glory do we think that the humble apostle was thinking about when he wrote this? His glory and honor? The glory and honor of the believers? Or was it the glory and honor of the Lord? His love, His grace, His mercy, displayed through His children for the sake of His world. He likens our faith to a lamp, put atop a hill, lighting the way for all to find Him.
My brothers and sisters, when we do good works, when we display His amazing mercy, grace, love, and compassion to the world, we become that light that He spoke of. Paul tells us that “we are God’s fellow workers,” doing His work in the world, working in unity with Him. In Ephesians, he tells us that He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we think or ask, “according to the power that works in us.” (Ephesians 3:20). In the Gospel of John, Jesus Himself tells us that “whoever believes in Me will do the same works that I do, and even greater works than these.” (John 14:12). Notice that it is through faith that we receive grace, and through grace that we receive the Holy Spirit. But, the purpose of the Holy Spirit is not so that we can say that we believe, but rather, that we can do “the works that I do, and greater works than these.”
We must be warned of this spiritual slothfullness which has infiltrated our church culture. We are neither saved nor made righteous through our deeds, however, through our deeds we will display the love of Christ which is the assurance of our faith. These deeds are not the goal of our walk towards the kingdom, however, if we are truly walking towards the kingdom, these holy deeds will happen. The asceticism that we are called to is nothing more than our turning away from sin. To fast leads us away from gluttony; to reject earthly possessions leads us away from greed; to be chaste is to turn away from sexual immorality. If our goal as believers is anything other than the love of Christ, or to become like Christ, then are we truly following Him? Are we truly His disciples? If all we are doing is studying about God, are we truly His disciples? I pose this one question, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples at Pentecost, what does it say that they did? How many Bible studies does the Book of Acts detail for us that the apostles held? The Book of Acts is the one book of Scripture that sort of lays out a blueprint for the Church; and the very name itself implies that there must be action and movement in the Church. The apostles went out, they fed the poor, they healed the sick, they taught the Gospel. They loved people, spoke no evil, held no protests; and they turned the world upside down. Is that not our goal as well? Are we content to go and study, read and learn, and not do?
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved brothers and sisters.