Do Christians Work for Their Inheritance? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

The New Testament (NT) writers often speak of believers gaining or losing a future inheritance from God. In many cases, the inheritance is gained or lost because of the works of the believer. Since we are clearly taught elsewhere in the NT that gaining entrance into heaven is only by faith, then what are we to make of acquiring or losing an inheritance from God by works of good or evil?

Theologian Joseph Dillow has offered an answer to this question in his masterful volume The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Destiny of Man. Dillow first explains what the Greek word for “inheritance” (kleronomia) means:

Like its Old Testament counterpart a kleronomia is fundamentally a possession. How it is acquired or passed on to one’s descendants is not intrinsic to the word. The word does not always or even fundamentally mean an estate passed on to a son at the death of a parent, as it does in Gal. 4:7. To include those contextually derived notions within the semantic value of the word itself is . . . to commit an illegitimate totality transfer. Arndt and Gingrich define it as an “inheritance, possession, property.” Abbott-Smith concurs that it means “in general, a possession, inheritance.” Rarely, if ever, does it mean “property transmitted by will.” Vine observes that “only in a few cases in the Gospels has it the meaning ordinarily attached to that word in English, i.e., that into possession of which the heir enters only on the death of an ancestor.”

How is the concept of inheritance used in the NT? Dillow catalogs several different usages:

[T]he words for inheritance in the New Testament often involve spiritual obedience (i.e., faith plus works) as a condition of obtaining the inheritance. Becoming an heir (kleronomos) can occur through filial relationship, through faith, or through some kind of works of obedience. The acquisition of the inheritance (kleronomia) is often related to merit.

Dillow points out that when the verb “to inherit” is used in the NT, it is almost always contextually linked to “either the presence or absence of some work or character quality as a condition of obtaining or forfeiting the possession.” (emphasis added) The problem is, then, what the possession is.

Some biblical interpreters (i.e., hyper-Calvinists) have mistakenly argued that the possession that is inherited is entrance into heaven, but this interpretation creates serious problems because entrance into heaven is all about faith, not works. To solve this problem, hyper-Calvinists will argue that true Christians will necessarily persevere to the end and gain their inheritance. If a person thinks they are a Christian, but then fails to inherit entrance into heaven, then they were never a true Christian to begin with.

This interpretation, however, is deeply flawed and unsatisfying. The numerous “inheritance” passages in the NT are invariably written to Christian audiences. The passages which speak of a person gaining or losing an inheritance because of his works are written to believers. We need to take these passages at face value and deal with this fact. In part 2, we’ll continue Dillow’s analysis.

  • The Janitor


    Good post. I look forward to part 2 and I’ll pick up the book you mention, as this is a topic that interests me. I think some of the inheritance passages refer to salvation (or entrance into heaven), but I’m open to an alternative exegesis. The “entrance into heaven” interpretation isn’t one that I hold to dogmatically.


    How are you defining a “hyper-Calvinist”? That term has a historical usage same as the word “Christian” does it not?

    Your post gives the impression that all of those who believe the inheritance passages refer to “entrance into heaven” are hyper-Calvinists–such that this interpretation of inheritance passages is part of what it means to be a hyper-Calvinist. But I highly doubt that is how the term has historically been defined.

    It’s my understanding that one of the essential elements of hyper-Calvinism is the belief that we should not or need not evangelize. Furthermore, my brother holds to the “inheritance as entrance into heaven” (I’ll abbreviate IAEK) interpretation of those passages, yet he is neither a Calvinist nor a hyper-Calvinist! So I think you’re equation here of that interpretation and “hyper-Calvinism” is unhelpful and incorrect.


    Of the (so-called) “hyper-Calvinist” interpretation you say “This interpretation, however, is deeply flawed and unsatisfying. The numerous ‘inheritance’ passages in the NT are invariably written to Christian audiences. The passages which speak of a person gaining or losing an inheritance because of his works are written to believers. We need to take these passages at face value and deal with this fact.”

    Calvinists typically hold to Covenant Theology and one view within Covenant Theology is that the covenant community is currently composed of unbelievers (false sheep, false brothers) and believers. The New Testament is written to this mixed community and so it would make sense for them to contain such inheritance passages (i.e., warning passages). Thus, I don’t think the fact that the inheritance passages are written to a “Christian audience” is sufficient to brush aside the IAEK interpretation.

    However some Calvinists believe that the new covenant is strictly composed of the elect. In that case it might carry more force to point out that the inheritance passages are addressed to the new covenant community, the elect. However there are other moves that can get around this also: these passages express true counterfactuals that never obtain for the elect. If I’m not mistaken (and I may be) this is how Thomas Schreiner would take some (all?) of these passages.

  • To me a hyper-Calvinist is someone who is a strict 5-point Calvinist, who believes that the 5 letters of TULIP, as interpreted by traditional Reformed theologians, are non-negotiable. Perhaps these people should just be called Calvinists, but I have known many people, including myself, who identify with some of Calvin’s teachings, but not all, and who still would call themselves Calvinists.

    When I say that particular passages are addressed to Christians, I’m saying that there is evidence from the text that suggests that the writer himself believes that he is only addressing born-again, regenerated believers, not false sheep or false brothers. Many of these texts simply don’t make sense if you bring in this concept of false sheep.

    My main problem with Calvinist interpretations of these disputed passages is that they are constantly denying the plain meaning of the text by introducing theological concepts which are foreign to the original writers and readers of the passages.

    I used to be a TULIP guy myself, but over the years, the back-breaking contortions I had to do when interpreting passages like these just became too much. I had to step back and re-assess.

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