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.