Do Christians Work for Their Inheritance? Part 2

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?

In part 1, we started looking at theologian Joseph Dillow’s answer to this question from his book The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Destiny of Man. How do we interpret the many passages in the NT that speak of Christian believers gaining or losing an inheritance from God based on meritorious works?

Dillow first reminds us of the existence of carnal Christians, Christians who have turned their back on Christ and his teachings.

It is plain that the New Testament not only teaches the existence of the carnal Christian but of true Christians who persisted in their carnality up to the point of physical death (see Acts 5:1-10; 1 Cor. 5:5; 3:15; 11:30; Heb. 10:29; 1 Jn. 5:16-17). They will, having been justified, be in the kingdom; however, they will not inherit it (see Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; 1 Cor. 6:9).

Inherit what?

Vine points out that the term [inherit] is often used of “that which is received on the condition of obedience to certain precepts (1 Pet. 3:9), and of faithfulness to God amidst opposition (Rev. 21:7).” Only the obedient and faithful inherit, not all who are saved. It is a “reward in the coming age” and “reward of the condition of soul which forbears retaliation and self-vindication, and expresses itself in gentleness of behaviour.” Vine points out that it is “the reward of those who have shown kindness to the ‘brethren’ of the Lord in their distress.”

The Sermon on the Mount illustrates the concept of merited rewards.

The Savior says, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit [kleronomeo] the earth” (Mt. 5:5). The subject matter is our reward in heaven: “Rejoice and be glad because great is your reward [misthos] in heaven” (Mt. 5:12). The idea of rewards is repeatedly emphasized in the Sermon, which is addressed primarily to the disciples (5:1).

The word misthos basically means a “payment for work done.” Jesus is speaking of the inheritance here as a reward for a humble, trusting life. There is no indication that all Christians have this quality of life. In fact, it is possible for a Christian to become “saltless” (Mt. 5:13) and be “thrown out.” True Christians can lose their saltiness, their testimony for the Lord. When they do, they forfeit their reward in heaven. Furthermore, He specifically says that the disobedient believer who annuls “one of the least of these commandments” will be in the kingdom (Mt. 5:19) but will be “least” in contrast to “great” in that kingdom.

It seems that there are two kinds of inheritance: entrance into heaven and rewards in heaven. The first inheritance cannot be forfeited, but the second can. Most of the time in the NT, when inheritance is mentioned, rewards in heaven are the subject. Dillow explains:

While entering the kingdom has often been equated with inheriting the kingdom, there is no semantic or exegetical basis for the equality. Even in English we acknowledge a distinction between entering and inheriting. A tenant, for example, may live on or enter a landowner’s great estate, but he does not own or inherit it. . . .

[T]here is no reason to assume that entering the kingdom and living there is the same thing as owning it and ruling in it. The heirs of the kingdom are its owners and rulers and not just its residents. Kendall agrees, “In other words, salvation is unchangeable but our inheritance in the kingdom of God is not unchangeable. Once saved, always saved, but our inheritance in God’s kingdom may change considerably.”

Here is the bottom line: whenever the writers of the NT are talking about a future inheritance to be gained or lost based on the works and character qualities of the Christian believer, the subject is rewards in heaven, not entrance into heaven. If you remember this simple rule, a number of difficult passages will become clear to you. As a born-again believer, your entrance into heaven is secure, but your rewards are not.

  • The Janitor

    First, thanks for the response in your last post. Second, I apologize for a lengthy comment. My comment is not long because I try to respond to every point but because I try to focus on one point well.

    Now, if you don’t mind, continue the discussion on this new post since it has relevance:

    Dillow mentions 1 John 5:16-17 above and I think 1 John provides a good illustration of what I mentioned as a possibility last time: false brothers.

    The objection to this, which you raise, is that loss of inheritance passages are clearly addressed to Christians (i.e., the elect). But notice how John speaks (and please keep in mind that my aim here is to show the plausibility of the Calvinist interpretation which says such warning passages are directed towards false brothers or sheep (unbelievers) in the mixed covenant):

    1 John 2:9-11 “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”

    John indicates that one who hates his brother has never been in the light. How do I get that? Notice the contrast with the one abiding in the light. It does not say this brother has ceased abiding in the light but that he has not yet come into the light (“still in darkness”).

    Further John indicates that a person so walking has not been cleansed by Jesus’ blood:

    1 John 1:6, 7 If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

    Here John joins cleansing from sin by the blood of Jesus to the condition of walking in the light. But the brother described above has not yet walked in the light, he is still in darkness. Perhaps “still in” in 2:9 can be contrasted with “abides in” 2:10.

    Thus goes my argument that the brother spoken of as “still in darkness” is not saved or has not yet been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. Now surely one who is not cleansed by the blood of Jesus will not gain entrance into heaven (never mind inheritance).

    Now I will extend this argument to 1 John 4:20:

    1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

    Again the verse strongly indicates that the person who hates his brother has never known Jesus to begin with (cf. John 8:19 & 14:9).

    But, and this is the point I am trying to make, notice that John addresses such a person as a “brother”. And where does this brother imagery come from? From being fellow sons of God. Now is not the fact that these persons are addressed as “brothers” the exact sort of fact you (and I’m guessing Dillow) would capitalize on to say that inheritance passages must be addressed to Christians (the elect)?

    But clearly John does not wish to indicate that these are true brothers. Everything argued above indicates that he does not think they are brothers at all–insofar as they are not united to Christ. Upon closer inspection it seems the best way to understand John calling them “brothers” is along the lines Paul uses in Galatians: “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4).

    So here in 1 John we seem to have a clear case of an epistle addressed to a Christian community and calling persons “brothers” but for which strong arguments can be set forth to show that among this Christian community and among those addressed as “brothers” there are those who are not brothers.

    Thus, I think that the claim made in your last post that “The numerous ‘inheritance’ passages in the NT are invariably written to Christian audiences” and that, therefore, the idea that warning passages are addressing an issue for the non-elect is “deeply flawed and unsatisfying” does not hold water. In 1 John we see an epistle written to a Christian audience and, whats more, we see John use Christian terms of identification (brother) to warn persons who we have good reason (which I tried to provide above) to think are not true brothers at all, but false ones.

  • I’ll have to take a look at 1 John and get back to you.

  • Peter

    Hi. I am Peter Eriksson, Sweden and felt that this was a site that is friendly to all, even me as a mormon. I am interesed in hearing what you have to say about being saved and not being saved. What do you think will happen if a person refuses to Believe in Christ? Is hell for all eternity his achievement for ever?? My son just came home from his mission and he told me about one christian woman who felt bad because her husband does not Believe in Christ and her belief was in an eternal hell…maybe you know how lds belief (hell is real but a person will leave hell in due time when justice is satisfied and the person has suffered until he has changed his character. It is like on Earth, we hope prisoners one day will change and be good…then we Believe they wil inherit a glory, a kingdom, telestial or terestial or celestial..
    The most damagíng thing among my friends that are not christians for them to even consider being a christian,is the teaching of everlasting hell-they do not see Gods justice and love in this ,according to me false doctrine).
    Sincere Peter

  • Hi Peter,
    I think the Bible clearly teaches that a person that knowingly rejects Jesus as the Son of God who died for their sins will spend eternity away from God’s influence (this is hell).

    I don’t see any passages in the Bible that leave out hope for the person to be given a second chance. It seems that God confirms our desire to be with him or not with him after we die.

    Please see my posts on hell for more discussion: