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).
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.