Why does God reward the good deeds of believers?

In a book review yesterday, Roger Olson expressed his puzzlement about how God’s giving rewards to believers in the final judgment coheres with Calvinism’s monergistic understanding of sanctification. He wrote:

“My fear is that Spence, and Calvin before him, rob rewards of any meaning and imply that God is actually rewarding himself and not believers. If that is the case, why mention rewards at all? Why preach or teach heavenly rewards as motivation for obedience and service as the New Testament clearly does?

Ah, yes…the Calvinist will say “foreordained means to a foreordained end.” Back to that. But this seems to take to an extreme a right emphasis on God’s sovereignty and glory. The upshot of it all, then, is that whatever a believer is or is not accomplishing is out of his or her control. And that at the judgment seat of Christ all God will be doing is rewarding himself. Now, this might make sense WERE IT NOT FOR THE DEGREES OF REWARDS ISSUE. Clearly there will be degrees of rewards. How is God glorified in awarding to himself a lesser reward than is possible?

My point is that the Calvinist doctrine of rewards involves a conundrum. It actually makes no sense at all. Which is perhaps WHY preaching and teaching about heavenly rewards has virtually ceased. They only make sense within a synergistic view of sanctification.

In the past, and perhaps to some extent still today, SOME Reformed preachers have taught that justification and regeneration are monergistic while sanctification is not. That doesn’t seem to fit with a consistently Calvinist understanding of God’s sovereignty, however, and as Calvinism has become increasingly consistent under the influence of people like Sproul and Piper (and yet, in my opinion, still very inconsistent) any element of synergism, even in sanctification, is slipping away (if not totally condemned).

It seems to me that heavenly rewards is an inescapable biblical truth. Calvin believed that. Obviously Spence believes it. Who can even deny it? And yet it makes no sense within a strictly, consistently monergistic soteriology (in which even sanctification is interpreted as solely God’s work to the exclusion of any free human contribution in which “free” is understood as power of contrary choice).”

I understand Roger’s puzzlement. Although compatibilistic human freedom seems to me to be the clear entailment of the biblical description of God’s sovereign grace in human salvation, I can’t penetrate its mystery. I know that humans are morally responsible for their actions, because Scripture clearly teaches this. Unbelievers are accountable for their unbelief, even though they could not believe unless God graciously granted them faith, which he has chosen not to do. Humans have authentic, morally culpable, agency, even though their decisions are made within the will of God’s eternal purpose. J. I. Packer called it an “antinomy.”

Roger is puzzled about God’s rewarding of the good deeds of his people, the goodness of whose deeds is creditable only to God, to whom the glory therefore belongs. But this puzzlement is not a new one for him. When I commented on his book (Against Calvinism), we frequently noted his fundamental objection to compatibilism, because he considered divine determination incoherent with human moral responsibility.

While not pretending to solve the mystery, all I can say to Roger is that whatever it is that grounds human moral responsibility within a compatibilistic framework is what makes it valid for God to reward the good deeds of God’s people, whose deeds were good only because of the work of God’s sovereign sanctifying grace.

At the same time, however, I am prompted to repeat my counter puzzlement. Roger is (thankfully!) insistent that the glory for the good deeds done by God’s people, through their incompatibilist freedom, belongs to God, before whom we will cast our crowns. I do not think that Roger has any clearer explanation of the non-meritoriousness of human faith and obedience within his synergistic soteriology than Calvinists have of the moral responsibility of compatibilistically free creatures.

Both of us are left with mystery. So we cannot choose between monergistic soteriology (e.g. Calvinism) and synergistic soteriology (e.g. Arminianism) on the basis of logical coherence. We must make that decision on the basis of the overall biblical teaching concerning the degree to which God has chosen to control the outcome of his gracious work in human history.

This being said, however, I’ll put on the table for your consideration and comment a thought that has been rumbling around in my mind of late. It has been dawning on me that although I find the soft-compatibilist account of human freedom most plausible theologically, I act as though I had libertarian freedom. Precisely because it is difficult for me to explain my moral accountability when I act compatibly with God’s determinative government of human history, I always approach decisions indeterministically. I act as though I have the power of contrary choice, as though I could do a) or b), and I choose between them, always aware that if this choice is of a moral kind, I will give account to God for the choice I make.

It may seem to Roger (or other synergists) that my practice of acting as though I were libertarianly free invalidates my conviction that I am soft-compatibilistically free. At this point, I see no other way to proceed in my daily life, both prospectively and retrospectively. But I take this to be the entailment of the mysteriousness of the interplay of divine and human agency, of our limitations in defining the nature of human freedom. And I see evangelical synergists in no better position than evangelical monergists on this point. We both plead mystery eventually.

I welcome your perspectives on this, which will also serve to address the puzzlement that Roger and I have with one another’s conception of human moral responsibility and sole divine glory, which both of us affirm, though we conceive their coherence differently.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

8 replies on “Why does God reward the good deeds of believers?”

Can you explain how the agent’s experience of making a choice from any of the compatibilistic positions would differ from an agent’s experience making a choice based on liberationally free assumptions? IMHO, it seems the human experience is the same whatever our theology.

Good question Bill. In the thoughts I described in this post, I spoke about decision making, which is prospective. There I agree with you. I can’t see how I would approach decision making any differently if I believed myself to be libertarianly free. It seems to me that the real difference occurs retrospectively. Having made a decision, as a soft-compatibilist, I believe myself to have had genuine agency in making the decision, but I also believe that I could not have made a different decision, being who I am, in those particular circumstances. This does not absolve me from responsibility for my decision, because it was I who made it. But God was able to predict what a person just like me would decide in circumstances just like that, and he chose the particular world in which I made that decision. So I acted within his sovereign purpose, but I did so responsibly. I may have acted evilly and am culpable for having done so. But God’s choice of the world in which I did that evil act was a good choice, nevertheless, and God has no culpability for my decision precisely because the decision was mine, and God’s choice was of a complete world, in all its complexity.

Were I a libertarian, I would see things differently prospectively. I would assume that I could have decided otherwise than I did, and that it was impossible for God to have known with certainty just what decision I would make in those circumstances. This makes a considerable difference in the degree of control that God has in the world, as I hope you can see.

That is how it looks to me now, anyway.

Can you further clarify what you mean, when you say:

“…I act as though I had libertarian freedom”?

Chris, you asked me to clarify what I mean, when I say: “…I act as though I had libertarian freedom.”

Admittedly, it sounds a peculiar thing for a soft-compatibilist to say. (Hard compatibilists, such as Thomists, of course, believe that we do have libertarian freedom.)

Commonly, libertarian freedom is defined as the power of contrary choice. This is a definition which actually looks at the situation retrospectively, in that it posits that a person was authentically free if they could have done otherwise than they did, all other things in the situation being the same. When that perspective is applied prospectively, however, a person faced with a decision assumes indeterminism – there is nothing in the situation, including all the facts about myself which predetermines my decision.

As a soft-compatibilist, and hence a soft-determinist, I do not believe that this is the case. I believe that the decision I am going to make is the only decision I (being who I am, including my genetic inheritance, my habits, my motivations, my inclinations, my affections [to use Edwards’ language] etc.) could make. I could not, in fact, choose contrarily or do otherwise than I am about to choose and do. Nonetheless, I stand there without knowledge of what it is that I will decide. I study Scripture, I weigh alternatives, I seek to discern what is the morally right and wisest thing that I could do. Sometimes, I wrestle over this, finding it difficult to make a decision, and perhaps postponing it while I pray and asking counsel of others whose godly wisdom I respect. But this is exactly how a libertarian makes the decision. Both of us believe that we are faced with a serious choice and must decide between alternatives. It may appear that, if I am soft-determined, my sense of choosing between alternatives, with a feeling of possibility that I might choose one or the other, is illusory. Yet I do feel the weight of a genuine choice for which I will give account. I feel, in other words, no different from the libertarian at the moment before I make a decision.

Do you see what I am getting at? What do you make of it?

Since you believe there is only one possible decision that you could make, couldn’t you stop wrestling over decisions and save a lot of time by quickly choosing the first thing that popped into your mind? If you did this, would your choices be irresponsible or exactly as God determined them to be?

Peter, you raised an interesting question.

On the one hand, acting always on first impulse is what I would do if I were a particular kind of person. And were that the case, I would be one of the people in the world which God had chosen in every detail. But, nonetheless, that would be a fault in my habitual way of decision making.

Much of what occurs in the history of the world which God chose to actualize is sinful and needs to be corrected. God made us in his image as rational beings, and Scripture makes it clear that God expects us to use our minds actively in pursuit of wise choices. If I were the sort of person you describe, I hope that you would warn me of my folly and do what you could to encourage me toward more responsible decision making, so that I could be more useful in the pursuit of God’s rule on earth. Your warning or rebuke would be a good thing on your part, and you might be God’s instrument to turn me from my folly, which would be a very good thing for both you and me. I value friends like that, even though the process of betterment can be a bit painful.

I have a question for you, Mr. Tiessen: Roger Olson said, “Clearly there will be degrees of rewards [in heaven]. How is God glorified in awarding to himself a lesser reward than is possible?”

You responded by saying that since Roger Olson also affirms that God works in us to perform good deeds worthy of gaining a reward from Him (even from a synergistic perspective), and hence it is not a purely an independent action of man, then Roger has the same conundrum in diminishing God’s glory as the Calvinist who affirms mongerism (not synergism) for rewards. Am I correct?

Yes, Dee, I think you have heard me correctly.

I am proposing that both Roger (a synergist) and I (a monergist) live with a tension that is unresolvable, it is ultimately mysterious. But the tension occurs in different ways.

He finds it strange that monergists speak of their acts as deserving of condemnation or commendation by God, when they act according to God’s eternal determination. It sounds to him as though God is the only genuine agent, so both condemnation and commendation really come back to God. (Elsewhere I have talked about Roger’s belief that if monergism were correct God would be morally responsible for all the evils done by creatures.

I, on the other hand, have difficulty understanding why synergists give God the glory for their faith and obedience rather than congratulating themselves, since God has left up to the creature the outcomes in that regard.

In short, I am not a compatibilist because it is most reasonable. Both perspectives include tension and must confess mystery. I am a compatibilist because Scripture seems to me to describe quite clearly a situation in which (1) everything occurs as God eternally purposed it should do, and (2) creatures are morally responsible for their evil deeds, but any good they do is the consequence of God’s gracious intervention in the moral entropy which is inherent in the dependence of creatures upon God, and this has been exacerbated by the corruption of human nature through sin.

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