By Philippe R. Sterling
A motive is “that which moves or induces a person to act in a certain way” (Oxford English Dictionary). In the context of the Christian life, what motive(s) could move a believer to live in obedience to Christ if eternal life is already assured?
Jesus guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him for it (John 5:24; 6:47). When people hear that eternal life is a free gift—and that getting it, keeping it, or proving that one has it is not dependent on good works—they sometimes wonder what would motivate a person to live a life pleasing to Christ once they are assured of eternal life. Before addressing that question, let’s consider what might be a primary motivation for obedience if eternal life were not assured.
What Might Motivate Us If Eternal Life Were Not Assured?
Fear of hell might be a primary motivation for obedience if eternal life were not assured. In an Arminian system of theology there can be the fear of losing justification. In a Reformed system of theology there can be the fear of being among the non-elect.
John Wesley believed that eternal life could be lost. He said, “It is incumbent on all that are justified to be zealous for good works. And these are so necessary, that if a man willingly neglects them… he cannot retain the grace he has received” (The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion).
Reformed writer R. C. Sproul cited a fear of not being saved:
A while back I had one of those moments of acute self-awareness that we have from time to time, and suddenly the question hit me: “R. C., what if you are not one of the redeemed? What if your destiny is not heaven after all, but hell?” Let me tell you that I was flooded in my body with a chill that went from my head to the bottom of my spine. I was terrified.
I tried to grab hold of myself. I thought, “Well, it’s a good sign that I’m worried about this. Only true Christians really care about salvation.” But then I began to take stock of my life, and I looked at my performance. My sins came pouring into my mind, and the more I looked at myself, the worse I felt. I thought, “Maybe it’s really true. Maybe I’m not saved after all (Tabletalk Magazine, Nov 7, 1989).
Jesus promised, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47). We don’t look at our performance for our assurance of eternal life, but at Christ’s promise. What, then, can motivate our perseverance and faithfulness if eternal life is assured?
What Can Motivate Us If Eternal Life Is Assured?
Believers can have a multifaceted motivation for dedication and faithfulness to Christ. We can organize these facets of our motivation by focusing on the past, present, and future aspects of our salvation.
We can be motivated to obey and serve Christ when we reflect on the past aspects of our salvation. Our past-focused reflection on what Christ has done for us can stir up love and gratitude.
Gratitude can induce dedication and service. The Apostle Paul’s appeal for a believer’s dedication on the mercies of God: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God which is your reasonable service” (Rom 12:1). A believer can show appreciation for what has been freely provided him by dedicating himself to a life of service to Christ. We can serve out of thankfulness for what has been done for us.
Love for Christ can move a believer to live for Him. Jesus said “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word” (John 14:23).
We can be motivated to obey and serve Christ when we reflect on the present aspects of our salvation. There are positive and negative aspects to a believer’s present-focused motivation.
Positive Consequences in the Present Life
God rewards faithfulness with present blessings. Faithful believers experience joy, peace, and confidence in God’s provision for their needs. Jesus exhorted His disciples to cease being anxious about what they would eat, drink or wear, since their heavenly Father knows that they need them all; instead, they were to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things would be added” to them (Matt 6:31-33). This was not a guarantee of health and wealth, but a general promise of God’s daily provision for believers who put God’s priorities first in life.
The Apostle Peter linked righteous living with present blessings by quoting from Psalm 32, “He who would love life and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips from speaking deceit. Let him turn away from evil and do good; let him seek peace and pursue it” (1 Pet 3:10-11).
Believers who keep Jesus’ commandments experience an increased level of spiritual intimacy with Him and an increased level of joy. Jesus put it this way, “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:10-11).
Believers can be positively motivated by a familial fear of the Lord’s discipline (Heb 12:7-9). God’s family discipline can take various forms.
The first form of discipline can be simple reproof. The Word of God reproves and corrects us as we are exposed to it (2 Tim 3:16-17). God may use a fellow believer to restore us in a spirit of gentleness when we are caught up in a transgression (Gal 6:1).
God may discipline us by making us sick. James gave this advice to believers who may be sick due to the Lord’s discipline: “And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:15-16a).
God’s family discipline may be preventative, corrective, or instructive. All of God’s discipline is for our good so that we may be conformed more and more to the likeness of Christ (Heb 12:10). For the moment such discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but it later yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those trained by it (Heb 12:11). This is the grace of discipline.
Negative Consequences in the Present Life
Unfortunately, believers can fail to obtain the grace of God needed to benefit positively from the discipline of God (Heb 12:15). When we obtain God’s grace in the midst of our difficulties and trials, the results are positive. When, in our difficulties and trials, we fail to obtain God’s grace, the results are negative.
How do we obtain God’s grace? Hebrews 4:14-16 encourages us to come “to the throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”
When we fail to obtain God’s grace in our time of need, we may become bitter and immoral (Heb 12:15b-16a). We, like Esau, might even become godless and develop ways of living life and fulfilling needs apart from God (12:16b). Esau lost the birthright (inheritance of the firstborn) and blessing, and he could not change this fact no matter how much he later regretted it (12:17). Believers can lose their inheritance. This is not the loss of eternal life, but loss of the inheritance of reigning with Christ in the life to come.
God may even take the physical life of a sinning believer prematurely. This happened in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), and of some of the believers in Corinth (1 Cor 11:30).
We can be motivated to obey and serve Christ when we reflect on the future aspects of our salvation. There are positive and negative aspects of a believer’s future-focused motivation.
Believers will appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ (Bema) to be recompensed for the deeds done in this present life, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10). The judgment at the Bema is not for the purpose of determining who has eternal life, but of testing the quality of each believer’s work (1 Cor 3:13-15). A believer is secure in his possession of eternal life. The evaluation of how he spent his life will have positive or negative consequences in the life to come.
Positive Consequences in the Life to Come
There is the positive promise of rewards. Among the last recorded words of Jesus in the New Testament is the promise, “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work” (Rev 22:12). Jesus will reward faithful believers with praise, the special joy of having pleased him, and the privilege of ruling with Him (Luke 19:11-19; Matt 25:14-23).
Is it selfish to be motivated by the promise of rewards? The fact that Jesus promises rewards for faithfulness makes it a good motivation. It is good to want what the Lord wants us to have. Jesus Himself endured the cross “for the joy that was set before Him” (Heb 12:2). Every believer should desire to hear the Lord’s words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matt 25:23).
Negative Consequences in the Life to Come
There is the possibility of shame when Christ comes. The Apostle John challenged believers to abide in Christ so as not to shrink back in shame at His coming (1 John 2:28).
There is the possible loss of rewards. Eternal life is free; rewards are earned. Every believer should dread losing what could have been his reward (Rev 3:11). The Apostle Paul was motivated by his hope of gaining an imperishable crown and by his fear of disqualification (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Our motive is our reason for doing something. There are powerful motives related to the past, present, and future aspects of our salvation that can move us to faithful endurance in the Christian life. We do not need to fear the loss of eternal life in order to be motivated to live a life pleasing to Christ, nor do we need to prove by our works that we have eternal life. We can be motivated by orienting our focus to the past and responding with gratitude and love for what He has freely provided for us. We can be motivated by orienting our focus to the present, knowing that God both blesses obedience and disciplines disobedience in this life. We can be motivated by orienting our focus to the future and the rewards promised in the life to come based on our faithfulness in this life. Run with endurance the race that is set before you (Heb 12:1).
One of the most demanding of all races is the annual Tour de France bicycle race. The race covers about 2,000 miles, including some of France’s most difficult mountain terrain. Cyclists eat and drink as they ride. A cyclist may ride his bicycle 22,000 miles in a year to train for the event. What prize makes the contestants endure so much hardship? A small number are motivated by the possibility of the special winner’s jersey. (Most really have no chance to win since each team selects one member to be the possible winner; the rest of the team supports him.) What else motivates the contestants? One summed it up: “Why, to sweep through the Arc de Triomphe on the last day. To be able to say you finished the Tour de France.” Finishing the Tour is a matter of great joy. But these prizes fall far short of the prizes Christians strive to obtain (1 Cor 9:24-
Believers have much greater rewards to motivate them. In addition to their past and present motivators, believers who fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith, will, in the future, receive an imperishable crown from the Lord (2 Tim 4:7-8).
Philippe Sterling is the pastor of Vista Ridge Bible Fellowship in Lewisville, TX. He and his wife of 45 years, Brenda, live in Denton, TX, near their daughter, Sarah, son-in-law, Ben, and grandkids.