This is the last of a three-part series on work, featuring a Wesleyan theologian (Ben Witherington) and a Lutheran theologian (Gene Veith). In this post, these two scholars focus on the implications of their theological moorings when it comes to good works. (Check out part 1 and part 2 of the conversation.)
WITHERINGTON: Why do both Jesus and Paul talk about rewards in heaven or in the Kingdom, and the lack thereof for those who are less profitable servants, shall we say? Do you think virtue is its own reward, and how does virtue relate to your notion of vocation or calling?
VEITH: Of course we are rewarded. God awards abundantly. And I have no problem with the notion of the great saints, the true heroes of the faith, will receive a greater reward than someone like me, though we are also told that the first will be last and the last first and that there will be lots of surprises in Heaven. (Some will put forward their “mighty works” only to have the Lord say, “I never knew you” [Matthew 7:22-23].)
Virtue is to do God’s will. We are to do God’s will in every part of our lives – in our families, in the workplace, in the church, and in our culture; that is, in our vocations.
The underlying question is, how do we become virtuous; that is, how do we do God’s will? We must know God in order to know His will–which means we must know and trust His Word–and to actually do His will, we need to be saved from our sinful condition through the life-changing work of Jesus Christ. Now we are in the realm of faith. To say that good works are the fruit of faith, which Matthew 7 also teaches in the passage immediately before the one cited above, is a very literal truth. Knowing what Christ has done for us and personally trusting and depending on Him makes us want to do His will.
I totally agree with you when in your book you indicate that coercing someone to do something has no moral value. And when we do something good just to be rewarded, that also compromises the work’s moral value. The politician who shows up at a soup kitchen for 15 minutes while the cameras roll is not necessarily showing virtue, if he feeds the hungry only to boost his image and his polling numbers. The woman who really feels compassion for the homeless and the hungry and so gives up Thanksgiving dinner with her family to serve at the soup kitchen, she is showing virtue and she will have her reward. She is following God’s will and thus is co-operating with God in His love and care for His children. He uses her as His hands and feet, as you say, and He honors that. (Now He may also have used the politician to give food to the hungry during that 15 minutes, and perhaps beyond in drawing attention and building further support for the soup kitchen. The politician himself didn’t do anything particularly virtuous, but God did something good with him anyway, though not by any kind of coercion into virtue.)
God wants us to serve Him and our neighbors because we want to (there is your free agency!) and out of love. And love and good works grow out of faith. ”Without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrews 11:6). The key is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). And this happens in vocation.
WITHERINGTON: I don’t think I have anything to disagree with about this, but I do have a story to tell you briefly.
When we lived in Ashland Ohio, we attended several churches, and I got involved in a very active and excellent Lutheran Church— Trinity Lutheran. In fact, I became a part time cantor at their folk service in the evenings on Sunday. I loved it.
There was just one problem— I couldn’t say the line in the creed about even as Christians we are still ‘simul justus et peccator’ we are still in the bondage of sin. Nope, my that made my Wesleyan and charismatic blood boil. I just went silent when that line of the creed or confession came up. And here is the relevance of this to our discussion – I don’t believe we are still sinners who are called or enabled to occasionally do saintly things. I believe we are set apart by God and sanctified so that we have been freed from the bondage to sin. This is why Paul calls us ‘holy ones’ and any time we do anything that is good and true and beautiful and godly, whether it’s part of our profession or not, it is part of our calling, part of our living out our one true vocation – to be like Christ. I don’t think we have a vocation or calling to be anything else, though God may call us to do a million things. They simply put are not our callings or vocations; they are the good works we have been created in Christ Jesus to do.
VEITH: Isn’t that something, Ben, that you used to go to a Lutheran church! I’m puzzled, though, that you had to confess a creed that referred in any way to ‘simul justus et peccator.’ I can’t think of any creed used in any Lutheran worship service that says that! It’s not in the Apostle’s, Nicean, or Athanasian creeds. Sometimes part of the Catechism is recited on informal occasions, but that’s not in there, as such, and even that isn’t in the liturgy of the Divine Service. Was your pastor just making up creeds for the congregation to recite? He’s not supposed to do that! The liturgy is where we are universal and “catholic”! We belonged to a Lutheran congregation once whose pastor did that sort of thing. We didn’t like it when he made up the liturgy, but we held in there until he started making up the creed. That was too much, so we left.
But, of course, that slogan is what Lutherans believe. I do think I am a sinner. I am also a saint because Christ has given me His holiness. We don’t believe in the Wesleyan idea that we can attain perfection in this life. We do have a different understanding of sanctification. We see it as a constant struggle between our “Old Adam” and the new life that Christ has given us, so that we are always coming before God in repentance and coming to the Gospel again and again. And in that process, we grow in our faith and so grow in our righteousness and our holiness. We believe that good works are done in vocation and that the struggles of our ordinary callings are where sanctification happens. But I do agree with this beautiful sentence that you write: ”Any time we do anything that is good and true and beautiful and godly, whether it’s part of our profession or not, it is part of our calling, part of our living out our one true vocation— to be like Christ.”
I don’t want to minimize our theological differences, even though I argue that we agree with each other on more things than we might realize. What I am coming to understand through your book and our discussions is that the different theologies and theological traditions that we have as Christians are going to manifest themselves in their theologies of work.
- Lutheran theology emphasizes God’s action in our lives and His presence in physical means, so that carries over into vocation.
- Wesleyan theology emphasizes human agency, freedom, and the role of good works, so that carries over into a Wesleyan view of work and vocation.
- Calvinists, I have noticed, tend to look at vocation in terms of their understanding of the Third Use of the Law.
- I suspect that Pentecostalists, Anabaptists, and regular Baptists would have their own spin on the topic.
This is understandable and the nature of having particular theologies. What all can agree on, though, is that ordinary human work has a spiritual significance that we need to recover and to live out.
WITHERINGTON: It was part of the confession rather than the creed, we made every single service, and embedded in the liturgy. It’s the I’m fallen and I can’t get up part of the liturgy
I think this is an excellent insight of yours that theological differences in general will manifest themselves in particular in one’s theology of work. Of course this is especially clear with something like ‘the Puritan work ethic’ but it would be true in all theologies I imagine. For example, in the Wesleyan tradition good works are part of our working out our salvation so it does indeed have to do with our sanctification. We don’t believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ substituting for our actual righteousness. We believe in the imparted righteousness that comes through the Holy Spirit, and that absolutely affects the way we view both work, and good works, and final salvation which is not just a matter of justification by grace through faith.
Gene, I think we need to find a pub and finish this conversation over a good glass of German lager
VEITH: Now you are talking in language that Lutherans understand! ;-)
WAX: Well, if you want a Baptist at the table, you’ll have to have sweet tea. Thank you, gentlemen, for the fascinating conversation!