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A conversation with one of my critics #3

In which we conclude the “battle of the books” between my  God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life (Focal Point) and  Ben Witherington’s  Work: A Kingdom Perspective on Labor and also get into some other issues:

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 that 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.

Continue reading.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Rachel

    Hey, Dr. Veith. Just FYI: it’s Ben Witherington, not Ken. Ben Witherington III, to be completely exact. Once again, thanks for posting. I’m loving this discussion!

  • Rachel

    Hey, Dr. Veith. Just FYI: it’s Ben Witherington, not Ken. Ben Witherington III, to be completely exact. Once again, thanks for posting. I’m loving this discussion!

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Thanks, Rachel. I knew that. Sorry for mangling the name. I’ll fix it.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Thanks, Rachel. I knew that. Sorry for mangling the name. I’ll fix it.

  • Tom Hering

    “… in the Wesleyan tradition good works are part of our working out our salvation … We don’t believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ substituting for our actual righteousness … that absolutely affects the way we view … final salvation which is not just a matter of justification by grace through faith.” – Witherington.

    If I may, for a moment, borrow the typographical eccentricities of a regular commenter here (who would probably agree with Witherington’s views) … “YIKES!”…

  • Tom Hering

    “… in the Wesleyan tradition good works are part of our working out our salvation … We don’t believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ substituting for our actual righteousness … that absolutely affects the way we view … final salvation which is not just a matter of justification by grace through faith.” – Witherington.

    If I may, for a moment, borrow the typographical eccentricities of a regular commenter here (who would probably agree with Witherington’s views) … “YIKES!”…

  • Rob

    Thank you, Dr. Veith, for your participation in and publication of this dialogue.

    Though Lutheran now, I graduated from the same seminary Dr. Witherington attended (Gordon-Conwell). This dialogue helped not only to refresh and reaffirm my appreciation for Lutheran doctrine (most specifically in the area of vocation and the two kingdoms), but emphasized to me the need for Lutherans to engage in loving but direct discussion with those beliefs we consider heterodox. When done in love and with care, this is not a threat to our orthodoxy, but a celebration of it.

    And did you really get a complete-sanctification-Wesleyan to offer you a drink?

  • Rob

    Thank you, Dr. Veith, for your participation in and publication of this dialogue.

    Though Lutheran now, I graduated from the same seminary Dr. Witherington attended (Gordon-Conwell). This dialogue helped not only to refresh and reaffirm my appreciation for Lutheran doctrine (most specifically in the area of vocation and the two kingdoms), but emphasized to me the need for Lutherans to engage in loving but direct discussion with those beliefs we consider heterodox. When done in love and with care, this is not a threat to our orthodoxy, but a celebration of it.

    And did you really get a complete-sanctification-Wesleyan to offer you a drink?

  • EGK

    I think the line in the confession that Witherington is referring to is from the LBW version of the confession, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” LW did not use that, preferring to say simply “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.”

  • EGK

    I think the line in the confession that Witherington is referring to is from the LBW version of the confession, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” LW did not use that, preferring to say simply “We confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean.”

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Great discussion!

    Romans 7 is coming up quick in the lectionary – this discussion is a reminder of just how important it is to preach this particular text faithfully and carefully. Thanks, good Doctor!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Great discussion!

    Romans 7 is coming up quick in the lectionary – this discussion is a reminder of just how important it is to preach this particular text faithfully and carefully. Thanks, good Doctor!

  • Kelly

    Tom, that stood out to me, too… “We don’t believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ substituting for our actual righteousness,” etc. That sounded distinctly Roman Catholic to my Lutheran ears, actually.

    And this… “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,” sounds like the off, stereotypical reaction to Lutheranism: “You guys don’t really believe in sanctification or doing good works; you think we should just sit around and do nothing as we’re justified through faith alone!”

  • Kelly

    Tom, that stood out to me, too… “We don’t believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ substituting for our actual righteousness,” etc. That sounded distinctly Roman Catholic to my Lutheran ears, actually.

    And this… “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,” sounds like the off, stereotypical reaction to Lutheranism: “You guys don’t really believe in sanctification or doing good works; you think we should just sit around and do nothing as we’re justified through faith alone!”

  • Tom Hering

    “… you think we should just sit around and do nothing as we’re justified through faith alone!” – Kelly @ 7.

    They shouldn’t? We shouldn’t either? Boy, then I hope something changes in me, so I do good works whether I mean to or not, want to or not. Because I’m always thinking about doing bad things. (Not that I don’t find a way to convince myself they’re good things.)

  • Tom Hering

    “… you think we should just sit around and do nothing as we’re justified through faith alone!” – Kelly @ 7.

    They shouldn’t? We shouldn’t either? Boy, then I hope something changes in me, so I do good works whether I mean to or not, want to or not. Because I’m always thinking about doing bad things. (Not that I don’t find a way to convince myself they’re good things.)

  • Kelly

    Tom: huh?

  • Kelly

    Tom: huh?


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