If you read books, watch TV shows, or view movies with well-developed villains, you’ve probably seen the oft-repeated scene where one of the henchmen comes back and asks for payment. He (since it usually seems to be a guy in these scenes) insists on getting what he deserves. At this point, the villain typically agrees, and then sends the greedy goon off to a quick demise.
Even when we may feel that we deserve something good, insisting on it in an obnoxious way is likely to result in offending others, and in receiving something (even if we have earned it) only begrudgingly, if at all. (Of course, I think that there are times when individuals should politely press to receive payment that they are owed, or to receive a clearly-earned promotion. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do so, and sometimes followers of Jesus may even be called to forego what they are owed by others, for a greater purpose.)
Conversely, I rarely find convicted criminals insisting to a judge (or jury) that they must receive what they deserve. When a police officer pulls someone over for speeding through an active school zone, it isn’t common for the driver to insist that he or she be deservedly punished for endangering children.
Have a look at this verse from 2 Corinthians (but be sure to keep on reading after you digest this verse – I would hate for you to leave after only hearing the “bad news”).
For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.
2 Corinthians 5:10 NLT
If we are honest with ourselves, we have all done enough evil things, to the point that getting what we deserved for them would be unpleasant (to say the least). If our bad choices were made known to others, we would probably owe them – and society – some sort of compensation. If we consider the fact that we will eventually face a holy and perfectly good God, getting what we deserve can be downright terrifying.
A few verses later, though, we find some really good news:
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 NLT
To paraphrase how I’ve heard this scenario described elsewhere:
- For those who have sinned (chosen to contradict God’s instructions by their choices), but have not accepted Jesus’ offer of salvation, no amount of good deeds is enough to make them worthy of living in the presence of a perfect, holy God. So, when sinners don’t accept Jesus’ alternative (which is readily available to everyone, no matter how many sins they have committed), their choice to be separate from God’s righteousness is solidified upon death.
- For those who have sinned (chosen to rebel against God by acting contrary to what is clearly right), but have accepted Jesus’ offer of salvation, their sins (no matter how atrocious) are replaced with Jesus’ righteousness, allowing them to be adopted into the family of God. With the ultimate penalty of our sins already paid, we can seek to serve Jesus out of thankfulness and submission to His authority.
In this latter group are people (including myself) who have plenty of evil deeds queued up in their past; the only difference from the first group is that they were willing to sign up with Jesus and allow Him to “trade places”. Within the body of Christ (the sum of people who follow Jesus), we are free to serve other people like Jesus did, and try to live up (usually imperfectly) to His perfect example.
So, once we have accepted Jesus’ gracious gift to spare us from the cost of our sinful choices, let us do good to celebrate and honor Jesus Christ, who voluntarily took what we deserved. Even if there is a reward for our good deeds, they will still point back to Him, who made a life of freedom possible for us in the first place.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.