There was a distinct moment when it dawned on me that I had missed something important in Paul’s thinking on the Christian motivations for doing good works. During a Bible study we were busy discussing the following passage:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet”, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Rom 13:8–14)
Paul gives two reasons for why our lives should be characterized by love. The first is that love fulfills the law, and in the course of the preceding discussion of Romans we’ve seen that the law is something good and from God, and therefore something desirable. When turning to the second reason he shifts into metaphorical language, saying that we should awake from sleep and walk in the light. From the way he proceeds to talk it is clear that this is another way of speaking about obedience to God, but what’s interesting is the motivation he gives for it. He says that, “the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” (13:11)
Now, if it is not clear to you why this is significant, let me back up and explain. For the longest time I had thought of the motivations for obedience in terms of what we might call “past-orientated” and “present-orientated” ways. Paul himself sometimes refers to these kinds of motivations in his letters, and so it wasn’t without warrant that I thought in these terms. For example, he urges the Corinthians to use their bodies with integrity because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and reminds them that they are no longer their own but were bought at a price (1 Cor 6:19–20, 7:22–24). He encourages the Ephesians to forgive one another because God hadforgiven them in Christ (Eph 4:32), and to walk in love as Christ had loved them (5:1–2). He calls the Philippians to follow the example that was set by Christ in putting others before oneself (Phil 2:4–6), and he explains to Timothy that Christ had set an example in his perfect patience for those who were to believe in him (1 Tim 1:16). The problem was this: I had so habituated myself into thinking in terms of past- and present-orientated motivations that I had unconsciously excluded the possibility of future-orientated motivations altogether.
And I would learn in that Bible study two things. First, it was not just me, but everyone in the discussion had done the same thing. And second, there was more to the problem than I originally thought. I pointed out the future-orientated motivation Paul gives in the passage, and with great interest asked the natural next question: how is our hope of future salvation supposed to motivate our present actions? I wasn’t equipped to answer the question, since it had never occurred to me to ask it before. But I discovered that night that no-one else was equipped to answer it either. The others did their best to give answers, but every attempt was inescapably couched in past- or present-orientated language, and once the fatigue of failed attempts became too much to bear the conversation moved on. But the question remained unanswered, and I remained unsatisfied.
This was roughly two years ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about this since then. In the course of puzzling over it, I’ve come to refer to this feature of Paul’s thought as his “eschatological ethics.” Ethics because it has to do with living well in obedience to our creator and Lord, and eschatological because the motivation for this obedience arises from our hope in salvation on the final day, called the “eschaton” in theology, and often referred to as the “day of the Lord” in scripture. It’s worth giving this feature of Paul’s thought a name because, as it turns out, future-orientated motivations come up more often than past- or presented-orientated ones. We cannot understate the significance of this point. It means that without the adequate conceptual tools and practice in using them, we will miss how one of the New Testament’s most prolific writers connects his theology with its ethical implications.
Now, for a long while I had tried in vain to determine the way this connection was supposed to work. That is, I had sought the single motivational link connecting our future hope and present actions that could explain how Paul can so easily draw out the various ethical implications he does. More recently, however, I have come to realize that Paul actually recognizes more than one such link, and that he happily emphasizes different ones depending on the occasion of the particular letter we’re reading. In light of this realization, the task shifts from trying to find an abstract enough link that explains everything, to categorizing multiple links and reflecting on how they relate to one another.
In what follows, we will look at examples of Paul’s eschatological ethics, and then discuss three ways that our future hope is linked to our present actions.
Examples of Paul’s eschatological ethics
Paul does not seem to have developed a technical vocabulary for speaking about the connection between future hope and present action, but he does have general ways of speaking about hope and action separately. Although some of his letters are quite systematic they are still letters written for different purposes, and so we find him using a wide vocabulary and different imagery when talking about particular topics.
When he speaks about hope he has in mind a forward-looking anticipation for salvation on the day of the Lord. Connected to this is, naturally enough, a future-orientated understanding of salvation itself — an example of which we saw above in the Romans passage — as well as the idea of a calling to this hope — examples of which we will see in due course. And although used more fluidly, he also refers to the future glory that will be revealed on the final day.
Regarding good action, or obedience, Paul uses various metaphors and terms. We saw above that the expression of this action is love, and that it is spoken of metaphorically as walking in the light. Other times he will speak of being sober-minded or self-controlled. Or he will use the metaphor of athletics and refer to competing according to the rules, while other times he will use language more inspired by Old Testament law and refer to cleansing ourselves from defilement.
The variety of his language goes beyond this small sample, as we will see in the list below. We will consider a number of passages in the order that they appear in the New Testament, skipping over the Romans passage we considered above. This list is quite long, partly to make a point about how ubiquitous this kind of thinking is in Paul. The length notwithstanding, this list only contains those references where the future-orientated motivations are easily discerned and separated out from the broader context of his argument — which is to say, there is even more out there.
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
He explains that as fellow members of Christ’s body (cf. 12:3–21) we are to help each other in our weakness (present action), that we might endure until the end and thereby not lose hope (future hope).
1 Corinthians 9:24–27
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So, run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So, I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
This comes as an explanation for Paul’s serving of others as an apostle of the gospel of Jesus, that he may share in the blessings that it brings with those who hear and accept it (cf. 9:23). The analogy of runners in a race clearly recognizes a prize at the end (future hope) as the motivation for running with self-control so that he may not be disqualified (present action).
1 Corinthians 15:32b–34
If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame.
The “dead being raised” refers to the resurrection of the dead on the day of the Lord, when everyone will be judged. In the surrounding discussion, Paul is defending the resurrection of Jesus as a pre-figuring of this final resurrection, and using this as a motivation for the Corinthians to get their act together. Without the hope of such a resurrection (and implied judgment) there is little reason to act in obedience to God, but with such a hope there is very good reason to do so. Thus, in light of the resurrection (future hope), he calls them to wake up from their drunken stupor and live appropriately (present action).
2 Corinthians 5:9–10
So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Here it is clear that the future judgment motivates our present actions.
2 Corinthians 7:1
Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.
The promises he is referring to were just stated in the preceding context (2 Cor 6:16–18), and speak of God’s promise that he will welcome his people (future hope) if they separate themselves from uncleanness (present action). From this it is clear that complete (or perfect) holiness refers to being with God most fully, which is the result of salvation on the day of the Lord, and which Paul sees here as motivating us to cleanse ourselves.
Galatians 5:5, 22–23
For through the Spirit, by faith we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness… But the fruit of the Spirit is love: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Here the fruit of the Spirit are the present actions produced by the work of the Spirit, which involves pointing us to our future hope.
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will form the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.
Here he uses the analogy of the farmer reaping (future hope) the consequences of what they sow (present action), which is explicitly stated to be “doing good.” No doubt, this is a meditation on the previous chapter’s discussion of the work and fruit of the Spirit.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It is clear from this that Paul understood part of their motivation to be the working out of their salvation. That it is still to be worked out indicates that it is a future reality to which we strain to make our own.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.
Paul notes that it is the hope of the Colossians that motivates their love for all the saints.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.
The presentation of them as holy and blameless is clearly a future reality, describing what will happen on the day of the Lord (cf. 2 Cor 1:14). This is clear since it is contingent on their continuing in the faith which, given the contrast with hostility of mind and doing evil deeds, no doubt carries with it the idea of obedience.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…
At first Paul appears to be giving a past-orientated motivation for action, saying that we have died with Christ. But then, just before we get to the command to put our earthly passions to death, he switches to a future-orientated motivation, pointing us to the day when our life will appear with Christ in glory. This illustrates nicely a way of thinking about the connection between the present and future that can be seen elsewhere in Paul (eg. Eph 2:1–6, Phil 3:8–16), where our future hope is spoken about in terms of a present status. The best way to think about this is that in the present we are set on the trajectory toward a future hope that previously was out of reach. And just like a trajectory is identified by its being ordered toward a target, so too is our present status, when discussed in these ways, identified by its ordering us toward our future hope. Thus, Paul finds little difficulty switching between the two as he does in this above passage.
1 Thessalonians 5:8–11
But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are [alive] or [dead] we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Paul uses the language of being awake and sober again, and the motivation given for this is the destiny of salvation that God has laid out for us.
2 Thessalonians 2:14–15
To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.
Future glory is the motivation to stand firm to the traditions, which we see later are connected with proper action (3:6).
1 Timothy 4:6–10
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.
The value of godliness and the end toward which we strive is the hope of eternal life with the living God.
1 Timothy 6:11–14
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you… to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul starts by listing all these components of Christian life, which eventually leads to a statement about its motivation: to take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and to keep going until the appearing of Jesus on the day of the Lord.
1 Timothy 6:18–19
[The rich] are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
The motivation for action is to take hold of true life, which is eternal life in the future.
2 Timothy 2:3–6
Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.
Particularly the athlete and farmer analogies make sense only if we understand the life of a Christian as one governed by looking forward.
2 Timothy 4:6–8
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
In reflecting on his life, Paul understood it as something done motivated by what will happen on the last day.
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Paul characterizes the life of people who have been saved and who are zealous for good works as that of waiting for their blessed hope.
How future hope links to present action
Having gone through references from across Paul’s writings in the New Testament, we now come to the question of how future hope is meant to motivate present action. As can be seen from the passages above, Paul does not always state how he understands the link between the future and the present to work. Often he is satisfied to point his readers to the future and call them to act appropriately in light of it. Nevertheless, I think at least three links can be discerned from his discussions.
Link 1: Salvation through perfected obedience
In a previous post we explained that works still play an important role in our future salvation, even though we are justified by faith alone. This realization is key to understanding the first link between our future hope in this salvation and the way we conduct our lives. As we explained in that post:
… at the last judgement, only those who have lived perfectly obedient lives will be saved from God’s wrath. However, because everyone sins, we can at best live an imperfectly obedient life. Even though we desire God and seek him with an obedient heart, we cannot escape punishment ourselves because we cannot undo our previous failures. This is akin to a murderer who has since repented of his crimes, but still awaits punishment: it doesn’t matter how many people he saves, he is still guilty of murder and deserving of punishment.
Without the justification brought by Christ there is no middle ground between (1) a perfectly obedient life leading to life with God and (2) a sinful life leading to punishment. The implicit problem with this is that the former is out of reach, as should be clear to anyone who’s ever tried to live such a life. But if the latter option is inevitable, then it’s difficult to see what could motivate someone who has sinned to continue to try and be obedient. As Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
Jesus changes things by opening up a third way, namely an imperfectly obedient life perfected through justification by faith alone. Turning to him as King and doing your best to live under him is now sufficient to obtain the life with God that was previously out of reach, provided we continue to the end. And this is why the hope of future salvation for sinners motivates present action. We need to continue in our obedience perfected by faith until the end to take hold of the prize. Furthermore, this obedience will correspond to the complete ethical life, since our Lord is not just anyone, but the supreme creator who seeks our flourishing as the kinds of creatures he made us to be.
Nevertheless there are plenty of things that might get in the way of our continuing to the end, whether they be internal weaknesses or external pressures. Thus Paul calls Christians to endure, to stand firm until the end, to not give up, to value self-control, and to remember the immeasurable value of what we strive for.
Link 2: The desire to be found worthy as Christ’s treasured possession
While the first link conceives of present action as a precondition for our future salvation, the second conceives of it in terms of living up to the status we have been given — the status of being Christ’s treasured possession that will be presented to him on the final day.
We saw this in the Titus passage above, where Paul explains that we are to live godly lives while we wait for the appearing of Jesus, who gave himself “to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit 2:14) As he continues to reflect on this in the verses that follow he describes good works as “excellent and profitable” (3:8) while denouncing the opposite as “unprofitable and worthless.” (3:9) Given how he’s just described the final day, we must surely read these assessments in light of how our present actions contribute to or frustrate our being presented as a treasured possession of our creator and Lord.
This idea of living a life worthy of this future comes up elsewhere in Paul’s letters (Eph 4:1–5, Col 1:9–10), although not always in as straightforward a way as we see in Titus. Sometimes he will use the metaphor of a wedding ceremony and describe the church as a bride to be presented to her husband (Eph 5:25–27, 2 Cor 11:2). Other times he will speak of living so that we might be able to boast of one another on the final day (2 Cor 1:13–14, 1 Thess 2:19–20, Phil 2:14–16). Still other times he will speak of it in terms of us achieving glory in some sense (Rom 8:18–21, 2 Cor 3:18).
Now, the idea of glory is a bit obscure to modern ears, but it can help us understand what it means to “live up to” our status. It is sufficient for our purposes to note that a thing’s glory is the basis for it being appreciated, respected, or approved. The kind of glory Paul has in mind here is that of an inferior in the eyes of their superior, like a child before their parent, a student before their teacher, or (in Paul’s case) a creature before their creator. In each case the inferior takes pleasure in the approval of their superior, as when a father is proud of his son or a teacher is impressed by the hard work of her pupil. And it often happens that an inferior’s desire for such approval will express itself in the present with an eye to a future appraisal of their work by their superior. This is the sort of situation we find ourselves with Christ. Knowing that one day we will be presented to him, we do our best to live in such a way that is pleasing to him, so that when he looks at the manner of our life we might be found worthy of the divine accolade “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matt 25:21, 23, Luke 19:17)
Some might object to this on the grounds that what we are suggesting looks a lot like conceit or vanity, neither of which seem like appropriate motivations for the ethical life. But appearances can be deceiving, and we must not confuse a healthy appreciation of our work for corrupted versions of it. We should avoid overestimating the value of our work (conceit), but we should also avoid underestimating it, since both extremes fail to properly appreciate the good in one’s life. And we should avoid treating outward expressions as if they were everything (vanity), but neither should we settle for good intentions alone. Furthermore, arrogance has no place in a desire that is peculiarly that of an inferior looking to the approval of their superior.
But perhaps the problem is not with the appreciation of our work, but with the fact that we do good things for the appreciation of someone else. I think this objection gets at something important, for surely Christ wishes us to help others out of genuine love for them and not simply as a means to earning his approval. The alternative seems to make everything about us, which is at odds with his exhortation to put others before ourselves. So then, can we reconcile the desire for our own approval before Christ with the other-centeredness such approval requires? We can, by using a distinction we’ve mentioned before between first-order and higher-order desires. First-order desires are the everyday desires we have that by themselves don’t involve self-reflection, like our desire to help others out of love for them. Higher-order desires are self-reflective desires we have about the kind of person we want to be and the kinds of desires we want to have. Even though higher-order desires are always about ourselves — since they are self-reflective — they can nevertheless reinforce selfless first-order desires and behaviors, and in this way show us how to reconcile the two ideas above. For example, we might have the (higher-order) desire to be the kind of person who always has the (first-order) desire for the well-being of their friends, in which case we have a desire about ourselves that contributes to the formation of other-centered habits. More generally, the higher-order desire to be someone pleasing to Christ involves the many other-centered first-order desires that he finds pleasing.
A specifically Christian objection is that all this talk about seeking Christ’s approval seems to ignore the importance of grace and the need for the redemption from sin. But really this is a misunderstanding — just as it would be a misunderstanding to say that the desire for obedience undermines the importance of grace. Our glory is marred by our sin, and we would therefore have no hope of being pleasing to Christ were it not for his purifying us from sin by grace. We do not work to earn the status as Christ’s treasured possession, for this would be impossible. Rather, we acquire this status by grace. And knowing what this means for our future, we work to make every moment until then worthy of his approval, instead of wasting them on worthless acts that will be overlooked.
Just like the first link, living in this way will correspond to the complete ethical life, because we aim to live a life worthy of our creator’s pleasure in us as the kinds of creatures we were made to be. But in order for our future reality to properly motivate our present actions we must rid ourselves of faulty thinking that gets in the way. The three objections we’ve considered are representative examples of what to avoid: we must not fall into the opposite extremes of conceitedness or self-deprecation, vanity or disregard for action; we must not treat others as a means to our approval; and we must not forget that all of this is made possible by grace.
Link 3: Supporting one another through present weakness
Whereas the first two links arise from the nature of our future hope — our final judgment and our presentation to Christ — the third link arises from the recognition of our present weakness as we make our way to that hope. Accordingly, it is more limited in scope than the first two, and is not able to motivate the complete ethical life.
In our journey together toward our future hope we will face trials and difficulties, and it is our susceptibility to such things that we call weakness. Of course, this is very general and we can expect it to take many forms. The point is that since we are in this journey together, it is incumbent upon each of us to look out for one another, so that we might all make it to the end. We see this sort of reasoning in the Romans 15 passage listed above:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom 15:1–4)
In this passage we see past-, present-, and future-orientated thinking all working together: by following the past example of Christ and listening to the past instructions of Scripture we are to bear with one another in our present weakness so that together we might be able to endure to the end and thereby have hope that we will get to our future hope.
The easiest forms of weakness to bear are the ones that we share in equally with each other, since such equality fosters solidarity. The passage above, however, discusses a form that leads some of us to bear the consequences of the weakness of others. This is much harder, since by its very nature it divides us from one another — those whose weakness must be borne and those who must bear it. In these cases we must hold on to the deeper solidarity we have with one another, based on the fact that we are all on the same journey to the same future hope. In fact, this deeper solidarity is implicit in the first two links we discussed. We all have the same King who deserves our obedience, and in this way we are fellow citizens within his kingdom (cf. Eph 2:19, Phil 3:20). And it is not each of us individually that is presented to Christ, but all of us as one people that are his treasured possession (Tit 2:14, cf. Eph 5:27). Thus, it makes all the sense in the world that he can sometimes talk of the final day in terms of us boasting in one another (2 Cor 1:14).
Weakness is the key thing that gets in the way of us holding on to our future hope, and making it to the end. It is in light of our weakness in general that we are called to be steadfast, to endure, to not grow weary, and to rejoice in hope. And it is in light of specific weaknesses that we are called to be patient with one another (which I’ve discussed in more detail elsewhere), to be gentle, to bear with one another, and to forgive.
There is much more that could be said on this topic. We could discuss how Paul sometimes speaks of our future hope using present-tense language. We could further unpack how the links we outlined here interrelate with one another. We could explain how particular behaviors (the virtues, or the fruit of the Spirit) follow from our future-orientated motivations. We could see how eschatological ethics works in other authors of the New Testament. And so on.
This notwithstanding, what we’ve managed to say is a good start. We have called attention to an important feature of Paul’s thought, given it a name, shown its ubiquity and variety, and provided the beginnings of a framework for thinking about it.
If like me you’ve been missing Paul’s eschatological ethics, hopefully this post will help you to start recognizing and reflecting on this important idea in the New Testament.