Entitlement and the Gospel

In his informative book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, Tom Woods writes about how in its effort to expand the social safety net, the federal government marketed the idea that, contrary to previously held notions, recipients of welfare should not be ashamed to receive economic subsidies. To this end the federal “Office of Economic Opportunity funded some 1,000 ‘neighborhood service centers,’ dedicated to removing the stigma from government welfare payments and portraying them instead as rights to which recipients were entitled.”[1] This effort helped greatly expand the numbers of citizens receiving federal aid. Over-expanded social safety net programs undermine the first divine institution of personal responsibility, which includes work![2] The purpose here, however, is not to expound on appropriate levels of government assistance, but to apply the idea of entitlement to the Gospel; it is an issue both for the unbeliever and the believer.

The proclaimer of the Good News that Christ died for our sins faces a number of obstacles: the messages sounds like foolishness[3] to the Gentile unbeliever (1 Cor. 1:23), is on some level incomprehensible to the unbeliever (1 Cor. 2:14), and it goes against humanity’s innate desire to merit what it receives. What the federal government did in expanding its social welfare programs was convince the poor of America that it had a merited right to other people’s labor. What the Gospel is is fundamentally a message that we do not deserve forgiveness (Rom. 5:8), that we cannot do anything to earn God’s forgiveness (Tit. 3:5), and that the sinners only hope is to cease trying to earn right standing with God, but instead to trust in Christ and depend wholly and solely on Him for forgiveness (Acts 4:12; 16:31). Our actions earn us hell; God’s grace transfers to us the righteousness of Another. The Gospel is not about warranted entitlement but accepting that we do not deserve God’s forgiveness and love, and yet, He loves and forgives us anyway and He demonstrates it in the most extreme way possible. “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16 [NET]).[4]

Because of man’s desire to earn or at least deserve the good things he receives, it is easy for the proclaimer of the Good News to slip a little merit into his message. I have worked in children’s ministry and I try to always emphasize that we have to do nothing good whatsoever in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Occasionally a young person will try to outsmart the system and point out that we do indeed do something good: “we believe!” I have compromised before and conceded this point, but it is anti-Biblical to concede to the assertion. There is no value, good or bad, in receiving a gift; the value is all in the gift! On Christmas morning our acceptance of gifts from our parents does not add one smidgen of value to the present. In the same way, the value of the Gospel is all in Jesus Christ—Who He is and What He did—and not at all in what we do.

Now, there is a whole “entitlement” package that the believer receives along with the gift of righteousness that comes at the moment of faith alone in Christ alone.[5] For example, John 1:12 says, “to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” [ESV].[6] It is not a stretch to say that believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are entitled to be God’s children.[7] Still, this entitlement is not earned. God does not owe the believer anything because of something great about the believer; He owes the believer because of something great about Christ! This is where the idea of entitlement gets muddied by the believer.

The believer is entitled to a whole host of things from God based on receiving God’s grace through faith, but many proclaimers of the Good News get confused on this point and insist that, on some level, the believer’s entitlement is based on the works of the believer. To this end, some Christians preach that the potential believer should question his relationship to God based on his post-belief (or impression that he believed) experience. This is most often done by putting people in a category called, “the false believer.” The false believer can know that he is a false believer based on his works. If his works are not up to snuff, then he should seriously reconsider how genuine his faith in Christ is. This of course perverts the Gospel from the message: salvation is based on the finished work of Christ as declared in God’s word, to the message: knowledge of genuine salvation is based on the works of the believer. Entitlement ceases being something provided by God’s grace and becomes just another handout that people deserve because of something wonderful they have done.

A the end of His Sermon on the Mount Jesus confronts this position directly: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matt. 7:22-23). These people Jesus references will insist that they are entitled to salvation based on their good works, but they will be rejected. Works do not merit us anything with the Savior.

Proclamation of the true grace Gospel message is an exercise in obedience to God. It is all too easy to subvert grace by adding some sort of works-based entitlement to the message. This leads people with a false assurance based on their own works instead of full assurance based on Christ’s work. There may be some validity to the idea of a tax-funded national social safety net, but fostering a notion that one person is owed the fruits of the labor of another results in disharmony among citizens. In a similar way, believers who are convinced their own works prove that God owes them salvation results in a works-based grace, which is impossible.

[1] Thomas E. Woods, Jr., The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2004), 227.

[2] Deuteronomy is the book of what social justice should look like and it does include provisions for providing some level of a social safety net (cf. Deut. 2:10-22), just not to the level of modern Western democracies. For a transformative exposition of Deuteronomy as the book of social justice, listen to Charlie Clough’s 74-part series on the book. Available at http://www.bibleframework.com/lessons/deuteronomy/

[3] The Greek word used is mwri,an, defined as “silliness or folly,” and embraced by Paul in the first section of 1st Corinthians. God doesn’t mind that the message is silly to the wise of this world.

[4] I chose the NET Bible translation to capture John’s use of ou[twj ga.r at the beginning of the sentence. The opening phrase, ou[twj ga.r hvga,phsen o` qeo.j to.n ko,smon is most often translated “For God so loved the world” (ESV, NIV, KJV, NKJV, NASB, et al.) carrying the implication “God loved the world so much!!!”, but the construction ou[twj ga.r, used nine times in the New Testament (e.g. Mat. 3:15; Acts 13:47; 2 Pet. 1:11), relates the way in which something is done, not the quantity of it. “How do you show your love for your wife? I love my wife by buying her flowers.” How does God show His love for us: He sent Christ to die for us! The same idea is expressed in Romans 5:8.

[5] Lewis Sperry Chafer in his Systematic Theology, Vol. 3 provides a list of “33 stupendous works of God which together comprise the salvation of the soul,” under the great heading: “The Riches of Divine Grace,” 234-65.

[6] The word used for “right”, evxousi,an, carries the idea of “power or authority.”

[7] “Entitlement” is “the fact of having the right to do something.”

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