Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 5, Number 8-10, Feb. 20-March 13, 2003

Moral Heroism

By Dr. John M. Frame

Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL

In my paper, "Levels of Ethical Evaluation," I commented on the heroic act of David's three mighty men in bringing him a drink from the well of Bethlehem (2 Sam. 23:13-17). In that paper I judged that, although God approved their act, they would not have been sinful had they chosen not to do it, nor would the widow of Matt. 12:44 have sinned if she had given one mite rather than two. I could further support that judgment by pointing out that Peter's words to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) concerning the property about which they lied: "Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal?" Peter certainly seems to be saying here that Ananias and Sapphira weren't under any obligation to sell their property and give the full price to the church as Barnabas had (4:37). So neither they nor Barnabas would have sinned if they hadn't sold their property. Selling property for the church's benefit in that situation was not obligation, it seems, but like the acts of the poor widow and David's mighty men, moral heroism.

But I was never entirely satisfied with the judgment that such acts are not obligatory. Are they optional, then? Something you can do or not do, at your own pleasure? In 1 Cor. 9, Paul describes all his exertions for the Gospel, with all the "rights" he has relinquished so that the Gospel might be made available without charge. If he had a right to be paid by the church, we are inclined to say, certainly he can't have been obligated to preach without pay. But there is a sense of obligation in the passage:

Yet when I preach the Gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me (verses 16-17).

If Paul has a certain "right" not to preach without payment, he has a compulsion of some sort to forego that payment. Further, his decision discharges a "trust committed" to him. What if he had refused to discharge that trust? Would he have sinned?

Before you answer, note that Paul says later, "I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings" (verse 23) and then describes his compulsion as that of a runner with his eye on the goal, concluding, "I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." In some sense, winning the prize depends on Paul's moral heroism.

This almost sounds like salvation by works. Of course, we know from other Scripture that it isn't that. What is it, then? Well, ultimately the prize is Jesus. It is his Kingdom; it is the full blessing of knowing him. Compare what he says here with another passage reflecting his moral heroism, Phil. 3:7-11, 14:

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead… I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul is so passionate about Jesus that he wants to experience all the blessings that come to those who go all out for him. It's not that otherwise he will go to Hell, or that there is some precise proportion between the merit of earthly works and heavenly reward. It is just that Paul wants to know Jesus as best he can. Cf. 2 Cor. 12, where he endures his sufferings "for Christ's sake," verse 10, for in that weakness is his strength. Compare also 2 Cor. 1:5-6, and the perplexing verse Col. 1:24.

But aren't we obligated, in one sense, to know Jesus as best we can? Eternal life itself is knowing Jesus noting John 17:3. God told Israel through Moses that they should come to know him (Deut. 7:9). He did his mighty deeds "so that they might know that I am the Lord." Not only are we obligated to know him, but to love him, with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Matt. 22:37).

Paul's particular moral heroism is not obligatory for all of us. Preaching without charge was Paul's way of carrying out his passion for knowing and loving Jesus. Others, like Apollos and Peter, accepted payment for their ministry, as was their right. But they showed their passion for Christ in other ways. It is that passion that is obligatory, not a particular way of carrying it out. It is the principle, not Paul's particular application of it.

But God expects some level of heroism from each of us. The Great Commandment, to love God with all we have, is an extreme demand. God may never call you to an act of military heroism like David's mighty men, or to give away all your belongings, like the poor widow, or to sell your property, like Barnabas. But he will ask you to make some kind of really hard sacrifice, as he asked the rich young ruler to sell all his goods to feed the poor.

Moral heroism is an obligation, because our overall obligation is to be like Jesus: to love as he did (John 13:34, 35, 1 John 4:9-12) in his most extreme sacrifice, to serve others as he served us (Mark 10:45).

When we understand this obligation, we can see much more clearly why our good works can never measure up to God's standards. By comparison with the heroism of Christ, and even by comparison with some of his best followers, we fall far short. So we rely wholly on God's grace in Jesus for our salvation. But as we renounce our own righteousness for that of Christ (Phil. 3 again), we come to see Jesus' glory in comparison with our rubbish, and God plants in us that passion to run the race with Paul: to know the fullness of Christ's blessings and, above all, to know Christ himself.