On Being Graciously Worthy
If one’s understanding of the gospel is such that the only works that play a causal and contributory role in our gaining entrance into the eternal kingdom are Christ’s and never our own, and further, if distinguishing between Christ’s work imputed (justification) and our works done by the Spirit’s infusion of agape (sanctification) is essential to getting the gospel right, then one would certainly make every effort to communicate such a distinction, as well as beware of ever even subtly blurring these lines.
For example, such a person would be careful to never in a million years give the impression that our suffering and faithfulness somehow make us “worthy of the kingdom of God,” since the only suffering and faithfulness that makes us worthy of the kingdom of God are Christ’s, which we receive through the empty hand of non-meritorious and non-contributory faith. So a statement like this would be completely off-limits:
This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ (II Thess. 1:5-12).
Speaking of the final judgment, the person with such an understanding of the gospel as described above would certainly beware of ever giving others the mistaken idea that their works somehow cooperate with Christ’s in order to clothe us in the white garments that make us “worthy” to enter heaven with the “right” to eat of the tree of life. So he’d never say something like this:
Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. . . . “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure” — for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. . . . “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 3:4; 19:7-8; 22:12-14).
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. . . . The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:12-13, 16-17).
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 from 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 (Gal. 6:7-9).
On the other hand, if we were to imagine a theologian whose concept of the gospel included the idea that God is so graciously paternal that he assumes our nature in the Person of his Son and then indwells us by his Spirit so that he can reconstitute humanity under a whole new Adam and thereby enable us to become his deified children who actually participate in his redeeming work and thus become graciously worthy to share his estate, well, the passages cited above are exactly the kinds of things we would expect him to say.