Commandments and Promises
“Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
Question 133 of the Larger Catechism asks, “What is the reason annexed to the Fifth Commandment, the more to enforce it?” It gives the answer, “The reason annexed to the Fifth Commandment, in these words, That thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, is an express promise of long life and prosperity, as far as it shall serve for God's glory and their own good, to all such as keep this commandment.” Last time we looked at the temptation to envy blessings God gives to those who occupy the same level and station of society that we do. Today we consider God’s promise to bless those who keep the Fifth Commandment.
I know some theologians get nervous when we talk about commandments and promises. They know and affirm that all the benefits that we have from God are due to His grace, His unmerited favor. Their concern is to magnify the grace of God. They point out that believers still sin in all that they do. And so they reason that since all of our righteousnesses are filthy rags before Him (Isa. 64:6), how can we hope to have God bless our good works? This conclusion, however, is mistaken. The mistake is not to be found in an overestimation of God’s grace. They actually undervalue and make too little of God’s grace. Scripture everywhere encourages our obedience by promising God’s blessing upon it, not because our works are that good but because God’s grace is that great!
Consider. According to Jesus even the smallest act of giving a disciple a cup of cold water to drink will be rewarded by Almighty God (Matt. 10:42). The Greek word translated “reward” here means “wages.” Clearly Jesus is assuring us that God will bless the slightest good work. So have we crossed the line into Legalism by affirming divine blessings for human obedience? Are we saying that sinners can earn payment from God by their sinful works? No, not at all. With Augustine we say that God rewards obedience, but these rewards are rewards of grace. Thus, if God were to strictly consider the Christian’s honoring of his father and mother by the measure of His holy law alone, and give length of days according to one’s merit, we would all be stillborn! But God never sees a Christian solely as he appears in his own law-keeping obedience. God sees believers clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Their sins have been atoned for. Their righteousness has already been achieved for them by their Lord. Therefore, God, as He views all of our lives through the righteousness of Christ, is able to wash away all of the imperfections and sins clinging to our good works. So that He then sees, is pleased with, and accordingly blesses and rewards the remaining modicum of goodness that will be there if the work has been done out of faith in Christ. The Westminster Confession (16:6) puts it this way: “Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in Him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that He, looking upon them in His Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.”
God delights in righteousness. He has saved us for this purpose: that we will do good works from the heart. Delighting in righteousness is how we are most like God, who loves righteousness and hates iniquity (Psa. 45:7). In the sanctification process He is working this transformation into us. Positionally, we are fully in Christ and perfectly righteous by the imputation of His righteousness the moment we believe. Personally, we have a new nature and we are becoming actually more and more righteous over time. And the God who has given this new nature loves and delights in the slightest measure of righteousness that it performs, and His grace is so great, that He can cleanse, and wash away the remaining sin from the old nature that always clings to every good work. And thus in this gracious reckoning of us and our works in Christ, God can and does reward that slight but growing goodness of the new nature that really loves and sincerely seeks to obey Him. Even as the remaining sinfulness is taken away by Christ’s atonement. Thus here in the Fifth Commandment, God does promise long life to those who honor their parents as the promised reward for obedience. However, as the Westminster divines rightly note in today’s question, we cannot take this promise separately from the rest of Scripture. For God also takes into account whether our living a long life will be best for His glory and our good before He gives the blessing. So that living a long or short life is no definite evidence of one’s response to this commandment.
True believers would not want it any other way. We live to please God, and we die to please God. We trust God to do what is best. Some of the godliest people in Scripture, who serve as models in honoring their parents, died young (Jesus, Abel, Uriah, John the Baptist, etc.), and some of the most wicked lived long, prosperous lives, over which Job and other saints struggled (Job 21:7; Psa. 73; Jer. 12:1-2; etc.). Therefore, we must not say that one’s lifespan is a measure of His obedience. Nevertheless, let us affirm and aspire to God’s promise of long life for those who obey this commandment, believing that He will abundantly bless even the slightest good work when it is done through faith in Christ.