Van Ens: Can we cash in on God’s kickbacks in order to get into heaven? (column) |

Van Ens: Can we cash in on God’s kickbacks in order to get into heaven? (column)

Jack Van Ens

Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at

Does God reward our good behavior with everlasting benefits?

Many Americans believe God rewards our best behavior with heavenly benefits. We scratch God’s back; He scratches ours with celestial blessings. Is heaven a kickback gained by cashing in acts of kindness and generosity? Part of some Protestants’ investment strategy includes cashing in on God’s everlasting benefits.

Prior to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther (1483-1546) spearheaded on Oct. 31, 1517, the Pew Research Center conducted a recent survey asking how salvation works. Results show “… more Protestants reported they believe salvation comes through a mix of faith and good works (52 percent) — the traditionally Roman Catholic position — than through ‘faith alone’ (46 percent) … that form(s) the backbone of the Protestant Reformers’ beliefs” (Christian Century, “Survey: U.S. Protestants and Catholics have more in common than not,” Sept. 27, 2017, p. 16).

Martin Luther rejected this kickback notion popular in his day that many contemporary Protestants and Roman Catholics endorse. That is, salvation is a kickback God offers when we claim His rewards by doing virtuous works.

Luther rejected this heresy. He corrected Roman Catholic dogma that combined our good works with God’s forgiveness as a route into heaven. Luther declared salvation comes from God’s initiative, not our moral achievements. We are saved by God’s grace for doing our good works but not by them, he declared. Luther based his conviction on biblical texts such as: “… when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of God’s mercy …” (Titus 3:4, 5a).

Still, the kickback notion, “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours,” makes headlines. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has been exposed as a sexual predator. He forced nonconsensual sexual encounters on rising female movie stars. Once sexually harassed, these celebs would get roles in movies Weinstein’s company produced.

The NCAA must clean up a massive kickback recruiting scheme which includes “five-figure bribes to coaches and six-figure payouts to high school players and their families,” reports Time magazine.

How did this kickback scheme work? “Among the allegations: An Adidas employee and representatives of a sports-management and investments-services companies funneled $100,000 to a top high school recruit in exchange for his commitment to attend the University of Louisville and sign with Adidas and work with the companies once he turned pro” (Time magazine, “A corruption probe into college hoops exposes more than shady deals,” Oct. 16, 2017, pp. 17-18).

Again, you do me a favor; I do you a favor. It’s win/win.

Martin Luther detested Pope Leo X’s kickbacks, a patriarch in the super-rich Medici family. This pope urged Catholics to invest in indulgences, which were cash payments pilgrims invested in to hurry souls of relatives suffering in purgatory into heaven.

“Leo offered indulgences to finance a new St. Peter’s Church in Rome,” reports Joseph Loconte, an associate professor of history at King’s College in New York. “The proclamation by church officials — ‘as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’ — set Luther ablaze. ‘Why does not the pope,’ he demanded, ‘whose wealth today is greater that the wealth of the richest Crassus (a Roman general), build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” (The Wall Street Journal, “When Luther shook up Christianity,” Oct. 30, 2015, p. A-ll).

Luther steered Christians towards Christ’s mercy, not how to get ahead by investing in secular and sacred kickbacks.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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