Baptism Now Saves Us: An Assured Conscience

So what is the status of a baptized person in the Roman Catholic Church? His sins have been removed, but “concupiscence” remains. In Roman Catholicism, concupiscence is a moral weakness, a tendency toward sin, which is itself not sin and which can be resisted by grace (grace that God gives to everyone through the sacraments and through the good works of piety of a faithful church member). But the Bible teaches that all sinners (even believers) have a sinful flesh, a totally depraved and corrupted nature, which is not only inclined to all evil, but is itself evil, and which can do nothing good. This sinful nature exists in all sinners, although in believers it has been dethroned. Nevertheless, even in believers the flesh is still very active and produces in us all kinds of evil. Without a biblical understanding of sin, the Roman Catholic will lack a proper understanding of salvation: neither water baptism nor the power of free will (even when coupled with God’s grace) can deliver us from the “filth of the flesh.”

Why then does the Bible speak this way, linking the reality of salvation to the sign of baptism? Reformed theologians speak of the sacramental union, for in the Bible there is a close connection between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (the washing away of sin in the blood of Christ). The Heidelberg Catechism asks about this sacramental union, “Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism ‘the washing of regeneration,’ and the ‘washing away of sins’? God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ; but especially that by this divine pledge and sign he may assure us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).

The relationship between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (salvation) is not one of identity. They are not the same, nor does the sign become the reality. A sign cannot be the reality; otherwise, it is not a sign. A sign cannot become the reality, otherwise it ceases to be a sign. Nevertheless, sometimes the Bible gives the name of the thing signified to the sign itself, because God would have us associate the reality with the sign.

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

Because the proper answer to the question of the necessity of good works is so closely connected with the church’s confession of the truth of the believers’ gracious salvation, and because wrong answers to this question end up denying this truth, there is no room for ambiguous language in answering this question. Especially is this ambiguous language to be deplored in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress upon the people of God the necessity of doing good works. This necessity, a real and compelling necessity, must be pressed, pressed urgently and diligently, on the church as it is explained in the Reformed creeds, especially in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, in which the minister has an opportunity every year to explain this to his congregation. Works are necessary because of God’s renewing work by which he intends a testimony of gratitude and praise to himself for his grace, and also for the other reasons given by the Catechism. In all of his teaching regarding this the minister makes plain that works are not necessary to obtain salvation or the experience of salvation, because God’s people receive the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). By the Spirit so received they have salvation and the experience of salvation.

This truth may not be obscured by ambiguous language. The language that works are necessary for salvation, for some benefit of salvation, for covenantal fellowship with God, for the experience of the covenant, or for eternal life is ambiguous language. To say that works are necessary in order to have salvation, in order to have some benefit of salvation, or in order to have fellowship with God is equally ambiguous and amounts to the same thing. To say that an obedient faith is necessary to have fellowship with God is also, at the very least, ambiguous because it leaves open the question of whether faith alone obtains that fellowship because of Christ, or whether faith and faith’s works obtain that fellowship, which is nothing different than what the federal vision intends to express by the term obedient faith: faith and the obedience of faith are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, so that faith and the obedience of faith obtain that fellowship.

Such language powerfully implies, if it does not explicitly teach, that works are the instrument and thus the condition of the kingdom, the covenant, the experience of the covenant, and eternal life in the covenant. Whatever is necessary for or in order to have does not belong to the end or goal to which it is necessary. If works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, they do not belong to that gift of his fellowship, but fellowship follows on and is obtained by those works.

Such language that the sinner performs works in order to have fellowship with God denies the purpose of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. The Catechism teaches that we do good works, so that God is thanked and glorified by us. So that intends to express the purpose of God’s renewal and thus the purpose for which the believer performs his good works. It is a renewal in order that we are thankful and praise him. The believer also, then, performs his good works to give that God-glorifying testimony of gratitude.

The believer who performs the work in order to have a fellowship with God that he otherwise does not have without that work and which he obtains by means of that work does not perform good works in order to thank God and to praise him with that testimony of gratitude. The believer who performs good works in order to have fellowship with God, does not perform good works because he has fellowship with God, for which he is thankful and in which he lives with his God in all good works, but to attain fellowship with God, which he does not have without the works and upon which that fellowship depends. To say that good works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God, then, gives to the work of the sinner the power to obtain the fellowship.

God is not glorified and thanked by a work that is done in order to have his fellowship. He hates such works because such works are a denial of the work of Christ at the cross that God worked, in order that the elect sinner may have fellowship with God and on the basis of which he does have fellowship with God.

The cross of Christ obtained the fellowship. That fellowship is realized in the gracious operation of God to justify the sinner, so that he has a right to that fellowship and actually has peace with God in his own conscience. That fellowship is also realized in the gracious operation of God to renew the sinner and to consecrate the justified sinner to God in love. That fellowship is lived in by the sinner in a life of good works as the certain effect of the gracious renewal of the sinner by the Holy Spirit. The justified sinner performs his good works to thank his God and to praise his God for his gift. The fellowship—the experience of the fellowship—is a gracious gift.

Recognizing that the believer experiences fellowship with God along the way of works is wholly different than giving to those works the power to obtain the experience of the fellowship, which is nothing different than the federal vision’s conception of an obedient faith with its language that works are necessary for or in order to have salvation, righteousness, and eternal life.

The life of good works, the good works themselves, are not necessary in order to have, but are the effects of God’s gracious work to realize his covenant with the sinner whom he chose. Works are the manifestation of what the justified believer already possesses by faith and through grace. Works are the testimony of gratitude for and the enjoyment of that gift.

The concept that an obedient faith obtains—with its language that works are necessary in order to have fellowship with God and for fellowship with God—so that faith and the obedience of faith are instruments to obtain and to maintain fellowship with God is not equivalent and may not be taught as though it were equivalent to what has become accepted language about works performed by the sinner: in the way of.

It is certainly truth and Reformed that in the covenant the justified sinner receives blessings from God in the way of works. Whenever that language is used it must be explained in such a way that makes crystal clear to every hearer that the blessing does not depend upon that act of the sinner. However important the truth is that works are the God-ordained way of fellowship in the covenant and that the sinner enjoys God and Christ in that way, however important it is that the minister urges this on the congregation; it is equally true that those works never obtain from God, and those works may never be taught in such a way that implies or teaches that they obtain something from God.

The question is always, are the works of faith necessary as instruments to obtain or as that upon which salvation, the covenant, the experience of fellowship, or some benefit of salvation depends? The answer of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that this is impossible. It is impossible because by faith alone we rely on Christ and his perfect righteousness and all his holy works as that which obtains all of salvation, gives access to God, and brings the sinner who relies on Christ by faith into blessed fellowship with God. We receive the Spirit by faith not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2). The Spirit—and with him salvation, fellowship with God, and the experience of fellowship with God—is received by the hearing of faith. This faith that justifies also sanctifies, but that sanctification of the believer does not obtain with God.

A denial of the erroneous explanation of the necessity of good works in the covenant cannot be smeared with the term antinomian. The Reformed faith with its doctrine of the covenant teaches the necessity of good works. It is the believers’ part in God’s covenant. But never does the covenant, fellowship in the covenant, or the experience of that fellowship depend on the works.

If teaching that is antinomianism, the Heidelberg Catechism can be smeared with that charge when it insists that the deliverance of the sinner, which certainly includes fellowship with the living God, is without the merit of works. We are delivered from sin, both legally and really, and delivered into covenantal fellowship with God, legally and really, without the merit of works. The works do not obtain any aspect of salvation. Those works are not necessary in order to have any part of salvation. They are the fruits of God’s saving work in his people. More specifically they are the fruits of faith, fruits of election, fruits of grace. They are the inevitable and infallible fruit of God’s gracious renewal and the cross of Christ. They are the manifestations and fruits of what the believer already has—fellowship and the experience of fellowship with the living God—and not that by which he obtains from God.

Maintaining the truth regarding the necessity of the works in the covenant of grace is necessary in order that the truth of the covenant of grace as an unconditional covenant—unconditional in its establishment, maintenance, perfection, and experience—be maintained. Maintaining this truth maintains the Reformed confession of the graciousness of the sinner’s salvation.

It is not enough, however, merely to repeat ad nauseam, that the phrase in the way of is different from in order to, or for, and that it is intended to deny that some aspect of salvation and the covenant is not a condition of or a prerequisite to salvation and the covenant. It has become evident that this phrase must be more thoroughly explained. What does it mean, for instance, that repentance is not a condition of the covenant, but that the believer does have the covenant and the experience of the covenant in the way of repentance?

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In The Way of Repentance

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God’s Favor

The Canons of Dordt, doing their part to exhort on the believer the necessity of good works, warn the believer sharply in 5.5:

By such enormous sins…they [true believers] very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.

In this article there are two important phrases in connection with the question of the necessity of good works: “interrupt the exercise of faith” and “sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time.”

Regarding the phrase “interrupt the exercise of faith,” Professor Hoeksema in Voice of Our Fathers wrote,

Even though the power of faith never fails, it is possible for the exercise of faith to be interrupted. When the Spirit is grieved and withdraws from the saints in their consciousness, the exercise of faith is interrupted, for the Spirit is the author of faith. The Spirit produces the faculty to believe, or power, of faith, and he establishes its conscious activity.

Thus when the article speaks of “the exercise of faith,” it refers to the activity of faith. Faith is the living bond of the elect sinner with Christ. That bond is also an activity. The activity of faith is faith.

Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 7 describes that activity of faith:

True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The believer who interrupts this exercise of faith by his enormous sins does not lose communion with Christ, for faith keeps the believer in communion with Christ in his benefits. Rather, the believer loses the conscious knowledge and assurance of his salvation. When the creed connects this with grieving the Holy Spirit, it teaches an important point. The Spirit who is the author of faith is also the author of the believer’s experience of salvation in his possession of the sense of God’s favor by that faith. Salvation and the experience of salvation, the covenant and the experience of the covenant, are by faith and through the operation of the Holy Spirit. They are not by works.

The consequence of interrupting the exercise of faith by his sin is that the believer may “lose the sense of God’s favor for a time.” He does not lose God’s favor. He is the apple of God’s eye, loved of God, and the object of God’s grace all through his deep and melancholy fall. Rather, the believer loses the sense of God’s favor toward him. This must be obvious if he interrupts the exercise of his faith. For we have that sense of God’s favor by faith. Where there is sin there is no faith. Living in sin the believer is not living by faith.

The Canons of Dordt 5.7 correctly teach how such backslidden sinners are restored to the sense of God’s favor. The translation of the article in our received English version does not do justice to the careful language of Dordt. I include the translation of Professor Hoeksema from his commentary Voice of Our Fathers:

And again, through his Word and Spirit he [God] certainly and effectually renews them [God’s own people] to repentance, in order that they should sincerely sorrow after God over the sins committed, that they should through faith, with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator, that they should again feel God’s favor, having been reconciled, that they should through faith adore his mercies, and that henceforth they should more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. (emphasis added)

In the received text the words “through faith” are omitted before the words “with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator.” The emphasis of the article, then, is that God renews the exercise of faith in his people. In their deep falls into sin they have interrupted the exercise of faith because they have grieved God’s Spirit, the author of faith. Consequently, they may lose the sense of God’s favor. Their renewal importantly includes the renewal to the exercise of faith, which means again believing God’s promises to them in the gospel. Faith functions again in restored believers. All that follows is a consequence of that: They obtain forgiveness by that faith. Having obtained forgiveness, they experience by that faith God’s favor and adore his mercies and by faith also work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Their restoration to the sense of God’s favor in this case is not by works but by faith. A faith that functions again also works out their salvation with fear and trembling in lives of thankfulness and praise to God, without trusting and relying on those works for salvation or for obtaining any benefit from God. Commenting further on the article, Professor Hoeksema wrote,

The conscious life and activity of the seed of regeneration is initiated strictly by God himself…He surely and effectually renews his people unto repentance…The result of the effectual renewal unto repentance is that the child of God actively repents and walks in sanctification…The result is one with a five-fold aspect. The order of the result as stated in the article must be strictly maintained…Wherever God effectually renews unto repentance through his Spirit and Word, all five aspects will result in this order.

Thus it is logically and theologically incorrect to maintain that since a believer’s failure to walk in the way of a holy life, in all good works and prayer, results in God’s just judgment in the believer of the interruption of his faith and the loss of the sense of God’s favor; that, therefore, by the believer’s walking in the way of a holy life he obtains the sense of God’s favor. It is not works, but faith that is the issue. With faith functioning again the believer obtains forgiveness, the conscious experience of God’s favor and of eternal life, and thus out of thankfulness for the benefit received he works out his own salvation with fear and trembling—not to obtain with God but out of thankfulness to God.

In summary, the Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works is God’s grace working in the believer. Because of this he must do good works. The idea is akin to the fact that because God called the light out of darkness, the light had to shine. It was necessary that it shine. Further, because God willed that by his renewal the believer gives to God a testimony of gratitude and praise, the believer must do good works. One who does not give that testimony shows himself to be wicked, unthankful, and unconverted. Still more, the God ordained way in which God gives, grants, and works assurance in his people is the way of repentance and good works, so they must do good works not in order to behold his face or to obtain his favor, but because that is the way God wills to work. In the same way an individual has to eat to live because that is the way God exerts his power to keep man alive.

I recognize that answer 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism adds another reason for the necessity of good works: “by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.” This reason simply reinforces that works do not obtain with God and are not the basis for some benefit of salvation, but are for the neighbor. The man who is worried about obtaining with God by his works certainly is not going to have much concern for the neighbor, but does everything for himself.

Belonging to the Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works is the clear and categorical denial that works are an instrument to obtain, to have, or to merit any aspect of salvation, since the believer is redeemed and delivered from his misery by grace alone for Christ’s sake and without any merit of the believer’s works.

This is the Reformed teaching regarding the necessity of good works. Because the Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works teaches a real necessity these reasons must be urged on the church. Because it is impossible that those who have been engrafted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness, the minister may expect his exhortations to bring forth real fruit in the lives of God’s people.

In his urgent desire for the holy life of God’s people, though, the minister may not step outside of these bounds in teaching the necessity of good works. Doing so will not result in a holy life but in legalism, which is an abomination to God.

To this urgent exhortation of the necessity of good works must be added what the Reformed faith confesses in the Canons of Dordt, 3–4.17:

Grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is His work advanced; to whom alone all the glory, both of means and of their saving fruit and efficacy, is forever due.

By this explanation of the necessity of good works the Reformed faith distinguishes itself from any and all heresy that teaches that good works are necessary in order to have something from God, which is to make works instruments, or means, of salvation. Works are the fruits of faith not instruments along with faith to obtain from God.

This Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works must be applied to the covenant of grace.

To that I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

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The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

The first part of the Reformed faith’s answer to the question of the necessity of good works is the truth of Christ’s gracious renewal of the redeemed and justified believer. Because God renews him he must do good works. His good works do not obtain anything from God, but they are the necessary testimony of his gratitude that God requires of him and by which God is praised. Besides this and following from it there are other considerations. The Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to the question of why the redeemed and delivered believer must do works includes this: “also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.”

It is important for the right understanding of this phrase to understand the purpose of the Catechism in the Lord’s Day. The point of the Catechism is not a fully developed doctrine of assurance. The point of the Catechism is the question, why are good works necessary for the redeemed and delivered believer, in order that the preacher may urge this on the church with all diligence and that the people of God will give careful attention to doing good works?

Further, this part of the Catechism’s answer to that question must be understood in the light of the rest of the Reformed creeds, especially the Canons of Dordt, where there is a fully developed doctrine of assurance, and which doctrine cuts off certain understandings of this phrase in the Catechism. The Canons of Dordt speak of attaining the assurance of election and note that “the elect” attained this

by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God—such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungerirng and thirsting after righteousness, etc. (1.12)

The Canons here make assurance basically to consist in assurance of election, so that assurance and assurance of election for the Reformed faith are the same.

Commenting on this portion of the creed in Voice of Our Fathers, Prof. H. C. Hoeksema wrote,

Election and the assurance of election are works of God. They are gifts of his grace. The situation is not that election is the work of God, but that assurance of election is something to which man must attain. If one maintains this, he is sailing in Arminian waters. The conscious enjoyment of the blessings of salvation, including the blessing of the assurance of election, is absolutely unconditional and without any prerequisite that we must fulfill…The Canons here take up the positive manner of obtaining assurance of election. God grants assurance in a certain way.

Hoeksema noted also that assurance of election is “assurance of faith. Faith is assurance.”

This is the point of the Catechism with its phrase as well. It speaks of the way along which God grants assurance. The English translation obscures this point. The English has “assured of…his faith by the fruits thereof” (emphasis added). It appears to make works the instrument of assurance. The German rather has “aus seinen früchten,” which emphasizes not the means of assurance, but that from which assurance comes to the believer. The point is exactly the same as in the Canons, namely that the life of good works is the way along which God grants assurance. This is a totally different idea than the teaching that works are the means, or instruments, of assurance or that works attain, obtain, or merit assurance. The works of faith are not the instruments to obtain assurance, nor are they the means to have that assurance. This is impossible since faith is assurance, full assurance. Neither can those works obtain assurance or be the means in order to have assurance because assurance is a gift of God worked by his grace and Holy Spirit.

The Catechism teaches this truth about works when it calls those works not the instrument of assurance, but “the fruits thereof,” that is, the fruits of faith. This is an extremely important description of works, whereby the Reformed faith intends to deny that works obtain or are instruments of salvation alongside of or in cooperation with faith. This is not the only place the Reformed faith calls works by this name. Lord’s Day 24 says,

It is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.

Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says,

Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.

Works, good works performed by grace and the power of the Holy Ghost, are the fruits of faith. Explaining this idea that works are the fruits of faith, the Belgic Confession says in article 24,

These works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by His grace; howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good before the tree itself is good.

Fruits of faith are “of no account towards our justification.” This means that works do not obtain, nor are they instruments or means to obtain, any benefit of salvation, since they are of no account toward our justification. The righteousness of Christ alone is the ground of salvation and of every benefit. The righteousness of Christ obtained salvation and the experience of salvation by obtaining for believers the eternal Spirit by whose work believers receive every benefit of salvation in their conscience, life, and experience. They do not have the Spirit by the works of the law, but by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2). The righteousness of Christ alone makes believers worthy of eternal life and demands that they be made perfect.

Driving home this idea that works cannot obtain with God, the Belgic Confession in article 24 goes on to point out the impossibility of works performing that role in salvation:

Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable.

In order for works to be an instrument to obtain some benefit of salvation, they must be in all respects perfect and conformable to the divine law. Our good works are all filthy rags, polluted, and defiled. Works do not give access to God, fellowship with God, answers to prayer from God, or the experience of God as our God. They cannot because the works done by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit are polluted and therefore punishable. The only work by which a believer can stand before God and live with God is the perfect work of Christ imputed to the believer by faith only.

The faith that avails for salvation and saves wholly without its works is a busy little thing. In this working of faith faith is manifested. Faith’s fruits are works, genuine works of love toward God and the neighbor as described in the law of God. Thus the works of faith show, or demonstrate, faith. In them faith becomes visible. Those works, then, so far from being the ground of assurance are the means to show faith. In this they are and remain fruits and do not obtain the assurance for the believer. Rather, the assurance itself is the gift of God given along that way.

It is one thing to say that along the way of good works—in which God ordained that the believer should walk and wherein by the power of the Holy Spirit he does walk—the gift of assurance comes to him from God. It is quite another thing to say that that the believer has assurance based on his works, that by works he achieves assurance, or that God rewards the believer's works with assurance.

Herein also is an additional thought in answer to the question of the necessity of good works. Good works are necessary as a demonstration. First, they demonstrate thankfulness to God, acknowledging him in true worship as the giver of the perfect gift of salvation as well as acknowledging the greatness and graciousness of his gift. Second, good works are the demonstration of the presence of that gift in the believer who shows thanks, namely that God has redeemed and delivered him through Christ and renewed him by his Spirit, working faith and repentance in his heart.

Since the brightness of God’s face shining on him is dearer than life to the believer, he must be instructed in the way of a holy life along which that gift of God comes to him, and he is to be urgently called to walk in that way.

Failing to walk in that way, the believer grievously wounds his conscience and does not experience the favor of a reconciled God.

To this I will turn next time.

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous articles in this series:

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (7): Losing the Sense of God's Favor

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Grace or Work?

“And if by grace, then it is no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.” Romans 11:6

 

What do you desire? To be saved by grace or by works?

That is the question. Shakespeare would say: To be or not to be, that is the question. And it fits here too. To be or not to be in the arms of God unto all eternity. Tremendous question.

There are those that want to be saved by works. Foolish? Yes. Stupid? Yes. Proud? Yes. Offending to God? Yes.

Did any attain unto salvation by the works of the law? No, not one.

Did the Pelagians learn that lesson through the ages? No, they did not. It is an error that is as old as the sinner. Cain is the first Pelagian. He cast a disdainful look at weeping, sobbing Abel, as that righteous man gathered his sticks of wood for the al­tar, after killing the lamb of God, and went to work: he was going to be saved by his own toil. He brought the sacrifice of the labors of his hand: the fruits of the field. Foolish, stupid, proud, impossible, and an of­fense to God. But he brought it.

Did he learn the lesson? Even after he killed the correct worshipper? No. Did he learn the lesson af­ter God took him to task and set a sign on the crooked worshipper? No.

Did his corrupt stock learn that lesson? No. They continued the impossible task.

Brethren, that is bad! Very bad.

But it is not the worst you can do.

You do worse when you mix work and grace.

Nebuchadnezzar had the oven made seven times hotter because of the challenging answer of the three children. Why? Because he was very angry. I as­sure you that God hates the mixer of grace and work much more than the blunt Pelagian.

When you work with all your might to lay hold of salvation, and really hate grace, but when you never­theless prate about grace [to] no end, you are a double offense to God.

It is either or: grace or work!

Do not mix them. This mixture is a fire that burns and evokes great indignation with God.

Grace or work.

Either the one or the other.

What is salvation by grace?

It is this: God loved you before the world was made. Sovereignly, lovingly, he saw you and willed you and determined you, and said within himself: on you I will look with favor from this eternity to that eternity. I love you now while I am dwelling in eternity. All the dynamo of my being is set on you in sweetest love.

I am going to love you when you stand before me in paradise, where all things around you testify of that love and will help you to love me.

And I am going to love you when you shall have become wicked and when you shall smite me in the face. I will still go on loving you.

I am going to love you when I will come to you and will stand before you in the face of my anointed Son. And I will speak and sing to you of this my everlast­ing love.

I am going to love you when you shall hate me and despise me and turn your back upon me. I will never cease loving you no matter how wicked you shall have become.

I am going to love you when I shall hear your voice, cursing and swearing and calling upon me in heaven to witness to the fact that you will have none of me. Even then I will still love you.

And then you shall tear at me and beat me and crucify me and kill me, but my love is eternal, and I will still go on loving you.

And then I shall prove my everlasting and beautiful love, because I will actually die for you, the wicked sinner!

But my love is so great and so beautiful and so strong that death shall not be able to hold me in its cruel cords: I shall awake in the garden of Joseph.

And then I shall stand before you, and I will say to you: Do you love me?

And you? There shall be a blush of shame on your cheeks, and you will stammer: Yes, Lord, Thou knowest all things: Thou knowest that I love Thee!

And I will say: Of course, you love me! I know it. It was I that placed that love in your breast.

Listen, my dear people, I will save you from your­selves, from sin, from guilt, from death, from the curse, from hell, from damnation, from the devil, from the wicked, from the earth, and I will give you my own virtues: I will make you beautiful and spot­less as the angels in heaven, no, more beautiful than they: the greater is served by the lesser. You shall exceed in beauty the holy angels of God.

And I will write my new name on your heart, your forehead. And you shall be called the beautiful!

And I will recreate a new heaven and a new earth so that you may have a new dwelling place forever and ever.

And I will come and dwell among you and be a Father unto you and you shall be my sons and daugh­ters.

And your peace shall flow like a river.

And great shall be the peace of your children.

And all this love I will spread abroad in your hearts, while you are walking in the valley of the shadow of death. And that love shall burn in you and shall quicken you, and you shall begin to sing with breaking voice, and you shall look up to me at times and you shall say, weeping as you go, Abba, beloved Father! I shall continue to spread love in your heart, and faith and hope, and you shall work for the night is coming. You shall notice in your heart, in your inmost heart, that you want to be pleasing unto me, and you will needs work, but you shall weep again, and say with burning eyes, at night, when all is black: O my wonderful God: to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not!

And then I will show you the nature of my ever­lasting love, and I will say: I forgive you all your good works! Fret no more, and worry no more! Did you not hear me say: It is finished!?

My child, my beloved child: you are saved by grace!

That, my brother, is to be saved by grace!

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And what is salvation by works?

I hate to outline it: it’s a foul thing.

It is foul, for it is born of the devil.

It says: I am a sinner, but by Jove, I am going to save myself. I am going to be good. I am going to see to it that God is obliged to me. I am going to sanc­tify myself, so that I may be able to stand in the tem­ple of God and say: I thank Thee God that I am not as the rest of men are!

Salvation by works is a foul thing.

But fouler still is when you mix the above para­graph where I tried to outline salvation by grace with the paragraph where I outline salvation by works. That breeds a very obnoxious mixture. And of that mixture Paul spoke in my text. It is when you mix grace with works.

You do that when you say: Sure, sure, sure, sure God works salvation by his marvelous grace. But we must also do something. We are responsible creatures, you see. God gave us much, oh so much. And you must get to work, ably assisted (they will insist on that) by the grace of God. The Arminians almost wore out the word grace in their foul productions.

And then you have salvation by a mixture of grace and work.

And Satan smiles.

But God is furious.

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What then?

If it is grace, then be silent about work unto all eternity.

If it is work, then be silent about grace unto all eternity.

If it is work, then take your chances with God who damns the proud. I will give you a preview: he will cast you into the pool that burns with fire and sul­phur.

If it is grace, then sing, sing, now and forever, for you are blessed and shall not come into condemnation. For his salvation by grace is founded on work which shall make heaven musical forever. Oh yes, your salvation by grace is also by works, but they are the works of God which he wrought in the depth of the hell he tasted for you.

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But I hear your quest: But must we then not work at all? Oh yes, we must work and we do work. And when we work it is because God wrought in us, and set us on a pathway of works which he foreordained that we should walk in them. But wait: two things in this connection: 1. what kind of proprietor are you with respect to these good works? Imagine: they are ordained before the world was! 2. when you are through working the works of God that he ordained that should go through you, you look behind you when the shadows of the night are upon you, and the night hears your cry: That’s not what I had to do, must do, intended to do: Oh God, forgive my good works!

And he listens, and hears, and paints his cross before your sorrowing eyes.

And that cross whispers, just before you sleep in peace: your warfare is accomplished; your iniquity is pardoned: and I love you still!

Shall we barter that kind of salvation for a foul mixture of grace and work?

We throw it from us as we would a poisonous reptile.

Why? Because I hate it; because I do not want to infuriate the Almighty; because I want to go to heaven!

—G. Vos

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This meditation was written by Rev. Gerrrit Vos published in the Standard Bearer, Volume 29, Issue 16, dated May 15, 1953.

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The Charge of Antinomianism (8): Assurance by Works

The book by Mark Jones, purporting to be a tool to discover antinomianism in the preaching and teaching of ministers and in the faith of believers, turns out to be a full-blown attack on the doctrines of grace. This attack continues with his assault on the precious Reformed doctrine of assurance.

Because the Reformed faith teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and not by works, it gives assurance and comfort to the child of God. Such is the close and necessary connection between the truth and assurance, that the Heidelberg Catechism treats all of Reformed doctrine from the viewpoint of the subjective, experiential comfort the believer has in that doctrine. Belonging to that comfort is the truth that while he is renewed by the Spirit of Christ and lives unto God in all good works, those works are not the ground of his salvation. They are the fruits of faith. So essential is assurance to the child of God that without it there is no Christian life. The very concern that Mark Jones purportedly has with his book is holiness. But true holiness is the fruit of assurance. The Canons of Dordt say in 5.12, “This certainty of perseverance…is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of a solid rejoicing in God.”

The faith that produces fruits from the living root, Jesus Christ, is assurance. Assurance is of the essence of faith. That assurance belongs to the essence of faith is a fact that is so clear in the Reformed creeds that a man who contradicts it cannot be taken seriously as a student and adherent to the Reformed creeds. The Heidelberg Catechism says, “True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed in his Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart” (A 21). Twice the creed says faith is assurance. It is assured knowledge, and it is assured confidence. A man who denies that assurance is of the essence of faith is left with no faith. The Canons say nothing different in head 5. Assurance is obtained “according to the measure of their [true believers] faith.” It “springs from faith in God’s promises.” The Canons call it “the full assurance of faith” (9–11), which does not mean that faith sometimes has less and sometimes more assurance, or the obnoxious notion that believers must go on a quest for the full assurance of faith, but it means that faith itself, according to its very nature, is fully assured and has no doubt.

That the creeds also connect works with faith is unsurprising, because the man who believes also performs good works. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, good works are the fruits of faith that a man observes in himself (A 86) and that proceed from a “serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works” (Canons 5.10). What is that but faith in a man and what else in a man except faith can even perceive these things? The creeds do not lodge assurance in works or make assurance dependent on those works, but faith is assurance worked in believers by the Holy Ghost, and the creeds make that assurance the essence of faith to which works are a kind of assistant.

This clear fact Mark Jones is bold to deny. He favorably quotes Joel Beeke’s view of assurance, which is based on his study of the Puritan theology of doubt: “Scholars who assert that assurance is essential to faith in Christ and that sanctification cannot forward assurance in any way are guilty…of separating Christ and his benefits.”[1] This statement is not altogether straightforward. It is not a matter of asserting that assurance is essential to faith AND saying that sanctification cannot forward assurance. Rather, one who denies that assurance is of the essence of faith must necessarily find assurance elsewhere. If assurance is not in faith, the issue is not whether sanctification can forward assurance; but since assurance is not in faith, must it necessarily be found in works? Jones says therefore that “faith and the full assurance of faith are not strictly synonymous.”

He tries to find support for this fiction, too, in the creeds. He says, “The Westminster divines, by noting that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith (18.3), affirm the distinction between adherence and assurance.” This distinction between adherence and assurance is an invention by the theologians of doubt. By means of it these theologians “differentiate between the faith of adherence to Christ and the faith of assurance (evidence) in Christ, whereby the believer knows that Christ has died specifically for him.”

The distinction is a bald contradiction of the description of faith in the Heidelberg Catechism as “assured confidence….that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (A 21). This is not one aspect of faith that one might arrive at after years of doubt, but it is faith, the faith that a small child has and that every believer has.

The distinction between adherence and assurance and the blatant denial that assurance does not belong to the essence of faith also do not find any support in the Westminster Confession of Faith 18.3, which Mark Jones cites to prop up this distinction. That part of the creed reads: “This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties before he be a partaker thereof.” Contra Mark Jones the article does not flatly say that infallible assurance does not belong to the essence of faith. Rather, the article affirms that infallible assurance belongs to the essence of faith. It says that infallible assurance, however, does not “so belong” to the essence of faith, thereby noting an exception that “may” be the case, such as when the miserable preacher of the poor believer constantly tells him that it is pious to doubt, that “mere faith” is not enough, that he could not possibly be assured yet, and that to suppose so is spiritual pride. The exception noted is nothing different from what the Canons affirm in 5.11: “the scripture moreover testifies that believers in this life have to struggle with various carnal doubts, and that under grievous temptation they are not always sensible of this full assurance of faith.” The problem is not faith or the fact that faith is not “full assurance.” That problem is the believer and his carnal doubts. The Reformed creeds testify that faith is assurance. They do that in harmony with scripture: what else could the scriptures mean when they say in Romans 5:1, “being justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ”? Assurance is by faith, specifically being justified by faith, that gives peace—real, total, subjective peace—with the living God in the conscience of the believer.

Denying that assurance is of the essence of faith, it is disingenuous of Jones to defend his doctrine by saying that “a focus on good works as a ground for assurance of faith does not necessarily turn the believer away from Christ” or that “that God is gracious and has given his people many means by which they may have this infallible assurance of salvation.”[2] He makes it seem as though he is only presenting works as one of the grounds of assurance. Along with all the theologians of doubt, though, he denies the essential thing, that faith is assurance. Faith as to its very nature is full assurance. Because he denies this, he and the rest of the theologians of doubt have to concoct a whole other ground of assurance. If faith is not assurance—faith as such, faith as to its nature—assurance must come from works. Indeed, faith itself becomes a work upon which assurance is based. He sees both faith and works as conditions, or acts of man, upon which man’s salvation depends, so that even when he says “faith,” he makes it a work. Faith as a work is the means of assurance, not faith as such is assurance.

To deny that assurance is of the essence of faith also removes from assurance its essential and first part, namely, that the believer’s sins are forgiven by faith only. Without the truth of justification by faith alone the assurance of salvation is impossible, because being justified by faith alone the believer has peace with God. That assured peace with God by faith alone includes the knowledge that Christ died for me to forgive my sins, that all my sins are forgiven for his sake, that God loves me, and that he loved me from all eternity. Only on this basis can the believer even consider his works, which are also polluted and defiled by sin. If assurance is not of the essence of faith, one must necessarily be assured of his forgiveness by his works too. It is necessary in order to speak of works in connection with assurance that the first part, assurance as belonging to the essence of faith, be established.

This theology of doubt and assurance by works, then, are one with the rest of Jones’ theology. One who espouses justification by works, or is friendly with those who do, of necessity must deny that assurance is of the essence of faith in order to lodge assurance in works. But assurance by works is no assurance at all.

Such a teacher of works, and foe of grace, has no business telling Reformed believers who the antinomians are. His charge of antinomianism is false and can safely be dismissed.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, Antinomianism, 99.

[2] Ibid., 108.

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Previous posts in this series:

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This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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Next article in series: The Charge of Antinomianism (9): Dismissing it

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