June Standard Bearer preview: Response to ‘Agreement and objections re faith and works’

Rev. Lanning:

I am glad to read that you find between us areas of agreement. Especially important is that you can accept calling faith a ‘doing,’ though only “as long as calling faith a ‘doing’ only means that faith is an activity, but in no way, shape, or form means that faith is a work.”

You should have no fear of that. In no place have I called or labeled our faith a work. To do so, would create a confusion of categories. They are to be distinguished.

You write that we are in agreement that faith is an activity. I am happy to hear that.

You indicate that we can agree that the regenerated child of God is able to believe and that faith is the necessary means of salvation. That is encouraging.

You also indicate (in your third paragraph from the end) that faith is obedience to the gospel’s call.

Thus, in sum, we may say that you teach that 1) faith is an activity, 2) faith is obedience to the gospel call, 3) faith is a ‘doing’ (carefully defined), and 4) man actually does believe. It means we have a common basis for discussion.

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June Standard Bearer preview: Agreement and objections re faith and works

Agreement and objections re faith and works

Thank you for publishing my letter and revised letter in the March 1 and March 15, 2019 issues of the Standard Bearer, even though the letter exceeded the length allowed by SB policy. (As for your apology for publishing the wrong letter originally, apology accepted—no harm done and no hard feelings.) Thank you as well for your thorough response to my letter in two installments in those same issues. We are agreed that these matters are of greatest importance and are worthy of the space devoted to them in the pages of the SB. I ask for your indulgence in allowing me to respond once more, since this letter again goes beyond policy.

I have read your responses repeatedly and carefully, and I believe that I understand what you are saying. I am in complete agreement with much of what you write, and I think it would be beneficial in this discussion to highlight precisely where we are of one mind.

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Synod 2018: Obedience and covenant fellowship

The editorial in this special Synod issue focuses on one particular issue faced by Synod 2018, namely, the place of obedience (good works) in the believer’s experience of covenant fellowship.

The issue of the place of good works in the covenant life is important because the covenant and salvation are inseparable. A Reformed man will confess concerning salvation that 1) it is all of God; 2) salvation is found in Christ alone; 3) God sovereignly saves His elect through faith in Christ alone. Likewise a Reformed man will say that 1) the covenant is all of God; 2) the covenant is established with Christ and therefore with those chosen in Him; 3) God effectually brings His elect into the covenant and gives access to fellowship with Him through faith in Christ.

—Read more in Synod 2018: Obedience and covenant fellowship by Prof. Russell Dykstra in the upcoming July 2018 issue of the Standard Bearer.

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To teach them war (20) God’s armor for us: The Shield

From all eternity God determined to bestow the gift of faith as a shield upon His elect people in Jesus Christ. When we sinners are begotten again and sovereignly grafted into our living Savior, we receive all the benefits of salvation, including the ability to believe and trust in God and His word. Faith then is the powerful, conscious activity of the believer whereby he holds for truth all that God has revealed in His Word, confidently persuaded that the promises thereof are for him personally. Faith fixes itself on the Word of God and says about everything in it, “Truth!”

—Read To teach them war (20) God’s armor for us: The Shield by Rev. Brian Huizinga in the upcoming July 2018 issue of the Standard Bearer.

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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 (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

The Reformed faith teaches that the sinner is saved and delivered from his misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of the sinner. The Reformed faith also insists that the same sinner who is delivered from his misery without his works—so that his salvation is not by works—must do good works.

Two things must be noted here. First, the believing sinner is saved, saved unto eternal life, without ever performing a single good work. His salvation consists in his justification in his conscience by faith alone, both the remission of his sins, original and actual, and the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to him. Second, the justified sinner is also renewed by the grace of God. It is inconceivable that one whom Christ has redeemed and delivered remains in his sins; he must be renewed. The very righteousness of Christ imputed to the redeemed sinner demands this renewal. This renewal by the grace of God is the necessity of good works. From this follow other considerations regarding the necessity of good works: a testimony of gratitude and praise to God, assurance of faith by its fruits, and to win the neighbor to Christ.

The Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good work harmonizes with the Reformed teaching of the doctrines of grace. The truth of the Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works and the doctrines of grace of which it is part must be applied to the doctrine of the covenant. The application of the doctrine that salvation is by grace alone and not by works to the doctrine of the covenant demands a simple equation in order to protect that doctrine of the covenant from heresy. That harmonization involves this simple equation: the covenant is salvation. Whatever is true of God’s gracious salvation of the sinner is true of God’s covenant. So if God in salvation only gives grace to the elect, so also in the covenant. If God in salvation says not by works, but by grace alone, so also in the covenant. Also, nothing may be taught regarding God’s work of salvation in the covenant without harmonizing that doctrine with the Reformed doctrine of salvation.

To that simple equation that the covenant is salvation must be added another: the covenant is fellowship with God. The covenant is not unto fellowship, unto salvation, or unto the experience of salvation, for that makes the covenant a means to an end. The covenant is fellowship with God. Thus the experience of the child of God in the covenant is fellowship with God. Having the covenant, he has fellowship with God. The nature of that fellowship with God is intimacy. The covenantal fellowship with God is an intimate covenantal fellowship. Having the covenant, then, the child of God also has intimacy with God. Having the covenant and covenantal fellowship with God is the experience of his salvation.

This covenant with God is an unconditional covenant. This means that fellowship and intimacy with God in the covenant are not dependent upon some work of the sinner. They are not “contingent” upon something the sinner does. That is always what a condition is. A condition is some work, or act, of the sinner upon which God, the gifts of God, or the covenant of God depends.

The orthodox doctrine of the necessity of good works harmonizes with the truth of the unconditional covenant. That orthodox explanation of the necessity of good works gives all the glory to God for the works of the sinner and properly places those works in the sinner’s salvation as the fruits of faith and not as an instrument, or a means, to obtain salvation or any benefit of the covenant. As a consequence, this explanation of the necessity of good works does not view good works as means to obtain the fellowship of God but as the way of life in which the justified and renewed sinner enjoys his life of fellowship with God.

In the way of sin there is no enjoyment of fellowship, or intimate fellowship, with God. The reason is not because by his works the believer obtains the fellowship or because those works are necessary in order to have or to lay hold on that fellowship, but because in that life of sin the believer interrupts the exercise of faith and loses the sense of God’s favor that he has by faith and the operation of the Spirit (Canons 5.5).

The fellowship is enjoyed again when God renews the believer to repentance, faith, and the favor of God in his conscience and experience based on the perfect work of Christ, and the believer again works out his salvation with fear and trembling by that faith (Canons 5.7).

The believer’s works of faith are the fruits of God’s saving work in the believer in the covenant that God establishes with him. In that life of good works the believer enjoys fellowship with God as the consequence and effect of that saving work in him, both to justify the believer and to renew him to that life of good works, that is, to work in him both to will and to do of God’s good pleasure, and as a consequence of which the believer works out his own salvation with fear and trembling. Those works are not instruments, or means, to obtain the fellowship, but they are the way along which the believer enjoys God as his God.

The believer has the covenant by faith, by faith alone. The believer has the experience of covenantal fellowship with God by faith, by faith alone. He does not have them by means of a working, obedient faith, so that faith and the works of faith obtain with God. Rather, the faith by which he has the covenant is also the faith that in the covenant works by love and is the way in which the believer enjoys God as his God.

The doctrine of the covenant has been plagued by the heresy of the conditional covenant for hundreds of years in Reformed churches. This heretical doctrine of the covenant was rejected by the Synod of Dordt in its rejection of Arminianism. The Arminians had a covenantal doctrine. The fathers of Dordt defined and rejected this doctrine when they wrote,

The Synod rejects the errors of those…who teach that the new covenant of grace, which God the Father, through the mediation of the death of Christ, made with man, does not herein consist that we by faith, inasmuch as it accepts the merits of Christ, are justified before God and saved, but in the fact that God, having revoked the demand of perfect obedience of the law, regards faith itself and the obedience of faith, although imperfect, as the perfect obedience of the law, and does esteem it worthy of the reward of eternal life through grace. (Canons 2.error 4)

Basic then to the Arminian conception of the covenant is that works are necessary to obtain the fellowship of God in the covenant of grace. Works obtain that in this life and in eternity. Works are no longer fruits of the faith that keeps in communion with Christ in all the blessings of the covenant earned by Christ, but works are instruments along with faith.

The doctrine of the covenant does not give the Reformed believer the right suddenly to become Arminian in his theology. This is what the federal vision is presently doing with the doctrine of the covenant. It is using the doctrine of the conditional covenant to overthrow the whole Reformed confession of the believer’s gracious salvation: grace to elect and reprobate, a universal atonement, works for justification, a conditional promise, an offer of grace, and the falling away of saints.

The theological instrument by which the federal vision is accomplishing this is the concept of an obedient faith. Taking the insistence of the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:6, that “in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love,” the federal vision is teaching that what obtains, or avails, for salvation now and in eternity is faith and the works of faith. The believer maintains and perfects the covenant of grace by his faith and the works of faith. He has fellowship with God in the covenant now and in eternity by a working faith, so that both faith and the works of faith maintain and ultimately perfect that covenant. For the federal vision it is not faith that avails for the covenant, salvation, and eternal life—a faith that is not dead but works by love, but which avails apart from those works. But faith and the works of faith are what avails for the covenant, fellowship with God, and eternal life. The availing faith is a working faith, a sanctifying faith, an obedient faith that avails by its working sanctification and obedience, in order that the believer has God in the covenant as his God and receives the perfection of that covenant in heaven. Thus salvation—which is the covenant and the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant—is by a working, obedient faith, so that faith and the works of faith obtain for the believer.

Salvation, the experience of salvation, the covenant, the fellowship of God in the covenant, the experience of that fellowship—all of which are the same thing—are not by an obedient faith. They are by faith. Faith avails. Faith avails because faith rests and relies upon Christ crucified alone, faith keeps in communion with Christ in all his benefits. And faith avails because the righteousness of faith is the perfect righteousness of Christ that avails for eternal life. Because Christ obtained all of salvation by his death, there is nothing left for works to obtain. The faith that avails is a faith that works by love. But the working of faith by love is not that which avails or obtains. We have the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2).

This truth regarding how believers have the covenant, the fellowship of God in the covenant, and the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant may not be obscured by ambiguous language. Especially this ambiguous language may not be used in a misguided and ill-informed attempt to impress the necessity of good works in the covenant, so that by means of it the impression is left, if the doctrine is not explicitly taught, that works are in fact necessary for salvation.

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

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (9): Clear Explanations

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


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Echoing the Word

For many of us, one of the more daunting responsibilities that we face as church members is the calling to witness. Just the thought of doing so might make our heart race, our anxiety level shoot through the roof, and our mouth feel like cotton.

Yet, this is our calling. There are many passages of God’s word that make this plain. 1 Peter 3:15 is well-known: “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.”

In 1 Thessalonians 1:8 Paul commends the saints in that church because “from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to God-ward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.” The words “sounded out” have the idea of an echo. Think of the sound of your voice or the crack of thunder that echoes in a cave or in the mountains. Paul’s voice was like a trumpet or like a summer thunderstorm rolling through Thessalonica, proclaiming the word of God. That powerful noise was then received by the saints there and echoed off of them to those around them. This indicates that the saints there were zealous in personal witnessing. When given the opportunity, they were bold to speak of their faith in Christ. The scriptures give this as an example for us to follow.

But this calling is often very difficult for us. It’s easy for us to get excited about doing mission work in a faraway land, but it’s hard for us to witness to our next-door neighbor. Someone once quipped that early Christians had to be told not to speak, whereas modern believers often have to be told to speak.

There may be many reasons why this is so difficult for us, but often we are simply too afraid to say anything when the opportunity arises. A coworker takes God’s name in vain day after day. Someone stops us at the grocery store and says something crude about the number of children that we have in tow. A neighbor tells us about the fornication that they have committed, or the drunkenness, or the Sabbath desecration. And we all know the feeling. Fear cripples us. We say nothing. We laugh nervously and change the subject. We know that we ought to say something, but our mouth stays shut and the opportunity passes.

Despite how uncomfortable it makes us, we are called to witness.

That witness will show itself in two ways. First, we are called to witness with our words. We hear the preaching of the gospel every Sunday, and we receive and embrace that word by faith. Our calling is to be echoes of that word, to reflect the powerful thunder of the gospel to those around us. That means we speak that word to family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and all others whom God brings into our lives.

In the second place, we witness with our actions. We live lives that flow out of our faith in Christ, lives that harmonize with the word of the Lord. We live in such a way that we are different from the world around us. When we back up our talk with our walk, others will take note. The life that harmonizes with the gospel is itself a powerful sermon.

It is possible, of course, for us to leave a negative witness. We may say all the right things, but when we live like the world, when we speak blasphemously or cut others down, when we bicker as husband and wife and have a quarrelsome, rebellious family, we leave the wrong kind of witness. When we live like the world and do the things that the world does, we do not stand out.

One powerful way in which we witness by our actions is by the way in which we handle adversity and affliction. When a loved one dies, when we are given a cancer diagnosis, when we have a disability that needs constant medical attention, when we have a child with special needs, and we respond in patience and trust in God, we give a powerful witness to others who see us.

The calling to witness does not mean we must say something every single day to every single person we meet. We are called to speak this word when God gives us an opportunity during the ordinary course of our day. And we must have a certain regard to appropriate circumstances. We are not called to say something to our coworker every single day when we are supposed to be working or to our neighbor every single time we see them outside working in their lawn. However, I don’t think this is the bigger danger for us. The bigger danger is that we do not speak the word when the opportunity does present itself.

The motivation to witness is the grace which God has shown to us. We have been graciously delivered from the darkness and brought into the light of life. What joy fills our hearts! So thankful are we for what God has done, that we cannot keep quiet about it. We can’t keep it in. We want everyone we meet to know this.

God may be pleased to use our witness to gain others to Christ. While some may be hardened by our witness, others may be brought to faith in Christ and the fellowship of the church.

Witnessing takes courage, courage which God alone can supply. Pray for that courage, and in the strength which he supplies boldly echo forth the Word of the Lord.

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This post was written by Rev. Joshua Engelsma, pastor of Doon Protestant Reformed Church in Doon, Iowa. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Engelsma, please do so in the comment section.

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Previous posts in this series:

  1. Lively Stones in God’s House
  2. Time To Build!
  3. Bound to Join
  4. A Hard Day’s Rest
  5. Noble Bereans
  6. Reformed…And Always Reforming
  7. A Cheerful Giver

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

It must be held firmly by every believer that his works, works of faith and done by grace, do not obtain any aspect of salvation. They do not obtain because they do not obtain the Spirit. Works are not an instrument, or a means, of salvation. Instrument and means are the same thing. Since the covenant is salvation, works are not an instrument to obtain the covenant. Since the covenant is fellowship with God, works are not the instrument to obtain, have, or receive fellowship with God. Since the experience of salvation is salvation in one’s conscience, works are not an instrument to obtain the experience. The believer experiences salvation by the Spirit of Christ. He does not have the Spirit by the works of the law but by faith only (Gal. 3:2). Works are not the decisive factor, ground, means, or cause of obtaining any aspect or benefit of salvation, certainly not salvation’s experience. Works are not that upon which the covenant and enjoyment of God in the covenant depend. Salvation, salvation in its entirety and with all its benefits, is not by works.

These are the ABCs of the Christian faith.

Salvation is not by works.

If salvation is by works, it is no more by grace.

If salvation is by grace, it is not by works.

These two—grace and works—may not be mingled into the toxic concoction of salvation by grace and works.

Satan has been busy and will continue to be busy refining his false and heretical doctrine that salvation is by works. He will not come in the same garb in which he cloaked himself before and which the church has exposed time and again in her various controversies over whether salvation is by grace or by works. He becomes increasingly subtle. He will become so subtle that if it were possible the very elect would be deceived. So the church may not expect attacks on the truth that salvation is by grace and not by works to come with words like merit, condition, and the like. These words have been exposed by the church. Indeed, the over-thirty-year-long struggle with the federal vision’s conditional theology of works, including its blatant denial that justification is by faith alone, shows the church that rank heretics who deny that salvation is by grace and teach that salvation is by works come subtly, bemoaning the use of the word merit and putting themselves out as great opponents of the evil word merit. All the while teaching exactly what the word merit in connection with the believer’s works in salvation always has taught, namely that the works of the believer have not only a place, but also the decisive place as an instrument, or a means, to obtain the believer’s salvation. Works are a condition. So the church must expect that kind of subtlety in further attacks on the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

It is also a common tactic of the theologians of works to charge the condemnation of works for righteousness—the idea that works are an instrument to obtain with God—with making works impossible, at least less desirable, at best making works a mere obligation, and ultimately unnecessary. That always was and is the tactic of Rome, and every other heretic who wants to give works the decisive place in the sinner’s salvation follows the tactic of the whorish mother of heretics. It is clever but wicked because it charges the truth with being antinomian and making men careless and profane. Their logic is simple: if you teach that works are not necessary for salvation; to have righteousness with God; or to obtain favor, life, or some other benefit from God, you remove the most compelling reason for good works, and believers will live carelessly and unconcerned for good works.

Denial of the Romish, Arminian, and federal vision teachings regarding the necessity of good works cannot be charged with being against good works, against the necessity of good works, minimizing works, making works less important in the preaching of the church, or even making works impossible. Rather, to be against those explanations and others like them regarding the necessity of good works is to be against the lie and to stand for the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. Being against those explanations regarding the necessity of good works is being against those who rob God of his glory by making works the instrument, or means, to obtain salvation or some benefit of salvation, who rob believers of assurance by making them continually ask whether they have done enough, and who at the same time allow vain and pretentious men to boast in God’s presence. Those who teach—and those who believe—that their works obtain with God will be damned for believing a lie, falling under the fierce anathema of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”

God will have no one boast in his presence.

Since those heretical explanations regarding the necessity of good works are rejected, may the Reformed believer speak of the necessity of good works? If he may speak of the necessity of good works, what is the proper Reformed explanation of that necessity of good works? More than that, if good works are of no value to add to one’s justification, to increase his righteousness with God, or to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation in any sense, then why speak of the necessity of the good works? Since we are not saved by works but by grace, are good works necessary at all? Further, since we are saved without the merit of works, why would the church teach about the necessity of works?

The Heidelberg Catechism states this problem in Lord’s Day 32, question 86: “Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?” Here the Reformed faith addresses the question of the necessity of good works head on and answers it so plainly that a child can understand. This Lord’s Day is the definitive Reformed answer to this question. This Lord’s Day will repay careful attention.

“Without any merit of ours” in the Catechism should be understood as meaning without any works of ours, whether works performed before or after believing. The salvation of the sinner is always a matter of merit; God is paid what God is owed. If the works of the sinner contribute to, are instruments for, or obtain the sinner’s salvation, no matter how little, the only place that the works of the sinner can have in that case is merit. This is true whether or not the theologians who promote that theology use the word merit or cleverly and deceptively substitute some other word for that offensive word merit. In short, if works are in some sense the instrument, or means, to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation, the only role those works can play is also in some sense to merit. Salvation is then “contingent” on what the sinner does.

Note as well that the Catechism states the problem sharply. The issue is not why the justified sinner may, should, or can do good works. The issue is why the justified sinner must do good works. When the Catechism says “must,” it asks about the necessity of good works. What is the binding necessity of good works in the life of the justified sinner, the sinner who is saved wholly apart from those works? In other words, when the Reformed faith asks about the necessity of good works in the life of the saved sinner, it asks about a real necessity.

Important in this connection is to understand exactly which works the Catechism refers to: works excluded from meriting the sinner’s salvation and works the Catechism insists the sinner must do. The Heidelberg Catechism defines good works in Lord’s Day 33:

Q. 91. But what are good works?

A. Only those that proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men.

Often those who teach wrongly about the necessity of good works—that they are an instrument, or a means, to obtain salvation or some benefit of salvation, including the experience of salvation—make themselves appear orthodox and attempt to obscure the offensive nature of their doctrine by insisting that they refer only to works the believer performs by grace, out of faith, and by the power of the Holy Ghost. This is an evasion. The issue between those who teach wrongly about the necessity of good works and those who insist that salvation is not by works is not that one side refers to works performed by grace while the other side refers to works performed solely by the strength of the sinner himself. The issue in this question of the necessity of good works is precisely the works of the believer—those genuinely good works performed by grace, which proceed from true faith and are performed according to the law of God and to the glory of God. In what sense are these good works necessary?

In order to drive home the point that works are really necessary, Lord’s Day 32 of the Catechism asks a further question:

Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?

The Catechism answers:

By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

There is no more thorough way to reinforce that the necessity in this case is a real necessity: nothing less than salvation—inheriting the kingdom of God—is the issue in the question of the necessity of good works.

Thus the difference between the one side and the other is also not that one teaches that good works are necessary and the other side teaches that good works are not necessary. Rather, the issue is that one side teaches that good works are necessary in order to have, to obtain, or as an instrument of salvation or of some aspect of salvation; while the other side teaches that good works are not an instrument at all to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation. The wrong answer to the question of the necessity of good works makes those good works necessary for salvation as instruments, or means, to obtain that salvation. The other, the distinctly Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works, while teaching a real necessity, is as different from that as the day is from the night.

To that distinctly Reformed answer 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

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

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

No sane person would ever think to ask of any proponent of the false doctrines of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, or the federal vision why works are necessary. It is patently obvious why works are necessary in Roman Catholicism, in Arminianism, and in federal vision theology. Works are necessary as instruments, or means, in connection with faith to obtain salvation, the enjoyment of salvation, and the fellowship of God’s covenant of grace now and in eternity. Salvation, especially considered as the sinner’s enjoyment of and reception of that salvation, is “contingent” on what the sinner does by grace. When I say that the sinner’s enjoyment of God as his God in the covenant is "contingent," I mean that these false doctrines teach that works are conditions. They are conditions because they are that which the sinner must perform, and that upon which God or the grace of God depends, and without which God and the grace of God are not given or enjoyed.

All three false doctrines deny the heart of the gospel that the believer is justified by faith alone without his works. Rather, these false doctrines make faith a new work that the sinner must perform. Faith alone does not obtain righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life for the sake of Christ’s perfect work on the cross; but faith and the works of faith are instruments, or means, to obtain these. These false doctrines deny that faith—faith alone—is decisive in obtaining salvation apart from all the works of faith because faith lays hold on Christ, keeps in communion with Christ, trusts in, and rests and relies upon Christ and his perfect righteousness as the only ground of the believer’s salvation.

Rather, all three false doctrines teach that works are necessary in addition to faith to obtain righteousness and salvation and thus are instruments, or means, in addition to faith, by which the sinner enjoys salvation. Because righteousness is by works salvation is by works; just as, if righteousness is not by works neither is salvation or any benefit of salvation by works. So also where the necessity of works to obtain righteousness and salvation is improperly taught there is also of necessity a denial of justification by faith alone.

It is exactly the Protestant and Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone that excludes works—any and all works, especially the works of the believer done by faith—from the believer’s righteousness before God and thus from any role in obtaining salvation or any benefit of salvation for the enjoyment of the sinner. God justifies the ungodly. He will not justify a good or a righteous man. Justification by faith alone teaches that the believing sinner is justified by faith alone without any works, especially any works done by grace. In the act of justification God declares the believing sinner righteous. This means that God declares that sinner—an ungodly man in that judgment—to have perfectly fulfilled God’s law, as perfectly in his sight as if the sinner had never sinned and had fulfilled all righteousness himself. Thus that sinner is worthy of eternal life and of every blessing of salvation. Belonging to this work and summarizing it is the act of God to forgive the sinner his sins for Christ’s sake.

In the justification of the believing sinner, the sinner’s righteousness is the perfect atoning death, righteousness, and holy works of Jesus Christ. That righteousness and that righteousness alone is the ground of all that God promises to and gives the sinner for his salvation. This righteousness obtains heaven, grace, access to God, fellowship with the Father, every blessing of salvation, and the enjoyment of those blessings in the sinner's conscience and experience. God loves the righteous. God blesses the righteous.

In justification God imputes to the sinner—or reckons to his account—that perfect righteousness of Christ by faith only. By in the phrase justification by faith alone means that faith is the only instrument to receive this saving righteousness of Christ. By faith alone God imputes to the sinner the righteousness of Christ. Thus the righteousness of Christ becomes the sinner’s; righteousness is reckoned to his account. Excluded are all works. God graciously justifies the sinner. The sinner’s good works do not add to his righteousness. His evil works do not detract from that righteousness. That righteousness is perfect, and no part of the sinner’s life thereafter can alter or change that reality. Were he to die at the moment of his justification, he would enter heaven.

Being justified by faith alone, the sinner is saved. Being justified, he is declared worthy of eternal life, of every blessing of salvation, and of the experience of those blessings. What scripture and the creeds mean when they teach that the justified sinner is declared worthy of eternal life must be understood correctly. Worthy of eternal life refers not only to eternity and the final judgment, but also to the sinner’s enjoyment of salvation and the covenant of God now. Because the righteousness of Christ obtains all of salvation, and because the sinner receives righteousness by faith only there is nothing for the believer’s works to obtain.

In this connection it is important to remember the apostle Paul’s chiding question to the foolish and bewitched Galatians who had apostatized from the truth of justification by faith alone and turned to works again: “This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Gal. 3:2). To have the Spirit is to have Christ, God, the covenant, to dwell in Christ and to have him dwelling in us, to possess eternal life, and to have also all the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. To have the Spirit is to enjoy fellowship with Christ and the living God, so that all the living water of Christ flows from him into the believer and flows out of the believer as a fountain of living water to the neighbor. To have the Spirit is to have God working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. To have the Spirit is to experience God as one’s God in the believer’s conscience, in his heart, and in his whole life. The Spirit is salvation and the experience of salvation to the believer. There is no spiritual gift lacking to a human being who has the Spirit of Christ in him. To have the Spirit is to have all the promises of God in principle. The Galatians did not have the Spirit “by the works of the law.” By “works of the law,” Paul did not mean merely works of keeping the Old Testament law of Moses, but Paul meant any and all works, the same kind of works that he excluded from justification when he wrote, “For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (2:16). Rather, the Galatians received the Spirit by the hearing of faith. As soon as they heard the gospel and believed, the Spirit was poured out on them. They received the Spirit by faith alone and not by works. Having the Spirit by faith, they had all of salvation and all of the experience of salvation by faith and not by the works of the law.

Regarding the reception of the Spirit and the sanctification of the believer in all good works, G. C. Berkhouwer, in his excellent section “Sola Fide and Sanctificationin his book Faith and Sanctification, summarized the Reformation and Reformed view:

One may say that the confessions proceed always from faith to works and thence back to faith. This interconnection and order is a typical feature of Reformation doctrine: thus maintaining the bond between justification and sanctification, over against the “abstraction” of good works, it walked in the ways of Holy Scripture. The conclusion we may infer from all these data [a lengthy survey of creeds and theologians] is that we can, according to Reformed belief, speak truly of sanctification only when we have understood the exceptionally great significance of the bond between Sola-fide [faith alone] and sanctification. We may never speak of sanctification as if we are entering—having gone through the gate of justification—upon a new, independent field of operation; sanctification does not come about by the interaction of dynamic impulses already present. We might, of course, speak of the “dunamis” [power] of the Holy Spirit but this divine power comes to us only via our faith and may not be separated from it. That is unmistakable testimony of the Reformation.

Sanctification is by faith alone too because by faith alone believers are justified, and being justified they receive the Holy Spirit by faith and not by the works of the law.

Thus it is incorrect to state that justification by faith alone merely gives the legal right to salvation. This is to minimize the reality of justification by faith alone. Article 23 of the Belgic Confession says, “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied.” It is perfectly proper and thoroughly Reformed to summarize the whole gift of salvation by the word justification. The Belgic Confession teaches that justification is not merely the grant of a legal right to salvation, but also that justification is the salvation of the sinner. Especially is the justified sinner saved in his own conscience and experience. Justification is the sinner’s salvation especially because the justified sinner on that basis alone receives the Spirit by faith and with the Spirit receives every blessing of salvation and every experience of salvation. Justification is the sinner’s salvation because the perfect righteousness of Christ that is imputed to him by faith alone demands that he be made perfect.

The despicable thing about the teaching that the experience of salvation is by works is that it robs the believer at the most important part of his salvation—his possession and enjoyment of that salvation—the truth that his salvation is not by works but by grace. In answer to the apostle’s question whether believers receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith that teaching answers, “By the works of the law!” Such a teaching guts the whole confession that salvation is by grace alone and makes it a vain and worthless confession. What good to a believer is a salvation that is accomplished outside of him without his works, if the possession and enjoyment of that salvation in his own conscience and experience is by his works? Then the believer’s conscience is not purged from dead works to serve the living God; he is yet in his sins.

Besides, such a false teaching that makes the experience of salvation dependent on works is deadly because it is a direct assault on the office and work of the Holy Spirit who is the Comforter and whose office is to comfort the believer with Christ and his perfect work, so that the believer receives Christ and all his saving benefits in his heart, mind, and conscience.

By the hearing of faith the believer receives the Spirit and with the Spirit every blessing of salvation and all the experience of salvation, Christ and all that is Christ’s.

By the hearing of faith!

Not by the works of the law!

Besides, the main teaching of justification in scripture concerns justification of the believing sinner in his conscience and experience. Justification by faith alone insists that in the sinner’s conscience, in his mind, soul, heart, and whole being he is justified by faith alone without his works. His experience of justification is freedom from damning guilt, peace with the living and just God, assurance of salvation, comfort that Christ died for him, and certain knowledge that God elected him. The one justified by faith lives (Rom. 1:17); he lives now by the gift of the Spirit; he lives in his own heart, mind, and experience with God; and he will live in eternity. Since the revelation of the righteousness of God worked out in the cross of Christ is from faith to faith (1:17), he also lives from faith to faith, so that his life is never removed from that foundation of faith. His experience of justification by faith alone, in short, is of life, eternal life with God, granted to him freely and graciously by God for Christ’s sake by faith alone and experienced by the gift of the Spirit, which he receives by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2).

Over against any and all attempts to make works an instrument of salvation alongside and in addition to faith stands the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

What, then, of works?

What of the necessity of works?

Are works necessary at all?

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

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Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

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