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.

Comments

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.

Comments

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.

_______________

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.

_______________

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

Comments

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.

_______________

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.

_______________

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

Comments

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

At the same time the Reformed faith insists that the sinner is saved by God’s grace wholly without his own works—including especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone in which the believing sinner is justified before God in his conscience and experience by faith alone and not at all by works—it also insists that good works are necessary. It is slander to charge the defense of this position with a denial of the necessity of good works. Those who do so take their place with the Romish, Arminian, and federal vision opponents of the truth. The Reformed faith says two things: the sinner is justified by faith alone wholly apart from his works, and the works of the justified sinner are necessary. The sinner, redeemed and delivered without his works, must do good works.

The Reformed faith’s answer to the question of why the justified sinner must do good works is unique. This answer is given in plainest English in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus wrote about the pastoral purpose of this Lord’s Day and emphasized the importance of teaching this distinctly Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works: “These causes, now, must be explained and urged with great diligence, in our sermons and exhortations to the people.” The Reformed faith, denying vehemently that works obtain salvation or the experience of salvation and especially that works are part of the believer’s righteousness before God—we have the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal 3:2)—equally emphasizes the necessity of good works properly explained and urges with great diligence the doing of them.

Lord’s Day 32 reads in full:

Q. 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?

A. Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that he may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof; and that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.

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

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

The first part of the Catechism’s answer to the question of the necessity of good works is found in this sentence: “Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image.” The necessity of good works in the justified believer is the work of Christ in that believer to renew him by the Holy Spirit after Christ’s image.

When the Lord’s Day speaks of the renewal of the sinner, it implies the original condition of his nature. In Adam all human beings are conceived and born in sin. By nature all men are incapable of performing any good and inclined to all wickedness. The sinner’s whole nature is corrupt and under the power of sin. All his faculties and powers are controlled by sin. His mind is dark, his affections are evil and corrupt, and his will is a slave to sin. In that condition the sinner by nature is one who hates God and his neighbor. Man’s thoughts and all the imaginations of his heart are only evil continually. In that condition the sinner is in bondage to sin, so that he continues in his sin, cannot will the good, and cannot perform that which is good and pleasing to God. The sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to God. The sinner does nothing that is pleasing to God, even when his works glitter and gleam in the eyes of men and appear to be more righteous than the righteousness of the righteous themselves, so that men speak highly of those works and commend them as the very essence of goodness. To God all the works of the sinner are an abomination because man is an abomination to God.

Belonging to this condition of the natural man as well is his loss, the total loss, of the image of God. The Catechism teaches this when it says that Christ renews his image in the elect sinner. Christ’s work to renew his image in the elect sinner is not a partial restoration of the image but a complete restoration of the whole image. It must be a restoration of the whole image because that is what man lost in the fall. He lost the image of God and took on the image of Satan.

Bearing the image of Satan, man is by nature a God-hater. In all the circumstances of his life as the word of God comes to him to love the Lord God, man says, “I hate him.” In man’s riches he serves himself; in his health he serves himself; in his fruitful years he serves himself; and in his sickness, poverty, and disasters he blasphemes God. That inveterate and spitting hatred of God is evident, too, when God strides through the earth, the wind as his chariot and the clouds as his garments. When he thunders with his voice and the lightning is his herald, the very first words out of man’s mouth are “Oh, my God,” and he blasphemes. Man as ruled by the principle of sin opposes the law of God. The natural man does not desire the good. Besides, he opposes the good and would destroy the good. The proof of that is the cross of Christ. God delivered the good, the lovely, the beautiful, the virtuous, the law-abiding, the gracious, and wholly desirable Jesus Christ into man’s power; and man took him, tried him, condemned him, nailed him to the tree, and blasphemed him.

Such a sinner, chosen by God in love from all eternity and appointed to salvation, Christ renews after his image. “His own image” in the Catechism refers to the image of Christ. The image in which God created man was knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. That image characterized the whole nature of man, so that he was upright and his whole nature was good. Possessing that image, man looked like God and was the son of God. The image as Adam bore it was good, but it was not the best. The best form of that image is as it is in Christ. Just one feature of Adam’s possession of the image will bring out the better form in Christ. Adam could lose the image and he did for himself and all his children. But Christ is God’s Son forever; Christ cannot lose that image. He cannot lose it any more than he can cease being the Son of God. He lifted up and glorified that image of God. That image is the same in substance as the image in Adam, but it is lifted up beyond the power of sin, death, and corruption. It is the image that will one day characterize the believer’s whole life and all his being, so that he perfectly loves the Lord his God and zealously serves him in all good works for eternity to the praise of God’s excellent name.

Here is a helpful analogy for the place of works in the sinner’s salvation. Works now have the same place as works will have in heaven. It is completely absurd to teach that in heaven by our works we will have something from God. Neither do we now earn from God, have access to God, or receive from God on the basis of our works, because of our works, or dependent on our works.

This marvelous work of renewal is accomplished by the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

First, this teaches that the work is divine, as mysterious as the Spirit himself and as irresistible as he is. The sinner—no matter how deeply mired in sin, how profoundly degraded in his vileness, and how long engrained his sin, an incorrigible and hardened old sinner—God, the God of all power and all grace, lays hold on in the depth of that sinner’s being and renews him and makes him a new creature who is totally changed in a moment, in the twinkle of an eye.

Second, this marvelous work of renewal by the Holy Ghost teaches that Christ comes very near his people, so that he enters into them, operates upon them, and dwells in them in the closest possible way: he takes his abode in them, dwells with them, and abides with them. God is not afar off but is near his people and with them always in Christ. He is the power of the sinner’s renewal, which Christ gives to his people constantly and preserves them in it.

This renewal and everything that follows from it are not the work of man, are not dependent upon man, do not wait on man, and thus are not conditioned on something man does. This renewal is a supernatural and divine work no less wonderful than the creation of the world. When God lays hold on one of his children to change him, God causes the light to stand out of the dark mind of the rebellious sinner; God softens the hard and opens the closed; he replaces ignorance with knowledge and hatred with love. Indeed, then, that renewal is more wonderful than creation because it belongs to the wonder of grace in which God not only gives life, but also gives eternal life from the dead.

This renewal constitutes the regeneration of the sinner both in the sense of the original implanting of the new life of Christ in him and in the sense of his conversion. There is only one fruit of regeneration and that is true conversion. That conversion follows necessarily on God’s act of regenerating the sinner. That conversion consists in the sinner’s sorrow over sin and his delight in God as the God of his salvation. That conversion, too, is God’s work. As a consequence of that work of God the sinner is converted, putting off the old man and putting on the new, who is created after the image of Christ in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness.

Thus it is incorrect to state that by the renewal God merely enables the sinner to do good works. Rather, by this renewal God works in his people both to will and to do of his good pleasure. He gives the renewal and all the works that follow from it.

The Catechism closely connects this renewal to Christ’s work of “having redeemed and delivered the sinner.” The redemption and deliverance of the sinner referred to by the Catechism includes both the atoning death of Christ Jesus that merited salvation and every benefit of salvation for the sinner and—we might say especially—the gracious justification of the sinner by faith without works. Ursinus said that the Catechism teaches here that “we are redeemed from sin and death, that is, from all the evils of guilt and punishment by no merit of ours, but only by the mere grace of God for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Ursinus spoke later of the “benefit of justification.” The Catechism begins its treatment of the necessity of good works by reiterating that the works of the sinner do not contribute to, merit, or obtain salvation. Those good works are not instruments of salvation; good works are not that on which salvation, any benefit of salvation, or the experience of salvation depend.

The Catechism joins those two works of Christ and so teaches the inseparable connection between them. Whom Christ redeems and justifies he also infallibly renews. Those whom he renews, he already has redeemed and justified. The one without the other cannot be conceived.

That inseparable connection can be defined more precisely. Redemption is the basis of the renewal, and the renewal is demanded by the redemption. Just as man was placed under the bondage of sin and death because he was guilty of sinning against God, so the guilt having been absolved and the sinner having been freed from that guilt, he must also be renewed.

In his redemption, Christ paid the penalty that the sins of the elect demanded and by that perfect sacrifice accomplished their deliverance. He delivered the elect by his cross from all the guilt of their sins and from all the power of the devil, sin, and the world. Thus the redemption of Christ includes the sinner’s renewal as that which was purchased by Christ. The righteousness that Christ accomplished at the cross and which is imputed to the sinner by faith alone demands that the sinner be made perfect. Having accomplished their redemption and deliverance at the cross, Christ also accomplishes in them the renewal that his redemption and deliverance of them demand. It is inconceivable that Christ would deliver a man from guilt and not set him free from sin’s dominion, or to put it another way that Christ would justify a man but not sanctify him: whom he justifies them he also glorifies.

Because Christ does that, it is necessary that we do good works. It is utterly inconceivable that Christ would do that and that we would not do good works. The work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is the necessity of good works.

Because of that work of God, we must do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, we will do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, we can do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, we want to do good works.

Because of that gracious work of God, preachers must urge us to do good works with all diligence.

God took Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and as a consequence Adam was perfect and both willed and did the good. But the renewal of God by his grace is a greater work in which God raises the dead and causes them to perform that which is right and to repent, believe, live holily, and pray. To say that the justified believer need not do good works is a denial of God and his grace. It is not merely antinomianism, it is atheism.

The Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works explains also the Catechism’s further question: “Cannot they, then, be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” The question of the Catechism is not intended to teach that the works that the renewed sinner performs, especially his repentance and conversion to God, are that upon which his salvation depends. Ursinus says, “Those…who do not perform good works show that they are neither regenerated by the Spirit of God, nor redeemed by the blood of Christ.” He says later, “Those who perform evil works, and continue in their wicked and ungrateful lives, cannot be saved, inasmuch as they are destitute of true faith, and conversion.” Thus the point of the Catechism here is exactly to drive home that Reformed explanation that Christ’s work of renewing the sinner is the necessity of good works. The one who does not perform good works shows that he is not renewed, has no faith, and is devoid of the grace of God that works these in the sinner.

This also explains in part why the Reformed even bothered to teach about the necessity of good works. First, the truth about the necessity of good works confirms the true believer in the source of his holy life. That he does good works is, like his justification, wholly the work of God’s grace. Second, that truth warns hypocrites and impenitent men who make a vain show of faith that they will not be saved except they repent, believe, and are converted to God. Third, that truth also calls believers, who have yet a sinful human nature in them, back to the reality of who they are in Christ by God’s grace.

The Reformed faith also speaks of the purpose of God’s renewal of the sinner as the second part of its answer to the question of the necessity of good works.

To this I will turn next time.

_______________

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.

_______________

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

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude

 

Comments

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.

_____________

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.

____________

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

Comments

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.

_______________

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.

_______________

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

Comments

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. 

_______________

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.

_______________

Previous articles in this series:

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

_______________

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

Comments

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

The question of the necessity of good works is now bedeviling the Protestant Reformed Churches. Specifically, the issue is the question of the necessity of good works in relation to the believer’s experience of salvation. Consistories, several classes, and two synods of these churches have had to speak to this question as the result of numerous appeals and protests from various members of the churches. In all of those decisions the connection of this question with the truth and confession of the gospel of grace has been the issue. The importance of the question, then, hardly needs to be further demonstrated. At stake in the answer these churches give to that question is the very confession and maintenance of the truth of the gospel of grace. Because the gospel of grace is at stake in the answer to this question, so also are denominational life and death, a standing or falling church, and souls.

The question of the necessity of good works in the elect sinner’s salvation belongs to the area of doctrine known as soteriology. In soteriology the church and believer confess the truth of the application to the elect sinner of the salvation that Christ merited for that sinner at the cross. This application of salvation is the work of God’s grace by the operation of the Holy Spirit, so that the elect sinner enjoys that salvation in his conscience and experience. The elect sinner is redeemed at the cross of Jesus Christ, so that by that perfect sacrifice the believer is made perfect forever. Soteriology teaches the truth of how the sinner receives that salvation accomplished at the cross: he is personally united to Christ, regenerated, called, given faith, justified, sanctified, and glorified. In the whole of soteriology the church confesses that from beginning to end, from regeneration to glorification, all of the salvation of the sinner are the work of God’s grace. The salvation of the sinner and the sinner’s experience of salvation is the work of grace. This is as true for regeneration, in which the sinner is wholly passive, as for sanctification, in which God makes the sanctified sinner active so that he walks in all good works. Emphasized in soteriology is the truth that the conscious possession and experience of salvation by the elect sinner are the work of God’s grace alone. Ultimately, no separation can be made between salvation and the experience of salvation. The salvation of the elect sinner is a salvation of him really and actually in his own soul, heart, mind, experience, and life.

The question of the necessity of good works cannot be asked any better than the Heidelberg Catechism asks it in Lord’s Day 32: “Since we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?” The question is, what is the necessity of good works for the saved and delivered sinner who is redeemed and delivered from his misery without any merit, which is to say without any works of his own?

The answer to this question must begin at a proper starting point. That proper starting point is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Any attempt to answer this question apart from this proper starting point is bound to fail, as well as create confusion and allow false doctrine to go unchallenged. Any attempt to answer this question without mentioning or addressing the relationship of the necessity of good works to the doctrine of justification by faith alone opens itself up to the charge either of ignorance of the issues involved and of the current controversy in the Reformed church world over these very issues, or of complicity with the current trend in Reformed churches to answer the question by resorting to the federal vision’s answer that works are necessary for justification. Any attempt to answer this question must involve a clear and unambiguous statement of the truth of justification by faith alone and of the relationship of one’s answer regarding the necessity of good works to the truth of justification. The Reformed faith in Lord’s Day 32 begins its answer to the question of the necessity of good works with what amounts to a statement of justification by faith alone: “Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours…” No answer to the question of the necessity of good work may transgress this doctrinal boundary. The Reformed church today in seeking to answer the question of the necessity of good works must follow the Heidelberg Catechism in its approach.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the proper starting point to answer this question because this doctrine excludes as false and heretical certain answers to the question of the necessity of good works. It is indeed the proper explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone—a justification that excludes any and all works of the believer as either a part or the whole of his righteousness before God—that is the occasion for the apparent conundrum in the Reformed faith about the question of the necessity of good works: how is it that there can be any necessity for good works if those works are not a whole or part of the believer’s righteousness before God? The conundrum is only apparent, however. Denying that good works contribute in some sense to the believer’s salvation, the church still speaks of a necessity of good works because there are other ways to speak of a necessity of good works than that works are necessary for salvation. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, by denying that works contribute to the believer’s salvation in any sense, also opens up the reality of another way of speaking about the necessity of good works.

The question of the necessity of good works is only a question in the sense of needing a careful answer, then, where that truth of justification by faith alone is confessed. Where the doctrine of justification by faith alone is either denied or not understood properly, false and heretical answers to the question of the necessity of good works will be given. Where justification by faith alone is denied, there also justification by faith and good works is necessarily taught, and any apparent difficulty involved in the question of the necessity of good works is resolved by the answer that works are necessary for salvation.

Thus the question of the necessity of good works is not a proper question in Roman Catholicism. Rome’s answer is short and clear: good works are necessary in order to merit salvation by those good works performed by grace. In her doctrine of works Rome always speaks of works performed by grace and through faith. The difference between Rome and the reformers on this issue was not that Rome taught that man can merit with God by works performed apart from grace, while the reformers taught that only the believer’s works performed by grace are included in his righteousness before God. The issue between Rome and the Reformation also was not that Rome taught that good works are necessary—although Rome desperately wanted to make this the issue—whereas the Reformation taught or implied that works are unnecessary. Rather, the issue between Rome and the reformers was that Rome taught that the believer’s works performed by grace and through faith are decisive in the sinner’s salvation, while the reformers cast this wicked doctrine from them like one of the brood of a vile, poisonous reptile.

At bottom Rome’s false doctrine about works makes works an instrument in addition to faith to obtain, experience, and enjoy the benefits of salvation and ultimately eternal life itself. Rome made this doctrine of justification by faith and the good works of faith official dogma in the Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter 10, “On the increase of Justification received”:

Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written; He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, “Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.”(emphasis added)

According to Roman Catholic dogma, by faith an ungodly man is made “just,” that is, his nature is changed and he is made a good man. Being changed, he works by faith an “increase in that justice.” Rome’s doctrine is that a man by his work increases in his justification day by day until by grace and through works he makes himself worthy of life eternal. Implied in Rome’s statement is that the enjoyment of the benefit of being “the friends and domestics of God” in this life is also obtained by means of those works. Works and faith are twin instruments that cooperate to obtain righteousness and thus salvation and all its benefits now and eternally.

The question of the necessity of good works is not a proper question for Arminianism either. Arminianism teaches that the act of faith and the good works that faith performs are the works of the sinner. Although the faith and the works are imperfect, God graciously accepts them as the sinner’s righteousness. Faith and the obedience of faith are the new righteousness of the believer in place of strict, perfect, and perpetual obedience to the law. This Arminian doctrine is rejected in the Canons of Dordt, 2.error 4:

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.

The Canons reject this doctrine as a “contradict[ion] of the Scriptures” and the proclamation, “as did the wicked Socinus, [of] a new and strange justification of man before God.”

In Arminianism the error is twofold. First, faith, whereby the sinner accepts the grace offered in Christ and which work merits righteousness with God, is made a work of the sinner. Second, the works of faith—the imperfect obedience to the law graciously regarded by God as perfect—are with faith instruments, or means, to obtain righteousness with God, the covenant now, and ultimately everlasting salvation.

The same basic false doctrine about the necessity of good works is the doctrine of the federal vision. Norman Shepherd, the arch-heretic of the movement, wrote, “The New Testament, as well as the Old makes our eternal welfare contingent in some way and to some extent on what we do” (emphasis added). The federal vision is a multifaceted heretical movement that is busy developing the Schilderian doctrine of the conditional covenant. Part and parcel of the false doctrine of the federal vision are the denial of justification by faith alone and the insistence that the justification of the sinner is not by faith alone, but by faith and the obedience of faith—commonly taught as justification by an obedient faith, which is a faith redefined as faithfulness. Obedient faith is a code word for faith and the obedience of faith as twin instruments to obtain righteousness with God, so that in the final judgment the outcome of that judgment depends on the sinner’s faith—conceived as the sinner’s act or work—and on the obedience of that faith in a holy life.

Powerfully implied in the federal vision’s doctrine of obedient faith is that in this life fellowship with God, enjoyment of the covenant of grace, and life in the covenant with God is obtained by the instrument of works along with faith. In the mantra of the federal vision, covenantal relationship means that we must trust and obey, by which is meant that life in the covenant of God is obtained by means of faith and faithfulness. Faith and faithfulness function as twin instruments to obtain the covenant, fellowship with God, and all the benefits of salvation.

The federal vision does not leave this to implication but states it plainly. Ian Hewitson, defender of federal vision theologian Norman Shepherd, wrote that Shepherd’s concern with the doctrine of faith and works was not merely the final judgment, but “an appreciation of the structural significance of the covenant relation between God and man as that unfolds in the course of the history of redemption. For Shepherd it is the biblical concept of the covenant that breaks through, and breaks down, the tension between faith and works in the doctrine of justification.” Now, in the final judgment, and always in redemptive history, the covenantal relationship between God and his people is, was, and will be maintained and enjoyed by his people by means of their faith and their works.

Thus the federal vision also makes works—the Spirit wrought works of faith—the instrument, or means, to obtain righteousness and thus salvation, which salvation is the fellowship and friendship of the covenant and the enjoyment of such in this life and in eternity. This is what the federal vision means when it speaks about obedient faith.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone absolutely cuts off these conceptions as false and heretical explanations of the necessity of good works.

If faith is for righteousness—perfect righteousness, the righteousness of God himself worked out in the cross of Jesus Christ—there is absolutely nothing for works to obtain, and works cannot be instruments or means to obtain any part of salvation, no matter how little. To state it differently works are not necessary for salvation, for the covenant of grace, or for some benefit of salvation or of the covenant. This means that works do not obtain and are not that upon which depends salvation, any benefit of salvation, the grace of God, the covenant, or the experience of the covenant and salvation.

To an examination of this doctrine I will turn next time.

_______________

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.

_____________

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

Comments

The Justified Believer

 

“The just shall live by faith.”Romans 1:7 

Righteous, or just, by faith! 

This is indeed the heart of the gospel. The apostle is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. Imagine if this gospel were merely a general, well-meaning offer of salvation! Imagine if a sinner must contribute something to his salvation! Imagine if the love of God were universal and that this love of God were dependent upon a sinner's will so that the living God could be thwarted in his desire to save! This would mean that no sinner could ever be saved, that the house of our Father would remain forever closed and empty. Salvation, then, would be wholly impossible. 

But now we are righteous by faith. And faith always stands in scripture over against works. Faith is the gift of God. And because this faith is God's gift, and we are saved, righteous by faith, our salvation is sure. And therefore the apostle can say that he is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because it is the power of God unto salvation. 

Indeed, we are just by faith, only by faith, by means of God's gift, through Christ Jesus, the God of our salvation.

________________

We read here of the just or righteous. The child of God is righteous or justified. How fascinating! Is there anything in the life, the conscious life of a believer that is more fascinating, more wonderful than his justification, that he is just or righteous before God? Indeed, the experience of this wonderful gift of divine grace has fascinated the church of God throughout the ages! 

We read: "The just shall live by faith." Two interpretations are possible of this expression. On the one hand, we can understand the expression, "by faith," with "shall live." Then we read: The just shall live by faith. This is the interpretation favored by our translation. However, the words, "by faith," can also be understood in connection with "just" or "righteous." Then we would read: he who is just by faith shall live. We choose the interpretation: the one who is just by faith shall live. We connect the words, "by faith," with "just." We believe that the context demands this interpretation. Had he not written in the first part of verse 17 that the righteousness of God, our righteousness which is of God, is revealed out of faith unto faith, so that faith is the exclusive sphere in which our righteousness is revealed and experienced by us? Paul, therefore, is emphasizing here that this righteousness before God is surely a righteousness which we receive by faith. Besides, this interpretation is also in harmony with the scriptural idea of "shall live." Paul does not mean to say that we shall live by faith. But he writes that he who is just by faith shall live, forever and in heavenly immortality. 

Literally we read here of the righteous one. 

The righteous is he who is judged by God to be in perfect harmony with his law and who is also righteous in his own consciousness. The Judge of all the earth declares that he sees no guilt in him, and also declares him worthy of life everlasting. This righteousness is a legal concept. We are judged to be free of guilt and declared to be heirs of everlasting life and glory. 

How unbelievably wonderful! 

Wonderful, first of all, because of us. Fact is, we are so evil and corrupt. How weak we are and frail in the spiritual sense of the word! And, God is holy and good and righteous! He is the Judge of all the earth. When he expresses a judgment it is a true judgment. How, then, can he say he sees no sin in us, when even we know that there is so much sin in us? Secondly, there is life all about us. How contrary is this judgment of the Lord to all we see and experience! We are in a valley of the shadow of death. God declares of us that we are righteous, and we die all the day long! The Lord visits tornadoes, earthquakes, pestilences upon the peoples of the earth, also wars and the destruction they leave in their wake, and yet we claim to be righteous, free from death and heirs of life and glory! Besides, all these things are of the Lord. The world, we know, always seeks a natural cause for all these calamities. God, however, visits his wrath upon the children of men because of their sins, and these men refuse to look for the cause in themselves and from God. What folly! Sickness and death, etc., are no accidents; they are of God. And we, too, are involved in these calamities. How wonderful, therefore, in the second place is this righteous judgment of God! Thirdly, how wonderful is this judgment of God because of God! He is the supreme Judge of all the earth. When he speaks and judges, that judgment is final. There can be no appeal to another or higher court; his judgment is final! As the rock, the I AM, the unchangeable Jehovah, he never changes his judgment, cannot change it, because it is true and he can never deny himself. Let us understand this. It is God who justifieth, Paul exclaims, who shall condemn! Where in all the universe can, or will, anyone be found to dispute, counter-act, annul this divine judgment of righteousness? Once righteous, we are righteous forever! Whatever may befall us, sickness or enemy or death, once justified, we are righteous forever; nothing will be able to separate us from the love of that Judge of all the earth! What a wonderful gift, this gift of divine righteousness!

________________

We read literally, he who is just out of faith shall live. To be just or righteous out of faith emphasizes the fact that this lives in the consciousness of the child of God. It means that I live out of faith, draw this justification out of faith. 

How vividly this lives in the consciousness of the child of God! How wonderful is this assurance for the afflicted, harassed child of God, as he is plagued and tormented by the consciousness of his sin and guilt! He realizes his sin and guilt, is conscious of the holiness and righteousness of God, that no sinner can ever return into the fellowship of God and of his covenant, and that he can never pay even one farthing of that debt. The fellowship of God which he craves lies hopelessly beyond and outside of his reach. And now the wonderful gospel truth is flashed into his tormented soul: fear not, ye weary pilgrim, thou art just by faith; you cannot and need not contribute toward your justification; Christ did it all. Believing, trusting not in oneself, but only in God through Christ, I am justified. 

Righteous out of faith—what does this mean? O, this does not mean that we justify ourselves by means of faith. This is Rome's accursed heresy. To them, faith is the means to do all kinds of good works; and the doing of these works justifies. Neither does this mean that faith is a condition for our righteousness. God, then, knows that we can never pay for all our sin and guilt. Christ died for everybody. The Lord now accepts our faith as a substitute. We are justified if we merely believe, acknowledge our sin and the righteousness of God. However, there is no substitute for atonement; there is no substitute for the payment of all our sin and guilt. 

Now we understand what it means to be just out of faith. Christ suffered and died for all his own upon the cross of Calvary. He took upon himself the awful burden of our sin and guilt, bore God's awful wrath upon them, in perfect love and obedience. And now we receive this righteousness of Christ from God by sovereign grace. God, in Christ, calls us out of death into life; he unites us with Christ, engrafts us into him, makes us one plant with him. God lays us prostrate before him in the dust, presses from us the penitent's cry of utter anguish: O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. God leads us to the cross, gives us to see in that man of sorrows our sinbearer, our Redeemer. To him we flee; in him we trust; to him we look up; out of him we live and experience the truth: out of faith we know that we are righteous before God, only for Jesus' sake. 

How wonderful this is! How futile it would be if our righteousness were left to us! How futile if we must merit it, we who are in ourselves dead in sins and in trespasses! How hopeless would be our lot if God were to demand of us faith as a condition of salvation, something which God will accept from us as a substitute. What man is there who could possibly believe? Is not the truth that we are saved only by grace, through faith, humanly speaking, utterly devastating? No man will confess that he is lost in sin and can do nothing unto his salvation! If we are not saved by grace, we simply cannot be saved. How wonderful, however, are the mercies of our God! How wonderful that we need not do what we never could do! How wonderful it is that we are righteous out of faith, only for Jesus' sake, because God loved us, sovereignly, eternally, unconditionally before the foundations of the world!

________________

We shall live—of course! We read in Romans 8:32: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" That he who is just out of faith shall live must follow. He who spared not his own Son will surely with him also freely give us all things. If he did the one, the other must follow. He died to save us from sin and guilt and hell, and to lead us into life and glory. The purpose of his redemption was exactly that, saved from death and hell, we should be partakers of his life and glory. The fruit of his work must follow: God has justified me, declared me to be free from all guilt and to be an heir of everlasting life; surely we shall live! 

We shall live now. He who is righteous out of faith shall live immediately. Life, we understand, is fellowship and communion with God, to love him and be loved of him, to taste his life, to know and enjoy his fellowship, to say in all humble and unbelievably wonderful adoration: O God of all the earth, Thou art my God! 

And we shall also live presently. Now we have and enjoy this eternal life, this blessed fellowship with God, only in smallest principle. Now the evil we hate we do, and the good we love we practice not. But, when all this weary night is passed, with all its sin and sorrow and disappointments, all its struggles and lamenting, as we read in Romans 7:24: “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” Then we shall live; then we shall be clothed in righteousness, in perfect righteousness with no more sin or death or sorrow, but an everlasting knowing, a knowing as we are known, a seeing of God face to face in Jesus Christ, in that wonderful day when God's tabernacle shall be with man. 

Indeed, the just is righteous only out of faith. 

And, just out of faith, he shall live. 

Now, and surely forevermore!

______________________

This meditation was written by Rev. Herman Veldman published in the Standard Bearer, Volume 57, Issue 15, dated May 1, 1981.

Comments

Post Tags

On Twitter

Follow @reformedfreepub