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