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