Faith Working by Love (2)

Powerless Alternatives

Two other things mentioned in verse 6 do not avail.

According to verse 6 there are two kinds of people “in Jesus Christ.” There are two kinds of Christians, two kinds of believers or two kinds of church members: the circumcision, believing Christians of a Jewish background; and the uncircumcision, believing Christians of a Gentile or pagan background.

In the New Testament “circumcision” is almost synonymous with “Jew.” Circumcision was the Jewish ceremony of initiation or the Old Testament sign of the covenant. In Paul’s day it was still the sign that distinguished the Jews from the other nations and the Jews boasted in their circumcision. The Judaizers thought that circumcision was so important that the Gentiles must be circumcised in order to be saved and justified before God (Acts 15:1). Moreover, circumcision signifies and represents the whole law, which is clear from the context: “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing; for I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:2–4).

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Faith Working by Love

The issue in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is justification. How is a guilty sinner declared righteous before God? The answer: a sinner is justified before God on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ received by or through the instrument of faith alone without works.

Paul preached that gospel in Galatia. The saints in Galatia had received and believed that gospel. But false teachers infiltrated the churches. They brought a different message, the message that the sinner is justified on the basis of his obedience to the law of God; or that he is justified on the basis of good works; or that he justified on the basis of faith and good works.

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August 2019 Standard Bearer preview article

“As to our good works” (2): The nature of good works as works

Works occupy a prominent place in Scripture; in fact, Scripture is from beginning to end a book of works. Scripture attributes works to the triune God, Christ, angels—wicked and holy, and men—wicked and holy. We begin our examination of the good works of the believer by considering the nature of good works and noting five general characteristics of our good works as works.

A conscious, acting subject

First, works are those deeds consciously and volitionally performed by rational, moral beings. Strictly speaking, a creature like the sky is not capable of performing works. Psalm 19:1 teaches, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork.” The visible expanse of the heavens above us gives glory to God; however, it is not an intelligent creature consciously and willingly producing “works” of praise unto God as holy men and holy angels can do. We men are different than the creatures in the heavens above and in the earth beneath and in the waters under the earth, for God created us as personal beings with an intellect and will so that we are able to live consciously before His face performing works of service in love for Him and our neighbor. In marriage, a husband and wife are called to love each other and show it in word and deed, but if a whole week has gone by and they have not consciously performed even one considerate act towards each other, living as intimately as two stars twinkling side by side in the heavens, something is dreadfully amiss. God created us, and in Jesus Christ has recreated us, as new creatures able to do good. Consciously! Willingly! Cheerfully! Lovingly!

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

Rev. Lanning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agreement and objections re faith and works

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

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

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Synod 2018: Obedience and covenant fellowship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this I will turn next time.

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

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Previous articles in this series:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this I will turn next time.

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

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Previous articles in this series:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

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

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Previous articles in this series:

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

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

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

 

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

 

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