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We provide you with an excerpt from Chapter 17: Justification as Experience.

Justification by faith alone, without works, not only excludes works from God’s justifying act, but also from the believer’s knowledge and certainty of righteousness with God. If this were not the case, “we should always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed.”

Therefore, to teach that in the end the experience and assurance of righteousness with God are realized by the sinner’s good works, or are somehow dependent upon the good works of the sinner, is the denial of justification by faith alone. In that case, faith would need the help of the sinner’s works to give the blessing of justification. Union with Christ and his work would not be enough.

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

The Canons of Dordt, doing their part to exhort on the believer the necessity of good works, warn the believer sharply in 5.5:

By such enormous sins…they [true believers] very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.

In this article there are two important phrases in connection with the question of the necessity of good works: “interrupt the exercise of faith” and “sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time.”

Regarding the phrase “interrupt the exercise of faith,” Professor Hoeksema in Voice of Our Fathers wrote,

Even though the power of faith never fails, it is possible for the exercise of faith to be interrupted. When the Spirit is grieved and withdraws from the saints in their consciousness, the exercise of faith is interrupted, for the Spirit is the author of faith. The Spirit produces the faculty to believe, or power, of faith, and he establishes its conscious activity.

Thus when the article speaks of “the exercise of faith,” it refers to the activity of faith. Faith is the living bond of the elect sinner with Christ. That bond is also an activity. The activity of faith is faith.

Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 7 describes that activity of faith:

True faith is not only a certain knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His Word, but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.

The believer who interrupts this exercise of faith by his enormous sins does not lose communion with Christ, for faith keeps the believer in communion with Christ in his benefits. Rather, the believer loses the conscious knowledge and assurance of his salvation. When the creed connects this with grieving the Holy Spirit, it teaches an important point. The Spirit who is the author of faith is also the author of the believer’s experience of salvation in his possession of the sense of God’s favor by that faith. Salvation and the experience of salvation, the covenant and the experience of the covenant, are by faith and through the operation of the Holy Spirit. They are not by works.

The consequence of interrupting the exercise of faith by his sin is that the believer may “lose the sense of God’s favor for a time.” He does not lose God’s favor. He is the apple of God’s eye, loved of God, and the object of God’s grace all through his deep and melancholy fall. Rather, the believer loses the sense of God’s favor toward him. This must be obvious if he interrupts the exercise of his faith. For we have that sense of God’s favor by faith. Where there is sin there is no faith. Living in sin the believer is not living by faith.

The Canons of Dordt 5.7 correctly teach how such backslidden sinners are restored to the sense of God’s favor. The translation of the article in our received English version does not do justice to the careful language of Dordt. I include the translation of Professor Hoeksema from his commentary Voice of Our Fathers:

And again, through his Word and Spirit he [God] certainly and effectually renews them [God’s own people] to repentance, in order that they should sincerely sorrow after God over the sins committed, that they should through faith, with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator, that they should again feel God’s favor, having been reconciled, that they should through faith adore his mercies, and that henceforth they should more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. (emphasis added)

In the received text the words “through faith” are omitted before the words “with a contrite heart, desire and obtain forgiveness in the blood of the Mediator.” The emphasis of the article, then, is that God renews the exercise of faith in his people. In their deep falls into sin they have interrupted the exercise of faith because they have grieved God’s Spirit, the author of faith. Consequently, they may lose the sense of God’s favor. Their renewal importantly includes the renewal to the exercise of faith, which means again believing God’s promises to them in the gospel. Faith functions again in restored believers. All that follows is a consequence of that: They obtain forgiveness by that faith. Having obtained forgiveness, they experience by that faith God’s favor and adore his mercies and by faith also work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.

Their restoration to the sense of God’s favor in this case is not by works but by faith. A faith that functions again also works out their salvation with fear and trembling in lives of thankfulness and praise to God, without trusting and relying on those works for salvation or for obtaining any benefit from God. Commenting further on the article, Professor Hoeksema wrote,

The conscious life and activity of the seed of regeneration is initiated strictly by God himself…He surely and effectually renews his people unto repentance…The result of the effectual renewal unto repentance is that the child of God actively repents and walks in sanctification…The result is one with a five-fold aspect. The order of the result as stated in the article must be strictly maintained…Wherever God effectually renews unto repentance through his Spirit and Word, all five aspects will result in this order.

Thus it is logically and theologically incorrect to maintain that since a believer’s failure to walk in the way of a holy life, in all good works and prayer, results in God’s just judgment in the believer of the interruption of his faith and the loss of the sense of God’s favor; that, therefore, by the believer’s walking in the way of a holy life he obtains the sense of God’s favor. It is not works, but faith that is the issue. With faith functioning again the believer obtains forgiveness, the conscious experience of God’s favor and of eternal life, and thus out of thankfulness for the benefit received he works out his own salvation with fear and trembling—not to obtain with God but out of thankfulness to God.

In summary, the Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works is God’s grace working in the believer. Because of this he must do good works. The idea is akin to the fact that because God called the light out of darkness, the light had to shine. It was necessary that it shine. Further, because God willed that by his renewal the believer gives to God a testimony of gratitude and praise, the believer must do good works. One who does not give that testimony shows himself to be wicked, unthankful, and unconverted. Still more, the God ordained way in which God gives, grants, and works assurance in his people is the way of repentance and good works, so they must do good works not in order to behold his face or to obtain his favor, but because that is the way God wills to work. In the same way an individual has to eat to live because that is the way God exerts his power to keep man alive.

I recognize that answer 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism adds another reason for the necessity of good works: “by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.” This reason simply reinforces that works do not obtain with God and are not the basis for some benefit of salvation, but are for the neighbor. The man who is worried about obtaining with God by his works certainly is not going to have much concern for the neighbor, but does everything for himself.

Belonging to the Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works is the clear and categorical denial that works are an instrument to obtain, to have, or to merit any aspect of salvation, since the believer is redeemed and delivered from his misery by grace alone for Christ’s sake and without any merit of the believer’s works.

This is the Reformed teaching regarding the necessity of good works. Because the Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works teaches a real necessity these reasons must be urged on the church. Because it is impossible that those who have been engrafted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness, the minister may expect his exhortations to bring forth real fruit in the lives of God’s people.

In his urgent desire for the holy life of God’s people, though, the minister may not step outside of these bounds in teaching the necessity of good works. Doing so will not result in a holy life but in legalism, which is an abomination to God.

To this urgent exhortation of the necessity of good works must be added what the Reformed faith confesses in the Canons of Dordt, 3–4.17:

Grace is conferred by means of admonitions; and the more readily we perform our duty, the more eminent usually is this blessing of God working in us, and the more directly is His work advanced; to whom alone all the glory, both of means and of their saving fruit and efficacy, is forever due.

By this explanation of the necessity of good works the Reformed faith distinguishes itself from any and all heresy that teaches that good works are necessary in order to have something from God, which is to make works instruments, or means, of salvation. Works are the fruits of faith not instruments along with faith to obtain from God.

This Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works must be applied to the covenant of grace.

To that I will turn next time.

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

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Previous articles in this series:

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

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

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (8): Uniquely Reformed Heresy

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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

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Gospel Truth of Justification (4): Instructive

Good sermons edify. That is, they are instructive and spiritually build up the hearers. When, according to their professors, students in the Protestant Reformed Theological School are deemed ready, they are licensed to speak a word of edification in the churches. When sermon critic committees bring their reports to synod regarding the sermons given by seminarians at their synodical exams, a judgment is made whether or not the sermons are edifying. A primary responsibility of elders in their oversight of the minister is ensuring that his preaching is edifying. The congregation must be built up, grow in their understanding of the Reformed faith and be encouraged in a godly and antithetical walk.

This attribute of edification is a must in theological writing as well. And the believing reader of Gospel Truth of Justification will be edified! If the material in this book was the subject matter of a seminary course, I doubt that the material could properly be treated in one semester. The author treats the truth of justification from every possible angle and leaves no stone unturned. The wise reader, willing to receive instruction, “will be yet wiser” and the “just” reader, willing to learn, “will increase in learning” (Prov. 9:9).

Limiting myself, there are three particular aspects of justification covered in this book, that I would like to highlight in this post. The first is that, as the Reformed confessions clearly teach, justification is a legal act of God whereby the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ is imputed to the account of the elect sinner (p. 93). That justification is “strictly a legal act of God” that dramatically changes “the justified sinner’s standing before God the just judge,” (p. 94) makes plain what justification is not. “Justification is not the infusion of righteousness into the sinner” (p. 94).

That justification is not the act of God that makes the sinner holy is important to maintain. Why? “Basic to the heresy of justification by works as proclaimed both by the Roman Catholic Church and by the federal vision is the teaching that justification is, at least partly, the infusion of righteousness. This doctrine of justification enables both Rome and the federal vision to conclude that God justifies sinners partly by their own good works, which they perform by virtue of the infusion, and that the righteousness of justified sinners…is at least in part the sinners’ own good works” (pp. 94, 95).

Further, it is important to maintain that justification is not the infusion of righteousness into the sinner because this is to confuse justification and sanctification. Sanctification is the distinct “saving work of God within sinners that makes them obedient, that imparts the obedience of Jesus Christ to them so that they begin to be good and to do good, that infuses obedience into them” (p. 111). Confusing justification and sanctification has the harmful effect of robbing the people of God of their joy and peace. It detracts from the obedience of Jesus Christ as the complete righteousness of the believing sinner, as though the obedience of the sinner must be added to the obedience of Jesus for the sinner’s righteousness with God” (pp. 112, 113). Always the sinner will ask himself, “Have I done enough, have I worked hard enough to please God?”

A second aspect of justification worthy of highlighting is the connection between advocating a conditional covenant and a denial of justification by faith alone, without works. In the chapter entitled “Paul and James,” Engelsma explains that in “conservative” Reformed and Presbyterian churches the root of the denial of justification by faith alone is “their emphatic teaching of a conditional covenant” (p. 432). Their claim is that proclaiming justification by faith alone will make men “careless and profane,” will lead to “antinomianism” and threaten “a responsible, zealous, holy life” among members of the churches (pp. 432-435). Therefore, in order to combat this “alleged fear,” a conditional covenant must be preached. The conditions of faith and faith’s good works must be met, motivating (scaring) the believer to obedience.

This reasoning is warned against in Article 24 of the Belgic Confession, which reads in part, “Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation.” The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 24, Q & A 64 states, “But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane?” “By no means; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”

Engelsma leads the reader to the one reason the justified Christian brings forth good works and leads a holy life: “love for God.”

Love for [Christ], and for the God who gave him as our redeemer (as we realize in the gift of justification by faith alone), motivates us to serve him and God—gladly, willingly, freely, wholeheartedly, sacrificially—in thankfulness. Only this motivation of the Christian life is pleasing and acceptable to God. This motivation of the truly Christian life is worked and secured only by the gospel truth of justification by faith alone (p. 441).

Finally, the relationship between justification and election is worthy of highlighting. Engelsma calls this a “close, necessary, and significant” relationship (p. 455). “Election,” according to Canons 1.7 includes the bestowal upon the elect of “true faith, justification, and sanctification.” Canons 1.9 teaches that “election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation.” The author points out that among those saving goods is justification. And the “faith” mentioned is the instrument of justification. “That some receive the gift of faith from God” teaches Canons 1.6, “proceeds from God’s eternal decree [of election].” To deny that justification by faith alone has its source in God’s eternal election is gross heresy.

This is the doctrinal sin of federal vision theology which denies that election is the “fountain of every saving good,” including justification, in the covenant (p. 469, author’s emphasis).  The federal vision denies that election governs the covenant and, consequently, teaches that “the will of the baptized child does govern the covenant. Hence justification is by faith as a condition and by works!” (pp. 469, 470).

This “alleged fear” of election by contemporary foes of election is exposed by the Bible and the Reformed creeds. Writes Engelsma, “In reality, what troubles the foes of election, particularly as the fountain of justification, is that election leaves no place for their determination that the will of the sinner himself shall be the source of all his salvation....Heretics desire that justification be by the works of the sinner” (p. 473).

Again, as is the case throughout the book, the author is bold to identify heresy that contradicts the Reformed confessions, tear it up by the root, and positively set forth the truth according to the Reformed confessions.

That the contents of Gospel Truth of Justification are polemical, that is, hostile to heresy, will be the subject of the next post.

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This article was written by Aaron Cleveland, a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If you have a question or comment for Aaron, please do so in the comment section.

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Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (1): Timely

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (2): Comforting

Gospel Truth of Justification - A Review (3): Comforting and Confessional

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