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.
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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