The first part of the Reformed faith’s answer to the question of the necessity of good works is the truth of Christ’s gracious renewal of the redeemed and justified believer. Because God renews him he must do good works. His good works do not obtain anything from God, but they are the necessary testimony of his gratitude that God requires of him and by which God is praised. Besides this and following from it there are other considerations. The Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to the question of why the redeemed and delivered believer must do works includes this: “also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof.”
It is important for the right understanding of this phrase to understand the purpose of the Catechism in the Lord’s Day. The point of the Catechism is not a fully developed doctrine of assurance. The point of the Catechism is the question, why are good works necessary for the redeemed and delivered believer, in order that the preacher may urge this on the church with all diligence and that the people of God will give careful attention to doing good works?
Further, this part of the Catechism’s answer to that question must be understood in the light of the rest of the Reformed creeds, especially the Canons of Dordt, where there is a fully developed doctrine of assurance, and which doctrine cuts off certain understandings of this phrase in the Catechism. The Canons of Dordt speak of attaining the assurance of election and note that “the elect” attained this
by observing in themselves, with a spiritual joy and holy pleasure, the infallible fruits of election pointed out in the Word of God—such as a true faith in Christ, filial fear, a godly sorrow for sin, a hungerirng and thirsting after righteousness, etc. (1.12)
The Canons here make assurance basically to consist in assurance of election, so that assurance and assurance of election for the Reformed faith are the same.
Commenting on this portion of the creed in Voice of Our Fathers, Prof. H. C. Hoeksema wrote,
Election and the assurance of election are works of God. They are gifts of his grace. The situation is not that election is the work of God, but that assurance of election is something to which man must attain. If one maintains this, he is sailing in Arminian waters. The conscious enjoyment of the blessings of salvation, including the blessing of the assurance of election, is absolutely unconditional and without any prerequisite that we must fulfill…The Canons here take up the positive manner of obtaining assurance of election. God grants assurance in a certain way.
Hoeksema noted also that assurance of election is “assurance of faith. Faith is assurance.”
This is the point of the Catechism with its phrase as well. It speaks of the way along which God grants assurance. The English translation obscures this point. The English has “assured of…his faith by the fruits thereof” (emphasis added). It appears to make works the instrument of assurance. The German rather has “aus seinen früchten,” which emphasizes not the means of assurance, but that from which assurance comes to the believer. The point is exactly the same as in the Canons, namely that the life of good works is the way along which God grants assurance. This is a totally different idea than the teaching that works are the means, or instruments, of assurance or that works attain, obtain, or merit assurance. The works of faith are not the instruments to obtain assurance, nor are they the means to have that assurance. This is impossible since faith is assurance, full assurance. Neither can those works obtain assurance or be the means in order to have assurance because assurance is a gift of God worked by his grace and Holy Spirit.
The Catechism teaches this truth about works when it calls those works not the instrument of assurance, but “the fruits thereof,” that is, the fruits of faith. This is an extremely important description of works, whereby the Reformed faith intends to deny that works obtain or are instruments of salvation alongside of or in cooperation with faith. This is not the only place the Reformed faith calls works by this name. Lord’s Day 24 says,
It is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says,
Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.
Works, good works performed by grace and the power of the Holy Ghost, are the fruits of faith. Explaining this idea that works are the fruits of faith, the Belgic Confession says in article 24,
These works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by His grace; howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good before the tree itself is good.
Fruits of faith are “of no account towards our justification.” This means that works do not obtain, nor are they instruments or means to obtain, any benefit of salvation, since they are of no account toward our justification. The righteousness of Christ alone is the ground of salvation and of every benefit. The righteousness of Christ obtained salvation and the experience of salvation by obtaining for believers the eternal Spirit by whose work believers receive every benefit of salvation in their conscience, life, and experience. They do not have the Spirit by the works of the law, but by the hearing of faith (Gal. 3:2). The righteousness of Christ alone makes believers worthy of eternal life and demands that they be made perfect.
Driving home this idea that works cannot obtain with God, the Belgic Confession in article 24 goes on to point out the impossibility of works performing that role in salvation:
Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable.
In order for works to be an instrument to obtain some benefit of salvation, they must be in all respects perfect and conformable to the divine law. Our good works are all filthy rags, polluted, and defiled. Works do not give access to God, fellowship with God, answers to prayer from God, or the experience of God as our God. They cannot because the works done by faith and through the power of the Holy Spirit are polluted and therefore punishable. The only work by which a believer can stand before God and live with God is the perfect work of Christ imputed to the believer by faith only.
The faith that avails for salvation and saves wholly without its works is a busy little thing. In this working of faith faith is manifested. Faith’s fruits are works, genuine works of love toward God and the neighbor as described in the law of God. Thus the works of faith show, or demonstrate, faith. In them faith becomes visible. Those works, then, so far from being the ground of assurance are the means to show faith. In this they are and remain fruits and do not obtain the assurance for the believer. Rather, the assurance itself is the gift of God given along that way.
It is one thing to say that along the way of good works—in which God ordained that the believer should walk and wherein by the power of the Holy Spirit he does walk—the gift of assurance comes to him from God. It is quite another thing to say that that the believer has assurance based on his works, that by works he achieves assurance, or that God rewards the believer's works with assurance.
Herein also is an additional thought in answer to the question of the necessity of good works. Good works are necessary as a demonstration. First, they demonstrate thankfulness to God, acknowledging him in true worship as the giver of the perfect gift of salvation as well as acknowledging the greatness and graciousness of his gift. Second, good works are the demonstration of the presence of that gift in the believer who shows thanks, namely that God has redeemed and delivered him through Christ and renewed him by his Spirit, working faith and repentance in his heart.
Since the brightness of God’s face shining on him is dearer than life to the believer, he must be instructed in the way of a holy life along which that gift of God comes to him, and he is to be urgently called to walk in that way.
Failing to walk in that way, the believer grievously wounds his conscience and does not experience the favor of a reconciled God.
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: