The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (10): In the Way of Repentance

The question of the necessity of good works and the proper and clear explanation of that necessity of good works can be seen in the saving work of repentance. Repentance is frequently described as the work in the way of which we enjoy covenantal fellowship with God. The language that in the way of repentance we enjoy God and the fellowship of God in the covenant is contrasted with repentance being a prerequisite, or a condition, of the covenant and the fellowship of God.

That the covenant is enjoyed in the way of repentance is accepted Reformed language to contrast the truth of the unconditional covenant of gracethat repentance is necessary while at the same time being a gift of God in the covenant and not that upon which the covenant dependsfrom the false doctrine of the conditional covenantthat repentance, even that worked by grace, is that upon which the covenant and the God of the covenant depend. It is true that this teaching of the conditional covenant teaches this along with the teaching of a universal offer of grace: God gives grace to every baptized child, and by that grace the child can repent. Thus the defenders of this position when pushed to the wall insist that the condition of repentance is fulfilled by grace. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the activity of the sinner by grace is that upon which the promise of God, the covenant of God by that promise, and ultimately the eternal salvation of the child depend. The decisive place in the covenant to obtain what the covenant promise is given to works performed by grace—repentance—and those works are instruments by which the covenant is fulfilled.

The purpose of the language that the believer enjoys the covenant of God in the way of repentance is precisely to deny this teaching. The language is intended to teach that the saving benefit of repentance belongs to the benefits of the covenant of grace and is not a condition unto the covenant of grace or to the experience of the covenant of grace. Another purpose of this language is to insist that repentance is necessary in the covenant of grace. The unconverted and unrepentant do not inherit the kingdom of God. Furthermore, this language teaches that God in the covenant so works that repentance in the sinner that the repentance is his real activity.

To describe repentance as that which is necessary in order to have fellowship with God or for covenantal fellowship with God corrupts the truth that covenantal fellowship with God is in the way of repentance. The language in order to have fellowship with God corrupts the truth by teaching that repentance is that upon which covenantal fellowship with God depends and of which covenantal fellowship with God is the end result. This language effectually makes repentance a condition of the covenant, for the experience of the covenant, and for fellowship with God in the covenant, although the word condition is not used. It is exactly this error that the language in the way of is intended to deny. The explanation of the precise meaning of the phrase in the way of, however, is often lacking.

The Reformed confessions help in understanding this language. The Reformed faith teaches in Lord’s Day 32 that good works are necessary because Christ renews his people by his Holy Spirit according to his image. The Catechism intends by this renewal to describe both the implanting of the new life of Christ Jesus in God’s work of regeneration and the fruit of regeneration in the conversion of the sinner. In God’s work of conversion the sinner becomes active. That the Catechism has conversion in view is clear when it asks in the same Lord’s Day: “Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” Further, the Catechism asks in Lord’s Day 33, “Of how many parts doth the true conversion of man consist?” The point, then, is that the renewal of the sinner issues in his conversion. Conversion is the only fruit of regeneration.

Lord’s Day 33 describes conversion as “the mortification of the old, and the quickening of the new man.” The mortification of the old is “a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.” The quickening of the new man is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to life according to the will of God in all good works.” Both of these may be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is a one-word summary for the conversion of the sinner, in which is implied not only his turning from sin, but also his whole life of holiness with God.

In the Hebrew language this is made clear by the word for repentance, which means, to turn. It describes the spiritual activity of the sinner whereby he turns from sin and turns to the living God. This spiritual activity is the fruit of God’s conversion of the sinner and ultimately of his regenerating and calling the sinner. The prophet Jeremiah makes the relationship between God’s work of converting the sinner and the sinner’s own activity of converting himself plain: “Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth” (Jer. 31:19). The sinner repents after God has turned him. The sinner smites upon his thigh in deep sorrow over his sin, after God has instructed him.

Repentance is shorthand for true conversion. True conversion summarizes the whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his people. The whole testimony of gratitude that God requires of his redeemed and delivered people can be summarized by the word repentance. Repentance is to turn from sin and to turn to the living God every day. Repentance consists of hating sin and living according to the will of God in all good works. Repentance is the word that summarizes the whole life of gratitude that God requires of the redeemed and delivered sinner. By this life of repentance he gives a testimony of gratitude to God for his redemption and deliverance. By this life of repentance he praises God as his God. Daily, weekly, yearly, and all his life the word of God to the redeemed and delivered believer is “Repent!”

That the life of the God-delivered and God-renewed sinner consists of repentance was Luther’s first hammer blow in his ninety-five theses against Roman Catholic false doctrine: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Luther taught this over against the Roman Catholic doctrine that repentance is the work of the sinner by which he merits with God. Rather, the whole life of the child of God who is redeemed and delivered is to be repentance. This necessary repentance is the work of God and the gift of his grace to the sinner. To this life the believer must be called. In this life he must be instructed. This is not because he gains anything from God by it, but because God works it in him by the Spirit and requires it of him in gratitude for his deliverance.

This repentance, being the one-word summary both of the believer’s whole life of turning from sin and turning to God to live with God in all good works, is also the necessary way of life in the covenant. Without it none shall inherit the kingdom of God. This is because those whom God redeems and delivers he also renews by the Holy Spirit. Repentance, then, describes the whole life of the child of God in the covenant of God. The Catechism says that it is turning from sin, hating and fleeing from sin, a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works. What more is necessary for the life of the redeemed, justified, and renewed believer?

Repentance is also the child of God’s experience of the covenant. What deeper experience does he have of God and covenantal fellowship with God than what is described as belonging to repentance in Lord’s Day 33?

That life of repentance is rightly and properly called the necessary way of fellowship with God in the covenant, the necessary way of life in the covenant, or the necessary way of the experience of fellowship with God in the covenant. In short, the experience of fellowship with God is repentance. Or fellowship with God is in way of repentance because it consists in that activity.

This is also how Canons of Dordt 5.7 describe the restoration of the backslidden sinner: “certainly and effectually renews them to repentance.” The same article describes that renewal by its fivefold effect:

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.

The life of repentance consists in all these things, all of which also constitute the conversion described by the Catechism. Life with God for the sinner is the life of repentance. Covenant with God is repentance. Experience of fellowship with God is repentance. This is true now and in eternity, where, though sin will be forever banished, the positive side will remain: turning to God, an eternal turning to God in perfection.

To say that repentance is the necessary way of the covenant means, first, that God himself grants, gives, and works that repentance in the believer as a gracious gift of the covenant of grace. The sinner repents, both sorrowing for sin and living in good works, because God grants it. Second, the necessary way means that the very experience of the covenant of God consists in the benefit of his grace called repentance. In repentance the believer has a deep and intimate experience with God. He experiences God as the one who confronts him in his sin. In his sin the hand of God is heavy on him. He experiences God as the one who arrests him in his sin with his own hand and Spirit. He experiences God as the one who instructs him about his sin and makes him sorrow over it. He experiences God as the one who calls him personally and individually out of his sin. He experiences God as the one who turns him from that sin and leads him out of that sin. He experiences God as the one who in all of that work draws near in love to a perfectly unworthy sinner, so that he experiences God as the God of all grace. He experiences his God as the one who forgives his sins, original and actual, for Christ’s sake alone. He experiences God as the one who teaches him the way of everlasting life and leads him by his Spirit in that way. He experiences God as the one who empowers him to live in that way in love toward God and love toward the neighbor and who actually works that in him so that he walks in it. In that way of repentance he draws near to God and God draws near to him.

To say that it is necessary to repent in order to have fellowship with God or as necessary for fellowship with God is, then, a corruption of the truth of repentance—both its negative side of sorrow for sin and its positive side of joy in God and good works—as the description of the covenantal life of the believer with God. Such a view places repentance outside of that fellowship as something that must be accomplished for the fellowship. Fellowship, then, is not constituted in that gracious gift of repentance, both the turning from sin and the turning to God in all good works, but fellowship is its result. One can say that we do it all by grace, but that does not change the fact that repentance is not that wherein the believer fellowships with his God, but that which he must do in order in the end to have the fellowship of his God. Fellowship with God is the end result of repentance.

That language also redefines both fellowship with God and the experience of salvation and of the covenant. The experience of salvation for the believing sinner is his repentance. In that gracious gift of repentance, he experiences deliverance from both the damning power and the polluting dominion of sin. In repentance the believer experiences God as his justifier and sanctifier. In repentance he both sorrows over sin and delights in the good. This is also how he fellowships with his God. It is the necessary way in which he fellowships with God, not that after which he has fellowship with God. The covenant of God is in the way of repentance, then, but repentance is never a condition or that because of which fellowship with God comes to the believer.

Such an understanding of repentance as constituting the fellowship of the elect sinner with God also does justice to the Reformed doctrine of the covenant that the law is the guide to the believer’s thankful life with God in the covenant. The law demands perfection. In the covenant, that law as the law of liberty cannot demand that perfection of the believer in order to live, to remain in the covenant, to stand with God, or to enter heaven. It cannot because by faith the believer is righteous in Christ, lives, and is worthy of eternal life. But the law’s demand of perfection remains.

No one may ever teach without becoming a rank antinomian that the law does not demand perfection. This is the teaching of James to the justified believer:

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, is guilty of all. For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:10–11).

As James points out, if the law no longer demands perfection, God is no longer God. The issue is not so much the law, but the ONE who said in the law. Saying that the law does not demand perfection is a denial of God and opens the possibility that the sinner is saved by law. The worst form of the error that James exposes is the idea that a man can be righteous before God or obtain from God because of his works.

Because the law demands perfection and the believer’s life in the covenant is according to the law, his life in the covenant must be repentance, namely the abiding and deep sorrow over and hatred for his sins, both original and actual. Because the law demands perfection and his life in the covenant is governed by the law that demands repentance of the believer, so that he constantly seeks and finds remission for those sins in the blood of Jesus Christ, the mediator. Because the law demands perfection, the believer can only stand in that covenant and before the face of God in that covenant on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. Because he is renewed and his life in the covenant is according to the law, he already has a small beginning of the new obedience according to that law and does with love and delight live according to the will of God in that law in all good works. Because the law is the guide of life in the covenant—perfection—he must constantly seek God’s grace and Holy Spirit to live that way and to be more and more conformable to God’s image in Jesus Christ, until he arrives in perfection in heaven.

It is with this life of repentance that the Catechism also ends its treatment of the law and effectively opens its section on prayer as the chief part of the thankfulness—repentance—that God requires:

Q. 115. Why will God then have the ten commandments so strictly preached, since no man in this life can keep them?

A. First, that all our lifetime we may learn more and more to know our sinful nature, and thus become more earnest in seeking the remission of sin and righteousness in Christ; likewise, that we constantly endeavor, and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at that perfection proposed to us in a life to come.”

The purpose of God in the preaching of the law is to increase the life of repentance as the very experience of the covenant for the child of God.

Repentance is not necessary in order to have fellowship with God. Repentance is the necessary way of fellowship with God because that repentance is the experience of fellowship with God. This understanding of in the way of does justice both to the phrase and to its intended purpose both to teach the necessity of repentance—and good works—and to deny that these are ever a condition or prerequisite of the covenant, of the experience of the covenant, or of salvation. The covenant of grace is unconditional. Repentance and good works are necessary. The phrase in the way of properly explained and understood guards both of these truths.

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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

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

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

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.

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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

 

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

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

The understanding that works are necessary for believers because God regenerates believers reveals the faulty logic behind the teaching that works are necessary to obtain with God some aspect of salvation. That faulty logic is that obtaining by works is the most compelling reason to do good works, that without the incentive of obtaining with God the sinner will have no real compelling incentive to do good works, and thus that the sinner will be uninterested in doing good works. In this faulty thinking the believer is considered to be one who will actually use the teaching of grace as a license to sin.

Besides the obvious criticism of this logic that every work done to earn, obtain, or have with God is a wicked work, this logic ignores the reality that by virtue of God’s renewing act the sinner becomes a new creature with a new heart, a heart that is thankful and delights to do God’s will. Those who teach that works are necessary to have something, anything, from God view believers as mercenaries who work to be paid. The Reformed faith looks at believers as regenerated creatures in whom the must of the law has actually been made the believers’ inward delight by the saving work of God to write that law upon their inward parts and to give them new hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. The thought of the believer when he is taught that his works—works done by grace and through faith—do not earn with God and are not that upon which some blessing depends is not “Thank God, I can now live as I please,” but “Thanks be to God, I do not have to earn with God! What wilt thou have me to do, Oh, Lord, my God?”

It is an insult to the believer and his new man in Christ to teach him that he can obtain with God and that he must do in order to have something from God because the blessing of God depends on his works. Indeed, in teaching the necessity of good works to the believer, the preacher must do what the Catechism does when it teaches the necessity of good works and reiterate that the believer is saved and delivered from his misery merely of grace for Christ’s sake without any merit—works—of his own. God himself has made the believer a thankful creature.

It is anathema for the believer who is renewed by Christ to attempt a transaction with God by his works.

Thankfulness, which proceeds from the regenerated heart, is another necessity of good works. The Catechism in Lord’s Day 32 says that “we [must] still do good works…so [that] we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessings, and that He may be praised by us.” The words so that speak to the purpose of God’s renewal of the sinner.

This phrase in the Catechism points out the wickedness of works that are done to have some aspect of our salvation from God: it makes impossible the purpose of gratitude and it dishonors God. It makes impossible gratitude because a work that is done to have something from God cannot be done to thank God. The man who works for eighty hours in a week does not thank his boss for the paycheck. It is owed the working man. Further, the very idea that the believer must do something to have from God, as that upon which God’s gift depends, dishonors God because it says that God did not do everything necessary for his child to have from him in Jesus Christ, and it makes of his grace a wage that is paid to the working sinner.

Over against this, the Catechism teaches that the necessity of good works is a testimony of gratitude to God. This is not independent of God’s work of renewing the sinner, but is the very purpose of God in renewing the sinner. According to the Catechism, God renews the believer so that he may testify of his gratitude. God does not renew sinners so that they can work in order to have from God and to obtain from him by means of those works. He renews sinners so that they testify of their gratitude to him. God saves and delivers the sinner wholly without the merit of his works, and then God graciously renews the sinner so that the sinner may testify of his gratitude by a life of good works. God gives redemption, deliverance, and gratitude.

Thus the professing believer who does not do good works is wholly without this testimony of gratitude. Without it he lives a wicked and ungrateful life and gives abundant evidence that he is also without regeneration, faith, and salvation. He does not lack salvation because of his failure to work, but rather his failure to work is the clear and compelling testimony that he does not have faith, righteousness, and the gift of conversion.

Such is the relation between the renewal of God and the testimony of gratitude that the sinner whom God renews will give this testimony of gratitude. Such is the relationship between the gift of renewal and the purpose of gratitude that the believer must do good works. For the sake of this testimony of gratitude, the sinner must be instructed in the way of gratitude according to the law, and this way of gratitude must be exhorted on him urgently not because he can obtain with God by means of it, but because his God requires it of him and works in him both to will and to do of his good pleasure, so that he gives that testimony.

Hypocrites must be warned that without this testimony of gratitude in a life of good works, they fail to give the one great thing that is the purpose of God in the work of redemption, justification, and sanctification.

By means of that testimony of gratitude—consisting in a life of prayer and good works—the believer praises God. The Catechism adds “and that he may be praised by us.” Just as the life of works and prayer that is performed as the basis of obtaining from God certainly dishonors and displeases God, so the life of works and prayer that consists in a testimony of gratitude to God glorifies and praises God.

Not the least part of this praise of God in such a life is the believer’s testimony that his life of good works and prayer is not in any way the basis for obtaining from God and is not performed as the ground on which the believer depends to have something from God, but to praise and thank him for the free gift of salvation, including all his life of gratitude.

Since the praise of God is the sincere desire of the regenerated heart of a believer, this necessity of good works must be taught to the believer and this calling must also be exhorted upon the believer. Because he is prone by nature to praise himself, he must be exhorted to this praise of God. The praise and worship of God is his chief calling. He does this not by self-invented worship of God or by a self-devised way of life, but in the way of obedience to the law of God and by a life of prayer to God.

Hypocrites and the impenitent must be warned that their unthankful life dishonors and displeases God.

Both of these are results of the renewing work of God as the chief explanation of the necessity of good works. That which God wills he surely performs. That which God wills is a testimony of gratitude to his glory. This God works in the believer. As a consequence the believer must also do good works.

This is the main answer of the Catechism to the question of the necessity of good works. This fact does not come out clearly in the received English translation. In that version the punctuation of the original German is missing. After that first part in the original German there is a period. What follows in the answer is introduced by the German words danach auch, which translates as after this also. So the English should read,

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. After this also…”

The point is that the first part of the Catechism’s answer must be understood and taught properly. And if that is understood and taught properly, there are additional considerations in answer to the question of the necessity of good works that are to be urged upon the churches and people of God. These additional considerations are based on and follow from the first part.

There are, then, other aspects to the Reformed answer regarding the necessity of good works as taught in Lord’s Day 32.

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.

_______________

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

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (6): Fruits of Faith

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

It must be held firmly by every believer that his works, works of faith and done by grace, do not obtain any aspect of salvation. They do not obtain because they do not obtain the Spirit. Works are not an instrument, or a means, of salvation. Instrument and means are the same thing. Since the covenant is salvation, works are not an instrument to obtain the covenant. Since the covenant is fellowship with God, works are not the instrument to obtain, have, or receive fellowship with God. Since the experience of salvation is salvation in one’s conscience, works are not an instrument to obtain the experience. The believer experiences salvation by the Spirit of Christ. He does not have the Spirit by the works of the law but by faith only (Gal. 3:2). Works are not the decisive factor, ground, means, or cause of obtaining any aspect or benefit of salvation, certainly not salvation’s experience. Works are not that upon which the covenant and enjoyment of God in the covenant depend. Salvation, salvation in its entirety and with all its benefits, is not by works.

These are the ABCs of the Christian faith.

Salvation is not by works.

If salvation is by works, it is no more by grace.

If salvation is by grace, it is not by works.

These two—grace and works—may not be mingled into the toxic concoction of salvation by grace and works.

Satan has been busy and will continue to be busy refining his false and heretical doctrine that salvation is by works. He will not come in the same garb in which he cloaked himself before and which the church has exposed time and again in her various controversies over whether salvation is by grace or by works. He becomes increasingly subtle. He will become so subtle that if it were possible the very elect would be deceived. So the church may not expect attacks on the truth that salvation is by grace and not by works to come with words like merit, condition, and the like. These words have been exposed by the church. Indeed, the over-thirty-year-long struggle with the federal vision’s conditional theology of works, including its blatant denial that justification is by faith alone, shows the church that rank heretics who deny that salvation is by grace and teach that salvation is by works come subtly, bemoaning the use of the word merit and putting themselves out as great opponents of the evil word merit. All the while teaching exactly what the word merit in connection with the believer’s works in salvation always has taught, namely that the works of the believer have not only a place, but also the decisive place as an instrument, or a means, to obtain the believer’s salvation. Works are a condition. So the church must expect that kind of subtlety in further attacks on the truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

It is also a common tactic of the theologians of works to charge the condemnation of works for righteousness—the idea that works are an instrument to obtain with God—with making works impossible, at least less desirable, at best making works a mere obligation, and ultimately unnecessary. That always was and is the tactic of Rome, and every other heretic who wants to give works the decisive place in the sinner’s salvation follows the tactic of the whorish mother of heretics. It is clever but wicked because it charges the truth with being antinomian and making men careless and profane. Their logic is simple: if you teach that works are not necessary for salvation; to have righteousness with God; or to obtain favor, life, or some other benefit from God, you remove the most compelling reason for good works, and believers will live carelessly and unconcerned for good works.

Denial of the Romish, Arminian, and federal vision teachings regarding the necessity of good works cannot be charged with being against good works, against the necessity of good works, minimizing works, making works less important in the preaching of the church, or even making works impossible. Rather, to be against those explanations and others like them regarding the necessity of good works is to be against the lie and to stand for the truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone. Being against those explanations regarding the necessity of good works is being against those who rob God of his glory by making works the instrument, or means, to obtain salvation or some benefit of salvation, who rob believers of assurance by making them continually ask whether they have done enough, and who at the same time allow vain and pretentious men to boast in God’s presence. Those who teach—and those who believe—that their works obtain with God will be damned for believing a lie, falling under the fierce anathema of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:8: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.”

God will have no one boast in his presence.

Since those heretical explanations regarding the necessity of good works are rejected, may the Reformed believer speak of the necessity of good works? If he may speak of the necessity of good works, what is the proper Reformed explanation of that necessity of good works? More than that, if good works are of no value to add to one’s justification, to increase his righteousness with God, or to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation in any sense, then why speak of the necessity of the good works? Since we are not saved by works but by grace, are good works necessary at all? Further, since we are saved without the merit of works, why would the church teach about the necessity of works?

The Heidelberg Catechism states this problem in Lord’s Day 32, question 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?” Here the Reformed faith addresses the question of the necessity of good works head on and answers it so plainly that a child can understand. This Lord’s Day is the definitive Reformed answer to this question. This Lord’s Day will repay careful attention.

“Without any merit of ours” in the Catechism should be understood as meaning without any works of ours, whether works performed before or after believing. The salvation of the sinner is always a matter of merit; God is paid what God is owed. If the works of the sinner contribute to, are instruments for, or obtain the sinner’s salvation, no matter how little, the only place that the works of the sinner can have in that case is merit. This is true whether or not the theologians who promote that theology use the word merit or cleverly and deceptively substitute some other word for that offensive word merit. In short, if works are in some sense the instrument, or means, to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation, the only role those works can play is also in some sense to merit. Salvation is then “contingent” on what the sinner does.

Note as well that the Catechism states the problem sharply. The issue is not why the justified sinner may, should, or can do good works. The issue is why the justified sinner must do good works. When the Catechism says “must,” it asks about the necessity of good works. What is the binding necessity of good works in the life of the justified sinner, the sinner who is saved wholly apart from those works? In other words, when the Reformed faith asks about the necessity of good works in the life of the saved sinner, it asks about a real necessity.

Important in this connection is to understand exactly which works the Catechism refers to: works excluded from meriting the sinner’s salvation and works the Catechism insists the sinner must do. The Heidelberg Catechism defines good works in Lord’s Day 33:

Q. 91. But what are good works?

A. Only those that proceed from a true faith, are performed according to the law of God, and to His glory; and not such as are founded on our imaginations or the institutions of men.

Often those who teach wrongly about the necessity of good works—that they are an instrument, or a means, to obtain salvation or some benefit of salvation, including the experience of salvation—make themselves appear orthodox and attempt to obscure the offensive nature of their doctrine by insisting that they refer only to works the believer performs by grace, out of faith, and by the power of the Holy Ghost. This is an evasion. The issue between those who teach wrongly about the necessity of good works and those who insist that salvation is not by works is not that one side refers to works performed by grace while the other side refers to works performed solely by the strength of the sinner himself. The issue in this question of the necessity of good works is precisely the works of the believer—those genuinely good works performed by grace, which proceed from true faith and are performed according to the law of God and to the glory of God. In what sense are these good works necessary?

In order to drive home the point that works are really necessary, Lord’s Day 32 of the Catechism asks a further question:

Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?

The Catechism answers:

By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

There is no more thorough way to reinforce that the necessity in this case is a real necessity: nothing less than salvation—inheriting the kingdom of God—is the issue in the question of the necessity of good works.

Thus the difference between the one side and the other is also not that one teaches that good works are necessary and the other side teaches that good works are not necessary. Rather, the issue is that one side teaches that good works are necessary in order to have, to obtain, or as an instrument of salvation or of some aspect of salvation; while the other side teaches that good works are not an instrument at all to obtain salvation or any benefit of salvation. The wrong answer to the question of the necessity of good works makes those good works necessary for salvation as instruments, or means, to obtain that salvation. The other, the distinctly Reformed answer to the question of the necessity of good works, while teaching a real necessity, is as different from that as the day is from the night.

To that distinctly Reformed answer 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

 

Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (4): The Renewal of the Sinner

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

No sane person would ever think to ask of any proponent of the false doctrines of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, or the federal vision why works are necessary. It is patently obvious why works are necessary in Roman Catholicism, in Arminianism, and in federal vision theology. Works are necessary as instruments, or means, in connection with faith to obtain salvation, the enjoyment of salvation, and the fellowship of God’s covenant of grace now and in eternity. Salvation, especially considered as the sinner’s enjoyment of and reception of that salvation, is “contingent” on what the sinner does by grace. When I say that the sinner’s enjoyment of God as his God in the covenant is "contingent," I mean that these false doctrines teach that works are conditions. They are conditions because they are that which the sinner must perform, and that upon which God or the grace of God depends, and without which God and the grace of God are not given or enjoyed.

All three false doctrines deny the heart of the gospel that the believer is justified by faith alone without his works. Rather, these false doctrines make faith a new work that the sinner must perform. Faith alone does not obtain righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life for the sake of Christ’s perfect work on the cross; but faith and the works of faith are instruments, or means, to obtain these. These false doctrines deny that faith—faith alone—is decisive in obtaining salvation apart from all the works of faith because faith lays hold on Christ, keeps in communion with Christ, trusts in, and rests and relies upon Christ and his perfect righteousness as the only ground of the believer’s salvation.

Rather, all three false doctrines teach that works are necessary in addition to faith to obtain righteousness and salvation and thus are instruments, or means, in addition to faith, by which the sinner enjoys salvation. Because righteousness is by works salvation is by works; just as, if righteousness is not by works neither is salvation or any benefit of salvation by works. So also where the necessity of works to obtain righteousness and salvation is improperly taught there is also of necessity a denial of justification by faith alone.

It is exactly the Protestant and Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone that excludes works—any and all works, especially the works of the believer done by faith—from the believer’s righteousness before God and thus from any role in obtaining salvation or any benefit of salvation for the enjoyment of the sinner. God justifies the ungodly. He will not justify a good or a righteous man. Justification by faith alone teaches that the believing sinner is justified by faith alone without any works, especially any works done by grace. In the act of justification God declares the believing sinner righteous. This means that God declares that sinner—an ungodly man in that judgment—to have perfectly fulfilled God’s law, as perfectly in his sight as if the sinner had never sinned and had fulfilled all righteousness himself. Thus that sinner is worthy of eternal life and of every blessing of salvation. Belonging to this work and summarizing it is the act of God to forgive the sinner his sins for Christ’s sake.

In the justification of the believing sinner, the sinner’s righteousness is the perfect atoning death, righteousness, and holy works of Jesus Christ. That righteousness and that righteousness alone is the ground of all that God promises to and gives the sinner for his salvation. This righteousness obtains heaven, grace, access to God, fellowship with the Father, every blessing of salvation, and the enjoyment of those blessings in the sinner's conscience and experience. God loves the righteous. God blesses the righteous.

In justification God imputes to the sinner—or reckons to his account—that perfect righteousness of Christ by faith only. By in the phrase justification by faith alone means that faith is the only instrument to receive this saving righteousness of Christ. By faith alone God imputes to the sinner the righteousness of Christ. Thus the righteousness of Christ becomes the sinner’s; righteousness is reckoned to his account. Excluded are all works. God graciously justifies the sinner. The sinner’s good works do not add to his righteousness. His evil works do not detract from that righteousness. That righteousness is perfect, and no part of the sinner’s life thereafter can alter or change that reality. Were he to die at the moment of his justification, he would enter heaven.

Being justified by faith alone, the sinner is saved. Being justified, he is declared worthy of eternal life, of every blessing of salvation, and of the experience of those blessings. What scripture and the creeds mean when they teach that the justified sinner is declared worthy of eternal life must be understood correctly. Worthy of eternal life refers not only to eternity and the final judgment, but also to the sinner’s enjoyment of salvation and the covenant of God now. Because the righteousness of Christ obtains all of salvation, and because the sinner receives righteousness by faith only there is nothing for the believer’s works to obtain.

In this connection it is important to remember the apostle Paul’s chiding question to the foolish and bewitched Galatians who had apostatized from the truth of justification by faith alone and turned to works again: “This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Gal. 3:2). To have the Spirit is to have Christ, God, the covenant, to dwell in Christ and to have him dwelling in us, to possess eternal life, and to have also all the fruits of the Spirit such as love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. To have the Spirit is to enjoy fellowship with Christ and the living God, so that all the living water of Christ flows from him into the believer and flows out of the believer as a fountain of living water to the neighbor. To have the Spirit is to have God working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. To have the Spirit is to experience God as one’s God in the believer’s conscience, in his heart, and in his whole life. The Spirit is salvation and the experience of salvation to the believer. There is no spiritual gift lacking to a human being who has the Spirit of Christ in him. To have the Spirit is to have all the promises of God in principle. The Galatians did not have the Spirit “by the works of the law.” By “works of the law,” Paul did not mean merely works of keeping the Old Testament law of Moses, but Paul meant any and all works, the same kind of works that he excluded from justification when he wrote, “For by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (2:16). Rather, the Galatians received the Spirit by the hearing of faith. As soon as they heard the gospel and believed, the Spirit was poured out on them. They received the Spirit by faith alone and not by works. Having the Spirit by faith, they had all of salvation and all of the experience of salvation by faith and not by the works of the law.

Regarding the reception of the Spirit and the sanctification of the believer in all good works, G. C. Berkhouwer, in his excellent section “Sola Fide and Sanctificationin his book Faith and Sanctification, summarized the Reformation and Reformed view:

One may say that the confessions proceed always from faith to works and thence back to faith. This interconnection and order is a typical feature of Reformation doctrine: thus maintaining the bond between justification and sanctification, over against the “abstraction” of good works, it walked in the ways of Holy Scripture. The conclusion we may infer from all these data [a lengthy survey of creeds and theologians] is that we can, according to Reformed belief, speak truly of sanctification only when we have understood the exceptionally great significance of the bond between Sola-fide [faith alone] and sanctification. We may never speak of sanctification as if we are entering—having gone through the gate of justification—upon a new, independent field of operation; sanctification does not come about by the interaction of dynamic impulses already present. We might, of course, speak of the “dunamis” [power] of the Holy Spirit but this divine power comes to us only via our faith and may not be separated from it. That is unmistakable testimony of the Reformation.

Sanctification is by faith alone too because by faith alone believers are justified, and being justified they receive the Holy Spirit by faith and not by the works of the law.

Thus it is incorrect to state that justification by faith alone merely gives the legal right to salvation. This is to minimize the reality of justification by faith alone. Article 23 of the Belgic Confession says, “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied.” It is perfectly proper and thoroughly Reformed to summarize the whole gift of salvation by the word justification. The Belgic Confession teaches that justification is not merely the grant of a legal right to salvation, but also that justification is the salvation of the sinner. Especially is the justified sinner saved in his own conscience and experience. Justification is the sinner’s salvation especially because the justified sinner on that basis alone receives the Spirit by faith and with the Spirit receives every blessing of salvation and every experience of salvation. Justification is the sinner’s salvation because the perfect righteousness of Christ that is imputed to him by faith alone demands that he be made perfect.

The despicable thing about the teaching that the experience of salvation is by works is that it robs the believer at the most important part of his salvation—his possession and enjoyment of that salvation—the truth that his salvation is not by works but by grace. In answer to the apostle’s question whether believers receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith that teaching answers, “By the works of the law!” Such a teaching guts the whole confession that salvation is by grace alone and makes it a vain and worthless confession. What good to a believer is a salvation that is accomplished outside of him without his works, if the possession and enjoyment of that salvation in his own conscience and experience is by his works? Then the believer’s conscience is not purged from dead works to serve the living God; he is yet in his sins.

Besides, such a false teaching that makes the experience of salvation dependent on works is deadly because it is a direct assault on the office and work of the Holy Spirit who is the Comforter and whose office is to comfort the believer with Christ and his perfect work, so that the believer receives Christ and all his saving benefits in his heart, mind, and conscience.

By the hearing of faith the believer receives the Spirit and with the Spirit every blessing of salvation and all the experience of salvation, Christ and all that is Christ’s.

By the hearing of faith!

Not by the works of the law!

Besides, the main teaching of justification in scripture concerns justification of the believing sinner in his conscience and experience. Justification by faith alone insists that in the sinner’s conscience, in his mind, soul, heart, and whole being he is justified by faith alone without his works. His experience of justification is freedom from damning guilt, peace with the living and just God, assurance of salvation, comfort that Christ died for him, and certain knowledge that God elected him. The one justified by faith lives (Rom. 1:17); he lives now by the gift of the Spirit; he lives in his own heart, mind, and experience with God; and he will live in eternity. Since the revelation of the righteousness of God worked out in the cross of Christ is from faith to faith (1:17), he also lives from faith to faith, so that his life is never removed from that foundation of faith. His experience of justification by faith alone, in short, is of life, eternal life with God, granted to him freely and graciously by God for Christ’s sake by faith alone and experienced by the gift of the Spirit, which he receives by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal. 3:2).

Over against any and all attempts to make works an instrument of salvation alongside and in addition to faith stands the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

What, then, of works?

What of the necessity of works?

Are works necessary at all?

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

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Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity

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

The question of the necessity of good works is now bedeviling the Protestant Reformed Churches. Specifically, the issue is the question of the necessity of good works in relation to the believer’s experience of salvation. Consistories, several classes, and two synods of these churches have had to speak to this question as the result of numerous appeals and protests from various members of the churches. In all of those decisions the connection of this question with the truth and confession of the gospel of grace has been the issue. The importance of the question, then, hardly needs to be further demonstrated. At stake in the answer these churches give to that question is the very confession and maintenance of the truth of the gospel of grace. Because the gospel of grace is at stake in the answer to this question, so also are denominational life and death, a standing or falling church, and souls.

The question of the necessity of good works in the elect sinner’s salvation belongs to the area of doctrine known as soteriology. In soteriology the church and believer confess the truth of the application to the elect sinner of the salvation that Christ merited for that sinner at the cross. This application of salvation is the work of God’s grace by the operation of the Holy Spirit, so that the elect sinner enjoys that salvation in his conscience and experience. The elect sinner is redeemed at the cross of Jesus Christ, so that by that perfect sacrifice the believer is made perfect forever. Soteriology teaches the truth of how the sinner receives that salvation accomplished at the cross: he is personally united to Christ, regenerated, called, given faith, justified, sanctified, and glorified. In the whole of soteriology the church confesses that from beginning to end, from regeneration to glorification, all of the salvation of the sinner are the work of God’s grace. The salvation of the sinner and the sinner’s experience of salvation is the work of grace. This is as true for regeneration, in which the sinner is wholly passive, as for sanctification, in which God makes the sanctified sinner active so that he walks in all good works. Emphasized in soteriology is the truth that the conscious possession and experience of salvation by the elect sinner are the work of God’s grace alone. Ultimately, no separation can be made between salvation and the experience of salvation. The salvation of the elect sinner is a salvation of him really and actually in his own soul, heart, mind, experience, and life.

The question of the necessity of good works cannot be asked any better than the Heidelberg Catechism asks it in Lord’s Day 32: “Since we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?” The question is, what is the necessity of good works for the saved and delivered sinner who is redeemed and delivered from his misery without any merit, which is to say without any works of his own?

The answer to this question must begin at a proper starting point. That proper starting point is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Any attempt to answer this question apart from this proper starting point is bound to fail, as well as create confusion and allow false doctrine to go unchallenged. Any attempt to answer this question without mentioning or addressing the relationship of the necessity of good works to the doctrine of justification by faith alone opens itself up to the charge either of ignorance of the issues involved and of the current controversy in the Reformed church world over these very issues, or of complicity with the current trend in Reformed churches to answer the question by resorting to the federal vision’s answer that works are necessary for justification. Any attempt to answer this question must involve a clear and unambiguous statement of the truth of justification by faith alone and of the relationship of one’s answer regarding the necessity of good works to the truth of justification. The Reformed faith in Lord’s Day 32 begins its answer to the question of the necessity of good works with what amounts to a statement of justification by faith alone: “Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours…” No answer to the question of the necessity of good work may transgress this doctrinal boundary. The Reformed church today in seeking to answer the question of the necessity of good works must follow the Heidelberg Catechism in its approach.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is the proper starting point to answer this question because this doctrine excludes as false and heretical certain answers to the question of the necessity of good works. It is indeed the proper explanation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone—a justification that excludes any and all works of the believer as either a part or the whole of his righteousness before God—that is the occasion for the apparent conundrum in the Reformed faith about the question of the necessity of good works: how is it that there can be any necessity for good works if those works are not a whole or part of the believer’s righteousness before God? The conundrum is only apparent, however. Denying that good works contribute in some sense to the believer’s salvation, the church still speaks of a necessity of good works because there are other ways to speak of a necessity of good works than that works are necessary for salvation. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, by denying that works contribute to the believer’s salvation in any sense, also opens up the reality of another way of speaking about the necessity of good works.

The question of the necessity of good works is only a question in the sense of needing a careful answer, then, where that truth of justification by faith alone is confessed. Where the doctrine of justification by faith alone is either denied or not understood properly, false and heretical answers to the question of the necessity of good works will be given. Where justification by faith alone is denied, there also justification by faith and good works is necessarily taught, and any apparent difficulty involved in the question of the necessity of good works is resolved by the answer that works are necessary for salvation.

Thus the question of the necessity of good works is not a proper question in Roman Catholicism. Rome’s answer is short and clear: good works are necessary in order to merit salvation by those good works performed by grace. In her doctrine of works Rome always speaks of works performed by grace and through faith. The difference between Rome and the reformers on this issue was not that Rome taught that man can merit with God by works performed apart from grace, while the reformers taught that only the believer’s works performed by grace are included in his righteousness before God. The issue between Rome and the Reformation also was not that Rome taught that good works are necessary—although Rome desperately wanted to make this the issue—whereas the Reformation taught or implied that works are unnecessary. Rather, the issue between Rome and the reformers was that Rome taught that the believer’s works performed by grace and through faith are decisive in the sinner’s salvation, while the reformers cast this wicked doctrine from them like one of the brood of a vile, poisonous reptile.

At bottom Rome’s false doctrine about works makes works an instrument in addition to faith to obtain, experience, and enjoy the benefits of salvation and ultimately eternal life itself. Rome made this doctrine of justification by faith and the good works of faith official dogma in the Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter 10, “On the increase of Justification received”:

Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written; He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, “Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.”(emphasis added)

According to Roman Catholic dogma, by faith an ungodly man is made “just,” that is, his nature is changed and he is made a good man. Being changed, he works by faith an “increase in that justice.” Rome’s doctrine is that a man by his work increases in his justification day by day until by grace and through works he makes himself worthy of life eternal. Implied in Rome’s statement is that the enjoyment of the benefit of being “the friends and domestics of God” in this life is also obtained by means of those works. Works and faith are twin instruments that cooperate to obtain righteousness and thus salvation and all its benefits now and eternally.

The question of the necessity of good works is not a proper question for Arminianism either. Arminianism teaches that the act of faith and the good works that faith performs are the works of the sinner. Although the faith and the works are imperfect, God graciously accepts them as the sinner’s righteousness. Faith and the obedience of faith are the new righteousness of the believer in place of strict, perfect, and perpetual obedience to the law. This Arminian doctrine is rejected in the Canons of Dordt, 2.error 4:

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.

The Canons reject this doctrine as a “contradict[ion] of the Scriptures” and the proclamation, “as did the wicked Socinus, [of] a new and strange justification of man before God.”

In Arminianism the error is twofold. First, faith, whereby the sinner accepts the grace offered in Christ and which work merits righteousness with God, is made a work of the sinner. Second, the works of faith—the imperfect obedience to the law graciously regarded by God as perfect—are with faith instruments, or means, to obtain righteousness with God, the covenant now, and ultimately everlasting salvation.

The same basic false doctrine about the necessity of good works is the doctrine of the federal vision. Norman Shepherd, the arch-heretic of the movement, wrote, “The New Testament, as well as the Old makes our eternal welfare contingent in some way and to some extent on what we do” (emphasis added). The federal vision is a multifaceted heretical movement that is busy developing the Schilderian doctrine of the conditional covenant. Part and parcel of the false doctrine of the federal vision are the denial of justification by faith alone and the insistence that the justification of the sinner is not by faith alone, but by faith and the obedience of faith—commonly taught as justification by an obedient faith, which is a faith redefined as faithfulness. Obedient faith is a code word for faith and the obedience of faith as twin instruments to obtain righteousness with God, so that in the final judgment the outcome of that judgment depends on the sinner’s faith—conceived as the sinner’s act or work—and on the obedience of that faith in a holy life.

Powerfully implied in the federal vision’s doctrine of obedient faith is that in this life fellowship with God, enjoyment of the covenant of grace, and life in the covenant with God is obtained by the instrument of works along with faith. In the mantra of the federal vision, covenantal relationship means that we must trust and obey, by which is meant that life in the covenant of God is obtained by means of faith and faithfulness. Faith and faithfulness function as twin instruments to obtain the covenant, fellowship with God, and all the benefits of salvation.

The federal vision does not leave this to implication but states it plainly. Ian Hewitson, defender of federal vision theologian Norman Shepherd, wrote that Shepherd’s concern with the doctrine of faith and works was not merely the final judgment, but “an appreciation of the structural significance of the covenant relation between God and man as that unfolds in the course of the history of redemption. For Shepherd it is the biblical concept of the covenant that breaks through, and breaks down, the tension between faith and works in the doctrine of justification.” Now, in the final judgment, and always in redemptive history, the covenantal relationship between God and his people is, was, and will be maintained and enjoyed by his people by means of their faith and their works.

Thus the federal vision also makes works—the Spirit wrought works of faith—the instrument, or means, to obtain righteousness and thus salvation, which salvation is the fellowship and friendship of the covenant and the enjoyment of such in this life and in eternity. This is what the federal vision means when it speaks about obedient faith.

The doctrine of justification by faith alone absolutely cuts off these conceptions as false and heretical explanations of the necessity of good works.

If faith is for righteousness—perfect righteousness, the righteousness of God himself worked out in the cross of Jesus Christ—there is absolutely nothing for works to obtain, and works cannot be instruments or means to obtain any part of salvation, no matter how little. To state it differently works are not necessary for salvation, for the covenant of grace, or for some benefit of salvation or of the covenant. This means that works do not obtain and are not that upon which depends salvation, any benefit of salvation, the grace of God, the covenant, or the experience of the covenant and salvation.

To an examination of this doctrine 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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Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone

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