Gathering at the river

“Crossing the Tiber” is an old expression describing what a Protestant does when he leaves the Reformation faith for the Roman Catholic fold. The Tiber River ran alongside old Rome; to get to Rome, one crossed it. Thus, “crossing the Tiber” refers to entering the Roman Catholic enclave. Today, descendants of our Reformed fathers gather on the banks of the Tiber River, preparing to cross.
 
Such a strong movement toward Rome is astounding, but should not be surprising. The simple reason so many are able to anticipate “crossing the Tiber” is that the doctrine in many Protestant, even Reformed and Presbyterian, churches has so warped and deformed that it is more like Roman Catholic dogma than Reformation truth (deformation in liturgy and ethics is close behind). Combine this doctrinal deformation with the doctrinal illiteracy of the common member—sound catechism instruction of the youth has long disappeared in most denominations—and the heavy traffic on the roads to Rome is not at all surprising.
 
—Read more in the upcoming editorial by Prof. Gritters entitled Gathering at the river in the upcoming March 1, 2018 issue of the Standard Bearer.

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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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