At the same time the Reformed faith insists that the sinner is saved by God’s grace wholly without his own works—including especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone in which the believing sinner is justified before God in his conscience and experience by faith alone and not at all by works—it also insists that good works are necessary. It is slander to charge the defense of this position with a denial of the necessity of good works. Those who do so take their place with the Romish, Arminian, and federal vision opponents of the truth. The Reformed faith says two things: the sinner is justified by faith alone wholly apart from his works, and the works of the justified sinner are necessary. The sinner, redeemed and delivered without his works, must do good works.
The Reformed faith’s answer to the question of why the justified sinner must do good works is unique. This answer is given in plainest English in Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus wrote about the pastoral purpose of this Lord’s Day and emphasized the importance of teaching this distinctly Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works: “These causes, now, must be explained and urged with great diligence, in our sermons and exhortations to the people.” The Reformed faith, denying vehemently that works obtain salvation or the experience of salvation and especially that works are part of the believer’s righteousness before God—we have the Spirit by the hearing of faith and not by the works of the law (Gal 3:2)—equally emphasizes the necessity of good works properly explained and urges with great diligence the doing of them.
Lord’s Day 32 reads in full:
Q. 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?
A. 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; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof; and that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ.
Q. 87. Cannot they then be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?
A. By no means; for the Holy Scripture declares that no unchaste person, idolator, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God.
The first part of the Catechism’s answer to the question of the necessity of good works is found in this sentence: “Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit after his own image.” The necessity of good works in the justified believer is the work of Christ in that believer to renew him by the Holy Spirit after Christ’s image.
When the Lord’s Day speaks of the renewal of the sinner, it implies the original condition of his nature. In Adam all human beings are conceived and born in sin. By nature all men are incapable of performing any good and inclined to all wickedness. The sinner’s whole nature is corrupt and under the power of sin. All his faculties and powers are controlled by sin. His mind is dark, his affections are evil and corrupt, and his will is a slave to sin. In that condition the sinner by nature is one who hates God and his neighbor. Man’s thoughts and all the imaginations of his heart are only evil continually. In that condition the sinner is in bondage to sin, so that he continues in his sin, cannot will the good, and cannot perform that which is good and pleasing to God. The sacrifices of the wicked are an abomination to God. The sinner does nothing that is pleasing to God, even when his works glitter and gleam in the eyes of men and appear to be more righteous than the righteousness of the righteous themselves, so that men speak highly of those works and commend them as the very essence of goodness. To God all the works of the sinner are an abomination because man is an abomination to God.
Belonging to this condition of the natural man as well is his loss, the total loss, of the image of God. The Catechism teaches this when it says that Christ renews his image in the elect sinner. Christ’s work to renew his image in the elect sinner is not a partial restoration of the image but a complete restoration of the whole image. It must be a restoration of the whole image because that is what man lost in the fall. He lost the image of God and took on the image of Satan.
Bearing the image of Satan, man is by nature a God-hater. In all the circumstances of his life as the word of God comes to him to love the Lord God, man says, “I hate him.” In man’s riches he serves himself; in his health he serves himself; in his fruitful years he serves himself; and in his sickness, poverty, and disasters he blasphemes God. That inveterate and spitting hatred of God is evident, too, when God strides through the earth, the wind as his chariot and the clouds as his garments. When he thunders with his voice and the lightning is his herald, the very first words out of man’s mouth are “Oh, my God,” and he blasphemes. Man as ruled by the principle of sin opposes the law of God. The natural man does not desire the good. Besides, he opposes the good and would destroy the good. The proof of that is the cross of Christ. God delivered the good, the lovely, the beautiful, the virtuous, the law-abiding, the gracious, and wholly desirable Jesus Christ into man’s power; and man took him, tried him, condemned him, nailed him to the tree, and blasphemed him.
Such a sinner, chosen by God in love from all eternity and appointed to salvation, Christ renews after his image. “His own image” in the Catechism refers to the image of Christ. The image in which God created man was knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. That image characterized the whole nature of man, so that he was upright and his whole nature was good. Possessing that image, man looked like God and was the son of God. The image as Adam bore it was good, but it was not the best. The best form of that image is as it is in Christ. Just one feature of Adam’s possession of the image will bring out the better form in Christ. Adam could lose the image and he did for himself and all his children. But Christ is God’s Son forever; Christ cannot lose that image. He cannot lose it any more than he can cease being the Son of God. He lifted up and glorified that image of God. That image is the same in substance as the image in Adam, but it is lifted up beyond the power of sin, death, and corruption. It is the image that will one day characterize the believer’s whole life and all his being, so that he perfectly loves the Lord his God and zealously serves him in all good works for eternity to the praise of God’s excellent name.
Here is a helpful analogy for the place of works in the sinner’s salvation. Works now have the same place as works will have in heaven. It is completely absurd to teach that in heaven by our works we will have something from God. Neither do we now earn from God, have access to God, or receive from God on the basis of our works, because of our works, or dependent on our works.
This marvelous work of renewal is accomplished by the Holy Ghost as the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
First, this teaches that the work is divine, as mysterious as the Spirit himself and as irresistible as he is. The sinner—no matter how deeply mired in sin, how profoundly degraded in his vileness, and how long engrained his sin, an incorrigible and hardened old sinner—God, the God of all power and all grace, lays hold on in the depth of that sinner’s being and renews him and makes him a new creature who is totally changed in a moment, in the twinkle of an eye.
Second, this marvelous work of renewal by the Holy Ghost teaches that Christ comes very near his people, so that he enters into them, operates upon them, and dwells in them in the closest possible way: he takes his abode in them, dwells with them, and abides with them. God is not afar off but is near his people and with them always in Christ. He is the power of the sinner’s renewal, which Christ gives to his people constantly and preserves them in it.
This renewal and everything that follows from it are not the work of man, are not dependent upon man, do not wait on man, and thus are not conditioned on something man does. This renewal is a supernatural and divine work no less wonderful than the creation of the world. When God lays hold on one of his children to change him, God causes the light to stand out of the dark mind of the rebellious sinner; God softens the hard and opens the closed; he replaces ignorance with knowledge and hatred with love. Indeed, then, that renewal is more wonderful than creation because it belongs to the wonder of grace in which God not only gives life, but also gives eternal life from the dead.
This renewal constitutes the regeneration of the sinner both in the sense of the original implanting of the new life of Christ in him and in the sense of his conversion. There is only one fruit of regeneration and that is true conversion. That conversion follows necessarily on God’s act of regenerating the sinner. That conversion consists in the sinner’s sorrow over sin and his delight in God as the God of his salvation. That conversion, too, is God’s work. As a consequence of that work of God the sinner is converted, putting off the old man and putting on the new, who is created after the image of Christ in knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness.
Thus it is incorrect to state that by the renewal God merely enables the sinner to do good works. Rather, by this renewal God works in his people both to will and to do of his good pleasure. He gives the renewal and all the works that follow from it.
The Catechism closely connects this renewal to Christ’s work of “having redeemed and delivered the sinner.” The redemption and deliverance of the sinner referred to by the Catechism includes both the atoning death of Christ Jesus that merited salvation and every benefit of salvation for the sinner and—we might say especially—the gracious justification of the sinner by faith without works. Ursinus said that the Catechism teaches here that “we are redeemed from sin and death, that is, from all the evils of guilt and punishment by no merit of ours, but only by the mere grace of God for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Ursinus spoke later of the “benefit of justification.” The Catechism begins its treatment of the necessity of good works by reiterating that the works of the sinner do not contribute to, merit, or obtain salvation. Those good works are not instruments of salvation; good works are not that on which salvation, any benefit of salvation, or the experience of salvation depend.
The Catechism joins those two works of Christ and so teaches the inseparable connection between them. Whom Christ redeems and justifies he also infallibly renews. Those whom he renews, he already has redeemed and justified. The one without the other cannot be conceived.
That inseparable connection can be defined more precisely. Redemption is the basis of the renewal, and the renewal is demanded by the redemption. Just as man was placed under the bondage of sin and death because he was guilty of sinning against God, so the guilt having been absolved and the sinner having been freed from that guilt, he must also be renewed.
In his redemption, Christ paid the penalty that the sins of the elect demanded and by that perfect sacrifice accomplished their deliverance. He delivered the elect by his cross from all the guilt of their sins and from all the power of the devil, sin, and the world. Thus the redemption of Christ includes the sinner’s renewal as that which was purchased by Christ. The righteousness that Christ accomplished at the cross and which is imputed to the sinner by faith alone demands that the sinner be made perfect. Having accomplished their redemption and deliverance at the cross, Christ also accomplishes in them the renewal that his redemption and deliverance of them demand. It is inconceivable that Christ would deliver a man from guilt and not set him free from sin’s dominion, or to put it another way that Christ would justify a man but not sanctify him: whom he justifies them he also glorifies.
Because Christ does that, it is necessary that we do good works. It is utterly inconceivable that Christ would do that and that we would not do good works. The work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is the necessity of good works.
Because of that work of God, we must do good works.
Because of that gracious work of God, we will do good works.
Because of that gracious work of God, we can do good works.
Because of that gracious work of God, we want to do good works.
Because of that gracious work of God, preachers must urge us to do good works with all diligence.
God took Adam out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and as a consequence Adam was perfect and both willed and did the good. But the renewal of God by his grace is a greater work in which God raises the dead and causes them to perform that which is right and to repent, believe, live holily, and pray. To say that the justified believer need not do good works is a denial of God and his grace. It is not merely antinomianism, it is atheism.
The Reformed explanation of the necessity of good works explains also the Catechism’s further question: “Cannot they, then, be saved, who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, are not converted to God?” The question of the Catechism is not intended to teach that the works that the renewed sinner performs, especially his repentance and conversion to God, are that upon which his salvation depends. Ursinus says, “Those…who do not perform good works show that they are neither regenerated by the Spirit of God, nor redeemed by the blood of Christ.” He says later, “Those who perform evil works, and continue in their wicked and ungrateful lives, cannot be saved, inasmuch as they are destitute of true faith, and conversion.” Thus the point of the Catechism here is exactly to drive home that Reformed explanation that Christ’s work of renewing the sinner is the necessity of good works. The one who does not perform good works shows that he is not renewed, has no faith, and is devoid of the grace of God that works these in the sinner.
This also explains in part why the Reformed even bothered to teach about the necessity of good works. First, the truth about the necessity of good works confirms the true believer in the source of his holy life. That he does good works is, like his justification, wholly the work of God’s grace. Second, that truth warns hypocrites and impenitent men who make a vain show of faith that they will not be saved except they repent, believe, and are converted to God. Third, that truth also calls believers, who have yet a sinful human nature in them, back to the reality of who they are in Christ by God’s grace.
The Reformed faith also speaks of the purpose of God’s renewal of the sinner as the second part of its answer to the question of the necessity of good works.
To this I will turn next time.
This article was written by Rev. Nathan J. Langerak, pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Crete, Illinois. If you have a question or comment about this blog article for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section.
Previous articles in this series:
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
Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (5): Testimony of Gratitude