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.
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
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