The Charge of Antinomianism (6): Works, the Way to Salvation

Belonging to the effort to smear the truth of grace with the charge of antinomianism is the concerted effort to redefine the place of works in salvation. This begins with criticism of the centrality of justification in the salvation of sinners, as though emphasizing the doctrine will take away from the equal importance of preaching sanctification. This is a ploy. In reality sanctification cannot be preached properly apart from the right doctrine of justification. The one who will do good works must first understand that they are of no account for his righteousness and salvation before God. The Reformed creeds make this clear: “it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that, on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love of God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation” (Belgic Confession, article 24). The faith that works by love is first the faith that justifies without its works. Add to this the thought that any work that is performed to merit with God, earn with God, or achieve with God is mortal sin.

In his effort to teach a federal vision understanding of works, Mark Jones goes to great lengths to show how Reformed theologians taught the necessity of good works. Over against a real antinomian this is necessary. The Heidelberg Catechism uses such language in question 86: “why must we still do good works?” The issue is not the necessity of good works. The issue is how Jones describes that necessity of good works.

In his endorsement of Richard Gaffin’s book, Jones, more clearly than the book itself, summarizes the position espoused in it: “Spirit-wrought good works are not only the way of life, but also the way to life-salvation.”[1] He also uses the same language in his book Antinomianism: “Reformed theologians during the post-Reformation era were clear that good works (i.e., evangelical obedience) were not only the way of life, but also the way to life.”[2] His doctrine is that works are necessary as the way to life-salvation. He does not seem to realize that the two terms “way of life” and “way to life” are mutually exclusive. If works are the way of life, they are not the way to life, and if they are the way to life, they are not the way of life.

Part of Jones’ doctrine of works is also his ridicule of the idea that works are evidences of faith. After a long section in which he seeks to prove that works are necessary to salvation, he says, “So much, then, for good works merely evidencing faith.” He uses the term “merely” so that he does not have to condemn the position outright. But if works are necessary to salvation, this obviates the role of works as the evidence of faith and the fruits of faith and salvation. He contrasts the idea that works are evidence of faith with the idea that they are “necessary,” so as to make them virtually mutually exclusive. He also criticizes the idea that good works are fruits of thankfulness: “To insist that believers perform good works only as their thankful response to the triune God for all that he has done for them may give the impression that they are not actually necessary for salvation.”[3]

He must be aware that he is criticizing the entire approach to good works in the Heidelberg Catechism and its first answer to the question of why believers must do good works: “so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for his blessing and that he may be praised by us” (A 86). He must be aware that James demands that the believer justify his confession to have faith by his works, which James says is to “shew thee my faith by my works,” or to evidence faith (2:18). It is exactly the point of the Catechism and scripture by teaching that works are fruits of thankfulness that they are NOT necessary for salvation in the sense that they are “the way to life-salvation.” They are part of the gift of salvation to the believer, specifically the fruit of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in him by which the Spirit renews him and makes him active.

In support of his doctrine that works are necessary as the way to salvation, Jones erroneously appeals to answer 32 of the Westminster Larger Catechism: “to work in them faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation” (the emphasis is Jones’). Ignoring that the Westminster here fully agrees with the Heidelberg Catechism that works are evidences of faith and of thankfulness, he twists the last phrase to his own purposes that works are the way to salvation.

The creed does not teach that at all, and the language does not support Jones’ conclusion. The creed says clearly that good works are evidences of faith and thankfulness. The words “to salvation” refer to God’s appointment of his elect. He appointed them to salvation, and that appointment included all their works that they perform as the way they live as saved believers. This is no different from Ephesians 2:10 that all the good works believers perform are appointed to them.

The Canons of Dordt also use this language in 1.8: “according to which he hath chosen us from eternity, both to grace and glory, to salvation and the way of salvation, which he hath ordained that we should walk therein.” The creeds teach that works are the way of salvation, to which God appointed his elect people. Those works were appointed to them by God, purchased for them by the cross of Christ, and worked in them by the Spirit of grace. The gift of salvation includes the very works in which the saved believer walks. They are fruits and effects of salvation given.

The justified believer possesses salvation, which means the covenant and fellowship with the living God. The life of the covenant and of fellowship with the living God is constituted in a life of holiness and good works. The justified believer possesses that life, covenant, and fellowship with the living God by faith only, because by faith all his sins are forgiven and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. On that ground alone and by faith alone, the justified believer is at peace with God, as Romans 5:1 says. Through Christ, on the basis of his perfect righteousness alone, the justified believer is introduced into the favor of God, life, and fellowship with the living God, consciously and in his own experience, as Romans 5:2 says.

As Jesus made clear: “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no man comes unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). The way to come to the Father, to be received into his fellowship and friendship, is by faith only without any works. To come to the Father and to be received by the Father in favor and grace is impossible by works, any works, because all the works the believer performs are polluted with sin. Once I am received into God’s fellowship by faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, the life that the Father requires of me, and also actually works in me, is a life of obedience. In that sense, works are the way of salvation because they are the way of life that is required of the saved believer. However, at no point and in no sense are those works ever the ground of that fellowship or the way to that fellowship, for the ground is Christ’s righteousness, and the way to that fellowship is faith alone.

Furthermore, works are the fruits and effects of God’s sanctification of the believer. He does good works because of the saving benefit of sanctification. He is not sanctified by his works, but he does works because he is sanctified. Here also works are fruits of his salvation.

Indeed, since I pollute and defile even the best of my works, they must be justified by faith only on the ground of the perfect righteousness of Christ. This is the testimony of the Reformed creeds about the good works—genuinely, Spirit-wrought good works—of the believer. Article 24 of the Belgic Confession says, “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.” The Heidelberg Catechism says the same thing: “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (A 62).

The idea that Spirit-wrought works are defiled by the believer Mark Jones criticizes and rejects: “it is actually an affront to God to suggest that Spirit-wrought works in believers are ‘filthy rags,’ for these are works that God has prepared in advance for us to do in order to magnify his grace and glorify the name of Christ.” He continues, “It is a vain imagination to suppose that we exalt the grace of God by suggesting that the only righteousness pleasing to God is Christ’s righteousness.” Here he shows what he is after. The Spirit-wrought works constitute not the believers thankfulness to God, but his righteousness before God.

Adding folly to his wicked doctrine he goes on to assert, “To be clear, God does not need our good works, but Christ does, and so he not only requires them, but also desires them.”[4] This is complete theological nonsense that turns the Reformed doctrine of works on its head. Christ does not need our works anymore than God does. This is like saying the fountain of water needs the river that flows out of it. The fountain produces the river. It is not in need of the river. So Christ as the inexhaustible fountain of grace produces great rivers of water out of us that flow to the neighbor and redound to the praise of his wonderful grace.

Then, Jones adds to his false doctrine and folly a crass mercantilism: “To put it rather bluntly, there are some Christians who are godlier than others…For this reason, those who do more good works than others will receive greater rewards in heaven.”[5] What about the thief on the cross whose only work was to confess Christ, but who did so when the whole world, including Christ’s own apostles, was denying him? Does the thief sit lowest in the kingdom because he had but one good work? What about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, some of whom endured the heat of the day and some of whom wrought but one hour, and who all received a penny, which action the lord of the vineyard defended on the ground that it was lawful for him to do what he willed with his own. Christ, the lord of the vineyard, also accuses Mark Jones’ crass mercantilism in salvation as coming from “an evil eye,” that objects to his “goodness” (Matt. 20:1–15). There are rewards in salvation, but those rewards are gracious and as such are not distributed like hourly wages to laborers, but sovereignly by God according to his good pleasure. Who knows whether the thief on the cross with his one work will not sit at the right hand of Jesus Christ?

It is heretical to teach that works are necessary as the way to salvation. Scripture and the creeds do not speak this language. The difference between truth and lie is a single word. The truth is that works are the way of life. Mark Jones turns this on its head and insists that good works are the way to life and implies that without them there will not be life, but damnation. That works are the way of salvation maintains the doctrines of grace. That works are the way to salvation overthrows salvation by grace, denies Christ as the only way of salvation, and makes salvation and communion with God now and in eternity dependent on the believer’s works as the way to life. The fact that Jones is a fan of the federal vision only makes clearer what he is after when he insists that works are the way to salvation: justification by faith and works.

The proper way to explain the necessity of works is done by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 32. They are not necessary as the ground of salvation or as the way to salvation, life, or fellowship with God, which is rank Roman works’ righteousness. It teaches that the necessity is the work of Christ in us, whom he has saved without our works. The Catechism says that Christ saved us without our works. To say that works are necessary to salvation denies that. Rather, works are necessary because the one who saves us without our works, also works in us by his Spirit. This Spirit-wrought obedience is not and never becomes the ground of salvation. It is the fruit and effect of salvation. The one who is not converted simply gives evidence that he does not have the Spirit because he does not have Christ.

In his pursuit of antinomians—falsely so-called—and to impress the necessity of works for the experience of fellowship with God, Mark Jones also brings up a distinction in the love of God.

To that I will turn next time.

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[1] Jones, in Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight, xi.

[2] Jones, Antinomianism, 67.

[3] Ibid., 64.

[4] Ibid., 78.

[5] Ibid., 76.

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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 for Rev. Langerak, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.

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