The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (1): A Proper Starting Point
Reformed Free Publishing Association
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.
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.