The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (2): Justification by Faith Alone
Reformed Free Publishing Association
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 Sanctification” in 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.
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
Next article in series: The Question of the Necessity of Good Works (3): A Real Necessity
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