The doctrine of justification of works, unlike that of justification by works, stands to provide sinners of sensitive conscience with much relief. It encourages us to broaden our appreciation for what Christ accomplishes for us; he has not merely justified our persons by his perfect obedience, he has also justified our efforts to conform our lives to God’s law and Christ’s perfect example. It also encourages us to make greater efforts at good works, confident that our works, however imperfect, are most perfect in God’s estimation.
The Protestant Reformers, following Scripture’s lead, roundly rejected the notion that believers might be justified in part or in whole by their own good works. Sinners, they maintained, are justified wholly on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to them, a righteousness appropriated by faith alone. The doctrine of justification by works which gained traction in medieval theology and was defended by Rome at the Council of Trent was anathema to them. They took a much more positive view, however, of the doctrine of justification of works; that is, the doctrine that not only the believing sinner himself or herself but also the believing sinner’s good works are cloaked in Christ’s own perfect righteousness (apprehended by faith), and so are most pleasing to God.
Robert Rollock (1555-1599), the first regent, principal, and professor of theology at the University of Edinburgh and a key figure in the course of reform in Scotland in the sixteenth century, articulated this position well in a short treatise on good works published with his Romans Commentary in 1593. Rollock writes:
“Man already regenerated, having through faith recovered some portion of sincerity of heart, can by virtue of that portion be described as ready unto good works–according to that measure, of course, in which integrity and sincerity of heart has been recuperated. But the work of a regenerate man is good only according to its share of conformity to the law, and does not give all that is required to the Law of God, who is most holy and most perfect. Hence it does not, insofar as it possesses even the smallest degree of imperfection, satisfy God. For, then, a work to be satisfying to God and to conform to his own law and will, it must appear, as it were, before him–it must be led into his own light and view–cloaked in Christ’s merit, which is apprehended by faith. Thus it is said in Rom. 14:23, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” And similarly in Heb. 11:6, “without faith it is impossible to please him,” which statement means not only that man’s heart, by faith in Jesus Christ, is made clean and recovers some part of its sincerity and integrity, but also, in truth, that the imperfection of works proceeding from a heart only in part reborn are covered by that same faith.