Through Good Works? (1)

Do we come into possession of eternal life through good works as a co-instrument with faith?

This raises the question: did the Reformed teach that good works are co-instrumental in salvation in the fullest sense? Did they teach that it is partly through faith and partly through good works that we are delivered from the wrath to come and from the effects of sin? On its face it seems improbable that evangelical Protestants, who had just emerged from the medieval doctrine of justification through progressive sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace) should turn around and posit that we are delivered from the wrath of God, even in part, by or through our cooperation with grace or good works.

 

Introduction
In Reformed theology the noun salvation is typically used in two ways. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for justification. When used this way it does not include sanctification since, according to the Reformed confession, justification is a declarative act of God whereby he credits (imputes) to sinners the perfect, active and suffering righteousness of Christ so that it is as if those sinners to whom Christ’s righteousness has been so imputed are considered to have themselves accomplished personally all the Christ did for them as their substitute. Further, we say that this benefit is received through faith alone (sola fide) defined as trusting, resting in, and receiving Christ and his righteousness. We confess that both the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and faith as the receiving instrument are nothing but God’s free gifts. Hence we attribute all of this to God’s favor (grace) alone. The slogan for this is sola gratia, by grace alone.

We also say, however, that God’s grace is twofold (duplex), the justification is the first benefit (beneficium) and sanctification is the second. It is not a “second blessing” in the way neo-Pentecostalists speak of tongues etc as a “second blessing,” as if there are two classes of Christians, those with and those without. Rather, we say that progressive sanctification flows from or grows out of and is grounded in our justification. It too is also a gift of God, his work in his by his Spirit, through his divinely ordained means, whereby he puts to death in us the sin and makes alive in us Christ or whereby he is gradually and graciously conforming us to Christ.

The noun salvation is also used to describe that whole complex of benefits, justification and sanctification. In this sense we are thinking both of deliverance from the wrath to come and from the effects of the fall in this life. In our confessional documents and in our theologians both of these benefits (justification and sanctification) are said to be by grace alone. Often times, though not perhaps universally, in our theologians (as distinct from our ecclesiastical confessions) salvation is said to be through faith alone. That is, the sole instrument of justification and salvation is faith alone. In our confessions certainly and in our better writers, good works are said to be a necessary concomitant or an accompanying fruit and evidence of justification and salvation.

Diversity of Expression Within Confessional Boundaries
Since I have already addressed this at length let us focus specifically on the use and function of the English instrumental phrase “through good works” and its Latin equivalent, “per bona opera.” There is no question whether Reformed writers have used this language. The question is what was meant by it. As we grapple with the diversity of expression within Reformed theology we should also remember that there are confessional boundaries. In other words, the temptation in our age is to appeal to “the many” or the particular over against “the one” or that which unifies. Cornelius Van Til was correct. We should also seek to keep the one and the many together. There is value in recognizing differences but we should not mistake formal or rhetorical differences forsubstantial differences. Further, there was a unified Reformed theology. We know that because it came to expression authoritative ecclesiastically sanctioned documents, the Reformed confessions. Those documents, under the sole, unique authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) form the boundaries of what properly constitutes the Reformed confession, i.e., our theology, piety, and practice. Not every opinion or every expression of every Reformed writer is definitive for Reformed theology.

Heidelberg Catechism 86 is a classic expression of the Reformed confession concerning the moral necessity of good works:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.

Since I have already written a four-part explanation of this question and answer suffice it to say here that the catechism gives 4 reasons for doing good works:

  1. Gratitude
  2. God’s Glory
  3. Assurance of Faith
  4. Christian Witness

The catechism never remotely suggests that good works are either the ground of our salvation—the very idea of which it repudiates consistently—nor does it suggest or imply that good works are any part of the instrument of our salvation. Notice that the term in the question is not justification but “redeemed.” This is the broader of idea of deliverance from wrath (justification) and the effects of sin (sanctification). Though we confess justification and salvation sola fide, through the sole instrument of faith, we do not confess sola fides, i.e., a faith that is alone. A living tree produces good fruit.

The Question: Do Good Works Return As Instruments Under The Heading Of Salvation?

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