When a sinner believes in Jesus they have the right to eternal life. This is a strong emphasis in the New Testament. Eternal life is God’s free gift in Christ Jesus (Rom. 6:23) for all who believe (Rom. 3:22–24). The person who believes “has eternal life” (John 3:36), so there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). These verses and many more highlight the glorious truth that salvation is a present reality: a verdict has been delivered by God to those who are in Christ.
However, the careful reader of Scripture will also notice passages that highlight a “works” element in relation to eternal life. A good example is Galatians 6:7–8, where Paul writes:
Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
“Sowing to the Spirit” here clearly involves good works. The key question for us is this: how can those who already have eternal life by faith be said to “reap eternal life” by sowing to the Spirit in works of grace-fueled obedience? This is admittedly a complex question. After all, eternal life as a free gift (Rom. 6:23) and eternal life as a crop reaped (Gal. 6:8) don’t exactly sound the same on the surface.
The best way I’ve seen this question solved by has been to distinguish between the “right to salvation” and the “possession of salvation.”
Distinguishing Between ‘Right’ and ‘Possession’
This distinction between right and possession was employed by Reformed theologians in centuries past. Our right to salvation has in view the work of Christ on behalf of sinners, which is received by faith alone. So the person who puts faith in Christ has eternal life because the person has Christ himself. All of our works of obedience are excluded from the “right to salvation” (Rom. 4:4–5; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5).
Between the already of justification and the not yet of glorification lies a path and, according to Scripture, that path must be strewn with good works.
But concerning the so-called “conditional” passages, we speak of the “possession of salvation.” In this vein, the New Testament clearly teaches that there is a “not yet” aspect to our salvation. For example, in Romans 13:11, Paul says that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Between the already of justification and the not yet of glorification lies a path, and according to Scripture, that path must be strewn with good works. According to Paul, these are the good works that “God prepared beforehand for us to walk in” (Eph. 2:10). They’re what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit” in the previous chapter (Gal. 5:22–23) and what Hebrews describes as “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
This is what our Reformed forebears meant when they spoke of good works performed in the Spirit bringing us into “possession” of eternal life (Eph. 2:10; Gal. 6:8). They meant that God is going to lead us into possession of our glorious inheritance by the path of good works (Matt. 25:34–36). There is no other path to walk since our faith is dead without works (James 2:14–26).
More Help from Older Reformed Theologians
We may understand it in this way: we eat because we’re alive, but we still need to eat in order to remain alive. As Herman Witsius put it, we’ve been made alive by the Spirit, “but we must also act in the same manner, that that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life” (Deut. 30:19–20).
Marshaling a number of biblical texts, 17th-century Reformed theologian Francis Turretin explains:
This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (John 3:5, 16; Matt. 5:8); of the “way” to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil. 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7, 8) . . . of labor to the reward (Matt. 20:1); of the “contest” to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).
Works done in the Spirit simply have a relation of the means to the end; they are the way to life, not the right to life.
The “one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8) insofar as the possession of life is concerned. Works done in the Spirit simply have a relation of the means to the end; they’re the way to life, not the right to life.
The merciful shall receive mercy; the pure in heart shall see God (Matt. 5:7–8); and “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). This is what it means to sow to the Spirit in order to reap eternal life.
Necessity of Fruit
In this same vein, we need to be sensitive to the biblical teaching that Christians will be judged according to their works when Christ returns (see 2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:27; John 5:28–29; Rev. 20:13; 22:12). These works aren’t meritorious and thus don’t give believers the right to salvation. But they’re necessary and therefore place believers in the possession of salvation. Spirit-filled believers are “full of goodness” (Rom. 15:14; cf. Gal. 5:22), and they can and must do according to the goodness that is in them.
Good works are a means used by God (Eph. 2:10) to bring his children home in a manner that glorifies Christ.
In Question and Answer 32 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “holy obedience” isn’t only evidence of a true faith and thankfulness to God (gratitude), but also functions as “the way which he has appointed them to salvation.” These good works, as the fruit that leads to holiness (from holiness) have their end as eternal life (WCF 16.2; cf. Rom. 6:22). Fruit isn’t optional, as is clearly the case from Christ’s language in John 15, especially verse 2, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away.”
Good works are the way to final salvation, appointed by God. Good works are a means used by God (Eph. 2:10) to bring his children home in a manner that glorifies Christ.
Using the right to life versus the possession of life distinction helps to clarify both how good works are necessary for salvation and how they aren’t. We can’t rid the New Testament of its conditional language any more than we can rid it of its teaching on the free nature of justification by faith alone (compare Rom. 3:21–24 with Rom. 8:13). But we can try to be honest to all the biblical data.