Five Questions about Sanctification and Good Works: Are Good Works Necessary to Salvation?

Throughout this week I will be walking through the five questions Francis Turretin tackles in his chapter on “Sanctification and Good Works” (Seventeenth Topic). Here are the five questions, slightly modified for ease of understanding:

  1. How does sanctification differ from justification?
  2. Can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?
  3. Are good works necessary to salvation?
  4. Can justified believers do that which is truly good?
  5. Do good works merit eternal life?

Today we come to Question #3: Are good works necessary to salvation?

If you’ve never read Turretin, you are really missing out. He’s not the easiest writer, and he doesn’t write the loftiest prose. But he is exceedingly careful. He defines his terms, dissects various opinions, and always makes clear what’s the real question he’s trying to answer.

So it’s not surprising that Turretin begins his discussion by noting that there are three main views when it comes to the necessity of good works. Some are like modern Libertines, who make good works arbitrary and indifferent. Others are like ancient Pharisees, who contend that works are necessary to justification. In trying to hold the middle ground between these two extremes, Turretin maintains, in keeping with “the opinion of the orthodox,” that good works are necessary but not according to the necessity of merit (XVII.iii.2). In other words, the question before us is not “whether good works are necessary to effect salvation or to acquire it of right” (we’ll get to that in the fifth question), but whether good works are “required as the means and way for possessing salvation.” It is in this last sense that Turretin affirms the necessity of good works (XVII.iii.3).

According to Turretin, the necessity of good works is proved from: (1) the command of God, (2) the covenant of grace, (3) the gospel, (4) the state of grace, and (5) the blessings of God. In the covenant of grace there are still stipulations and obligations (conditions, if you will). There are duties man owes to God and blessings that are connected to the exercise of these duties, even if–and this is important–God is the one who sees to it that these duties are carried out. Heaven cannot be reached without good works (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27), which it is such good news that he who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it (Phil. 1:6).

To insist on the necessity of good works is not to become a legalist or a neonomian. “Although we acknowledge the necessity of good works against the Epicureans,” Turretin observes, “we do not on this account confound the law and the gospel and interfere with gratuitous justification by faith alone. Good works are required not for living according to the law, but because we live by the gospel; not as the causes on account of which life is given to us, but as effects which testify that life has been given to us” (XVII.iii.15).

This question about the necessity of good works has often perplexed Christians. If, on the one hand, we say no, good works are not necessary, we can hardly make sense of the warnings and moral imperatives of the New Testament. But if we say good works are necessary to salvation, it can sound like we’ve suddenly made heaven the product of our effort and obedience. But that’s not what Hebrews 12:14 means, nor what Turretin means. Read carefully this paragraph:

Works can be considered in three ways: either with reference to justification or sanctification or glorification. They are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently and meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end. (XVII.iii.14)

That’s a mouthful, but really crucial and really wonderful. Good works are inextricably linked to justification, sanctification, and glorification, but they are related in different ways. Good works come after justification as a result and a declaration. Good works are identified with sanctification as its definition and cheerleader. And good works come before glorification as God’s appointed means to a divinely secured end. Or as Turretin puts it, “grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated” (XVII.iii.14).

Huh, I guess the guy does put out some lofty prose once in awhile.