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 our fourth question: Can justified believers do that which is truly good?

Before we answer that question, we need to understand what is required for a work to be truly good? Turretin mentions four things: 1) that the work be done from the faith of a renewed heart, 2) that the work be done according to the will of God revealed in his word, 3) that the work be done not just externally but internally from the heart, and 4) that the work be done to the glory of God (XVII.iv.5). This fairly standard Reformed definition implies that however decent and ethical the works of the non-Christian may be, they are still not truly good in the fullest sense (XVII.iv.6).

Reformed Christians sometimes make the mistake of thinking that if they are to be really Reformed they must utterly denigrate everything they do as Christians. To be sure, as we have seen, we cannot fulfill the law absolutely. Even our best works are full of weakness and imperfection. But here’s where the careful distinctions of scholastic theology are so helpful: good works can be truly good without being perfectly good. The answer to this fourth question is, “Yes, believers can do that which is truly good.” “We have proved before,” Turretin writes, “that the latter cannot be ascribed to the works of the saints on account of the imperfection of sanctification and the remains of sin. But the former is rightly predicated of them because though they are not as yet perfectly renewed, still they are truly good and unfeignedly renewed” (XVII.iv.9). In other words, there is another category for our good works besides “earning salvation” and “nothing but filthy rags.”

According to Turretin, there are at least three reasons why we must conclude that the works of believers can be truly good. First, because our good works are performed by a special motion and impulse of the Holy Spirit. Second, because Scripture repeatedly says that such works please God. And third, because the saints are promised a reward for their good works. If, in order to sound extra pious and humble, we insist that our good works are actually nothing of the sort, we end up making too little of the Spirit’s work in our lives and muting dozens of biblical texts. While it may be true that even our best deeds are still sins, in the sense that they are still not perfectly righteous, this does not mean that they cannot also be considered truly good in a different sense.

Our affirmation that all works (even the best) are not free from sin in this life does not destroy the truth of the good works of believers because although we affirm that as to mode they are never performed with that perfection which can sustain the rigid examination of the divine judgment (on account of the imperfection of sanctification), still we maintain that as to the thin they are good works. And if they are called sins, this must be understood accidentally with respect to the mode, not of themselves and in their own nature. (XVII.iv.13)

Got it? The good works of the believers can be truly good works, even if the mode in which they are done is imperfect. This distinction between truly good and perfectly good can put an end to a lot of fuzzy thinking about sanctification and help clear up a lot of confusion between Christians who too easily talk past each other because they lack the proper categories for saying what they really mean to say.