Five Questions about Sanctification and Good Works: Do Good Works Merit Eternal Life?

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Throughout this week I have been 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 look at our final question: Do good works merit eternal life?

The first thing to notice about this fifth question is that it’s not the same as the third question. When we hear the two questions as identical, we are bound to answer at least one of them incorrectly. For while good works are necessary to salvation, they do not merit eternal life.

We’re not going to get into the weeds of Roman Catholic theology and talk about merit of congruity and merit of condignity (Turretin rejects both). Let’s stick with the bigger, more relevant question about good works meriting eternal life. Here again, we need to parse our terms carefully.

The word “merit” is used in two ways: either broadly and improperly; or strictly and properly. Strictly, it denotes that work to which a reward is due from justice on account of its intrinsic value and worth. But it is often used broadly for the consecution of any thing. In this sense, the verb “to merit” is often used by the fathers put for “to gain,” “to obtain,” “to attain.” (XVII.v.1)

This is a crucial distinction and one that relates directly to the conversation surrounding Piper’s foreword. Here’s what Turretin is saying in effect: “Look, we have to realize that people use these words in different ways. Technically, merit means someone or something is given its due. In this sense, good works, even of the justified believer, do not merit eternal life. On the other hand, people sometimes use ‘merit’ more loosely, as another way of indicating sequence. So if B follows A, or if A is a condition for B, some people say that A gains, obtains, attains, or even merits B. This is not the best way to describe things, but many people, like the church fathers, mean to communicate nothing more than that eternal life is connected to good works in a necessary chain of events.”

Here’s what Piper said in his foreword to Schreiner’s new book:

[T]his book is dealing with treasures of immeasurable importance. Infinity cannot be measured. And infinite things are at stake. As Tom Schreiner says, the book “tackles one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: how can a person be right with God?”

The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions.

Given everything we know about Piper’s theology (including his passionate defense of a Reformation understanding of justification), and given the fact that he’s explicitly talking in these sentences about conditions and not merit, it is safe to assume that Piper is using “attain” with reference to a necessary sequence and does not mean to imply that there is an intrinsic worth in our good deeds that somehow makes heaven our due. Frankly, I would not use the language of “attaining heaven.” It is too easily misunderstood, and in the strictest sense comes too close to “merit.” Even “obtain” (which suggests getting or securing) would be better than “attain” (which suggests achieving or accomplishing). But I know what Piper means and agree with the point is he trying to make.

What does it mean for a good work to be meritorious in the strict sense? Turretin mentions five characteristics:

1. The work be “undue.” That is, we are not merely doing what we owe.

2. The work must be ours and not owing to the work of another.

3. The work must be absolutely perfect.

4. The work is equal to the payment made.

5. The payment or reward is owed us because of the intrinsic worth of the work. (XVII.v.6)

Clearly, our good works do not meet any of these requirements. Using a strict and proper understanding of “merit,” we must never conclude that our good works merit eternal life. For even our best works are (1) merely what we owe, (2) from God’s grace in us, (3) imperfect, (4) much less than the reward of eternal life, and (5) not worthy in and of themselves. Good works are necessary to salvation, but not in order to effect salvation or acquire it by right. The necessity is not of causality and efficiency (XVII.iii.3).

In short, while our good works are often praiseworthy in Scripture–pleasing to God and truly good–they do not win for us our heavenly reward. There is a true and necessary connection between good works and final glorification, but the connection is not one of merit.

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