Five Questions about Faith and Works

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The rediscovery of the doctrine of justification is one of the most important legacies of the Reformation. From Luther to Calvin to later confessional divines, classic Protestants have always insisted that God justifies sinners “not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone” (WCF 11.1).

While Reformation doctrine has been emphatic that faith is “the alone instrument of justification,” it has also repeatedly made clear that faith is “not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving grace” (WCF 11.2).

The relationship between faith and works, between justification and sanctification, has always required careful nuance–whether in polemics with Catholic theologians, or in dialogue with Arminian objections, or in response to later Enlightenment concerns about the nature of true virtue. Thankfully, the Reformed tradition provides the necessary categories and distinctions to help us think through the thorniest problems.

Using Francis Turretin’s Institute of Elenctic Theology as our guide, let’s look at five relevant questions—relevant then and now—which get at the important relationship between faith and works.

First, how does sanctification differ from justification?

In addressing this question, Turretin makes clear that he is not talking about sanctification as a broad term describing the Christian’s position as set apart for God. Rather, he is talking about sanctification in the narrow sense usually assumed by theologians: namely, the renovation of man by which God takes the in-Christ, justified believer and transforms him more and more into the divine image (XVII.i.2-3).

Importantly, Turretin argues that sanctification can be understood “passively,” inasmuch as the transforming work “is wrought by God in us,” and also “actively,” inasmuch as sanctification “ought to be done by us, God performing this work in us and by us” (XVII.i.3). This is a crucial point. Sanctification is not understood correctly if we do not understand that God is doing the work in us, and at the same time we are also working. Any theology that ignores either the active or passive dimension of sanctification is getting it wrong.

Justification and sanctification must not be confused. The most serious, and potentially damning errors, surface when the two are not carefully distinguished.

Turretin explains how justification and sanctification differ.

  • They differ with regard to their object. Justification is concerned with guilt; sanctification with pollution.
  • They differ as to their form. Justification is a judicial and forensic act whereby our sins are forgiven and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. Sanctification is a moral act whereby righteousness is infused to the believer, and our internal renovation is affected.
  • They differ as to the recipient subject. In justification, man is given a new objective status based on God’s acquittal. In sanctification, we are subjectively renewed by God.
  • They differ as to degrees. Justification is given in this life fully, without any possible increase. Sanctification is begun in this life but only made perfect in the next. The declaration of justification is once for all. The inward work of sanctification takes place by degrees.
  • They differ as to the order. God only sanctifies those who are already reconciled and justified by faith. (XVII.i.10)

There is often discussion about whether sanctification is by faith alone. I’ve argued before that “sanctification by faith alone” is not the best phrase to use, not least of all because it can lead to confusion about the absolutely essential affirmation that “justification is by faith alone.”

There is a sense in which “sanctification by faith alone” can be a true statement. Is sanctification a gift that only comes to those who put their faith in Christ? Yes and amen.

But the “by” in “justification by faith alone” is not the same as the “by” in “sanctification by faith alone.” Both justification and sanctification are by faith, but whereas faith is the instrument through which we receive the righteousness of Christ, faith is the root and principle out of which sanctification grows (XVII.i.19). We say that justification is by faith alone, because we want to safeguard justification from any notion of striving or working. But sanctification explicitly includes these co-operations (XV.v.1-2), making the description of “alone” misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.

Second, can we fulfill the law absolutely in this life?

Of the five questions, this one has been the least controversial in contemporary discussions. Virtually everyone agrees that the “perfection of sanctification” is not possible for fallen human beings on this side of heaven.

Interestingly, though, Turretin thinks certain kinds of perfection are possible. The question about fulfilling the law absolutely is not about the perfection of sincerity (serving God with a whole heart), nor the perfection of parts (being sanctified in body and soul), neither is it about comparative perfection (that some believers would be more advanced than others), nor evangelical perfection (whereby God in paternal forbearance perfects our works with his grace). Turretin affirms “all these species of perfections,” noting that the Bible often speaks of believers being “perfect” and “upright.” In other words, we can be obedient in a real sense.

But the question about fulfilling the law is, for Turretin, a question about legal perfection (XVII.ii.4).

The question returns to this—Can the renewed believer so carry on his own sanctification as to attain perfection (not only as to parts, but also as to degrees); and can he fulfill the law (not only mildly and evangelically, but also strictly and legally) and so copiously satisfy the divine law as to live not only without crime, but also without sin; and the law have nothing which it can accuse and condemn in him, if God should enter into judgment with him? The opponents affirm; we deny. (XVII.ii.7).

That we are unable to fulfill the law absolutely can be seen from several realities taught clearly in Scripture: the remaining corruption of sin in the believer in 1 John 1, the struggle between flesh and the Spirit in Romans 7, the unbearable yoke of the law in Acts 15, the command to pray daily for the remission of sins in the Lord’s Prayer, and the example of the saints throughout the Bible (XVII.ii.10-26). There are many ways in which the Bible does talk about the believer being obedient, righteous, and holy. But we must not understand any of these to imply that we can so fulfill the law that God has nothing properly against us were he to judge strictly and legally.

Third, are good works necessary to salvation?

Turretin begins his discussion of this notoriously difficult question 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 is why 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 later puts it, “grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated” (XVII.iii.14).

Fourth, 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:

  • that the work be done from the faith of a renewed heart,
  • that the work be done according to the will of God revealed in his Word,
  • that the work be done not just externally but internally from the heart, and
  • that the work be done to the glory of God (XVII.iv.5).

This standard Reformed definition implies that however decent and ethical the works of the non-Christians 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 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 thing 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)

In other words, the good works of the believers can be truly good works, even if the mode in which they are done is imperfect.

Fifth and finally, 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 for “to gain,” “to obtain,” “to attain.” (XVII.v.1)

This is a crucial distinction. 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.”

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

  • The work be “undue.” That is, we are not merely doing what we owe.
  • The work must be ours and not owing to the work of another.
  • The work must be absolutely perfect.
  • The work is equal to the payment made.
  • 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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