There is no question among orthodox, i.e., confessional, Reformed folk whether good works are necessary as a consequence, evidence, and a fruit of justification and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone. There is no question whether God’s moral law, whether summarized in the decalogue, in the gospels, or in the epistles is the norm for the Christian life. Anyone who denies this third use of the law is an antinomian and that error is condemned by both the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches. There is no question whether there is a distinction between justification, that gracious declaration by God that sinners, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone are reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s perfect, whole obedience and righteousness imputed, and sanctification, the ongoing work of the Spirit in believers gradually and graciously conforming them to the image of Christ. On the relations between justification and salvation there is general agreement in the Reformed tradition that they are inseparable but distinct, salvation being a broader category that includes both justification and sanctification. Nevertheless, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and so the reader must pay attention to the way the term salvation is being used in any particular context. Finally, generally sanctification and good works are related but distinct. Sanctification describes the process of our conformity to Christ, the dying (mortification) of the old man and the making alive (vivification) of the new by the Spirit in us and good works are a consequence of that gracious work in us.
Recently two related claims have been made about the role of works in salvation. One writer claims “a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.”
This is, to say the least, an arresting expression. Should we accept it? Let’s try to find a baseline. Do the Reformed Churches speak this way? The expression “unto salvation” does occur in the Westminster Confession (1648). In 1.6 it distinguishes between the general knowledge of God, which all image bearers have and that which is “sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” In 3.6, on God’s eternal decree, we confess:
6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
When we speak of God’s effectual call (as distinct from the general, outward call), we say that the elect are called “unto faith” by the Spirit, who uses the ordinary means of grace. Here we see the (logical) order of salvation. It is the elect who are effectually called, it is they were are justified, it is the justified who are adopted, sanctified, and kept by God’s sovereign power “through faith, unto salvation.” It describes the application of redemption by the Spirit as being “saved.” Here we see how salvation is a broader concept that includes justification along with other benefits conferred freely upon the elect in time and space. The instrument of salvation here is faith. That’s the meaning of the word “through.” We receive Christ and all his benefits through faith alone. This is one reason I’ve been trying to make the case that faith alone is the instrument of justification and salvation (emphasis added).
The expression “unto salvation” also occurs in the Larger and Shorter catechisms (1648). The Larger Catechism reiterates the doctrine of WCF 1 regarding the knowledge of God “unto salvation.” Q/A 79 teaches that believers are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Q/A elaborates upon this teaching. The Spirit graciously enables believers to persevere and believers are those who “truly believe in Christ” and who “endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him.” The Larger Catechism here distinguishes between “is” and “because” or “through.” Believers do obey. That is the case but that obedience is never said to be the ground or instrument of their salvation. Q/A 155 specifically addresses this issue:
Q. 155. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; or building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
The Holy Spirit, as he always has, operates powerfully through the Word. Through the Word he creates new life, confers faith, unites them to Christ, sanctifies, “through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Again, the divines did not speak of works as the ground or instrument of salvation. Faith is the instrument of salvation. This is the explicit and repeated doctrine of the Westminster Divines and of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.1
The Westminster Standards would have us think and say that we are justified and saved through faith alone. There is prima facie evidence in Scripture for speaking this way. When the Israelites were against it, when the Egyptian armies were descending upon them at the Red Sea, how did God save them from death and destruction? How were their good works “efficacious unto salvation” at the Red Sea? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course the Israelites were completely helpless and the same sovereign Lord who became incarnate, who obeyed for us, by whose righteousness we are saved is he who stretched out his powerful right hand, parted the waters, and led them through on dry ground. It is he who destroyed Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea. This episode is so paradigmatic for the biblical way of considering salvation that when our Lord pronounces the gospel prologue to the Ten Commandments, he says, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2; revised from the ESV). The Lord saved Israel from destruction despite their sin and rebellion.
According to Jeremiah 31 and the NT Scriptures, the new covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham. In the new covenant, however, salvation remains the process of deliverance from the destruction to come, pictured by the Red Sea and the judgments upon Egypt. God is saving those whom he has freely justified for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Those whom he is saving will do good works, not according to their own subjective imaginations but as measured by God’s holy, objective standard: his moral law (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 114). Those good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in them. They are enabled by the Holy Spirit. They are evidence that, indeed, the one who professes faith really is a believer. The ground of the believer’s confidence, however, is the righteousness and sacrifice of the Lamb of God imputed to him. The instrument through which God is saving him is faith. As important and necessary as good works are, they are not confessed by the Reformed churches to be “efficacious unto salvation.” After all, just as God graciously delivered us from Egypt, how much more has he graciously delivered us from sin and death? Paul’s question is rhetorical: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously (χαρίσεται) give us all things”? (Romans 8:32 ESV) Salvation is given to us sinners freely, graciously. It was earned for us by Christ. Yes, we must respond appropriately. Scripture and our confessions and theologians are clear about this but we must resist the temptation to re-institute the old medieval and Romanist carrot and stick. No, our faith, our confession, our understanding of Scripture says that it is guilt, grace, and gratitude.
Next time: What do our theologians say?
1. See also Westminster Shorter Catechism 89 on this very same topic.