In part 1 we saw a brief history of how sanctification came to become more than the fruit of our salvation. In this installment we want to see how the Protestants talked about our obedience as the fruit and evidence of our salvation. Where Rome (e.g., Trent), the Socinians, and Richard Baxter made good works the antecedent condition of our salvation (the law of works), i.e., they played the same role as faith, the Protestants made good works the necessary consequence of our salvation. According to the moralists, we do good works in order to be saved. According to the Protestants, we do good works because we have been saved. One says, in effect, that we are saved from the flood (judgment) partly through faith and partly through our good works. The other says we obey out of gratitude, in union and communion with the risen Christ, because we have been saved, as it were, from the flood. This is the best understanding of Ephesians 2:8–10. Our salvation and the faith by which we receive it, it’s all God’s gift.
It was Luther who gave us the adjective antinomian, those who reject the abiding validity of God’s holy moral law as the norm for the Christian. Almost as soon as Luther and the Protestants had recovered the gospel of free salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), resting in and receiving Christ and all his benefits, a movement arose that rejected the abiding validity of the moral law. Luther defended not only the first use of the moral law (whereby we learn the greatness of our sin and misery) but also the third use whereby the moral law norms the Christian life. We keep the law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.
Good works, he taught, are the a necessary consequence of our justification and salvation:
We conclude with Paul that we are justified solely by faith in Christ, without the Law and works. But after a man is justified by faith, now possesses Christ by faith, and knows that He is his righteousness and life, he will certainly not be idle but, like a sound tree, will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17). For the believer has the Holy Spirit; and where He is, He does not permit a man to be idle but drives him to all the exercises of devotion, to the love of God, to patience in affliction, to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to the practice of love toward all men.1
He was not finished. In the very next paragraph Luther wrote
Therefore we, too, say that faith without works is worthless and useless. The papists and the fanatics take this to mean that faith without works does not justify, or that if faith does not have works, it is of no avail, no matter how true it is. That is false. But faith without works—that is, a fantastic idea and mere vanity and a dream of the heart—is a false faith and does not justify.2
For Luther, as for all the confessional Protestants following him, good works do not make faith what it is but neither can one claim to have true faith without them any more than a tree can be said to be good without fruit. The fruit demonstrates what the tree is. The fruit is evidence that the tree is alive.
This, of course, never satisfies the moralist. He will have good works as part of faith both in justification and for our final entrance into glory:
On the other hand, the weak, who are not malicious or slanderous but good, are offended when they hear that the Law and good works do not have to be done for justification. One must go to their aid and explain to them how it is that works do not justify, how works should be done, and how they should not be done. They should be done as fruits of righteousness, not in order to bring righteousness into being. Having been made righteous, we must do them; but it is not the other way around: that when we are unrighteous, we become righteous by doing them. The tree produces fruit; the fruit does not produce the tree.3
This metaphor of good works as fruit was widely adopted by Protestant writers. It became a standard feature of Reformed theologians in the British Isles and across Europe. It was so widely accepted that it became a the way that the Reformed churches spoke about good works in their confessions.
The Reformed Confessions And Theologians
Perhaps the locus classicus (the most typical place) is Belgic Confession article 24:
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification— for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.
The charge made by Rome and the Anabaptists, among others, was that the evangelical doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide would make Christians cold and careless about their sanctification. The Reformed churches refuted that charge by arguing that the same grace by which we have been given new life also produces faith and it is “impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful.” True faith is God’s gift. It unites us to the risen and ascended Christ who, by his Spirit, works in us conformity to himself and to his moral will. This is how we understand “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Rome, remember, turned “faith working through love” into “faith formed by love” (on this see part 1). In response, Calvin wrote on Galatians 5:6, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.”
In the 1559 edition of the Institutes Calvin wrote at length on the relationship between the grace of justification and the grace of sanctification.
But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.4
Notice that, for Calvin, we are not justified “without” works but we are not justified “through” them. They are concomitant to our justification and our salvation but they are not the instrument (“through”) of our salvation. This is the difference between through and is. He continued in the next section to give a series of biblical quotations and allusions proving that “no one can put sharper spurs to them than those derived from the end of our redemption and calling” (3.16.2). In other words, contra the moralists, guilt, grace, and gratitude (lived in union and communion with Christ) is enough to empower and enable the Christian life of sanctification and the fruit of good works. He asked rhetorically, “Could we be aroused to love by any livelier argument than that of John’s: that “we love one another as God has loved us”? (ibid). God’s gracious for our present tribulation produces fruit: “Let us always remember that this promise, like all others, would not bear fruit for us if the free covenant of his mercy had not gone before, upon which the whole assurance of our salvation depended” (3.18.7).
In the Second Helvetic Confession (published 1566) the Swiss Reformed confessed:
The same apostle calls faith efficacious and active through love (Gal. 5:6). It also quiets the conscience and opens a free access to God, so that we may draw near to him with confidence and may obtain from him what is useful and necessary. The same faith keeps us in the service we owe to God and our neighbor, strengthens our patience in adversity, fashions and makes a true confession, and in a word brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works (ch. 16).
We obey because God has graciously redeemed us. The very same grace and faith that saves also produces the fruit of good works, the evidence of our salvation.
For we teach that truly good works grow out of a living faith by the Holy Spirit and are done by the faithful according to the will or rule of God’s Word. Now the apostle Peter says: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control,” etc.(II Peter 1:5 ff.). But we have said above that the law of God, which is his will, prescribes for us the pattern of good works. And the apostle says: “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from immorality…that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in business” (I Thess. 4:3 ff.).
We are not antinomian but we use the law the way it was intended to be used: as the norm of our new life, not the instrument or ground of our salvation.
The Westminster Confession could not have been clearer about the relationship between faith and fruits:
2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life (chapter 16).
Our good works do not justify us. They do not sanctify us. They do not save us but they are the “fruit and evidences” of a true and lively faith. Christ saved us by his obedience, death, and resurrection. The Spirit sanctifies by his grace. Our good works are the fruit of God’s gracious for us and in us.
The logic is this: God graciously works in us new life and faith. Through that faith we apprehend Christ and all his benefits for our salvation. Through that faith the Spirit works union and communion with Christ in which we are sanctified and out of that faith, union, and communion are produced the fruit of our new life and sanctification in Christ. Fruit is a metaphor. As the Belgic Confession has it, good trees produce good fruit. The fruit is evidence of the life in the tree. So, the Spirit produces new life, faith, union with Christ, justification and sanctification in the sinner. Our good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us and evidence of the salvation that we have by grace alone, through faith alone.
1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 154–155. I am indebted to John Fonville for his help with this post.
2. Luther’s Works, 26.155.
3. Luther’s Works, 26.169.
4. Calvin, Institutes (Battles edition), 3.16.1.
A perspicacious denouement of an elegant presentation. Edifying and illuminating.