We Attain Heaven Through Faith Alone

salvationRecently an influential evangelical writer (no names please, this is about truth not personalities) wrote “…right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone.” The claim is that Christians should believe that we “attain heaven” by more than faith, i.e., by our cooperation with grace. This proposition fits with a claim made by others that we are justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) but that salvation, because it is a broader category, because it includes sanctification, is partly through obedience, faithfulness, or works.

The Argument
Here is the argument in the form of a syllogism:

  1. Salvation involves justification and sanctification.
  2. Sanctification is by grace and cooperation with grace (works)
  3. Therefore salvation is partly by works.

In this discussion there have also been claims about the history of Reformed theology, that the orthodox Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century taught justification sola gratia, sola fide but salvation (the broader category) partly through works. What the Reformed (e.g., Turretin) frequently said is that good works are necessary ad salutem (unto salvation). Some have drawn the inference that the Reformed intended to teach that good works are instrumental in our salvation. I have disputed this claim in this series beginning here. Before you comment below, please read the series.

Rather, we should agree with Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) who, fairly represented the Reformed tradition, rejected the theory that good works are instrumental in salvation:

“[good works] cannot be regarded as necessary to merit salvation, nor as a means to retain a hold on salvation, nor even as the only way along which to proceed to eternal glory, for children enter salvation without having done any good works. The Bible does not teach that no one can be saved apart from good works. At the same time good works necessarily follow from the union of believers with Christ”(emphasis added)

Berkhof taught that good works are fruit and evidence of salvation. Here is the basic distinction which is frequently missed in this discussion (and in the discussion of justification): is and through. It is the case that believers, who are in union with the risen Christ by the sovereign grace of the Spirit, through faith alone, produce fruit. This is the Reformed understanding of our Lord’s teaching about abiding (John 15:4). It is not the case, as some suggest, that we “get in” by grace (e.g., baptism) and we “stay in” by cooperating with grace (abiding). Any such scheme turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works since, in any event, our abiding, our cooperating, becomes the decisive factor, the sine qua non of salvation.

I have already sketched a biblical and theological case for justification and salvation sola fide (please read this before commenting) but, in the present climate, it seems useful to elaborate the case.

The Biblical Paradigm For Thinking About Salvation
In order to understand the biblical teaching we must first ask what is salvation? From what must we be saved? To what is salvation? Scripture is abundantly clear. The thing from which we must be saved is God’s holy justice and wrath in hell. The thing to which we must be saved is eternal fellowship with God heaven.

There are two great paradigmatic episodes in salvation (not only justification) history (historia salutis) that help orient us to the question: the flood and the Exodus. In Genesis chapters 6–9 Noah is portrayed to us as a believing sinner who was not only justified sola gratia, sola fide but saved from the wrath of God, which wrath was represented by the flood waters (1 Pet 2:5; 3:18–22; 4:17; 2 Pet 3:7). We know with certainty that Noah was saved through faith alone because God’s holy, inspired, infallible Word teaches us so.

Was Noah saved through works or through faith? Hebrews says through faith.” In the context of a discussion of this very issue, one correspondent wrote that Noah was saved partly through works since it took effort to build the ark. In contrast, Scripture says that Noah was saved from the wrath to come by grace alone, through faith alone:

By faith (πίστει) Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes according to faith (κατὰ πίστιν; Heb 11:7. Emphasis added).

The instrument through which Noah was saved was faith. That is the intent behind the author’s use of the dative case. We may fairly translate that form with our English phrase “through faith.” Where the Scriptures speak unequivocally to an issue, it is imperative that we allow Scripture (and not an inference), to control our conception. Scripture speaks quite plainly about salvation in Hebrews 11. I say this because when I asked a recent correspondent whether Noah was saved through faith alone or through works he replied that, since Noah actively built the ark, he was saved partly through works. This is a classic example of a systematic inference or an a priori (what must be) adversely affecting our doctrine of salvation. In Genesis, Moses portrays Noah as a believing sinner who acted in faith by building the ark but the writer to the Hebrews wrote what he did precisely to preclude the very inference drawn by my correspondent. The writer says “by faith” (or through faith) and “according to faith” to emphasize the instrument of faith in salvation and justification. The first category he invoked was salvation (σωτηρίαν). This is deliverance from the judgment waters. The second category he invoked was righteousness (δικαιοσύνης). The pastor to the Hebrew Christians did not allow them to distinguish justification and salvation as if one is sola fide and the other is not. He muddied the distinction between justification and salvation (please read this before commenting below).

The other paradigmatic episode in the history of redemption that should control our conception of salvation is the Red Sea. Scripture says: “When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to Yahweh” (Exod 14:10). The Israelites were helpless and hopeless. Their backs were against the sea and death was upon them. We know that they were saved by grace alone, i.e., by God’s sovereign favor, conditioned by nothing in them or done by them but through what instrument were they saved? On analogy with my correspondent’s argument above we might think that they were saved by walking through the Red Sea but that is not how Holy Scripture speaks: “By faith (πίστει) the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned” (Heb 11:29). This is the same instrumental dative that we saw above in reference to Noah. The same argument applies.

What About Sanctification?
The question comes: “if salvation is sola gratia, sola fide, where does our free cooperation with grace fit in the picture? After all, does not sanctification entail genuine effort? Surely it does but once again Scripture gives us the way to think and speak about the relationship between our effort in sanctification and our salvation. The problem with the syllogism at the outset of this essay is that the middle premise is flawed. “Sanctification is the work of God’s grace.” That is not the language of some dodgy crypto-Lutheran. That is the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 35. What is sanctification?

A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

We need to distinguish between sanctification and its fruits. The genuine effort that we freely exert toward sanctity is the result of God’s gracious sanctifying work in us. In other words, sanctification is not by works. It too is by grace. To put it in Paul’s terms we did not receive the Spirit (of sanctification) by “works of the law” but rather through “hearing with faith” (Gal 3:2) According to Paul, sanctification is not a mechanical process that begins like dominoes, whereby the Spirit pushes the first we take care of the rest. No, sanctification is, to borrow a phrase, a “gospel mystery.” It is by grace alone, through faith alone from start to finish. This is why Paul declared, “I have been tcrucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20; ESV). Even sanctification is by faith (ἐν πίστει). Paul, like the pastor to the Hebrew Christians, used the dative case to signal the instrumental function of faith. The Spirit unites us to Christ by faith (instrument). We remain in communion with the risen Christ by faith (instrument). It is in union and communion with Christ that we grow in sanctity, that he enables us to put to death the old man and to be made alive in the new. This is why Heidelberg Catechism 65 says that we have Christ and all his benefits by faith alone.

Good Works Are The Fruit Of Sanctification
Good works are the logically necessary fruit and evidence of salvation (deliverance from judgment) and justification (declaration of righteousness). This is why the Apostle Paul says makes faith the instrument of salvation in Romans 1:16–17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation (εἰς σωτηρίαν) to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith unto faith (ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν), as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith (ἐκ πίστεως).”

First we must notice that Paul’s concern here is broader than justification, the declaration of righteousness on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed. His concern is salvation from the wrath to come. He sketches the crisis faced by sinners before the wrath of a holy God in Romans 1–3. Yes, he is concerned about justification but he is concerned about the whole complex. In that sense, he does not distinguish them. He does not set up a system whereby were are justified in this life but somehow our future inheritance of glory is contingent upon or through our performance or our cooperation with grace. This is why he says that salvation is “of faith unto faith.” In other words, it is by faith and through faith from beginning to end. It is true that we are saved “unto works” (εἰς ἔργον; Eph 4:12) but not by them nor through them. Good works are the fruit, the outcome, the result of God’s saving, justifying, and sanctifying grace. Good works are not instrumental in our salvation. As I wrote elsewhere, The Christian’s shield in spiritual warfare is not his good works. It would not be possible to substitute “good works” for faith. They are not interchangeable. Faith looks to and rests in another, Christ. Good works are the fruit of that faith and evidence of its reality but they do not protect us from the assault of the Devil because our good works are always broken, always stained, always imperfect. In the hour of trial they cannot sustain or protect us. That’s why Paul says that it is faith that extinguishes the darts (the lies, the accusations, the temptations) thrown by the Evil One. Faith has an object: Christ. Faith is as good as its object. That’s why it is a shield. Good works have no such object. For more on this as Paul explains it in Ephesians 6 see this post (please read this before commenting below).

The question as it comes to us uses the verb “to attain.” A rich young ruler (Luke 18:18) asked our Lord what he needed to do (ποιήσας) in order “to inherit” (κληρονομήσω) eternal life. This seems a fair equivalent of the verb “to attain.” Did our Lord say, “trust and obey”? No. He preached the law to him in order to teach him the greatness of his sin and misery, to teach that he could not “do” anything. What he needed to do was to recognize his need and to turn to Christ as his Savior from the wrath to come. This was Calvin’s interpretation of the episode. When the Philippian Jailer (Gaoler for my English readers) asked “what must I do (ποιεῖν) to be saved (σωθῶ)?” The Apostle Paul’s answer: “believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your whole household” (Acts 16:30–31). The question here concerns more than justification. It is about salvation from divine judgment. Both Paul and the Jailer use the verb “to save” not the term “to justify.” There are two potential instruments by which he can receive salvation: doing or believing. Paul says “believe” (πίστευσον). The Jailer asks about “doing” and Paul preaches “believing,” as it were. The Jailer assumes salvation is conditioned upon his performance and Paul replies that Christ has already met the condition for our salvation. We receive it freely, through faith alone.

Our Confession
I have already addressed the confessional teaching at length in the earlier series (link above) but it is helpful to look closely for a moment at the language of Belgic Confession art. 22

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely. Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God—for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”

However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us—for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness. But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins. Belgic Confession 22 (emphasis added)

It is true that de Bres, the author of the Belgic Confession, uses the verb “to justify” but we should not be too quick to conflate justification and salvation here. When de Bres wrote “salvation” he meant more than justification and three times he wrote of salvation or a Savior in this part of the article. Remember, the controversy with Rome (and the Anabaptists) was not only over the doctrine of justification but it was also about the broader category of salvation. de Bres knew that there are two benefits, in this life, that we receive sola gratia, sola fide: justification and sanctification. Calvin called this the duplex gratia Dei and Caspar Olevianus called it the duplex beneficium. The contest with Rome involved justification but it also involved the broader question of deliverance from the wrath to come and our sanctification in this life. Rome taught that we are sanctified unto justification and salvation by grace and free cooperation with grace or by grace and works. The Reformed churches rejected the whole scheme in favor of justification, sanctification, and salvation by favor merited for us by Christ and received by us through faith alone.

We confess explicitly that faith alone is the instrument of our justification and our salvation. As it was for Noah in the flood and for the Israelites at the Red Sea, so it is for us. We are united to Christ by the Spirit through faith alone and through faith alone we commune with him and through faith alone we have been delivered, we are being delivered, and we shall be delivered. Through  faith we inherit eternal life.

Conclusions And Pastoral Advice
As much as anyone else my heart is grieved by the public moral failures of Christian leaders. I understand that there is great concern about sanctification in the Reformed churches and among those broader evangelicals who identify with some aspects of Reformed theology. I have had conversations with pastors who report that they have members in their congregations who defiantly announce that they need not pursue sanctification vigorously, that they need not deny themselves or confess their sin because of grace.

The correct answer, however, to antinomianism has never been to suspend either our justification or our salvation upon our performance, even if we characterize that performance as cooperation with grace. To affirm salvation through faith and works is to nullify justification sola fide. Salvation through faith and works makes our affirmation of justification sola fide a mere formality. The very same problems that plague the doctrine of justification through faithfulness plagues the doctrine of salvation through faithfulness. We have essentially changed the definition of saving, true faith. Where Heidelberg Catechism 21 (and 65) defines true faith as a certain knowledge and a hearty trust in Christ, salvation through faithfulness changes the object of our faith from Christ to my performance. How am I doing? Am I faithful enough to meet the conditions for salvation? These questions plague the Christian’s assurance of faith and salvation.

In effect, it gives a different answer to the Philippian Jailer’s question. It says that we begin with faith but we continue unto salvation by our cooperation with grace. In such a view we have drawn perilously close to the Romanist definition of faith in salvation as “faith formed by love” (fides formata caritate). By turning to such a formulation of salvation we shall have turned back to the very sort of uncertainty from which the Reformation rescued us. Further, however useful that uncertainty might seem toward promoting sanctity, history tells us that it does work.

Though we may worry justly about “Easy believism,” salvation through faithfulness falls into what my friend Darryl Hart calls “easy obey-ism.” It was against this very sort of “easy obey-ism” or salvation through faith and works that Machen warned in 1923, in Christianity and Liberalism. The liberals were talking about “salvation” but they had immanentized it, i.e., they had made it this worldly. Real, salvation, Machen taught, is salvation not from poverty but from the wrath to come and that is sola gratia, sola fide.

If salvation is through faith and works then we have conceded a major point to the Arminians. Remember that the fifth head of doctrine in the Canons of Dort is about perseverance. After considering the grievous and real effects of sin on our Christian pilgrimage, the Synod declared (art. 9): “Of this preservation of the elect to salvation and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they surely believe that they are and ever will continue true and living members of the Church,1 and that they have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal.” We have assurance precisely because our preservation is sola gratia, sola fide. This is why, against the Remonstrant doctrine, Berkhof taught that our perseverance is by grace alone, through faith alone.

Making salvation by grace and works or by grace and faithfulness necessarily turns our eyes back upon our own performance and the quality of our faith and the quality of our sanctification. That is a spiritual dead-end. Suspending our future salvation upon our present performance has never and can never be good news for sinners. None of us meets the test. None of our good works are inherently perfect. They are are all, in themselves, corrupted with sin. This reality has pushed some advocates of similar systems (e.g., the self-described Federal Vision theology) to resurrect the medieval doctrine of congruent merit, i.e., that God imputes perfection to our best efforts unto final justification and salvation. Others are turning to the Romanist two-stage justification and calling it Reformed.

Perhaps worst of all, this view tends to reduce Jesus to a facilitator, who enables us to do our part—as if there is a part, as if there is a condition left unfulfilled. This scheme, of course, necessarily turns the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.

We must obey. We must struggle manfully against sin. We must seek to put the old man to death and to be made alive in the new but we do so only by virtue of our union and communion with Christ, sola gratia, sola fide. Justification sola fide is stunning indeed but it is not stunning enough if we after justification we are sentenced to salvation through faith and works. No, we sinners need a truly and thoroughly stunning gospel of justification and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

UPDATE: Resources on conditions in the covenant of grace.

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  1. Thank you for this very helpful post. Thank you for being clear on the gospel.

    Seems to me that it comes down to this:

    Is Christ’s death on the cross enough, or is it not?
    Is Christ’s obedience to the Law credited to my account enough, or is it not?

    The above syllogism/teaching seems to reveal an unbelief that Christ’s work is enough.

    It ends up changing justification from forensic to factitive.

    With this change, all is lost.

    It’s hard to believe that “gaining heaven by cooperating with grace” teaching gets any traction in today’s Christianity.

    … It’s as though The Reformation never happened.

  2. “Conclusions And Pastoral Advice”…
    and application – Jesus: A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit ; The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.so then, you will know them by their fruits

  3. Scott Clark—As the medieval church accepted the premise that God can only declare one righteous if that one is actually, intrinsically, inherently, righteous (God says what he says because you are what you are) they also developed a corollary: a distinction between initial and final justification.

    In the medieval and modern Roman system, one is said to be initially justified in baptism. If one survived infancy (infant mortality rates in the middle ages and through the 16th century were very high) then one was said to have an “unformed faith” until after the grace of confirmation. Following that one is now obligated to final justification based upon inherent, intrinsic, personal sanctity. This holiness was (and is) said to be the fruit of grace, it is Spirit-wrought (condign merit) and cooperation with grace. Faith is now said to be “formed by love” (i.e., grace and cooperation with grace). At the final judgment after one has achieved perfection (following purgatory in most cases; unless one had a plenary indulgence!)

    The motive of this system is obvious: To get Christians to behave themselves. It was a complete failure. It didn’t work. …. An early 16th-century council complained that the Roman church was corrupt in head and members! When Luther traveled to Rome, his one trip away from “Germany” (there wasn’t any such thing really in the 16th century), he found corruption on a scale that he could not imagine. He expected to find the holy city, the city of God, a city shining on a hill (7 of them!) but instead he found indulgences for sale to a degree that dwarfed Tetzel’s operation in Germany. The city was rife with prostitution (the scene in the recent Luther film captures this nicely). The principal customers were pilgrims and priests.

    The theory is that, if we want Christians to behave, we must suspend their final standing before God upon good behavior or else they have no incentive to be good. The theory is that the best incentive to behave is fear of damnation…. The system was a total failure. The pre-Reformation popes were mostly corrupt. Some of them were outright murderers and adulterers


  4. To understand Schreiner on justification, you have to understand him on perseverance. He takes sides with Daniel Fuller against John Calvin. http://trsbu.blogspot.com/p/forty-theses-on-perseverance.html

    In the book Schreiner wrote with Caneday,The Race Set Before Us (2001, IVP). Schreiner suggests a “paradox” (p 73) in which works are necessary but also for not focusing on these works but on Christ. How it’s possible to rationally live in that paradox is not so clear. Words like “premeditation” and “intention” play a big part..

    I would NOT say that Schreiner’s thesis comes from the “new perspective” or the “federal vision” There’s no need to go to NT Wright or Doug Wilson to find his inspiration.. Schreiner quotes Jonathan Edwards against John Calvin to argue that “works of faith” are necessary for justification.

    But I do share the amazement of Don Garlington (who wrote a book on perseverance from the new perspective and got fired for it) that Schreiner seems to be getting a free pass on this. Whether you think Schreiner is right or wrong, it’s difficult to see the big difference between what Schreiner is writing and what Norman Shepherd and Garlington write.

    Schreiner agrees that he is reading the warning texts differently than Calvin did. On the question of perseverance as condition (not as evidence ), Schreiner is on the same page as Daniel Fuller ( p 313): “Paul would have agreed with James that Abraham’s work of preparing to sacrifice Isaac was an obedience of faith. He would have disagreed strongly with Calvin, who saw obedience and works as only accompanying genuine faith…James’ s concern in 2:14-26 was to urge a faith that saves a person, not simply to tell a person how they could demonstrate their saving faith…Calvin should have taught that justification depends on a persevering faith, since he regarded Abraham as already justified before Genesis 15:6.”

    And then Fuller quotes Edwards: “We are really saved by perseverance…the perseverance which belongs to faith is one thing that is really a fundamental ground of the congruity that faith gives to salvation…For, though a sinner is justified in his first act of faith, yet even then, in that act of justification, God has respect to perseverance as being implied in the first act.”

  5. (Mark, thanks as well for your comments/observations above.)

    This post has caused me to go back and study 2 Cor. 11:3,4, where Paul is concerned that the Corinthians’ MINDS might be led away from the simplicity of Christ.

    Their minds may be led to a different Jesus…
    and different spirit…
    and different gospel.

    It’s so easy for this to happen to us… by God’s grace, we may be humbly diligent in simply trusting Christ and Christ alone… and remind one another of the simple, old, “bland” truth of the gospel.

    I think the simplicity of Christ and the gospel is an offense to our pride. We want to come up with something new and flashy – some “cutting edge” doctrinal research.

    Anyway, Dr. Clark, thank you for reminding us of the simple gospel.

  6. I encourage everyone to read Gospel Mystery chapter 8. Marshall’s treatment of “salvation” appears to be at odds with yours, Dr. Clark. He explicitly states it is more than salvation from hell, to heaven:

    “One cause of these errors, that are so contrary one to the other, is that many are prone to imagine nothing else to be meant by salvation, but to be delivered from hell, and to enjoy heavenly happiness and glory; thus they conclude that, if good works are a means of glorification, and precedent to it, they must also be a precedent means of our whole salvation; and that, if they be not a necessary means of our whole salvation, they are not at all necessary to glorification. But, though salvation is often taken in Scripture, by way of eminency, for its perfection in the state of heavenly glory, yet, according to its full and proper signification, we are to understand by it all that freedom from the evil of our natural corrupt state, and all those holy and happy enjoyments that we receive from Christ our Saviour, either in this world by faith, or in the world to come by glorification. Thus justification, the gift of the Spirit to dwell in us, the privileges of adoption, are parts of our salvation which we partake of in this life. Thus also, the conformity of our hearts to the law of God, and the fruits of righteousness with which we are filled by Jesus Christ in this life, are a necessary part of our salvation.”

    Your treatment of salvation is only in a legal category, from sin’s guilt. We also need and want salvation experientially, from sin’s power. Indeed, these come as a whole package in Christ by faith: those he justified he also glorified.

    • Jordan,

      Yes, everyone should read Marshall.

      No, my treatment is decided not of a purely legal character. Did you miss the section on sanctification? Salvation is also from sin’s power. We call that sanctification (and glorification) and I quite agree with Marshall that sanctification and glorification are sola gratia, sola fide. As I have tried to explain repeatedly, there is no question whether good works are necessary but how and to what end. My argument is that they are not the instrument of our salvation. Faith alone is the instrument. Did you listen to the interview with Dennis Johnson (linked above) on the Gospel Mystery?

      Before commenting did you read (as I asked) the several articles I linked above? I explained all this at length there, especially in the series on the efficacy and necessity of good works.

    • Thanks for responding. Yes, I read all the articles when they were posted (most of them over a year old) but did not reread just now. Yes, I listened to the interview when it came out. I see now in one post you say “Having been delivered from the judgment we are now in the process of being delivered from the effects of sin” so that is satisfying.

      I maintain, as a suggestion, that speaking of good works as “necessary as a consequence, evidence, and a fruit of justification and sanctification” seems to emphasize them as a mere byproduct instead of the end itself. “We then conclude that holiness in this life is absolutely necessary to salvation, not only as a means to the end, but by a nobler kind of necessity, as part of the end itself.” But I see your point and have no dispute on the instrument aspect.

  7. Wonderful & Fulsome Rejoinder & perspicacious explication of ” the influential writer ‘s ” syntactical asymmetry in describing Sola Fide. I shall merely quote the magisterial Calvin : To wit :

    450 years ago John Calvin weighed in with his more comprehensive rebuttal in his commentary on Ephesians 2:8-10: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship,created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

    For by grace are ye saved… This is an inference from the former statements. Having treated of election and of effectual calling, he arrives at this general conclusion, that they had obtained salvation by faith alone. First, he asserts, that the salvation of the Ephesians was entirely the work, the gracious work of God. But then they had obtained this grace by faith. On one side, we must look at God; and, on the other, at man. God declares, that he owes us nothing; so that salvation is not a reward or recompense, but unmixed grace. The next question is, in what way do men receive that salvation which is offered to them by the hand of God? The answer is, by faith; and hence he concludes that nothing connected with it is our own. If, on the part of God, it is grace alone, and if we bring nothing but faith, which strips us of all commendation, it follows that salvation does not come from us…

    What remains now for free-will, if all the good works which proceed from us are acknowledged to have been the gifts of the Spirit of God? Let godly readers weigh carefully the apostle’s words. He does not say that we are assisted by God. He does not say that the will is prepared, and is then left to run by its own strength. He does not say that the power of choosing aright is bestowed upon us, and that we are afterwards left to make our own choice. Such is the idle talk in which those persons who do their utmost to undervalue the grace of God are accustomed to indulge. But the apostle affirms that we are God’s work, and that everything good in us is his creation; by which he means that the whole man is formed by his hand to be good. It is not the mere power of choosing aright, or some indescribable kind of preparation, or even assistance, but the right will itself, which is his workmanship; otherwise Paul’s argument would have no force. He means to prove that man does not in any way procure salvation for himself, but obtains it as a free gift from God. The proof is, that man is nothing but by divine grace. Whoever, then, makes the very smallest claim for man, apart from the grace of God, allows him, to that extent, ability to procure salvation.

  8. John Calvin, seeing that this doctrine of faith alone confuses some when it comes to the subject of the works of believers and their place in man’s salvation, wanted to add two more of his many valuable cents:

    “Let us have done then with this frivolity, and confess the fact as it stands; if any righteousness which works are supposed to possess depends on justification by faith, this doctrine is not only not impaired, but on the contrary confirmed, its power being thereby more brightly displayed. Nor let us suppose, that after free justification works are commended, as if they afterwards succeeded to the office of justifying, or shared the office with faith. For did not justification by faith always remain entire, the impurity of works would be disclosed. There is nothing absurd in the doctrine, that though man is justified by faith, he is himself not only not righteous, but the righteousness attributed to his works is beyond their own deserts.

    “10. In this way we can admit not only that there is a partial righteousness in works, (as our adversaries maintain,) but that they are approved by God as if they were absolutely perfect. If we remember on what foundation this is rested, every difficulty will be solved. The first time when a work begins to be acceptable is when it is received with pardon. And whence pardon, but just because God looks upon us and all that belongs to us as in Christ? Therefore, as we ourselves when engrafted into Christ appear righteous before God, because our iniquities are covered with his innocence; so our works are, and are deemed righteous, because every thing otherwise defective in them being buried by the purity of Christ is not imputed. Thus we may justly say, that not only ourselves, but our works also, are justified by faith alone. Now, if that righteousness of works, whatever it be, depends on faith and free justification, and is produced by it, it ought to be included under it and, so to speak, made subordinate to it, as the effect to its cause; so far is it from being entitled to be set up to impair or destroy the doctrine of justification. Thus Paul, to prove that our blessedness depends not on our works, but on the mercy of God, makes special use of the words of David, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered;” “Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity.”

    —John Calvin, Institutes 3.17.9-10

    • Calvin, having more to say, thought to send along this addendum to his previous remarks:

      “Hence we infer, according to the reasoning of Paul, that it was not of works. In like manners when the prophet says, “The just shall live by his faith,” (Habakkuk 2:4) he is not speaking of the wicked and profane, whom the Lord justifies by converting them to the faith: his discourse is directed to believers, and life is promised to them by faith. Paul also removes every doubt, when in confirmation of this sentiment he quotes the words of David, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” (Psalm 32:1.) It is certain that David is not speaking of the ungodly but of believers such as he himself was, because he was giving utterance to the feelings of his own mind. Therefore we must have this blessedness not once only, but must hold it fast during our whole lives. Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days, but is declared to be perpetual in the Church, (2 Corinthians 5:18, 19.) Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described. Christ ever remains a Mediator to reconcile the Father to us, and there is a perpetual efficacy in his death, viz., ablution, satisfaction, expiation; in short, perfect obedience, by which all our iniquities are covered. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says not that the beginning of salvation is of grace, but “by grace are ye saved,” “not of works, lest any man should boast,” (Ephesians 2:8, 9.)”

      Institutes 3.14.11

    • Hi I’m really perplexed about this and would like to clarify. Calvin says that our works are approved by God as if they were perfect by virtue of Christ’s righteousness covering the impurity of our works. But how does this fit with 1 Cor 3:14-15 where it says that some of our works will be burned up because they were not built on the foundation? ie: these works were sinful and hence burned up.

      If God considers all our works as perfect and forgives the sin in them, then doesn’t it mean that none of our works shall be burned up and lost? Been mulling over this for a long time but with no answer, I hope someone can.

    • Mark,
      Let me rush in with my two cents where angels and theologians (not really) fear to tread. My understanding is that the context of Paul’s writing is workers, i.e. apostles and the work they are doing or building for the kingdom of God, not everyday Christians.

      5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

      The Corinthians were comparing and “grading” the apostles to the point where some were saying: “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Paul is asserting that what he built upon the foundation of the gospel that he laid is of one who is a wise master-builder, an apostle by the will of God. He then makes the point that not all builders (apostles) and their work are alike; yet as far as any are the Lord’s and preach Christ:

      According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

      The wood, hay, and stubble of church planting and/or building up the church of some workers will perish. Yet even though their “work(s)” will be burned up yet they will be saved. Some like Paul are building with gold, silver, and precious stones. Those works will last, not in a temporal sense but eternal.

      But even if one wants to take this as pertaining to all Christians, it seems to me that the same principle holds. All my works good and bad are under the blood of Christ. My good works, as defined by Scripture, are accepted because the impurity that is in them is forgiven in that I am forgiven – “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” On that Day, the dross of my works shall be burned up, i.e. judged under the wrath of God in Christ’s death on the cross. None of my works on their own can stand that Day. So God’s judgment becomes a refiner’s fire that brings forth the righteousness of Christ in the believer.

      My theological two cents (all I’ve got).

      Dr. Clark, please feel free to adjust or correct me…

  9. The imperative to “be holy” caused me to stray away from the confessional understanding of sanctification along with the unamed person in “future Grace” which john Robbins refuted to my joy, as i thought i was going mad, i left the catholic church now “reformed” people are telling me salvation is conditional based on my holiness, perhaps if you have not been under a works based religion it may go over your head how this can distract a gaze from Christ and put it on yourself. Thank you Heidelberg catechism for Question 60 & 61….and all the others while we are at it. Thanks for this blog.

  10. >>>>Salvation involves justification and sanctification. Sanctification is by grace and cooperation with grace (works). Therefore salvation is partly by works.<<<<

    Salvation involves justification, sanctification and glorification. What part of glorification is any man's works?

  11. I wish someone would quit nuancing the matter and just state that “we are saved by faith but we have to work to keep it.” A lot of effort is spent defending that position while at the same time, those defending, deny they actually hold to it.

    America is replete with large, growing churches that offer a “saved but on probation” message. I certainly hope that the success of the “faith plus” congregations is not what is influencing this discussion in reformed circles.

  12. Jack, this is a different Mark, mcculley, mcmark.

    On I Corinthinians 3, check out Fesko’s wonderful book on Justification, p 329 Better yet, read the discussion beginning from p 315. Not only does Fesko show that, for the justified elect, judgement is not something different from the resurrection, but also he points us away from “the books” to that “other book”, the Book of Life.

    Revelation 20:1 2 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is The BOOK of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the BOOKS 13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14 Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And anyone not found written in THE BOOK of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

    Luke 10: 20 However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

    John 5: 24 “I assure you: Anyone who hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life…. 28 Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear His voice 29 and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of judgment.

    Fesko argues that “the good things” is Christ’s righteousness imputed, as he also argues that view for the fine linen (Revelation 19)

    • Thanks, mcmark. Such good quotes. Fesko’s book on Justification doesn’t get much better… That Luke quote, short yet says so much.

  13. Mark Jones is too important to read what you wrote, but somebody told him about it—-I’ve been told that some folk are taking issue with John Piper’s Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification. According to Piper, who agrees with Schreiner, we are “right with God by faith alone” but we do not “attain heaven by faith alone.” He adds that “there are other conditions for attaining heaven.”

    Based on what I believe is a charitable and straight-forward reading of Piper, there is not a single word in his Foreword that seems out of place in terms of the basic Reformed approach to justification, salvation, and conditionality.

    Piper affirms strongly and clearly that works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation. But Piper also wants to affirm that good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation. I fail to understand how this idea isn’t present in literally dozens of Reformed luminaries from the Early Modern period. As Francis Turretin says:

    “This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).”

    Again, Piper says we do “not attain heaven by faith alone” and Turretin speaks of the “indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory”. I don’t see why we can’t agree that they are saying essentially the same thing; and, indeed, if they are, what is the problem?

    For those who have trouble grasping how Piper can affirm that justification is by faith alone, but that entering glory is not by faith alone, we must keep in mind the well-known distinction between the right to life versus the possession of life.

    Herman Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is “assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” However, regarding the latter, “our works…which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter.”

    Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote: “in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”

    Is there anything in Piper’s Foreword that could not have come from the pen of Witsius or Turretin or Boston or Ball (see Patrick Ramsey’s post here) or Owen or Rutherford or Mastricht? I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is both biblically and historically. In fact, I can point to works by authors in the Reformed tradition who have stated the matter perhaps a little more strongly than Piper does (e.g., Mastricht, Davenant).

    It seems one would have to have a built-in bias against Piper – perhaps because of his relationship to Daniel Fuller or perhaps for some other reason – to raise questions about the orthodoxy of his Foreword. And, let’s be honest, it is a serious thing to raise questions about the orthodoxy of someone on this point. It isn’t like we’re talking about complementarianism.

    Piper speaks of good works as necessary for attaining heaven. Reformed theologians have spoken of good works as necessary for possessing heaven. In my mind, that’s the same thing. And, quite frankly, I think that’s the better approach rather than causing unnecessary division where there really doesn’t need to be any.

    In sum, as Piper says, “there are other conditions for attaining heaven”. Or, by someone else:

    “The New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation. Not only initial repentance and faith, but perseverance in both, demonstrated in love toward God and neighbor…Holiness, which is defined by love of God and neighbor…is the indispensable condition of our glorification: no one will be seated at the heavenly banquet who has not begun, however imperfectly, in new obedience.”

    And if you don’t like that last quote, you can take it up with Michael Horton. But I happen to agree with it completely.
    – See more at: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/09/in-defense-of-piper.php#sthash.1RDVZBX9.dpuf

    • “Works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation,” but “good works should be considered necessary for the obtaining of salvation.”

      How can works be “necessary for obtaining” but not “contribute to the acquisition”? How are those two things different? I must not be smart enough for this.

  14. Ordinarily in our legal system there is a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. The burden is on the accuser to prove guilt.

    In particular situations, however, the burden is reversed. If a court has ordered you, for example, to pay a fine, and you have failed to do so, the court already knows that you have violated the order and will order you to show good cause. The presumption in such a case is that you have violated a court order, and the burden is on you to prove good cause.

    In order to avoid judgment, the violator must not only *possess* good cause, but must *prove* good cause. The status of the violator is “guilty” upon entering the courtroom, and without proof, that status will not change. It is the *possession* of good cause that makes a person “not guilty,” but it is the *proof* that allows the person to leave the courtroom with a “not guilty” status.

    Recognizing that sinners, prior to justification, are already “guilty” under the law, it is easy to understand the conclusion that both *possession of justification* and *proof of justification* are necessary in order to receive a changed status for salvation. Of course, it would have to be Christ who provides both the justification and the proof.

    Yet there is no way to escape the conclusion that this formulation makes proof not only necessary, but *the decisive element* in salvation. Absent proof, the status of the sinner is not changed, and one who is not actually guilty may still be found guilty for failing to meet the burden.

    Thus it is the proof, and not the reality, that is efficacious unto salvation.

    • Christopher,

      I’m struggling to follow this. I suspect that there’s a flawed premise in there somewhere. I suspect the first premise is flawed but there may be another lurking somewhere in there.

      Maybe I’m misunderstanding you but you seem to saying that a doctrine of evidence makes it more fundamental than Christ’s righteousness imputed.

    • If salvation requires both faith and evidence as prerequisites, then faith alone is not sufficient for salvation. If faith alone makes one right with God, but is not sufficient for salvation without meeting other conditions, then being right with God is not sufficient for salvation without meeting other conditions. If being right with God is not sufficient for salvation without meeting other conditions, and if those conditions are not met, then it is possible to be right with God and yet not be saved. If it is possible to be right with God and yet not be saved, and if works are necessary as a prerequisite to save one who is already right with God, then by works you are saved. And if you are saved by works, Christ died for nothing.

      That is what I was trying to say. I apologize for failing to express myself more clearly. I am not objecting to the doctrine of evidence, but to the claim that we “attain heaven” by more than faith, i.e., by our cooperation with grace. That claim would make works the instrument of salvation.

      Thank you for your posts on this subject. They have been helpful and encouraging. If my analysis is lacking, I would appreciate correction.

  15. Dr. Clark, please help me understand . . . am I admitted to Heaven based on just a few good works in addition to scores of bad works or do I simply need to have a net gain in good works vs. bad works?

    Never mind, in either case, I’m doomed.

  16. >>> . . . the court already knows that you have violated the order and will order you to show good cause. The presumption in such a case is that you have violated a court order, and the burden is on you to prove good cause.<<<

    In God's court there isn't any presumption of anything. He knows us far better than we know ourselves. If the Supreme Judge of the Universe declares you, "Not Guilty," then you are "Not Guilty." Phillip Melancthon struggled over whether nor not his "proof" was sufficient. Luther answered, "The Gospel is outside of you."

    • Amen. I am in agreement. To think that the real change in status before God – that is, justification, by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness – is insufficient to attain heaven, such that further evidence is still necessary as a prerequisite, is baffling. If you are justified, it is because God has already made you not guilty. How can it be, then, that He would still require proof as a prerequisite for attaining heaven?

      I now realize that I should have made it more clear that I was attempting to deal with the implications of the view that salvation = justification + sanctification. I was most certainly not espousing that view. Again, I apologize.

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