Recently 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.
Here is the argument in the form of a syllogism:
- Salvation involves justification and sanctification.
- Sanctification is by grace and cooperation with grace (works)
- 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.
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.