In Reformed theology the noun salvation is typically used in two ways. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for justification. When used this way it does not include sanctification since, according to the Reformed confession, justification is a declarative act of God whereby he credits (imputes) to sinners the perfect, active and suffering righteousness of Christ so that it is as if those sinners to whom Christ’s righteousness has been so imputed are considered to have themselves accomplished personally all the Christ did for them as their substitute. Further, we say that this benefit is received through faith alone (sola fide) defined as trusting, resting in, and receiving Christ and his righteousness. We confess that both the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and faith as the receiving instrument are nothing but God’s free gifts. Hence we attribute all of this to God’s favor (grace) alone. The slogan for this is sola gratia, by grace alone.
We also say, however, that God’s grace is twofold (duplex), the justification is the first benefit (beneficium) and sanctification is the second. It is not a “second blessing” in the way neo-Pentecostalists speak of tongues etc as a “second blessing,” as if there are two classes of Christians, those with and those without. Rather, we say that progressive sanctification flows from or grows out of and is grounded in our justification. It too is also a gift of God, his work in his by his Spirit, through his divinely ordained means, whereby he puts to death in us the sin and makes alive in us Christ or whereby he is gradually and graciously conforming us to Christ.
The noun salvation is also used to describe that whole complex of benefits, justification and sanctification. In this sense we are thinking both of deliverance from the wrath to come and from the effects of the fall in this life. In our confessional documents and in our theologians both of these benefits (justification and sanctification) are said to be by grace alone. Often times, though not perhaps universally, in our theologians (as distinct from our ecclesiastical confessions) salvation is said to be through faith alone. That is, the sole instrument of justification and salvation is faith alone. In our confessions certainly and in our better writers, good works are said to be a necessary concomitant or an accompanying fruit and evidence of justification and salvation.
Diversity of Expression Within Confessional Boundaries
Since I have already addressed this at length let us focus specifically on the use and function of the English instrumental phrase “through good works” and its Latin equivalent, “per bona opera.” There is no question whether Reformed writers have used this language. The question is what was meant by it. As we grapple with the diversity of expression within Reformed theology we should also remember that there are confessional boundaries. In other words, the temptation in our age is to appeal to “the many” or the particular over against “the one” or that which unifies. Cornelius Van Til was correct. We should also seek to keep the one and the many together. There is value in recognizing differences but we should not mistake formal or rhetorical differences for substantial differences. Further, there was a unified Reformed theology. We know that because it came to expression authoritative ecclesiastically sanctioned documents, the Reformed confessions. Those documents, under the sole, unique authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) form the boundaries of what properly constitutes the Reformed confession, i.e., our theology, piety, and practice. Not every opinion or every expression of every Reformed writer is definitive for Reformed theology.
Heidelberg Catechism 86 is a classic expression of the Reformed confession concerning the moral necessity of good works:
86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?
Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.
Since I have already written a four-part explanation of this question and answer suffice it to say here that the catechism gives 4 reasons for doing good works:
- God’s Glory
- Assurance of Faith
- Christian Witness
The catechism never remotely suggests that good works are either the ground of our salvation—the very idea of which it repudiates consistently—nor does it suggest or imply that good works are any part of the instrument of our salvation. Notice that the term in the question is not justification but “redeemed.” This is the broader of idea of deliverance from wrath (justification) and the effects of sin (sanctification). Though we confess justification and salvation sola fide, through the sole instrument of faith, we do not confess sola fides, i.e., a faith that is alone. A living tree produces good fruit.
The Question: Do Good Works Return As Instruments Under The Heading Of Salvation?
Nevertheless, it is being suggested by some that, through we should say that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, when it comes to salvation we should say that we are saved through faith and good works. I have previously addressed this question in a number of posts. You can find them under the heading of salvation. Please take a look at those resources.
Yesterday someone argued that, in Institutes 3.14.21 that Calvin did use the expression “per bona opera” which is translated through or by good works. This raises the question: did the Reformed teach that good works are co-instrumental in salvation in the fullest sense? Did they teach that it is partly through faith and partly through good works that we are delivered from the wrath to come and from the effects of sin? On its face it seems improbable that evangelical Protestants, who had just emerged from the medieval doctrine of justification through progressive sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace) should turn around and posit that we are delivered from the wrath of God, even in part, by or through our cooperation with grace or good works. So, is it the case that they intended to teach that believers are delivered from the effects of sin in this life through good works or that we come into possession of eternal life through good works as a co-instrument with faith?
An electronic search of several hundred English-language texts from the 16th and 17th centuries produces limited results. The phrase “through good works” is often used relative to an appeal to a late textual variant, noted by Theodore Beza, in 2 Peter 1:10 in which the phrase “through good works” (διὰ καλῶν ἐργῶν) was added. Thomas Adams (1583–1653) commented on it in his 1633 commentary on 2 Peter. Other writers did the same. The argument is that good works are a secondary way through which we confirm the reality of our election. The first question here is always “What has God promised?” The second, ” do I believe?” and only after that do we turn to good works as evidence of the fruit of our salvation but, as we saw in Heidelberg 86, we certainly do so.
John Hooper (c. 1495–1555), a solid evangelical who was martyred for the gospel, refuted the Roman calumny that the Protestant doctrine of justification (and salvation) leads to moral laxity by arguing:
I believe also that, as the Lord hath created all things heavenly and earthly for the service of man, and to the end that by his creatures he might come to the knowledge of the Creator; even so also hath he formed and made man for himself, that of him and by him he might be known, loved, feared, served, and honoured, which is the greatest good thing that is or can be in man; and that in him might shine the image of divine virtues and perfections through good works, the which God hath ordained, because we should walk in them unto his honour and praise, and to the confusion of the adversary….(A brief and clear confession of the Christian faith…according to the order of the Creed of the apostles (1550; repr. Cambridge 1852), n.p.).
The function of good works is to glorify God, to manifest his grace toward us. This is one of the four reasons adopted by the Reformed Churches in the Heidelberg.
The great, foundational English Reformer William Tyndale (c.1494–1536), in his Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528) addressed this problem directly. What are we Protestants to make of those passages which talk about good works?
After the same manner shalt thou interpret the scriptures which make mention of works: that God thereby will that we show forth that goodness which we have received by faith, and let it break forth and come to the profit of other, that the false faith may be known, and weeded out by the roots. For God giveth no man his grace that he should let it lie still and do no good withal: but that he should increase it & multiply it with lending it to other & with openly declaring of it with the outward works, provoke & draw other to God. As Christ saith in Matthew the fifth chapter let your light so shine in the sight of men that they may see your good works, & glorify your father which is in heaven (p. x).
Tyndale classes such passages under fruit and evidence. By our good works we “show forth” that which we have received through faith and love our brothers and sisters in Christ. His first instinct is to think of good works as necessary as fruit and evidence.
He also connects them to our assurance:
Moreover therewith the goodness, favor, & gifts of God which are in thee, not only shall be known unto other, but also unto thine own self, and ye shall be sure that thy faith is right, and that the true spirit of God is in thee, and that thou art called and chosen of God unto eternal life, and loosed from the bonds of Satan whose captive thou wast, as Peter exhorteth in the first of his second epistle, through good works to make our calling & election (wherewith we are called & chosen of God) sure. For how dare a man presume to think that his faith is right, and that Gods favor is on him, & that Gods spirit is in him (when he feeleth not the working of the spirit, neither himself desposed to any Godly thing. Thou canst never know or be sure of thy faith, but by the works, if works follow not yea and that of love, without looking after any reward, thou mayest be sure that thy faith is but a dream and not right, and even the same that James called in his epistle. ii. Chapter deed faith and not justifying (ibid, p. xi).
Notice that he too appealed to the textual variant in 2 Peter 1:10 so that the instrumental function of good works here is not in order that we might be saved or in order that we might enter into heaven but that in order that through them we might glorify God, edify others, and give evidence of our faith.
In the next part we will consider Calvin’s language in Institutes 3.14.21.