Through Good Works? (2)

good_works2In part 1 we considered a couple of ways some Reformed writers used the expression “through good works.” In this installment we want to consider Institutes 3.14.21 where Calvin, in speaking of the relations between the good works of believers (bona fidelium opera) and salvation (salutis) used the expression “per bona opera” (through good works). That expression is translated “through good works” or “by good works.” It seems that Calvin ascribed to good works a co-instrumental role, along with faith, in our salvation. Indeed, Calvin says “Scriptures shows (Scriptura…ostendit) that good works are “causes” (causas

In order to understand properly what Calvin wrote we need to put these passages in context. Chapter 21 is about the relations between justification and sanctification, which he called the “progress” of justification. In other words, for Calvin, the definitive act of God in declaring sinners righteous, on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is received through faith alone, results in the gradual sanctification of the Christian.

The question that he pursued through the section is the cause of virtue (e.g., 3.14.2). Rome made virtue the product of our free cooperation with grace toward progressive sanctification or progressive justification. For Rome, justification is ordinarily never final or certain in this life. Therefore, for Rome, any claim to assurance is necessarily regarded as presumption. Calvin, on the other hand, was an evangelical (in the 16th-century sense of the word), a Protestant. He accepted Luther’s basic insights as fundamental to the doctrine of justification. For Calvin, virtue is the product of the Spirit’s work in us as a consequence of definitive justification.

In 3.14.3–4 he argued that virtue (sanctification) is the product of true faith, through which we are united to Christ. “we have attained the hope of salvation by his grace alone, not by works” (3.14.5; Battles edition). He explicitly rejected the notion “that in entering into possession of redemption we are aided by our own works” (3.14.6, ibid). At the outset (3.14.1) he observed that there are four classes of persons relative to justification. Those:

  1. endowed with no knowledge of God and immersed in idolatry;
  2. initiated into the sacraments, yet by impurity of life denying God in their actions while they confess him with their lips, they belong to Christ only in name;
  3. they are hypocrites who conceal with empty pretenses their wickedness of heart;
  4. regenerated by God’s Spirit, they make true holiness their concern.

The 2nd and 3rd groups, he wrote (3.14.7) are hypocrites and/or only nominal Christians, i.e., they have not been given new life by God. Because they lack new life they also lack faith and we “attain these benefits only by faith….”

Only those who belong to the 4th class are righteousness before God because only they have true faith and only they have the Spirit who is also working progressive sanctification in them. Even in a state of grace, even though we being sanctified by the Spirit our good works will always, in this life, remain corrupt (3.14.8). Those who think that they can contribute to their salvation by their works, even if they appeal to the work of the Spirit, underestimate the severity of the law (3.14.10). Anyone who wants to present himself to God on the basis of good works, even Spirit-wrought good works, has placed himself back under the law and he must then fulfill all of it perfectly, which no sinner can do (ibid). Calvin was insistent that it is only through faith in Christ that we can appear before God (3.14.11), as Abraham did. “Paul does not say to the Ephesians that we have the beginning of salvation from grace but that we have been saved through grace, “not by works, lest any man should boast” (ibid).

The Fourfold Causal Scheme Applied To Salvation
Calvin continued by despatching the medieval doctrine of “supererogatory” works and the so-called “treasury of merit” (3.14.12–15). Rather, he argued, that we must “banish from our minds” any confidence in good works and we must never ascribe to our good works any glory (3.14.16). If we use the fourfold cause scheme of “the philosophers” (Aristotle et al) then works are not “fit for the establishing (constituenda) of our salvation” (3.14.17).

  1. “The efficient cause” of obtaining eternal life is God’s mercy and his “freely-given” love toward us.
  2. The “material cause” is Christ and his righteousness earned for us.
  3. The “instrumental cause” is faith. His proof text was John 3:16, which does not say “works” but “believes.”
  4. The “final cause” (or purpose) is his own glory.

He restated this scheme by appealing to other passages. Again he argued that the “instrumental cause” is faith and his proof text was Romans 3:25 “through faith in his blood” and Romans 3:26 “the justifier of him who has faith in Christ.” “Since we see that every particle of our salvation stands thus outside of us, why is it that we still trust or glory in works?” (ibid).

What then do good works do in our salvation? In the first instance they remind us of God’s mercy and grace toward us in Christ (3.14.18). In the second case they are “fruits” of his efficacious call (3.14.19). We “take the fruits of regeneration (ex regenerationis fructibus) as proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit….” (ibid). Our good works, to the degree they are good, are not ours. They are the Spirit’s. Thus, we do not present them to God as anything but evidence of his grace toward us, which is what the Old Testament believers did when they appealed to their works.

Through Good Works
This brings us to the 3.14.21, the section in which Calvin used the expression “through good works” (per bona opera). Having considered the broader context, this language takes on a different character than it might should we consider that phrase in the abstract. Again Calvin recited the four causes he had already discussed in order that our faith should not be shaken we must know:

that the efficient cause of our salvation consists in God the Father’s love; the material cause in God the Son’s obedience; the instrumental cause in the Spirit’s illumination, that is, faith; the final cause, in the glory of God’s great generosity (ibid, Battles edition).

These foundational truths, however, Calvin argued do not “prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes (causas inferiores).” How do these “inferior causes” function? Those whom God has elected unconditionally he leads (inducit)into possession of it, in his ordinary providence, “through good works” (per bona opera). When we interpret this expression there are certain conclusions that we must reject. First, it is not possible that “through good works” means “good works are the co-instrumental cause of our salvation.” We know this conclusion is impossible because Calvin was at pains to make very clear that the only “instrumental cause” of our “salvation” (that is the term of discussion here since it is apparently broader than justification) is faith. In other words, Calvin taught salvation (justification and sanctification) sola fide. He assiduously excluded good works of every kind, even Spirit-wrought good works, from the other causes as well.

We will understand him better if we understand what an “inferior cause” is. Essentially it is a “co-incidence,” i.e., it is something which occurs along with something else. Consider Noah and his household. They were in the ark and they went through the water. We could say that they were saved “through the water.” By this we do not intend to say that the water saved them nor do we mean that the water had saving power but that they were in the water and it was in the midst of the water and from the water that the Lord saved them. He used the ark to save them. Christ is the ark.

The water is co-incident with the ark. The water constituted the circumstances in which Noah and his family were saved. Good works are the circumstances in which believers come into possession of eternal life. They are not instrumental in the possession of them. Faith alone is that instrument. Christ’s righteousness imputed alone is the ground. Behind it all is God’s mercy and grace. good works are not a “cause” in the same sense that God’s mercy and grace, faith, and his glory are causes.

This is how Calvin explained the role of good works in salvation. In the ordinary providence of God it is the case that those who are saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, produce the fruit of good works. Salvation comes after that. “What goes before in the order of dispensation he calls the cause of what comes after” (ibid). Nevertheless, he hastened to add that Scripture does not speak this way because it wants to ascribe the possession of eternal life to good works. Rather, it is part of the order of things. In short, it Calvin was trying to say that good works are fruit and indicators, they exist in those who are saved. They are the ordinary, expected, accompaniment of new life and true faith. This is why we must not “take refuge” in good works. Our only refuge is God’s mercy to us sinners in Christ. Death is owing to our sin but eternal “life rests solely upon God’s mercy” (ibid).

Conclusion: Co-incidental Is Not Co-Instrumental
In Institutes 3.14.21 Calvin used a mode of expression that would be taken up and repeated by a number of writers in the Reformed tradition. They distinguished between having “title” to eternal life through faith alone and “taking possession” of it with respect to works. The tendency, in some quarters, has been to take the second half of the distinction as making good works co-instrumental in salvation. As I have already argued with respect to Turretin and Witsius, that interpretation is not correct.

In using this language, however, Calvin assumed a degree of understanding of the traditional Christian appropriation of the Aristotelian causal scheme. He also intended this language to be understood in light of the 20 sections he had already written to explain the ground, instrument, and purpose (or causes) of our salvation (justification and sanctification). He was arguing with Rome, who taught that we are justified through progressive sanctification, that our justification is initiated in baptism, continued by our cooperation with grace and good works, and finally consummated upon perfection (ordinarily) after this life. He was disputing their allegation that the Protestants (e.g., Luther and Calvin) had removed any genuine incentive to good works. Good works are no more a second blessing than fruit is a second blessing to a tree. He was also acutely aware of the “Libertines” in Geneva, who had resisted the evangelical doctrine of the moral and logical necessity of good works as a consequence of salvation. The same arguments refute both errors. If good works are the fruit and evidence of salvation then they are necessary to those who profess faith in Christ.

Antinomianism remains a danger today but in our response to it, as we work through yet another controversy over justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (or salvation as encompassing all three aspects), let us not lose sight of our precious evangelical heritage: salvation sola gratia, sola fide in which the Spirit produces in his people the fruits and evidence of his salvation to his glory alone and to the encouragement of believers.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Question(s):

    1.) You wrote “In Institutes 3.14.21 Calvin used a mode of expression that would be taken up and repeated by a number of writers in the Reformed tradition. They distinguished between having “title” to eternal life through faith alone and “taking possession” of it with respect to works.” Are you in some way taking issue with those particular “writers in the Reformed tradition,” or are you in agreement with them? (Do you view them as saying essentially the same thing that Calvin said there?)

    2.) You then said, “The tendency, in some quarters, has been to take the second half of the distinction as making good works co-instrumental in salvation.” Assuming that you do not take issue with the Reformed writers you alluded to above (Puritan writers?), are you saying that these current writers (“in some quarters”) misconstrue the distinction that Calvin & the other Reformed writers make in such a way as to make good works part of the “true cause” (Calvin’s phrase in 3.14.21), as opposed to just the “inferior” or proximate cause?

    If so, I would very much like to see that demonstrated. I have not seen anyone in this current debate saying anything approaching that.

    Thank you for pointing out Calvin’s teaching in 3.14.21. I found that section in the Institutes to be very helpful on this issue.

    – Andy

    • Andy,

      I’ve written a 7000 word essay on this to which I linked in the current post. In that essay I work through Witsius and Turretin as two examples of those who picked up on this language. Take a look at that. I am not taking issue with it although I think one may wonder about how useful that expression is today since it takes a great lot of explaining. In 3.14.21 Calvin himself seemed a little uncertain about the expression when he wrote “whenever the true cause is to he assigned….” That seems to imply at least that the “inferior causes” are not causes in the same sense and perhaps not actual “causes” at all. In other words, it suggests that he was equivocating on the word cause. When he wrote “by these expressions sequence more than cause is denoted” that reinforces the interpretation that I offered, that he was thinking of good works as fruit and evidence.

      I think that speaking of instruments and incidents (fruit and evidence) is more reflective of what the churches confess. We need to remember that we do not confess Calvin, Witsius, or Turretin. We confess God’s Word, the teaching of which is summarized, on certain points, in our standards. As I show in the longer essay “On The Necessity And Efficacy…”, our confessions do not speak of the “efficacy” of good works and they certainly do not make them co-instrumental in salvation.

      We may disagree about what some contemporary writers are about. I think that there is a conscious attempt to move (re-locate) the Shepherdite formulations (e.g., “through faith and works” or “through faithfulness”) from the doctrine of justification to the doctrine of salvation more broadly. It has been argued to me by adherents of this view that, e.g., Noah was saved partly by works because he built the ark.

      I am confident that there are people in the Reformed world who are not satisfied with the Reformed doctrine of justification and sanctification (salvation) by grace alone, through faith alone and that grace and true faith issue in good works. One leading critic of the tradition said to me directly that the Heidelberg Catechism’s structure of “Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude” makes sanctification and obedience a “second blessing.” That is a direct quotation. Others dismiss the teaching of the Heidelberger as “Lutheran” and some have even proposed revisions to the Shorter Catechism.

      Remember, Norman Shepherd and his followers asserted justification and salvation through faith and works (faithfulness), so it’s not like this has never occurred in recent history. Shepherd still has followers and defenders. His FV followers, who are faithful to his theology and intent, are saying the same thing: we get in by baptismal grace and we stay in by cooperation with grace (works).

      Behind the attempt to make our good works co-instrumental lies a certain dissatisfaction with the mainstream of historic Reformed orthodoxy. This is one reason why one sees so much emphasis on the “diversity” in Reformed theology, why folks are appealing to Davenant and even to the Amyraldians as if they were just as orthodox and formative of the tradition as Perkins, Ames, Polanus, and Turretin. Of course they weren’t but the appeal to “the many” fits the spirit of our age and we find it persuasive. I’ve argued here and elsewhere that there was indeed a Reformed mainstream on these issues. Again, the confessions are prima facie evidence for the existence of such a mainstream. I’ve been attempting to document that here, on the HB, by quoting from a wide range of sources, European, British, 16th-century, 17th-century, 18th-century et seq on the state of believers in the judgment. There was a strong consensus about the basics and none of them taught that we are finally received by God on the basis of anything other than Christ’s righteousness imputed.

      Further, there is a school of thought that is widely influential in the NAPARC world that rejects (or at least calls into question) the very notion of an ordo salutis, who speaks freely of doing away with “ordo salutis thinking.” The effect of this approach is to swallow up the sorts of distinctions we used to make, as reflected in Calvin et al, so that faith and works become co-instrumental. This approach certainly has had that effect in Shepherd and his supporters. Behind them there is the Edwardean tradition that dismisses faith as the “instrumental cause” of justification and that speaks of justification in two stages: initial and final. This approach has found renewed appreciation in our day. In that scheme, our good works play an essential part in the formation of faith (which is essentially Thomas’ definition of faith as “formed by love”) and we are, as it were, on the hot seat until the consummation. I understand that this is a disputed interpretation of Edwards but I’m convinced it best explains the data.

      Finally, I’m quite confident that people (readers and listeners) are hearing some folks to teach that we justified provisionally now sola gratia, sola fide but that our final state is, in part, contingent upon our obedience and good works (cooperation with grace). If this is not what people should be hearing then the solution is quite plain. If we’re all really just saying the same thing then we should able to establish that but in the Shepherd case it was argued (and is still being argued by some) that he was really only saying that good works are necessary as fruit and evidence. Of course he never actually said that those who did were and have since been labelled as “antinomians” and “Lutherans.” In that case you can see why it would be necessary to try to clarify things.

    • Dr. Clark,

      You say, “I think that speaking of instruments and incidents (fruit and evidence) is more reflective of what the churches confess. We need to remember that we do not confess Calvin, Witsius, or Turretin.”

      Have you addressed the last clause in Larger Catechism #32 anywhere?

      Q. 32. How is the grace of God manifested in the second covenant?

      A. The grace of God is manifested in the second covenant, in that he freely provideth and offereth to sinners a Mediator, and life and salvation by him; and requiring faith as the condition to interest them in him, promiseth and giveth his Holy Spirit to all his elect, to work in them that faith, with all other saving graces; and to enable them unto all holy obedience, as the evidence of the truth of their faith and thankfulness to God, and as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.

      • H David,

        I think Chris and I discussed this Q/A in the recent Heidelcast episode but yes, I affirm this entirely, heartily, and without reservation.

        God the Spirit “enables” believers “unto all holy obedience as the evidence of their faith and thankfulness to God” and that is the “way” appointed by God. What I’m resisting is the attempt, which I see in some, to turn this “way” into a co-instrument. That way is not a co-instrument. It is co-incident with true faith. That is why the divines carefully described our obedience as “evidence,” which is what I’ve been trying to articulate.

  2. It might also be helpful to unpack (carefully) WCF 16.2, which says,

    “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.”

    So the WCF gives many good, biblical reasons/purposes for the good works of believers, including that last one: “that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life.” In some sense the Confession is saying, no good works (in the end) = no eternal life, correct?

    That doesn’t make good works the instrument (or even the co-instrument, as you might say regarding the views of some) of salvation, as if it were something merited by us. The whole statement (WCF 16.2, that is) must be taken together,and in order. Good works are, first & foremost, “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith.” As a result, in the end, good works are also ‘the way that the Lord leads those whom He has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life into the possession of it’ (as Calvin states in 3.14.21). Works are not the “true cause” (Calvin’s phrase) of a believer possessing eternal life (which Calvin ascribes to God’s mercy), but they are the cause in the sense of sequence (and so even including some sense of necessity).

    Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, he is saved by grace alone, but he still has to set out and make the trek to the Celestial City in order to actually get there. In the end, how did he actually get there? Grace alone.

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