In the early days of the Federal Vision one of the errors the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (hereafter P&R) churches were facing was the claim that, at the judgment believers will stand before God partly on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith and partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity. To this teaching, in 2004, the United Reformed Churches in North America responded with three points of doctrinal affirmation:
- “that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, based upon the active and passive obedience of Christ alone.”
- “that the Scriptures and confessions teach that faith is the sole instrument of our justification apart from all works.”and determined to
- “remind & encourage individuals and churches that, if there are office-bearers suspected of deviating from or obscuring the doctrine of salvation as summarized in our confessions, they are obligated to follow the procedure prescribed in Church Order Art. 29, 52, 55, 61, and 62 for addressing theological error.”
The controversy continued however, and Synod again replied in 2007 with Nine Points of “Pastoral Advice.” The 9th point said:
Synod rejects the error of those who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).
Synod said this because the clear teaching of God’s Word is that there is but one justification and it is “apart from the works of the law.” This is precisely what God’s holy, immutable Word says in Romans 3:28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (ESV). Just before that Paul had been equally clear:
the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:22-24a; ESV)
This was Paul’s case to the church at Rome and to everyone who would listen. Genesis 15:6 is clear. Abraham was justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide).
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due (Rom 4:3–4; ESV).
Paul repeated himself again in 5:1–2:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (ESV).
It is being proposed (again), however, that there are two stages to salvation, initial and final. It is being proposed that believers are initially justified by grace alone, through faith alone but only finally saved through faith and works. Under such a proposal, however, our justification becomes merely provisional. In any two-stage scheme, justification in this life cannot be final.
On the contrary, the Scriptures teach and the Reformed churches confess that believers are definitively, finally, once-for-all justified before God. They will not be re-tried. They cannot be re-tried. To suggest such a thing is to insult the perfect righteousness of our Savior and to deny the once-for-all declaration of God. Christ did not become incarnate for his people, obey on their behalf, die, nor was he raised that we might be only provisionally justified only to be retried at the last day partly on the basis of Spirit-wrought sanctity or our good works issuing from the justification wrought for us and sanctification gradually and gracious wrought in us. Has God changed his mind? Is he mutable? Not at all. Even to think such a thing is near to blasphemy. This is the confession of the Reformed churches. In Belgic Confession art. 22 we confess with heart and mouth:
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.”
Please note that under the heading of justification we address the topic of salvation. In the current discussion it is being argued that we are justified sola gratia, sola fide but that we “take possession” of final (as distinct from initial) salvation “through works.” This is not hyperbole. This is not my summary. This is their language. One claim is that this is the historic language of Reformed theologians (namely Turretin and Witisius). I answered this claim two years ago. The mainstream of the Reformed tradition did not teach either a two-stage justification or a two-stage salvation. They did teach a distinction between the “right” to eternal life, which is given to us in justification and “taking possession” of eternal life but they did not make taking possession contingent upon our good works nor did they make our good works co-instrumental with faith. They made them co-incidental. The revisionists do not distinguish between is and through. It is the case that, by grace alone, believers produce good works. It is not the case that those good works become either the ground or instrument of either our justification or or salvation. Again, I addressed this last year.
We do not do good works in order to be justified. It is the doctrine of the Roman communion, rejected in the Reformation 500 years ago, that we are sanctified in order that we may be eventually justified. It is the Protestant doctrine that we are justified and saved that we might be sanctified. We do good works because we have been justified and because we have been saved. These are the reasons we do good works. We are neither justified nor saved through our faithfulness. Against the Remonstrants, the Synod of Dort asserted the same doctrine. This is basic Reformed theology.
It is true that salvation is a broader category than justification but it is also true that they may not be separated so as to say that justification is sola gratia, sola fide but salvation is partly through works. Good works are important and they do play an essential role in our salvation. The difficulty is that some are no longer satisfied with that role: fruit and evidence of salvation. The Council of Trent, session 6 (1547) also rejected the Protestant doctrine:
24. If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.
Rome well understood the doctrine of the Protestants. So did the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, when they received and adopted the Belgic Confession (1561) in which we confess:
We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a “new man,” causing him to live the “new life” and freeing him from the slavery of sin.
Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls “faith working through love,” which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word.
These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place.
So then, we do good works, but nor for merit—for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure”—thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’ ”
Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works—but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work.
So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.
Once again, I call your attention to the fact that the Reformed churches do not confess merely that we are justified sola gratia, sola fide. We also confess that the elect are saved by God’s free favor alone, through the sole instrument of faith.
Nevertheless, some contemporary evangelical and Reformed theologians have rejected the doctrine of the Reformed churches. We might forgive the evangelicals since they have only a tangential relationship to the Reformation—they are the children of the Second Great Awakening more than the children of Luther and Calvin—but it is harder to understand Reformed pastors and theologians who dismiss the clear confession of the Reformed churches as reducing sanctification to a “second blessing.” After all, have they not stood before presbyteries and classes to subscribe their names beneath the Reformed confessions?
Any suggestion that we are justified now on one basis and through one instrument but only finally saved through another necessarily makes Jesus but “half a Savior” (Belgic 22 quoted above). Two years later, the Reformed Church in the Palatinate confessed the very same doctrine:
30. Do those also believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else?
No, although they make their boast of Him, yet in deeds they deny the only Savior Jesus, for either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
Again, please note that the churches were not addressing only justification here. The question is not merely whether Jesus’ righteousness received through faith alone is sufficient for justification but whether it is sufficient for salvation. Either Jesus is a “complete Savior” or he is not. If we say that we are finally (as distinct from initially) saved partly through good works, then we have made Jesus but half a Savior.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a two-stage justification. There is no such thing as a two-stage salvation. At the Jerusalem synod the Apostle Peter (who had been chastened by Paul on this. See Galatians chapter 2) declared that the churches should place no extra burden on the Gentles: “but through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we believe to be saved” (ἀλλὰ διὰ τῆς χάριτος τοῦ κυρίου Ἰησοῦ πιστεύομεν σωθῆναι; Acts 15:11). Peter did not say, “we believe and do good works. Acts 16:31 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (πίστευσον ἐπὶ τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν καὶ σωθήσῃ). It does not say “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and do good works and you will be saved.” The sole instrument of salvation is faith. This is because we are saved now by grace alone. Ephesians 2:5 says, “by grace you have been saved” (χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι). It does not say, “by grace and good works you will be saved.” Paul explicitly connects grace alone and faith alone in v. 8: “By grace you have been saved through faith” (χάριτί ἐστε σεσῳσμένοι διὰ πίστεως·). We have been saved. There are not two stages of salvation. Our salvation is not provisional. Works are not the instrument.
We know this not only on the basis of these verses but because Scripture says that we have already “been sealed.” A seal says that something is complete. Your diploma has a seal on it. It says that the course of studies is complete. It says that a document is true and genuine. In 2 Corinthians 1:22 God’s Word promises “he has sealed us and given to us the down payment of the Spirit in our hearts” (ὁ καὶ σφραγισάμενος ἡμᾶς καὶ δοὺς τὸν ἀρραβῶνα τοῦ πνεύματος ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις ἡμῶν). Abraham’s circumcision (Rom 4:11) was a “seal” of his righteousness through faith alone. That which is provisional is not sealed. At my school we send out provisional transcripts. They are not sealed because the course of study has not been completed. Those who believe, however, by grace alone, have what has been promised and their baptism is a seal of that promise. To believers baptism does not say, “Christ has made it possible for you to be saved finally if you do your part.” No, it says, “It is finished.”
Believer, you have been saved. You have been sealed with the Spirit. Nothing and no one can change that. No one can snatch you out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). We persevere by grace because we are preserved by grace. The last day is not a test for us. It is a glorious inheritance.
Again one thinks of Machen’s dying words (via telegram) to Mr Murray. “So thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”