Perhaps the most important paragraphs in Rhyne Putman’s recent review of a new volume attempting to relate good works to salvation appear near the end (16 paragraphs in):
One theological topic closely related to good works and salvation is conspicuously absent in this book: the debate over apostasy and the perseverance of the saints. Can born-again believers commit apostasy if they do not continue on in good works, as many within the Arminian tradition claim? Or will truly regenerate believers persevere until the end, kept eternally secure, as Calvinistic traditions assert?
I suspect the authors, all of whom hail from the Wesleyan Holiness tradition, sidestepped this issue to produce a broadly evangelical treatment of good works and their role in salvation. While I appreciate that irenic spirit, it seems that no account of the relationship between these topics is complete without making sense of texts like the warning passages in Hebrews (2:1–4; 3:7–4:13; 5:11–6:12; 10:19–39; 12:14–19). Though I affirm the more Calvinistic idea that all true believers will persevere to the end, much of the blame for “cheap grace” theology can probably be laid at the feet of overly simplified teachings like “once-saved, always-saved.”
Further, the review is written by a writer from the Baptist tradition, who, judging by the final sentence quoted above, may not be deeply read in the Reformed tradition.1 The quotation is from a review, published on September 15, 2023 in Christianity Today. The title of the review is also telling: “Jesus Paid It All. There’s Still So Much We Owe.” Perhaps. Do believers owe something as an antecedent to salvation or as a consequence of having been saved? The latter is a Reformation view. The former is sub-Protestant.
What is at issue? The volume under review, Thomas H. McCall, Caleb T. Friedman, and Matt T. Friedman, The Doctrine of Good Works: Recovering a Neglected Protestant Teaching (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2023) proposes that we are justified by divine favor, through faith, but finally saved through good works. Putman writes,
Following John Wesley, the authors define “good works” as “works of piety”—loving God with all our heart, mind, and strength—and “works of mercy”—loving our neighbors as ourselves. To be truly biblical (and truly Protestant), they argue, is to see good works as a necessary aspect of the Christian life and even our salvation. As they observe, the Reformers and other major Protestant thinkers “are convinced that good works are both possible and necessary for those who are justified, regenerate, and sanctified, and they challenge those who follow Christ to good deeds of piety and mercy.”
The reviewer summarizes their argument thus: The Protestants taught that we are justified sola fide, but “they also understood good works to be the necessary consequence of justifying faith.” So far, so good. This is certainly true. For confessionalists in the Reformation traditions (Reformed and Lutheran), there has never been any question whether Christians must do good works. In Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 86, the Reformed churches confess:
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.
No Reformed confessionalist could object so far. Things become less clearly true and helpful when they quote Francis Turretin (1623–1687) “Works . . . are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, or meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it,” which again is uncontroversial. But Putman’s summary is less helpful: “In other words, we are made right on the basis of our faith in Christ not by our own works—but good works will necessarily follow justification by faith. We are also sanctified, or gradually made holy, through our good works.” That is not what Turretin wrote.
Here is Turretin’s text without ellipses and in context:
XIV. Works can be considered in three ways: either with reference to justification or sanctification or glorification. They are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently and meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end; yea, as the beginning to the complement because grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.
XV. Although we acknowledge the necessity of good works against the Epicureans, we do not on this account confound the law and the gospel and interfere with gratuitous justification by faith alone. Good works are required not for living according to the law, but because we live by the gospel; not as the causes on account of which life is given to us, but as effects which testify that life has been given to us.
XVI. Believers are a willing people who ought not to be impelled to good works by necessity (ex ananchēs) (viz., by a necessity of compulsion), but spontaneously and voluntarily (hekousiōs). But still, works do not cease to be necessary by the necessity of means and of debt. Although all coaction is necessity, not all necessity is coaction. The calumnies wont to be drawn against the necessity of good works from our doctrine concerning perserverance and the certainty of faith have been discussed in Topic XV, Questions 16 and 17.3
To say that our works are not related to justification antecedently is to say that they are not the ground of our justification. Christ’s works for us are the ground of our justification. To say that they are not related efficiently or meritoriously, is another way to deny that they are the ground of God’s declaration of our justification. Our good works are a consequence of our justification. We do them because we have been justified, not in order to be justified. The adverb declaratively is to say that they give evidence of our justification. In short, as the Council of Trent complained in 1547 about the Protestant view, we say that good works are nothing but fruit and evidence of our justification. Good works are constitutive of salvation because it is the case that the saved do good works. Good works, contra Nicholas von Amsdorf, do not damage salvation. They promote it, but they do not thereby become instrumental in salvation.
NB that Turretin affirms the distinction between law and gospel in paragraph 16. The law demands perfect righteousness. The gospel announces that perfect righteousness, and salvation has been freely given to sinners sola gratia, sola fide. Turretin learned that distinction from Luther. Note too that he wrote, “good works are not required for living according to the law, because we live by the gospel.” Like Calvin, Turretin followed Luther. Good works are the effects of justification. This is not antinomianism. It is standard Reformed theology. Like Luther, Turretin affirmed that believers, graciously and sovereignly given new life, true faith, and union with Christ, do good works freely and voluntarily, not under compulsion or coercion. Again, this is bog-standard Reformation theology.
Turretin was saying nothing more than what the Heidelberg Catechism was saying a century or more earlier in Q/A 86. We have been redeemed (erlöst), which is a synonym for salvation. The Latin text of the catechism uses “liberated” (liberati). This imagery comes from the Exodus, the paradigmatic act of salvation under the types and shadows. It is the singular and signal act of God alone that saves. The Israelites did not become co-saviors with Yahweh. We do good works not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.
In the article 24 of the Belgic Confession (1561), the Reformed churches 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 of 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 not 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.
The confession moves from speaking about justification in the first part of the portion quoted to speaking of salvation. Specifically, the Reformed churches reject any notion that good works are the ground of our salvation. We also reject the notion that good works are the instrument of our salvation. The confession (article 24) clearly attributes both the ground and instrument of our salvation solely to God:
We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him. 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 (emphasis added).
The key terms, for the purposes of this discussion are italicized for emphasis: salvation, faith, and Savior. The whole complex of salvation is attributed to God, who gives to his elect the grace of faith, which is the sole instrument of their salvation, i.e., their deliverance from the wrath to come, their sanctification, and their glorification. We explicitly reject synergism in salvation. As we say in the Heidelberg Catechism, “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” (HC 30).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
1. No Reformed church confesses the doctrine of “eternal security.” We confess the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. On this see the Fifth Head of the Canons of Dort. For an explanation of the doctrine of the Reformed churches on this point see R. Scott Clark, Redeemed From Every People, Tribe, Tongue, And Nation: A Commentary On The Canons Of Dort and W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort (2019). For more on the Synod and Canons see the resource page.
2. R. Scott Clark, “How We Got Here,” in R. Scott Clark, ed., Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 13.
3. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 17.14– 16, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 2.705.
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