Should We Allow Wesleyans To Narrate The Reformed Tradition For Us (Or Why We Are Not Finally Saved Through Good Works) Part 1

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.

NOTES

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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11 comments

  1. Too often, the general impression of what the Reformed tradition is comes from people outside our traditions–and thus tends to distort or mislead. Here are a few examples I have seen from supposedly “reputable” scholarship:

    1. To assure themselves of their eternal election, Calvinists sought success in business, since that is proof of divine favor.

    2. Covenant theology was introduced as an anodyne to “strict Calvinism” (understood as predestination first, last, always, and only).

    3. Calvinism is necessarily white supremacist.

    4. Calvinism is necessarily anti-missions.

    5. Calvinism created modern capitalism.

    6. The Dutch merchants at Deshima gladly stepped on “treading images” because they were purely pragmatic businessmen without religious scruples (rather than anti-Papist iconoclasts).

    7. The “elect” in Calvinist theology were elite adherents (granted, a very brilliant synthesis of Marxist and Weberian “insights”, but horribly and completely wrong).

    Re 1 and 5, you do not want to get me started on the Weber-Tawney Thesis. Seeing #1 in Simon Schama’s history of the Dutch Republic, I felt my respect for Schama as a scholar drop to quite subterranean depths.

    • Regarding this: “To assure themselves of their eternal election, Calvinists sought success in business, since that is proof of divine favor.” And this: “…you do not want to get me started on the Weber-Tawney Thesis. Seeing #1 in Simon Schama’s history of the Dutch Republic, I felt my respect for Schama as a scholar drop to quite subterranean depths.”

      I am not an expert on the political and commercial situation of the “Dutch Golden Age.” Nobody should claim to understand that period well who is not fluent in Dutch.

      However, I do know New England Puritanism, and while being wealthy was certainly not viewed as a sign of election, the reverse was sometimes the case. Even some of the most prominent leaders of New England political life were viewed as being “damaged goods” in both a secular and spiritual sense when their businesses fell apart and they lapsed into poverty.

      This isn’t just a historical problem. I also grew up in Grand Rapids as an unconverted man, I know the modern Dutch Reformed subculture in West Michigan both as an unconverted outsider and as a man who was dragged kicking and screaming into the Reformed faith because I couldn’t get around what Scripture teaches, and I know that there are some **SERIOUS** issues that need to be dealt with about conflation of financial success and church leadership, not only by the liberals and moderates, where respect for those who make high-dollar donations is to be expected, but also by those with strongly conservative Reformed views.

      This is the wrong place to discuss that point in detail. But a quote from one of my Calvin College theology professors, a conservative by Calvin standards of the 1980s, seems appropriate: “You can explain the Christian Reformed Church by sociology, not by theology.”

      I happen to believe the Bible **DOES** teach something that is commonly called the “Protestant Work Ethic.” I think it is patently obvious that, at least in the modern world, Reformed people are known for being unusual among evangelicals in emphasizing work ethics while most evangelicals place a priority on “spiritual matters,” which far too often is an excuse for lack of diligence in their jobs.

      But it’s all too easy for a legitimate biblical emphasis on being diligent in one’s work to turn into something truly horrible. I can’t say it happened in the Dutch Republic; I don’t know enough about commercial and political life in that era to comment authoritatively. It did happen in New England, and historically it has happened elsewhere, not only in Reformed circles, but certainly including Reformed circles.

  2. Excellent article Dr. Clark.
    B.B. Warfield makes a similar point in his book “Perfectionism”: “Corruption is the very penalty of sin from which we are freed in justification; holiness is the very reward which is granted us in justification. It is therefore absurd to suppose that sanctification can fail where justification has taken place. Sanctification is but the execution of the justifying decree. For it to fail would be for the acquitted person not to be released in accordance with his acquittal. It is equally absurd to speak of a special ‘sanctifying faith’ adjoined to ‘justifying faith’; ‘justifying faith’ itself necessarily brings sanctification, because justification necessarily issues in sanctification – as the chains are necessarily knocked off of the limbs of the acquitted man. The Scriptures require of us not faiths but faith.” (p. 100)

  3. Could you clarify who or what exactly you are referring to be “Wesleyans”? And how common is Wesleyanism by said defenition?
    Did Wesley teach “Piperism” (dual justification) as the parentheses of the title suggests? If not, what is the parallel between the two?

    • Hi Sam,

      As I mentioned in the essay, I’m responding to a review published in CT. The authors of the volume under review identify as Wesleyans or as coming from that tradition. I can’t give you a history of Wesleyanism in the combox but here is how the Wesleyans tell their story.

      Here’s the entry from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

      Wesley, John (1703–91), founder of the Methodist Movement. The 13th or 14th child and second surviving son of the Revd Samuel Wesley (1662–1735), rector of Epworth, Humberside, and his wife Susanna, he was educated at Charterhouse and *Christ Church, Oxford. In 1726 he was elected to a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford, and also acted for a time (1727–9) as curate to his father. At Oxford he gathered round him a group which became known as the ‘*Holy Club’ or Methodists; they included Charles *Wesley and G. *Whitefield. At this period he came much under the influence of W. *Law (whom he visited) and other *Nonjurors and RC writers who inspired him to follow an intensely ascetic pattern of life. In 1735 he set out with his brother Charles on a missionary journey to Georgia under the auspices of the *SPG, but his severe pastoral discipline, aggravated by an unsuccessful love affair, alienated the colonists and he fled home in 1737. After the *Moravian Peter Böhler had convinced him that he lacked saving faith, he underwent a conversion experience when his ‘heart was strangely warmed’ on 24 May 1738 during the reading of M. *Luther’s Preface to Rom. at the meeting of a religious society in Aldersgate Street, London. This was followed by a visit to the Moravian colony at *Herrnhut. Henceforth Welsey’s professed object was ‘to promote as far as I am able vital practical religion and by the grace of God to beget, preserve, and increase the life of God in the souls of men’, and the rest of his life was spent in evangelistic work.

      Finding the churches closed to him, Wesley followed Whitefield in field-preaching to the Kingswood colliers in 1739. He broke with the Moravians in 1740 and in 1741 his opposition to the strict Calvinist view of election led to a breach with Whitefield also. Wesley then developed his own organization with the help of lay preachers and extended his activity to cover the whole of the British Isles by 1751. His chief centres were in London, Bristol, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He is alleged to have travelled over 200,000 miles and to have preached over 40,000 sermons, as well as writing thousands of letters. Though attracting large audiences, he also suffered mob violence and clerical hostility, but eventually became a tolerated national figure. From 1744 he held conferences of lay preachers which became annual events and for which a legal constitution was provided in 1784. From small beginnings in the 1760s the Methodist system gradually developed also in America. The needs of this new field induced Wesley in 1784 to ordain T. *Coke as *Superintendent or Bishop, and also to instruct him to ordain F. *Asbury in America as his colleague. Wesley himself still wished the Movement to remain within the C of E, but an increasingly independent system grew up. At the time of his death there were 294 preachers and 71,668 members in Great Britain, 19 missionaries and 5,300 members on mission stations, and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America.
      Theologically, Wesley combined the teaching of *justification by faith alone with an emphasis on the pursuit of holiness to the point of ‘Christian *perfection’. Intellectually, he combined a strong belief in the supernatural with appeals to Scripture, reason, and the *Fathers of the Church, though increasingly also to experience. He placed great value on liturgical prayer and Eucharistic devotion as well as on extempore worship. Personal magnetism and an enormous capacity for self-discipline and organization enabled him to control his movement. Though he mixed easily in a variety of company, impressed Samuel *Johnson with his conversation, and was an effective spiritual counsellor to women, his marriage to Mary Vazeille was most unhappy. A High Church Tory in politics, Wesley engaged in extensive charitable work; for him the pursuit of money was only for the sake of giving, while he distrusted the rich and the effects of wealth on the spiritual life. His extensive writings and abridgements give him a role as a popular educator. He was the central figure in the rise of Methodism and one of the greatest Christians of his age. Feast day (with Charles) in CW, 24 May; in the American BCP (1979), 3 Mar.

      Wesley himself ed. a collection of his works, 32 vols., Bristol, 1771–4; later edns. incl. those by T. Jackson (14 vols., London, 1829–31; 15 vols., ibid., 1856–62; and 14 vols., ibid., 1872, repr., Grand Rapids [1958–9]). New edn., known since 1984 as the ‘Bicentennial Edition’, by F. Baker and others (Oxford, 1975–82; Nashville, 1984 ff.). This incl., as vols. 1–4, Wesley’s sermons, ed. A. C. Outler (1984–7) and as vols. 18–24, his Journal (which extends from 1735 to 1790) and Diaries, ed. W. R. Ward and R. P. Heitzenrater (1988–2003). Until they are incl. in this edn., the standard text of his Letters is that of J. Telford (8 vols., London, 1931). Collection of extracts, with introd., by A. C. Outler (New York, 1964) and of John and Charles Wesley by F. Whaling (Classics of Western Spirituality, 1981). Lives by J. Hampson (3 vols., London, 1791), T. Coke and H. Moore (ibid., 1792), J. Whitehead (2 vols., ibid., 1793–6), R. Southey (2 vols., ibid., 1820, and many later edns.), H. Moore (2 vols., ibid., 1824–5), L. Tyerman (3 vols., ibid., 1870–1; with much fresh material), R. D. Urlin (ibid., 1870), J. Telford (ibid., 1886; 3rd edn., 1910), J. H. Overton (ibid., 1891), J. S. Simon (5 vols., ibid., 1921–34; in the form of separate studies), M. Schmidt (2 vols., Zurich, 1953–66; Eng. tr., 3 vols., 1962–73), V. H. H. Green (London, 1964), S. Ayling (ibid., 1979), and H. D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast [1989]. R. P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (2 vols., Nashville, 1984, with extensive docs.). J. Telford (ed.), Sayings and Portraits of John Wesley (1924). On his life, also: M. Piette, La Réaction Wesléyenne dans l’évolution protestante (Louvain thesis; Brussels, 1925; 2nd edn., with slightly different title, ibid., 1927; Eng. tr., 1937); V. H. H. Green, The Young Mr. Wesley: A Study of John Wesley and Oxford (1961); R. L. Moore, John Wesley and Authority: A Psychological Perspective (American Academy of Religion Dissertation Series, 29; Missoula, Mont. [1979]). On his teaching and significance, M. [L.] Edwards, John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century: A Study of his Social and Political Influence (1933; rev. edn., 1955); G. C. Cell, The Rediscovery of John Wesley (New York [1935]); W. R. Cannon, The Theology of John Wesley, with Special Reference to the Doctrine of Justification (ibid. [1946]); H. Lindström, Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation (Stockholm, 1946); W. L. Doughty, John Wesley, Preacher (1955); C. W. Williams, John Wesley’s Theology Today (1960); A. B. Lawson, John Wesley and the Christian Ministry: The Sources and Development of his Opinions and Practice (1963); R. C. Monk, John Wesley: His Puritan Heritage (1966; 2nd edn., 1999); F. Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (1970); M. Marquardt, Praxis und Prinzipien der Sozialethik Wesleys (Göttingen, 1977); R. G. Tuttle, John Wesley: His Life and Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich. [1978]); H. A. Snyder, The Radical Wesley and Patterns of Church Renewal (Downers Green, Ill. [1980]). R. E. Brantley, Locke, Wesley, and the Method of English Romanticism (Gainesville, Fla. [1984]), pp. 1–128 and 215–25.

      RC Roman Catholic, Roman Catholicism.

      SPG *Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. (See p. 1540.)

      C of E *Church of England.

      CW *Common Worship.

      BCP Book of *Common Prayer.

      ibid. ibidem (Lat., in the same place).

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      tr. translation.

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      ibid. ibidem (Lat., in the same place).

      F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1739–1740.

      I don’t know whether Wesley taught a two-stage doctrine of justification/salvation but he certainly did not agree with the Reformation doctrine of justification.

  4. As to Calvinism then. Should I read a Comm on Romans by (RC Lenski) when he makes a statement like this about Calvinism?

    “From the very beginning Calvinism failed in this task. Its fundamental error was and still is the removal of justification from the center of the gospel teaching as set forth by Paul in Romans as well as in the entire teaching of Scripture. The root of this error is the elevation of the (voluntas beneplaciti) above the (voluntas signi), thus interpreting the divine will as signified in the written Word, not according to this written Word alone, but, in the last analysis, according to what our imperfect vision thinks it sees God’s good pleasure doing with men. We must always do the reverse. Failure to apply this vital principle of interpretation is peculiarly fatal as regards Romans, and especially chapters 9 to 11. The issue is not one between rival interpreters, call them exegetes, dogmaticians, or New Testament scholars, but one pertaining to the ultimate divine realities on which the salvation of every believer rests. The exposure of the false Calvinistic exegesis necessarily must go on, and it cannot be too thorough.”

    I am Not sure being just a layman on this,
    if reading this book might/may lead to confusion or bad attitude or ? toward Reformed faith?
    I looked up the Latin Terms but did not really get what the words meant.
    I looked into Lenski because he is recommended reading by a number of Solid Comms books
    and I am starting to do a study on Romans.
    Any direction on reading Lenski is appreciated. I hope I make sense here.

    Great article again, Scott, keep’m coming.

    • Hi Mike,

      Lenski was just repeating polemical talking points from the 19th century. It’s a version of the allegation that the Reformed elevated predestination to the “central dogma” of the faith from which everything else was said to have been deduced.

      This myth has been debunked many times, most especially by Richard Muller. I doubt Lenski spent much time reading Reformed sources before he came to his conclusion.

      When reading a Lutheran commentary I expect Lutherans to say ill-informed things about the Reformed tradition. There is a short list of modern Lutheran scholars who’ve bothered to read beyond what they were taught in seminary.

      On Romans see the resource page.

      I would start with Calvin’s commentary. Are you listening to the pod series on Romans?

      Haldane, Hodge, & Fesko are worth reading too.

    • David,

      That is a great question. Principally, I am interacting with the review, and the claims made in the review. It gets a little more complicated when the review is quoting the book. But, since I haven’t read the book, I can’t very well make claims about it.

Comments are closed.