There is no question among orthodox, i.e., confessional, Reformed folk whether good works are necessary as a consequence, evidence, and a fruit of justification and sanctification by grace alone, through faith alone. There is no question whether God’s moral law, whether summarized in the decalogue, in the gospels, or in the epistles is the norm for the Christian life. Anyone who denies this third use of the law is an antinomian and that error is condemned by both the confessional Reformed and Lutheran churches. There is no question whether there is a distinction between justification, that gracious declaration by God that sinners, united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone are reckoned righteous on the basis of Christ’s perfect, whole obedience and righteousness imputed, and sanctification, the ongoing work of the Spirit in believers gradually and graciously conforming them to the image of Christ. On the relations between justification and salvation there is general agreement in the Reformed tradition that they are inseparable but distinct, salvation being a broader category that includes both justification and sanctification. Nevertheless, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably and so the reader must pay attention to the way the term salvation is being used in any particular context. Finally, generally sanctification and good works are related but distinct. Sanctification describes the process of our conformity to Christ, the dying (mortification) of the old man and the making alive (vivification) of the new by the Spirit in us and good works are a consequence of that gracious work in us.
Recently two related claims have been made about the role of works in salvation. One writer claims “a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.”
This is, to say the least, an arresting expression. Should we accept it? Let’s try to find a baseline. Do the Reformed Churches speak this way? The expression “unto salvation” does occur in the Westminster Confession (1648). In 1.6 it distinguishes between the general knowledge of God, which all image bearers have and that which is “sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” In 3.6, on God’s eternal decree, we confess:
6. As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.
When we speak of God’s effectual call (as distinct from the general, outward call), we say that the elect are called “unto faith” by the Spirit, who uses the ordinary means of grace. Here we see the (logical) order of salvation. It is the elect who are effectually called, it is they were are justified, it is the justified who are adopted, sanctified, and kept by God’s sovereign power “through faith, unto salvation.” It describes the application of redemption by the Spirit as being “saved.” Here we see how salvation is a broader concept that includes justification along with other benefits conferred freely upon the elect in time and space. The instrument of salvation here is faith. That’s the meaning of the word “through.” We receive Christ and all his benefits through faith alone. This is one reason I’ve been trying to make the case that faith alone is the instrument of justification and salvation (emphasis added).
The expression “unto salvation” also occurs in the Larger and Shorter catechisms (1648). The Larger Catechism reiterates the doctrine of WCF 1 regarding the knowledge of God “unto salvation.” Q/A 79 teaches that believers are “kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Q/A elaborates upon this teaching. The Spirit graciously enables believers to persevere and believers are those who “truly believe in Christ” and who “endeavor to walk in all good conscience before him.” The Larger Catechism here distinguishes between “is” and “because” or “through.” Believers do obey. That is the case but that obedience is never said to be the ground or instrument of their salvation. Q/A 155 specifically addresses this issue:
Q. 155. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; or building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.
The Holy Spirit, as he always has, operates powerfully through the Word. Through the Word he creates new life, confers faith, unites them to Christ, sanctifies, “through faith unto salvation” (emphasis added). Again, the divines did not speak of works as the ground or instrument of salvation. Faith is the instrument of salvation. This is the explicit and repeated doctrine of the Westminster Divines and of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.
The Westminster Standards would have us think and say that we are justified and saved through faith alone. There is prima facie evidence in Scripture for speaking this way. When the Israelites were against it, when the Egyptian armies were descending upon them at the Red Sea, how did God save them from death and destruction? How were their good works “efficacious unto salvation” at the Red Sea? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course the Israelites were completely helpless and the same sovereign Lord who became incarnate, who obeyed for us, by whose righteousness we are saved is he who stretched out his powerful right hand, parted the waters, and led them through on dry ground. It is he who destroyed Pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea. This episode is so paradigmatic for the biblical way of considering salvation that when our Lord pronounces the gospel prologue to the Ten Commandments, he says, “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2; revised from the ESV). The Lord saved Israel from destruction despite their sin and rebellion.
According to Jeremiah 31 and the NT Scriptures, the new covenant is new relative to Moses, not Abraham. In the new covenant, however, salvation remains the process of deliverance from the destruction to come, pictured by the Red Sea and the judgments upon Egypt. God is saving those whom he has freely justified for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone. Those whom he is saving will do good works, not according to their own subjective imaginations but as measured by God’s holy, objective standard: his moral law (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 114). Those good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in them. They are enabled by the Holy Spirit. They are evidence that, indeed, the one who professes faith really is a believer. The ground of the believer’s confidence, however, is the righteousness and sacrifice of the Lamb of God imputed to him. The instrument through which God is saving him is faith. As important and necessary as good works are, they are not confessed by the Reformed churches to be “efficacious unto salvation.” After all, just as God graciously delivered us from Egypt, how much more has he graciously delivered us from sin and death? Paul’s question is rhetorical: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously (χαρίσεται) give us all things”? (Romans 8:32 ESV) Salvation is given to us sinners freely, graciously. It was earned for us by Christ. Yes, we must respond appropriately. Scripture and our confessions and theologians are clear about this but we must resist the temptation to re-institute the old medieval and Romanist carrot and stick. No, our faith, our confession, our understanding of Scripture says that it is guilt, grace, and gratitude.
The Theologians: Turretin
In the first part we looked briefly at some biblical texts and the Reformed confessions to consider whether we should think and speak of the “efficacy of works” in salvation. This post considers the claim that the Reformed tradition widely taught that works are “necessary unto salvation.” Francis Turretin (1623–87) was a Genevan Reformed theologian of Italian descent. His family immigrated to Geneva in the 16th century and Turretin became one of the leading defenders of Reformed orthodoxy in the mid-to late 17th century. His Institutes of Elenctic Theology published in the 1670s and 80s is an important witness to the way the orthodox Reformed looked at a variety of issues. It should be remembered that his Institutes were not a systematic theology but rather a response to controversial issues confronting the Reformed in the period, so his treatment of issues is largely determined by his purpose.
Turretin addresses the nature of sanctification and good works in the seventeenth topic, in 5 questions. Like Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1274) and Ursinus’ Summa Doctrinae(1585 et seq), Turretin used a catechetical (question and answer) method of instruction. The first question concerns the definition of sanctification. His initial response is instructive:
As Christ was made to us of God righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30)—note dividedly, but conjointly; not confusedly, but distinctly—so the benefit of sanctification immediately follows justification as inseparably connected with it, but yet really distinct from it [emphasis added].
NB: Turretin kept justification and sanctification together but distinguished them logically and ordered them logically. It is the justified who are progressively sanctified. This was hie starting point in discussing sanctification. Contrary to the way the relations between justification and sanctification have been described in some quarters since the mid-70s, Turretin reflects the typical Reformed way of relating them: they are united, logically distinct, and logically ordered. It is the last part that seems to have stumped so many in recent years. Turretin was Reformed. He was committed to “ordo salutisthinking.” As this revisionist account of the ordo salutis (the [logical] order of salvation) has been as if it were the Reformed view, it is become more difficult for its adherents to read and understand the history of Reformed theology. Understood on their own terms, in view of their own concerns, the classic 16th and 17th century writers cannot be interpreted to have taught the view that seeks to deny any logical order between the twin benefits of justification and sanctification. More on this question in the next post.
From this starting point, which he inherited from Calvin, Olevianus, Perkins, and virtually the entire Reformed tradition before him, he moved on to defining sanctification as a “real and internal renovation of man by which God delivers the man planted in Christ by faith and justified (by the ministry of the word and the efficacy of the Spirit) more and more from his native depravity and transforms him into his own image” (emphasis added; 17.1.2). His first account of sanctification is that it follows from justification. His second is to say that it is what we call progressive sanctification (not definitive) and that it is the result of union with Christ and that union is, as he wrote, “by faith.” In other words, in contrast to the revisionist doctrine of union with Christ offered to us in the last 40 years and advocated by a society of young advocates today, Turretin agreed with, e.g., Calvin and Olevianus that there is a duplex gratia (twofold grace) or duplex beneficium (double benefit) but that fact doesn’t obliterate order nor does it replace faith as the instrument of union with regeneration. His language here is virtually identical to that used by Calvin and Olevianus a century prior. As we interpret Turretin teaching regarding sanctification and good works, then, we must do so in the proper context.
In the next section (3) he elaborated on the progressive nature of sanctification as the gradual, gracious renewal of human nature from the corruption resulting from sin and the extent of sanctification. Note that he did not take the language “to those who are sanctified” to refer to a definitive act but to a progressive, inherent reality. He even described it as the “infusion and practice of holiness.” He could do so because he has already established that justification is a definitive, forensic act by God, a declaration of the imputation of Christ’s (alien to us, proper to him) righteousness, received through faith alone, in Christ alone by faith (resting and receiving) alone. He describes sanctification in traditional (patristic, medieval, Protestant) realistic rather than forensic terms boldly on the basis of this clear distinction. In case anyone missed the order he repeats:
This [progressive sanctification] follows justification and is begun here in this life by regeneration and promoted by the exercise of holiness and of good works, until it shall be consummated in the other by glory. In this sense it is now taken passively, inasmuch as it is wrought by God in us; then actively, inasmuch as it ought to be done by God, God performing this work in us and by us.
The discussion that follows elaborated on these basic themes and distinctions. Justification is forensic (a legal declaration). Sanctification is realistic (it is actually transforming us), the progressive renewal of human nature, in a state of grace, in union with Christ, into the image of Christ. Against Rome and anyone else who would conflate justification and sanctification he devoted 5 sections or articles to distinguishing justification from sanctification. In 17.1.11.He addressed specifically the “chain of salvation:”
Although Paul does to make express mention of sanctification in the chain of salvation [Rom 8:28–30], it does not follow that it is included in the word justification, as if it were identical with it. Fit is far more fitly included wither under calling (which is the beginning of sanctification) or, what we think is truer, under glorification (which is its consummation and complement—as sanctification is the beginning of glory (Rom. 3;2; 2 Cor. 3:18).
Just as stoutly as he distinguished and ordered them, he also kept justification and sanctification united (17.1.15). “They should never be torn asunder.” He speaks of them as “two benefits” (duo ista beneficia) idem and in 17.1.16). Again, this language has roots in Luther’s 1518/19 sermons on “Duplex Iustitia” (Twofold Righteousness), Triplex Iustitia (Threefold Righteousness), Calvin’s use of duplex gratia (twofold grace) and Olevianus’ duplex beneficium (twofold benefit).
For Turretin, as for Calvin and the earlier Reformed writers, faith is instrumental not only in justification but also sanctification:
For the very faith by which we are justified demands this. For as it is the instrument of justification b receiving the righteousness of Christ, so it is the root and principle of sanctification, while it purges the heart and works through love (Gal. 5;6).
We are justified in order that we might be gradually, graciously, passively, and actively sanctified.
In question two he rejected the doctrine of perfectionism, i.e., the teaching that Christians can “live without sin” in this life. He attributes correctly this doctrine to the Pelagians and connects it to “the Romanists and Socinians.” For Turretin as a Protestant Augustinian, the resolution of this problem lies in a proper understanding of God’s holiness, of the nature of his requirements, and the nature of human depravity after the fall.
In the third question (17.3.2) he addresses the question of the necessity of good works, which “pertain to sanctification.” In 17.3.2 he distinguishes between the orthodox view and the antinomians, who deny the necessity of good works in salvation and the moralists (Rome, Socinians) who make them meritorious and “a causality” of salvation. He clearly taught the necessity of “bona opera” (good works) “ad salutem,” which may be translated “toward salvation.” What sort of necessity was it and what did he mean by the prepositional phrase ad salutem? “Are they required as the means and the way (medium et via) for possessing salvation? This we hold” (17.3.3).
The next section is most interesting because it illumines why he felt compelled to speak this way. He mentioned the “interimistic formula” which was a reference to a series of political and religious Interims, during the Schmalkaldic Wars, in the mid-late 1540s which promulgated the language that “good works are necessary to salvation.” Melanchthon had used that language in the 1530s, in his Loci Communes (Common Places), which made it possible for it to be used during the Interims but by the 1550s George Major had elaborated on it to say that good works were necessary “to retain salvation.”1The Interims were political creatures that used deliberately ambiguous language that was capable of being interpreted in multiple senses simultaneously. As Turretin observed, for this reason some Reformed theologians rejected it.
Turretin wanted to retain it, however, and to interpret it carefully in so doing. For Turretin, good works are necessary but they “contribute nothing to the acquiring (acquirendam) of salvation.” At the same time he affirmed that they are necessary “to obtaining” (obtinendam) salvation. So, he distinguished between acquiring and obtaining. Why? Because he wanted a strong response to the Romanist charge that the doctrine of justification sola gratia, sola fide leads to licentiousness.
The third question in locus (topic) 17 concerns the necessity of good works. What is the nature of the necessity of good works? As a good teacher, Turretin typically tells us what he going to tell us, i.e., he summarizes briefly what he is about to say and then explains in more detail. In his summaries he stressed the “absolute necessity” of good works (17.3.6) on three grounds: the command, i.e., God’s moral will revealed in Scripture, the nature of the thing itself, and the condition of the believer (17.3.5). Christians are “debtors”—here we hear echoes of Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 2 “third, how we ought to be thankful for such redemption.” When he considers the state or condition of the believer he turns to the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae; 17.3.6). There are two parts to the covenant of grace: God’s free promise of redemption and the consequent conditions, obligations, or stipulation of obedience (obedientiae stipulatione) on our part (17.3.7). For more on how Reformed folk speak about conditions in the covenant of grace, without turning it into a covenant of works, listen to Heidelcast episodes 46 and 47. He reminded the reader that the covenant of grace is God’s promise to be our God. His moral will (vult) is that we should, in turn, take up the consequent obligation as his people. These obligations are part of the way God administers the covenant of grace, and as we participate in the that administration, we become participants (particeps) in the benefits (beneficia) and the goods (bonorum) of the covenant of grace. At the same time, he conditions this talk of obligation by noting that it is God himself who executes (exequatur) these things in the believer. In other words, even as he used very strong language about the moral necessity of sanctification in and good works by the believer, in response to grace, he was careful not to turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works.
The first part of the covenant of grace is God’s gracious promise, which he reminded the reader, “flows” (fluit) from each of the three persons of the holy Trinity (S. S. Triadis personis; 17.3.8). We may think of the Father as he who adopts us, the Son as our Redeemer, and the Spirit as the comforter and sanctifier. From this threefold grace follows a “threefold necessity (necessitas triplex) of worship and obedience” in order that we might live (i.e., conduct ourselves) as “worthily (digne) as sons of God, members of Christ, and as temples of the Holy Spirit” (17.3.8). It is in the nature of grace that its recipients, having been regenerated and united to Christ, should (necessarily) be gradually and graciously conformed to his image, that we should die to sin (mortification) and be made alive to Christ (vivification).
Turretin turned to the “Word of God or the gospel, which is proposed for believing (credendum) and the rule of faith and life” as proof of the necessity of good works (17.3.9). Christian doctrine, he argued, is not mere theory (merè theoretica). It is also practical. That was his definition of theology: partly theoretical, partly practical, i.e., doctrine and its out working or consequences. “Theoretical” in this usage did not refer to a hypothetical possibility but to the basis for action. One must know what one is doing before he does it. This, he wrote, is why it is called the “mystery of piety.” Doctrine is affective and transformative. He briefly summarized a series of passages (which he typically did, which I omit for brevity but please do not imagine that he was not working carefully with Scripture). In Christ, the God’s law has become “the Law of the Spirit and Life” (Rom 8:2), which liberates us from the “law of sin and death” (a Lege peccati et mortis). Christians are not justified by, through, or out of the law or obedience to the law but in Christ we are not without but we are under the law as debtors (tamen ex leges, sed subleges Christo). True religion is not “mere profession of the truth” (meram veritatis professionem). Here he cited Romans 2:28, 29; James 1:27.
Citing Romans 6:18 he argued that redemption from the curse of the law and the tyranny of the Devil (17.3.10) does not mean liberation from the moral law as the rule of the Christian life. No, God’s grace strengthens our obligation to it, not as the ground or instrument of salvation but as the natural course of the Christian life. “Grace” he wrote, “requires the same” (Idem exigit Gratia). We desire all the more to obey now that we are no longer under law (for justification) but under grace.
We have received all of Christ’s benefits (e.g., eternal election, present justification, future glory) “to promote the work of sanctification” (17.3.11). Good works are the “effects” (effecta) of eternal election, “the fruit and seal (fructa et sigilla) of present grace” and the “seed” (semina) of future glory. Here he quoted Bernard’s famous treatise On Grace and Free Choice, in which Bernard distinguished between effect and cause. Sanctification is the effect “but not the cause of reigning.” Again he cites and summarizes a series of biblical passages. As earlier, Turretin wrote of the “highest and indispensable consequent necessity of good works toward glory and so much that without them to one cannot obtain it” (17.3.12).1
Good works are the consequence of justification, they are constitutive of sanctification, and they are antecedent and the ordained path to glorification (17.3.14). In other words, good works necessarily occur before glory. They are the divinely ordained experience of eternal life begun in this life. They are, he wrote, “the medium to the end.” As soon as he used the expression “medium” (means) he cautioned that this language may not be used to “confuse the Law and the Gospel” (non confundimus ideo Legem & Evangelium) or to suggest that justification is not gracious or through faith alone (per solum fidem). Good works are not required for “living on the basis of the law, but that we might live through the gospel” (17.3.15). Life is not given to us “on account of good works but as the effects which testify that life has been given to us.”2 Believers do not good works out of compulsion but rather we do them “spontaneously and voluntarily” (sponte sponte etἐκουσίως; 17.3.16). The necessity is one of “means and debt.”
The question is what he intended to communicate by the noun “medium.” The answer is found in his usage and context. He used the term in the context of an unequivocal, explicit distinction between works and grace, law and gospel. He distinguished between an antecedent necessity and a consequent necessity. He described faith as the instrument of justification and salvation. Medium was his way of signaling the integral relation between sanctification and good works. Justification necessarily produces sanctification and that results in good works to the glory of God and the edification of our neighbor (17.3.13). Good works are a means in the sense that without them we neither glorify God nor edify our neighbor.
For Turretin, the necessity is a natural, logical, moral consequence of the covenant of grace. It is a strong necessity. He is even willing to say that it is necessary for obtaining (as distinct from acquiring) salvation but he did not describe or use evangelical obedience or good works as the ground or instrument of our salvation. Sanctification and the resulting evangelical obedience simply are the way things are. The logical distinct here was between is (to be) and because (ground) or through (instrument). Good trees produce good fruit. That fruit does not make the tree good but it is the case that good trees produce good fruit and no fruitless tree may be considered a good or fruit bearing tree.
The Theologians: Witsius
Now we turn our attention to Herman Witsius (1636–1708). Born in West Friesland, Herman’s father was a (ruling) elder and his maternal grandfather was a Reformed minister. He studied theology Arabic and Syrian at Utrecht and theology under Gijbertus Voetius (1589–76), Johannes Hoornbeek (1617–66), and Samuel Maresius (1599–1673). He was a full-time minister from about 1656 until 1675. During part of his ministry he served with Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711) before he was called to Franecker to teach theology. He was justly well regarded not only in the Netherlands but also in the British Isles. In 1695 he was appointed by the Dutch Parliament to represent the Dutch Republic at the coronation of James II and to serve as chaplain to the Dutch Embassy in London. His covenant theology mediated between the Voetians and the Cocceians. Here is an entire site devoted to Witsius.3
Witsius is an outstanding guide to this difficult topic in part because he waded through many of the same questions that we are facing in our time. In 1696 Witsius wrote a treatise to try to mediate the dispute between the nomists and the antinomians in Britain: Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain. It was translated by Thomas Bell and published in Glasgow in 1807. I’m using the wonderful Logos version, which is indexed by chapters and subsections and allows me to search the text. There is also a version on Google Books.
Witsius surveys a wide range of issues, e.g., in order to illustrate and press home Christ’s role as federal representative, sin bearer and substitute some had used unhappy expressions concerning Christ’s relations to sin. Witsius, in typical fashion, patiently explained why Christian folk ought not speak that way about Christ while, at the same time affirming the Protestant doctrine of the joyous exchange (e.g., pp. 33–45): our sin for Christ’s righteousness. Witsius was a gospel man.
His sketch of the doctrine of union with Christ is clear and concise:
Doubtless they are united to him,
1. In the eternal decree of God, which, however, includes nothing, except that their actual union shall take place; as was already demonstrated.
II. By an union of eternal consent, wherein Christ was constituted by the Father the head of all those who were to be saved, and that he should represent their persons; hence it was, that Christ obeying the commandment of the Father, and suffering for them, they are reckoned in the judgment of God to have obeyed and suffered in him. All these things, however, do not hinder, but that considered in themselves, before their regeneration, they are far from God and Christ, according to that their present state.
III. By a true and a real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) they are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ; who is to the soul, but in a far more excellent manner, in respect of spiritual life, what the soul is to the body in respect of animal and human life. As therefore the union of soul and body is in order of nature prior to the life of man; so also the union of the Spirit of Christ and the soul is prior to the life of a Christian. Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.
IV. But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, &c. Which if they be arranged in that manner and order, I know not whether any controversy concerning this affair can remain among the brethren.4
Here we see Witsius affirming different aspects of union, decretal, federal, in regeneration, and finally and distinctly what he called “mutual union” which is “by faith only.” The reader should notice that, in contrast to some of the idiosyncratic modern accounts of union, Witsius did not juxtapose union with Christ to the order of salvation (i.e., the ordo salutis, the logical order of the application of redemption to the elect by the Spirit). The benefits of the covenant of grace are received simultaneous, through faith, but there is a logical order. He also taught explicitly justification sola gratia, sola fide on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone.
He also affirmed clearly the covenant of works before the fall as distinct from the covenant of grace after the fall. He affirmed the Mosaic covenant as both an administration of the covenant of grace and and a pedagogical “repetition” of the covenant of works:
The same doctrine Moses repeated in his ministry. For he also inculcated the same precepts upon which the covenant of works had been built: he both repeated the same solemn saying, He who doeth these things shall live in them, Lev. 18:5 and also added another, Cursed be he who shall not perform the words of this law in doing them, Deut. 27:26. That this is the curse of the law, as it stands opposed to the covenant of grace, Paul teacheth, Gal. 3:10. which, however, is not so to be understood, as if God had intended, by the ministry of Moses, to make a new covenant of works with Israel, with a view to obtain righteousness and salvation by such a covenant. But that repetition of the covenant of works was designed to convince the Israelites of their sin and misery, to drive them out of themselves, to teach them the necessity of a satisfaction, and to compel them to cleave to Christ: and thus it was subservient to the covenant of grace, Rom. 10:4 5
In chapter 8, he touches on the question animating this series. What are the relations between salvation (deliverance from sin and judgment) and works?
…for though Paul taught, that works contribute nothing to justification, or to procure a man’s title to salvation; yet he always taught, that they were not only useful, but also necessary to salvation, and that it is impossible, that sanctification should be separated from justification. James treads in the same path, and teaches that it is necessary that he who is justified by faith, should also be justified by works: that is, perform these works which are the evidences and effects of righteousness, and by which it is demonstrated not only before men, but also before God, that he is righteous: according to that of John, “He who doeth righteousness is righteous,” 1 John 3:7. Indeed there is a double justification: one of a man sinful in himself, whereby he is absolved from sin, and declared to have a title to eternal life, on account of Christ’s righteousness apprehended by faith, which Paul inculcated: another of a man, righteous already, sanctified by the Spirit of Christ, and who is declared to be such, by his words and actions. James teaches, that this is so necessary, and so connected with the former, that he is deceived who boasts of that and is destitute of this.6
As we saw in Turretin, for Witsius, works “contribute nothing to justification” nor do they “procure…title” to salvation. This is equivalent to Turretin’s rejection of the doctrine that good works “acquire” salvation. What role do they play in salvation? In what sense are they necessary? It is interesting that Witsius’ first response to the question is to write of “evidences and effects of righteousness.” He wrote of a “double justification.” Notice, however, that he distinguished between two senses of justification. In the first sense it refers to the once-for-all judicial declaration that a sinner is righteous before God on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (which he discussed at length earlier) and in the second sense it refers to the vindicationof the sinner’s claim to faith. Sanctification and good works are necessary as evidence of the claim to faith.
Believers, united to Christ by the Spirit, have the principle of new life in them. That principle manifests itself in
Now it cannot receive him for justification, except at the same time, it receive him for sanctification: nor receive him as a Priest, to expiate sin, unless it also receive him as a King, to whom it may submit, in order to obedience. Hence it follows, that that act of faith, whereby we receive Christ for righteousness, cannot be exercised, without either a previous, or at least a concomitant repentance, and a purpose of a new life.7
Believers repent. Reformed folk have differed in their rhetoric but there is agreement in substance among the Reformed that it is not possible for one to be a believer and to be impenitent, to be without “a purpose of a new life.” We are justified through faith alone but true faith is always accompanied by repentance and its fruits.
One of the aspects of the antinomian-neonomian controversy, in seventeenth-century Britain, which has resurfaced in our time is the question whether God sees the sins of believers. Witsius answered yes and no:
He sees also the sins of believers, as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are committed by them: for whatever is true, God sees that it is true. But at the same time, he does not see the sins of believers as the sins of believers, inasmuch as they are no more theirs, but Christ’s, to whom they were imputed, and who hath now satisfied for them.16
In his sovereign providence God sees all. With respect to our justification, however, we must say that God does not see our sins. As We are no longer under condemnation. This does not mean that believers will not face God’s Fatherly displeasure or chastisement. On this see the series on the warning passages in Scripture.
Remember that the Westminster Divines were much agitated by the problem of antinomianism. Mid-century England had been torn by civil war, which always brings with it an existentialist (live now for tomorrow you may die) sort of war-time ethos. Add to that the theological and ethical instability produced by the rise of both neonomian and antinomianism reactions to the Reformation and it’s easy to see why they were so concerned. In chapter 15 of the Animadversions Witsius surveys and summarizes the main arguments of the antinomians. In chapter 16, which we’re considering in this post, he responds. He begins by saying that he shares the major concern of the antinomians, that the “that men may be called off from all presumption upon their own righteousness, and trained up to the exercise of generous piety, which flows from the pure fountain of Divine love.” At the same time he rejected their tendency or the consequence of some of their arguments “to take from good works all that fruit and utility, so frequently assigned them in scripture. Free justification is so to be consulted, that nothing be derogated from the benefit of sanctification.”17
Like Turretin (see parts 2 and 3), Witsius distinguished between “a right to life” and the “possession of life.” We have a right to eternal life only on the basis of “obedience of Christ” imputed and received through faith alone. When we’re thinking and speaking about justification and righteousness before God, “the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” Nevertheless, those good works, “which the Spirit of Christ worketh in us, and by us, contribute something” to the possession of eternal life.18 Again, the question is how? In what way?
He appealed to John 6:27:
Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (ESV).19
and to Philippians 2:12b:
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
and 1Corinthians 15:58:
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
In no case, he argued, was Scripture speaking of justification. He knew this a priori because justification is not by works or even through works. These passages clearly teach the moral necessity of good works, ergo they must be about sanctification.20
He rejected the argument that since Christ is the way of life that “the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life.”21 He appealed to the frequent biblical teaching concerning “the way of righteousness” and “the good way,” the “way of peace,” and “the way of life and salvation .” He appealed to Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life” (ESV). He asked rhetorical whether the “narrow way” to which Christ referred (Matt 7:14) is nothing but “the strict practice of Christian religion? which is called the way of salvation, Acts. 16:17.”22
One of the more interesting arguments he confronted is that which said that it is inconsistent with the Christian faith to do something “in order that” one might live. His first response was an appeal to analogy. We live because we eat and we eat to live. These are not inconsistent. In the same way we ought to “act in a holy manner…because we are quickened by the Spirit of God” and at the same time “we must also act in the same manner, that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life.” As a proof of this principle he quoted Deuteronomy 30:19, 20 and concluded “Truly these speeches are not legal, but evangelical.”15
He spent a couple of paragraphs defending the proposition that it is godly and right for a Christian to have a certain self interest, namely salvation. He moved on to explain that, contra the antinomians, sanctification is an evidence of justification. The problem he was confronting was (and remains) the very real problem of the inconsistency and incompleteness of our sanctification. How can one ever find any evidence of justification in our sanctification? Ought not one look only to the promises of God in Christ?
Witsius responded by turning to the witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer that he does indeed belong to Christ.16 This is not an extra-canonical or extraordinary revelation. Rather, he argued,
For the Spirit of God so beareth witness, that he witnesseth together with our spirit, in exciting it to bear a true testimony, and in confirming its testimony, and convincing the conscience of its truth. My conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, Rom. 9:1. and thus indeed, even the witnessing of the Divine Spirit is not altogether separated from the observation of the signs of grace. And it often happens, that the Spirit of God so embraces his elect with these allurements of his most beneficent love, that while they enjoy those spiritual and ineffable delights, which earthly souls neither receive nor taste, they are no less persuaded of their election and justification, than if they saw their names engraven on the very hands of God.9
He wanted the believer to find this sense of God’s presence and assurance in the use of what we call “the means of grace” (i.e., the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer).
The formation of virtue, by the Spirit, in the believer also contributes to his assurance. We endeavor to “make our calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). As we strive toward this, we develop what he called “a consciousness of Christian virtues” which contributes to “an assurance of their election and [effectual, inward] vocation….” Like Turretin he too quoted Bernard’s On Grace and Free Will, which, mutatis mutandis illustrates the deep connection between Reformed spirituality and aspects of medieval theology and piety. That is, having been justified by grace alone, through faith alone, on the ground of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone, we are now free to borrow language about progressive sanctification from the earlier tradition.10
The Christian has a duty not to be presumptuous—not to say to himself, “I prayed the prayer, I walked the aisle. I’m good.” What is in question is whether the one who professes faith actually believes. Thus, Witsius reminded the reader of Paul’s command (2Cor 13:5) to “test himself to see whether he be in the faith and whether Jesus Christ be in him.” In Scripture, “the heirs of present grace and future glory are described by their qualities and virtues” and “by the exercise of these.” It is entirely natural (i.e., logical, not “unspiritual”) to look for the consequences and effects of justification, i.e., sanctification11
He was insistent that we should not set the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit against the external evidence, if you will, of justification and true faith in sanctification and good works.12 It is true that no Christian achieves perfection in this life and that our sanctification or our inherent righteous “can, by no means have place before him in order to justification.”13
But when, through the righteousness of Christ apprehended by faith, the believer’s person is made acceptable to God, then his virtues, which he obtained by sanctifying grace, and the exercise of virtues flowing from the same grace, are likewise acceptable to God: and what blemishes of ours cleave to them, these are covered with the most perfect righteousness and holiness of Christ.14
Finally, in this chapter, Witisus, following Charnock, argued that God delights in the holiness that is produced in believers, just as he delights in his own holiness. “Hence it follows,” he reasoned, “”that they who diligently apply themselves to the exercise of Christian holiness, are as acceptable to him, as they are odious who obey their lusts.”15 It is not that we are acceptable to God for righteousness (justification) but that, in Christ, not only our persons are accepted but also even our imperfect sanctity.
As we saw in Turretin, Witsius made a distinction between the way we obtain the legal right to appear before God as righteous—That is by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed alone—and the way we take possession of life itself. We, the justified, live the Christian life united to Christ and in communion with him. The Spirit who united us to Christ is at work in us gradually conforming us to his image. Thus, it is the case that we that we realize the outworking of justification, by grace alone, through faith alone, in sanctification and good works. He distinguished between the cause or a ground, the instrument, and the outworking or the consequences. As he described sanctification and good works as possession, he was describe an effect or consequence of justification. Once more: it is the distinction between because, through, and is.
It is the case that believers will be sanctified. When he wrote that good works “contribute something” to the possession of life was he thinking in instrumental terms? No. He was responding to those who denied the value of good works. They denied the utility and profit of good works. Thus,, Witsius set out the opposite view. Sanctification and good works are useful, they are profitable. Even though he used strong language he never made the the instrument of salvation even as he made them part of the process of salvation. For Witsius, as for Turretin, It is the case that believers will do good works. He was quite impatient with those who profess faith but have no evidence of faith in sanctification and good works. He was impatient with the impenitent and with those who scorn obedience.
1. “…summam esse et indispensabilem bonorum operum ad gloriam assequendam necessitatem, et tantam ut sine illis obtineri nequeat Heb. 12. 14. Apo. 21. 27.”
2. “Quia bona opera requiruntur non ad vivendum ex Lege, sed quia vivimus per Evangelium, non ut causae propter quas nobis datur vita, sed ut effecta quae testantur vitam esse nobis datam.”
3. Some of this biographical material is drawn from a biography of Witsius written by my friend Joel Beeke. The page is no longer online, however.
4. Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 67–69.
5. Witsius, Animadversions, 87.
6. Witsius, Animadversions, 97–99.
7. Witsius, Animadversions, 120.
8. Witsius, Animadversions, 123.
9. Witsius, Animadversions, 161.
10. Witsius, Animadversions, 161–62.
11. The English text I’m following does not, of course, quote the ESV but I’m using it here in the interests of clarity.
12. Witsius, Animadversions, 162.
14. Witsius, Animadversions, 163.
15. Witsius, Animadversions, 163–164.
16. Witsius, Animadversions, 168-69.
17. Witsius, Animadversions, 169–170.
18. Witsius, Animadversions, 170–171.
19. Witsius, Animadversions, 171–72.
20. Witsius, Animadversions, 174–75.
21. Witsius, Animadversions, 175.
22. Witsius, Animadversions, 176.
23. Witsius, Animadversions, 178.