The Patristic Period
One of the earliest concerns of the Christian church, beginning with the apostles and intensifying through the patristic and medieval periods, was that those who profess the Christian faith should live in a way befitting their profession of faith. In the apostolic and patristic periods our theologians were often writing within a hostile culture to converts from paganism. There was much that Christians could not control: what the pagans thought of them (e.g., they drown babies, they were cannibals, they were a burial cult etc). The Greco-Roman pagans seemed determined to try to force the Christians to conform outwardly to Greco-Roman piety. They were happy to add Jesus to the pantheon but they (and the non-Christian Jews) were greatly troubled by his crucifixion and they could not tolerate the notion that he had claimed (and the Christians confessed) that he is the only way to God. There offended too by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as unreasonable and others were critical of the claim that Jesus was born of a Virgin. Occasionally, in the patristic periods, there were even sporadic outbreaks of government-sponsored persecution intended either deal with the problem of the Christians. Those pogroms failed and the Christians persisted. One thing the Christians could control, one claim the Christians could make was that their behavior was exemplary. Those who investigated the Christians from the outside reported (e.g., Pliny the Younger c. 112 AD) that the Christians covenanted among themselves not make false oaths, not to steal, not to desire the belongings of others etc. They recited the Ten Commandments in their services. As part of their apologetic (i.e., defense of the faith) Justin Martyr and Tertullian repeatedly challenged the pagans to find anything wrong with the way Christians behaved. Christians, they argued, were good citizens and could sustain any trial to which the pagans might put them. They repeatedly begged the authorities to leave the Christians alone so they could pursue their lives peacefully.
The Medieval Period
Beginning in the late Patristic period and continuing through the medieval period, however, the high Christian doctrine of the moral and apologetic necessity of good behavior morphed into something else: part of the ground and instrument of the Christian’s standing before God, part of the ground and reason of their final salvation from the wrath to come. By the high middle ages (e.g., as reflected the teaching of Anselm. Bernard of Clairvaux. and Thomas Aquinas) it was widely held, though never formally confessed by the church, that salvation is by sanctification and that sanctification is by grace and free cooperation with grace. The mainstream doctrine became that Christians needed to accumulate merit and that was that free will, i.e., the un-coerced act of the will was essential merit. Behind this lay a set of philosophical assumptions that were received more or less uncritically, chief among which was the notion that God can only say “righteous” or “sanctified” if the Christians is actually, inherently, intrinsically righteous and sanctified. Particularly in the West and entire doctrine of salvation (soteriology) was established to explain how that was and what one must do to be saved (sanctified and therefore justified and finally delivered from the wrath to come).
The became that Christians are infused with a sort of medicine (a metaphor frequently used for grace) which produces new life (there is nothing new about sovereign, prevenient grace) with which the Christian must cooperate toward the formation of a kind of merit that has intrinsic worth. The medieval theologians called this “condign merit.” They recognized, however, in different ways that our cooperation with grace is imperfect or that our good works are still imperfect (different writers put it differently) and therefore God must impute perfection to our best efforts. They called this congruent merit. There was a widespread conviction that the only way to promote sanctity (holiness) and obedience among Christians is to suspend their final standing before God (salvation) upon their cooperation with grace. Good works were not evidence of a right standing with God and salvation but essential to the ground and instrument of our justification and salvation. Where at least some of the Fathers had spoken of justification and salvation by grace through faith in something like the way the Protestants would later do, the medievals defined faith rather differently. They defined faith as sanctification. They taught that faith is a virtue, that it has intrinsic power, and that it is “formed” in us through sanctification, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace. Where Paul had written, “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) the medievals (e.g., Thomas) taught “faith formed by love.” They spoke of the “theological virtues” of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. Faith was thought to be the gift of God but it does not given to us fully developed. We must nurture it and since love (caritas from which we get charity) is the greatest virtue, we must develop it by our free cooperation with grace toward the formation of faith. Thus, for the medieval theologians, faith is not so much trusting in Christ and looking to Christ but rather a measurement of the degree of love formed within us, a measurement of our actual sanctity and inherent righteousness.
This prevailing medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace, however, left the Christian in a state of suspension. Assurance was regarded as ordinarily impossible for the ordinary Christian and undesirable. Indeed, the notion of that one might have certainty that one was saved and would be saved from the wrath to come was regarded as presumption, as arrogance and that was an indication that one was not sufficiently sanctified. Christians were intended in a state of uncertainty. In at least one Saxon Augustinian monk that crisis created by the medieval system would produce a revolution in Western theology, piety, and practice.
When Luther rebelled against the medieval doctrine of justification and salvation by sanctification he re-defined justification as God’s unconditional declaration of justification (righteousness) on the ground of Christ’s condign merit imputed to believers and that received through faith alone (sola fide). Faith in justification and salvation was redefined as the sole instrument through which Christians receive God’s grace and Christ’s righteousness. This is why the sola of sola fide was so important. Love was said to be the fruit and evidence of justification and salvation. Grace was also redefined. Luther and the Protestants found that the medievals had departed from the biblical definition of grace as God’s free favor toward sinners and had turned it into a medicine. They found that some of the Fathers and many of the medievals had downplayed the effects of sin so as to be able to teach our ability to cooperate freely with grace. They recaptured St Paul’s and St Augustine’s doctrine of sin and its deadly consequences.
Where the medievals had come to teach that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection made it possible for Christian to do his part, if he would, Luther and the Protestants declared that the gospel is that Christ had accomplished salvation once-for-all and that he freely distributes it to all who believe, that faith is a free gift of grace, and that even though we are never fully, inherently sanctified or righteous in this life nevertheless we are already fully justified before God and saved from the wrath to come. We are simultaneously righteous even though we remain actually sinners (simul iustus et peccator). That was something that virtually no medieval theologian could say and it was flatly contrary to what became formal Romanist dogma in the mid-16th century.
What of sanctification? Whereas the medievals made sanctification the instrument of our justification and salvation Luther and the Protestants taught that our actual, progressive sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and our salvation from the wrath to come. Like the Fathers and the medievals they believed and taught the moral necessity of holiness and obedience to God’s moral law (the ten commandments) but unlike the medievals they taught Christian obedience to the law is the fruit of our justification and evidence of our salvation. There were those, particularly in the 1550s, who dissented from the Protestant consensus. One theologian (Osiander) taught that God accepts us on the basis of our union with the indwelling Christ. Another tried to wedge in the medieval doctrine, by teaching that good works were more than evidence but this revision was universally rejected. The overwhelming consensus among Reformed theologians by the mid-16th century was that sanctification is the necessary consequence of our justification and the evidence of our salvation.
Protestants On Obedience As Fruit And Evidence
Where Rome (e.g., Trent), the Socinians, and Richard Baxter made good works the antecedent condition of our salvation (the law of works), i.e., they played the same role as faith, the Protestants made good works the necessary consequence of our salvation. According to the moralists, we do good works in order to be saved. According to the Protestants, we do good works because we have been saved. One says, in effect, that we are saved from the flood (judgment) partly through faith and partly through our good works. The other says we obey out of gratitude, in union and communion with the risen Christ, because we have been saved, as it were, from the flood. This is the best understanding of Ephesians 2:8–10. Our salvation and the faith by which we receive it, it’s all God’s gift.
It was Luther who gave us the adjective antinomian, those who reject the abiding validity of God’s holy moral law as the norm for the Christian. Almost as soon as Luther and the Protestants had recovered the gospel of free salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), resting in and receiving Christ and all his benefits, a movement arose that rejected the abiding validity of the moral law. Luther defended not only the first use of the moral law (whereby we learn the greatness of our sin and misery) but also the third use whereby the moral law norms the Christian life. We keep the law not in order to be saved but because we have been saved.
Good works, he taught, are the a necessary consequence of our justification and salvation:
We conclude with Paul that we are justified solely by faith in Christ, without the Law and works. But after a man is justified by faith, now possesses Christ by faith, and knows that He is his righteousness and life, he will certainly not be idle but, like a sound tree, will bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17). For the believer has the Holy Spirit; and where He is, He does not permit a man to be idle but drives him to all the exercises of devotion, to the love of God, to patience in affliction, to prayer, to thanksgiving, and to the practice of love toward all men.1
He was not finished. In the very next paragraph Luther wrote
Therefore we, too, say that faith without works is worthless and useless. The papists and the fanatics take this to mean that faith without works does not justify, or that if faith does not have works, it is of no avail, no matter how true it is. That is false. But faith without works—that is, a fantastic idea and mere vanity and a dream of the heart—is a false faith and does not justify.2
For Luther, as for all the confessional Protestants following him, good works do not make faith what it is but neither can one claim to have true faith without them any more than a tree can be said to be good without fruit. The fruit demonstrates what the tree is. The fruit is evidence that the tree is alive.
This, of course, never satisfies the moralist. He will have good works as part of faith both in justification and for our final entrance into glory:
On the other hand, the weak, who are not malicious or slanderous but good, are offended when they hear that the Law and good works do not have to be done for justification. One must go to their aid and explain to them how it is that works do not justify, how works should be done, and how they should not be done. They should be done as fruits of righteousness, not in order to bring righteousness into being. Having been made righteous, we must do them; but it is not the other way around: that when we are unrighteous, we become righteous by doing them. The tree produces fruit; the fruit does not produce the tree.3
This metaphor of good works as fruit was widely adopted by Protestant writers. It became a standard feature of Reformed theologians in the British Isles and across Europe. It was so widely accepted that it became a the way that the Reformed churches spoke about good works in their confessions.
The Reformed Confessions And Theologians
Perhaps the locus classicus (the most typical place) is Belgic Confession article 24:
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.
The charge made by Rome and the Anabaptists, among others, was that the evangelical doctrine of salvation sola gratia, sola fide would make Christians cold and careless about their sanctification. The Reformed churches refuted that charge by arguing that the same grace by which we have been given new life also produces faith and it is “impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful.” True faith is God’s gift. It unites us to the risen and ascended Christ who, by his Spirit, works in us conformity to himself and to his moral will. This is how we understand “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). Rome, remember, turned “faith working through love” into “faith formed by love” (on this see part 1). In response, Calvin wrote on Galatians 5:6, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.”
In the 1559 edition of the Institutes Calvin wrote at length on the relationship between the grace of justification and the grace of sanctification.
But, since the question concerns only righteousness and sanctification, let us dwell upon these. Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.4
Notice that, for Calvin, we are not justified “without” works but we are not justified “through” them. They are concomitant to our justification and our salvation but they are not the instrument (“through”) of our salvation. This is the difference between through and is. He continued in the next section to give a series of biblical quotations and allusions proving that “no one can put sharper spurs to them than those derived from the end of our redemption and calling” (3.16.2). In other words, contra the moralists, guilt, grace, and gratitude (lived in union and communion with Christ) is enough to empower and enable the Christian life of sanctification and the fruit of good works. He asked rhetorically, “Could we be aroused to love by any livelier argument than that of John’s: that “we love one another as God has loved us”? (ibid). God’s gracious for our present tribulation produces fruit: “Let us always remember that this promise, like all others, would not bear fruit for us if the free covenant of his mercy had not gone before, upon which the whole assurance of our salvation depended” (3.18.7).
In the Second Helvetic Confession (published 1566) the Swiss Reformed confessed:
The same apostle calls faith efficacious and active through love (Gal. 5:6). It also quiets the conscience and opens a free access to God, so that we may draw near to him with confidence and may obtain from him what is useful and necessary. The same faith keeps us in the service we owe to God and our neighbor, strengthens our patience in adversity, fashions and makes a true confession, and in a word brings forth good fruit of all kinds, and good works (ch. 16).
We obey because God has graciously redeemed us. The very same grace and faith that saves also produces the fruit of good works, the evidence of our salvation.
For we teach that truly good works grow out of a living faith by the Holy Spirit and are done by the faithful according to the will or rule of God’s Word. Now the apostle Peter says: “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control,” etc.(II Peter 1:5 ff.). But we have said above that the law of God, which is his will, prescribes for us the pattern of good works. And the apostle says: “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from immorality…that no man transgress, and wrong his brother in business” (I Thess. 4:3 ff.).
We are not antinomian but we use the law the way it was intended to be used: as the norm of our new life, not the instrument or ground of our salvation.
The Westminster Confession could not have been clearer about the relationship between faith and fruits:
2. These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith: and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that, having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life (chapter 16).
Our good works do not justify us. They do not sanctify us. They do not save us but they are the “fruit and evidences” of a true and lively faith. Christ saved us by his obedience, death, and resurrection. The Spirit sanctifies by his grace. Our good works are the fruit of God’s gracious for us and in us.
The logic is this: God graciously works in us new life and faith. Through that faith we apprehend Christ and all his benefits for our salvation. Through that faith the Spirit works union and communion with Christ in which we are sanctified and out of that faith, union, and communion are produced the fruit of our new life and sanctification in Christ. Fruit is a metaphor. As the Belgic Confession has it, good trees produce good fruit. The fruit is evidence of the life in the tree. So, the Spirit produces new life, faith, union with Christ, justification and sanctification in the sinner. Our good works are the fruit of the Spirit’s work in us and evidence of the salvation that we have by grace alone, through faith alone.
1. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 154–155. I am indebted to John Fonville for his help with this post.
2. Luther’s Works, 26.155.
3. Luther’s Works, 26.169.
4. Calvin, Institutes (Battles edition), 3.16.1.