Are The Remonstrants Heretics?

This question comes over the transom regularly. I think most confessional Reformed pastors would probably say that, though they disagree strongly with Arminianism, it is not heresy. Somewhere I read (or heard) that William Ames (1576–1633),   who served as an advisor at the Synod of Dort, regarded Arminianism as an error tending to heresy but not heresy itself. Whether Ames actually said that—he wrote treatises against the Remonstrants, which have not been translated—it all comes down to the definition of heresy.

Defining Heresy
The New Testament noun αἵρεσις (haeresis signals “faction” or “sect.” In Acts 5:17 the Sadducees are described as a “faction” or “sect.” In Acts 15:5 the Pharisees are a αἵρεσις. In Acts 24:5 Tertullus describes the Christians as a αἵρεσις. In 1 Cor 11:19 a αἵρεσις is divisive group in the Corinthian congregation. In Galatians 5:20 it refers to “divisions” that must be avoided in the church.

Already in the apostolic period the line between divisive behavior and divisive doctrine began to blur. The Corinthian congregation was riven by self-described “Super Apostles,” who denigrated Paul’s office and his doctrine. The Galatian Judaizers, who were teaching that God accepts (justifies) us partly on the basis of grace and partly on the basis of our law keeping (obedience) were guilty of schismatic doctrine, which produced divisions in the congregation. The Apostle Peter’s lapse was doctrinal and moral (Gal 2:11–14). Peter and Barnabas accepted false doctrine (i.e., that Gentiles must become Jews to become Christians) for which the Apostle Paul rightly denounced their doctrine and life as out of “step with the truth of the gospel.”

In the early post-Apostolic church this pattern, of recognizing the connection between doctrinal and moral error, continued. The ecumenical church, meeting in council (e.g., at Nicea in 325, at Constantinople in 381, at Ephesus in 431) recognized and denounced moral errors and great doctrinal errors. Today, however, we speak less frequently of moral heresy and more typically of doctrinal heresy.

There is another distinction to consider and that is between heresy used in the broad sense, to refer to error and heresy used in the narrow sense, to refer to a doctrinal error that contradicts the holy ecumenical faith and puts one in jeopardy of damnation. We know that there are such things. There is a sin against the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:31), namely attributing the work of the Spirit to the devil. The Athanasian Creed (mid-4th to mid-5th centuries AD) declares:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [ecumenical] faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

It is not possible to reject the doctrine of the ecumenical doctrine of the Trinity and be saved nor is it possible to reject the ecumenical doctrine of the two natures of Christ and be saved. The ecumenical faith is summarized by the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed (325, 381), the Definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian.

An Ecumenical Consensus On Salvation
What, however, should we say about the doctrine of salvation (soteriology)? Is there an ecumenical orthodoxy on salvation? Yes. The Council of Ephesus (431) condemned the errors of Coelestius [aka, Caelestius], who was an associate of Pelagius, the British monk who opposed Augustine’s doctrine that humans are fallen in Adam and utterly corrupted by sin and that salvation, including unconditional election, is by grace alone. Pelagius and Coelestius denied that in Adam’s fall sinned we all, as the colonial catechism had it. They denied the doctrine of total depravity (as it has come to be known). They taught that humans are all born like Adam, able to sin or not to sin, that we are able, at birth, if we will, to live sinless lives. They taught the doctrine of sinless perfection and that grace is to make salvation easier. Those doctrines were condemned not only at Ephesus but all through the medieval church and by the Reformation churches. The Second Council of Orange (529 AD), and even the Council of Trent (17 June 1546) condemned it. Pelagianism is condemned by name in the Augsburg Confession (1530), French Confession (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Anglican Articles (1571), and by the Synod of Dort (1619). As I wrote some years ago, “to say that Pelagianism is heresy, is to stand in the broadest stream of the Western Church. It is not a narrow, bigoted position, at least not as seen from the perspective of the historic Western Christian tradition.”

Arguably, to deny the Augustinian doctrine of provenient grace (i.e., unconditional election, that grace comes first, that grace regenerates) and to deny the Augustinian doctrine of sin is to contradict the ecumenical understanding of holy Scripture. This is a significant claim. It is not clear to me how to reconcile the soteriology of post-7th century [Greek/Russian etc] Orthodox traditions, whose soteriology more closely resembles that of Origen and Pelagius than Augustine’s, with the ecumenical doctrine. Nor is it easy to see how the Wesleyan and Nazarene traditions are squared with the broad Augustinianism of Ephesus et al.

It is important to note that, to this point, I have only appealed to Scripture (the magisterial authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life; sola Scriptura) and to the Council of Ephesus, the Second Council of Orange, to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, to the Council of Trent (!), and to the Reformed church insofar as they all agree contra Pelagius. It is important to recognize that this is not a narrow band of ecclesiastical authorities nor a bigoted opinion.

This bring us to the question of the way the international Synod of Dort (1618–19) addressed the Remonstrants [Arminians]. What category did they use to analyze and reject the Remonstrants?

Above we considered the definition of heresy. We saw that there is a distinction to be made between heresy defined narrowly and broadly. The question remains, what should we think of the Remonstrants? In 1610 they made their Remonstrance against the confession of the Reformed churches. They proposed that the Reformed churches should confess

  1. that election is conditioned upon foreseen faith (and perseverance). They proposed;
  2. that Christ died and has obtained forgiveness for all;
  3. that grace is resistible;
  4. that it is possible that believers can turn away from Christ

In 1611, the contra-Remonstrance replied to the Remonstrants in a series of 5 articles that would form the core of the Canons considered by the various committees and finally adopted by the Synod. The international Synod of Dort (1618–19) convened to respond to this challenge. Did they regard these proposed revisions as heresy and if so, in what sense? The Canons did not use the word heresy or heretic very often but they did use it in the preface to the Canons:

The truth of this kind promise is evident in the Church of all ages. She has been attacked from the beginning, not only by the public force of enemies and the ungodly violence of heretics, but also by the masked subtleties of seducers.

The promise to which Synod referred was “I will be with you always” in Matthew 28:20.

Synod was explicit in its support for the judgment of the Council of Ephesus that Pelagianism is heresy:

But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call and are converted is not to be ascribed to the proper exercise of free will, whereby one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains); but it must be wholly ascribed to God…. (3/4.10)

Finally, they invoked the category of heresy in the 5th head of doctrine, article 15:

The carnal mind is unable to comprehend this doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and the certainty thereof, which God has most abundantly revealed in His Word, for the glory of His Name and the consolation of pious souls, and which He impresses upon the hearts of the believers. Satan abhors it, the world ridicules it, the ignorant and hypocritical abuse it, and the heretics oppose [spiritusque erronei oppugnant] it. But the bride of Christ has always most tenderly loved and constantly defended it as an inestimable treasure; and God, against whom neither counsel nor strength can prevail, will dispose her so to continue to the end. Now to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

So far it seems likely that Synod was confessing that the Remonstrants were teaching heresy but it is not certain. Even though the phrase “spiritusque erronei oppugnant” (“the spirits of the wanderers”) is widely translated as “heretics,” since the word heretic is not explicitly used in 5.15 some ambiguity remains. If, however, we consider the rhetorical function of their invocation of Pelagius, the picture becomes clearer.

Synod declared that the Remonstrant doctrine of conditional election “savors of the teaching of Pelagius” (Rejection of Errors, 1.10. Hereafter, RE). In the RE 2.3 Synod denounced the teaching that, “by his satisfaction” Christ neither merited salvation itself for anyone nor faith but he only merited the right to create a sort legal new deal, a new set of conditions to be met by the Christian the exercise of free will. Here the Remonstrants were guilty of judging “too contemptuously the death of Christ, in no way acknowledge that most important fruit or benefit thereby gained” and guilty of “bring[ing] again out of hell the Pelagian error.”

In RE 2.6 Synod complained bitterly that the Remonstrants, by using the distinction between “meriting” and “appropriating” such that our salvation depends upon our exercise of our free cooperation with grace, sought to “instill into the people the destructive poison of Pelagianism.”

In 3/4 head of doctrine, article 2, Synod contrasted the Augustinian teaching of the Reformed churches on the corruption and conversion of man with that of the Pelagians who held that sin was not inherited but communicated “by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted…”.

The Remonstrant doctrine that “the grace whereby we are converted to God is only a gentle persuasion” or an “advising,” is “altogether Pelagian and contrary to the whole Scripture…” ( RE 3/4.7). The Remonstrant proposal to return to the old medieval system of grace and cooperation with grace was, according to Synod, a proposed return to “this doctrine of the Pelagians” that had “long ago ago condemned…” (RE 3/4.9). In the 3/4 head of doctrine, article 10, on the corruption and conversion of man, Synod rejected the Remonstrant doctrine that the ability to obey the gospel call lies in the human free will, by which “one distinguishes himself above others equally furnished with grace sufficient for faith and conversion (as the proud heresy of Pelagius maintains)…”. In RE 4.7, Synod condemned as “altogether Pelagian” the Remonstrant doctrine that saving grace is but “gentle persuasion” or “advice” and the Remonstrant doctrine that grace and free will are both partial causes of our salvation as the “doctrine of the Pelagians” condemned “long ago” (RE 4.9). The Remonstrant idea that our perseverance depends partly on our free will is nothing but “outspoken Pelagianism” (RE 5.2).

Finally, in her sentence pronounced upon the Remonstrants, Synod explicitly characterized the Remonstrant errors as “heresies.”

Did Synod condemn the Remonstrants as heretics? If we consider the various points at which Synod flatly characterized the errors of the Remonstrants as heresy, the ways in which Synod repeatedly associated the Remonstrants themselves with the Pelagians, and characterized their errors as Pelagian it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that, for the Synod of Dort, the revisions proposed by the Remonstrants were errors of such a magnitude that they not mere errors and not merely heresy in the broad sense, but heresy in the narrow, technical sense described in the first part of this essay: an error transgressing the ecumenical teaching of the church as agreed at Ephesus in 431, in the condemnation of Coelestius (and through him, Pelagius).

In the modern period, and particularly under the influence of neo-Evangelicalism, the rhetorical tendency has been to downplay the differences between the Reformed and the Remonstrants. To be sure, much water has passed under the bridge since 1619 but the Reformed churches still confess the Canons (rules) of the Synod of Dort. These are not mere historical curiosities. They are the living voice of the Reformed Churches, they are our understanding of the Word of God as touching the revisions of Reformed doctrine proposed by Arminius and his followers.

Perhaps the most important use that can be made of a recovery of the judgment of Synod upon the original Arminian doctrine is to recognize how passionate the church was for the Reformation. This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort will be observed in 2018–19 and it is well that we should remember that what Synod feared most was that the Remonstrants were leading us away from the biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone back to the medieval doctrine of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That threat is ever with us. It exists now in the form of the self-described Federal Vision theology. It exists in other proposals too. We ought to be as passionate for the Reformation and biblical doctrines of grace as the Synod was.

We ought also to recognize again how great the difference is between the Reformed confession of the Word of God and the Arminian-inspired versions that have dominated evangelical theology and piety since the early 19th century. Synod did not invoke the category of heresy lightly or unintelligently. They knew what they were doing and they used that language advisedly. It was meant to be bracing to the churches and to her ministers and so it should once again have that same affect in us.

This essay first appeared in May-June, 2017 on the Heidelblog. ©2017 R. Scott Clark. All rights reserved.

Semi-Pelagianism And Faith As The Instrument Of Existential-Mystical Union With Christ

William Perkins (1558-1602), in his 1595 Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, on the question of effectual call, wrote:

Againe, if the Vocation of every man be effectual, then faith must be common to all men either by nature, or by grace, or both: now to say the first, namely, that the power of believing is common to all by nature, is the heresie of the Pelagians, and to say it is common to all by grace, is false. All men have not faith, saith Paul. 2. Thess. 3. 2. nay many to whom the Gospel is preached, doe not so much as understand it and give assent unto it; Satan blinding their minds that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should not shine unto them, 2. Cor. 4. 4. And to say that faith is partly by nature and partly by grace, is the condemned heresie of the semi Pelagian: for we cannot so much as thinke a good thought of our selves, 2. Cor. 3. 5.

This understanding of the teaching of Pelagius, who denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all, i.e., he denied that either Adam or Christ were federal representatives, who denied the doctrine of original sin, who made sin a matter of imitation so that we become sinners when we sin, is the common property of the majority of the Western, Augustinian tradition.

Further, Perkins spoke for the entire Reformation when he distinguished between full-blown Pelagianism and “semi-Pelagianism” which admits the federal relationship and original sin but which tends to downplay the effects of sin. As Perkins observed, semi-Pelagianianism also affirmed the necessity of grace but just as it watered down the effects of sin so it weakened the necessity of and the power of grace. Like Pelagius, for the semi-Pelagians, which included some of Augustine’s opponents in the early 5th century and much of the medieval church, faith is “partly by nature and partly by grace.” The semi-Pelagian view is that grace helps but it is not decisive. The free exercise of the human will, or in some cases, the human intellect or affections is decisive and essential for faith, justification, and salvation. According to semi-Pelagianism, from a Pauline and Protestant point of view justification is no longer by grace alone, through faith (trusting) alone, but now through grace and works (our cooperation with grace).

There is, thus, a good lot of Pelagius in semi-Pelagianism. This is why the Synod of Dort condemned the Arminian (Remonstrant) doctrines of having brought “again out of hell the error of Pelagius.” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3). If one reads Pelagius’ commentary on Romans one sees that the Synod had a point. Pelagius and semi-Pelagius weren’t that far apart.

With that background in mind one can imagine how surprised I was to hear the claim that  it is semi-Pelagian to teach that faith is the instrument of mystical or existential union with Christ is “semi-Pelagian.”

Above we saw that, according to William Perkins, semi-Pelagianism asserts that the will (or other faculties) are able to operate in salvation partly on the basis of nature, i.e., they are not entirely dependent upon grace. In contrast, the Reformed argue that all humans are, by virtue of our union with the first Adam in his disobedience and sin (his violation of the covenant of works; see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7), dead in sins (Eph 2). In the providence of God our corrupted faculties are able to function toward civil good or civil righteousness but not for spiritual good or righteousness before God. This is the doctrine of total or extensive depravity (corruption). As the colonial Puritans put it: “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” As Pauline and Augustinians we understand that sin brings death. Hence, Paul teaches that we “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1).

The Reformed ordo salutis (the logical order of the application of redemption) has typically taught that God the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to give new life to the elect, and having done, gives them faith in Christ and through that faith resting and receiving Christ, regenerated believers are justified and united to Christ.

Nevertheless, despite this apparently simple and straightforward account of the faith, there seems to be genuine confusion about

  • whether there is or should be an ordo salutis;
  • what the Reformed ordo salutis is;
  • where, in the Reformed ordo salutis, the doctrine of union with Christ should appear.

There is also apparently some confusion about what is meant by “union with Christ.” This is understandable because the doctrine has three or four aspects and, in contemporary discussion, all participants have not always been as cautious as necessary to make sure we are talking about the same aspect at the same time in the same way.

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) represented the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he spoke of the “federal union” that all the elect have with Christ (Systematic Theology, 448). This aspect of union is relative to the eternal, pre-temporal (before time) “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). According to Ps 110, John 17 and other passages, the Father gave to his Son a people and the Son volunteered to be their Mediator, their federal representative, and their Savior; i.e., to earn their salvation. This is one of the three or four aspects of our union with Christ. For more on this see the chapter on the “Covenant Before the Covenants” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

Berkhof wrote of a second aspect of our union with Christ, which he called the “union of life” (ibid). This union refers to the natural, organic relation that all humans have with the first Adam, who was the federal representative of all humanity (Rom 5). The corollary to our natural union with Adam, in whom we would have entered in glorious life had he (and we in him) obeyed the commandment of life (“you shall not eat”). In the covenant of redemption God constituted a union between the Son, who would be the Last Adam (1Cor 15) and his people. Implicitly, the Holy Spirit was a party to this covenant as that person who would apply redemption to the people given to the Son. The Second Adam (Rom 5), Jesus, fulfilled that covenant of works for all those whom he represented, for whom he died and for whose justification he was raised.

We might also speak of a third aspect of our union with Christ, which we might call decretal union, i.e., the union that exists between Christ and his people by virtue of God’s decree to elect, in Christ, some out of the mass of fallen humanity to redemption. Paul spoke to this aspect of our union with Christ when he wrote that we were chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the world (Eph 1). This aspect is, of course, a corollary to the federal union and the union of life mentioned above.

The last aspect is mystical union (or sometimes referred to as “existential union”) and it refers to the subjective application of redemption purposed from eternity in the decree, covenanted among the Trinitarian person in the pactum salutis, accomplished by Christ in his active and suffering obedience, and applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. Mystical union is, as Berkhof put it, that “intimate, vital, and spiritual” connection “between Christ and his people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation” (Systematic Theology, 449).

Ordo Salutis
The debate that has arisen in the last few decades has raised questions about whether we should speak of an ordo salutis. Some contemporary writers have called for us to make a “decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking.” Such a proposal, however, is quite radical in comparison to the Reformed tradition. The existence and necessity of a logical order of the application of redemption seems clear in Romans 8:29–30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

When we speak of a “logical order” all that is meant is this: God’s decree of predestination is logically prior to vocation or effectual calling. Thus, those whom God the Spirit effectually calls, are the elect. Those who believe and through faith alone are justified are those whom God has elected in Christ and effectually called. The sanctified and glorified are those whom God elected in Christ, effectually called by the Spirit, and justified through faith alone.

That’s the ordo salutis or the logical order of the application of redemption. This is why all the Reformed theologians since the beginning of the Reformation have taught this basic order of the application of redemption. Indeed, the entire Reformation conflict between Rome and the Protestants may be said to have been over the logical order of the application of redemption. The medieval Western church taught and the Roman communion teaches that justification is God’s recognition of our sanctification through the infusion of medicinal grace, through “charity poured into the heart” and cooperation with grace, the combination of which is said to create inherent justice.

The Reformation, however, taught and teaches that God justifies sinners by his unmerited favor (grace) on the basis of Christ’s perfect (condign) righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us and received through Spirit-wrought faith alone. The Reformation was built upon the logical order of the application of redemption taught by Paul in Romans.

Covenant Theology
Thus far everything seems fairly clear. The historic Reformed view is opposed to semi-Pelagianism and on the Reformation doctrine of election (shared by all the magisterial Reformers) and justification sola gratia, sola fide. It is built on the Pauline order of the application of redemption and a particular understanding of the history of redemption and covenant theology taught by the Reformed theologians and reflected to varying degrees in the Reformed confessions.

Whence the difficulty and confusion? Part of the explanation lies in the discomfort that some began to have with traditional covenant theology. The traditional Reformed view of mystical union, as represented by Berkhof, is built upon the traditional covenant theology (covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace). That scheme was subject to criticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Lutherans, Socinians, and the Remonstrants (Arminians).  In the twentieth century, that scheme also came under sustained assault by Barthians and by the modern “biblical theology” movement which, unlike the older and more orthodox biblical theologians (e.g., Caspar Olevianus, Johannes Cocceius, Geerhardus Vos, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray) thought of dogmatic or systematic theology as an enemy of a true account of the faith. They sought to overcome traditional distinctions and spoke disparagingly of “scholastic” or “systematic” theology as derived from ideas foreign to Scripture and imposed upon Scripture. There was even a proposal by a notable Reformed writer, in the early 1970s, to replace the categories and vocabulary of systematic theology which those of “biblical theology.”

Others, under the influence of the “biblical theology” movement (dominated in the 20th century by Barthians), came to reject the covenant of redemption (before time) and the covenant of works before the fall. In this scheme the covenant of grace swallowed up everything. According to G. C. Berkouwer (1903–96), this is what happened in the theology of Karl Barth (d. 1968). The decree of election, which seems to have included everyone) obliterated the distinction between law and gospel, and between the covenants of works and grace. Berkouwer himself came to reject the covenant of redemption as a speculative assault on the doctrine of the Trinity. That criticism has been echoed in contemporary, otherwise confessional, Reformed circles. Thus, two parts of the foundation of the historic and confessional Reformed understanding of union with Christ were weakened and the way was opened for new proposals based on either a rejection of the ordo salutis or a re-ordering it.

Where Does Faith Fit?

That faith which secures eternal life; which unites us to Christ as living members of his body; which makes us the sons of God; which interests us in all the benefits of redemption; which works by love, and is fruitful in good works; is founded , not on the external or the moral evidence of the truth, but on the testimony of the Spirit with an by the truth to the renewed soul (Systematic Theology, 3.68).

…The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures is union with Christ. We are in him by faith. There is indeed a union between Christ and his people, founded on the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in the counsels of eternity. We are, therefore, said to be in Him before the foundation of the world.

…But it was also, as we learn from the Scriptures, included in the stipulations of that covenant, that his people, so far as adults are concerned, should not receive the saving benefits of that covenant until they were united to Him by a voluntary act of faith. They are ‘by nature the children of wrath, even as others.’ (Eph. ii.3) They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, as to believe in Christ are, therefore , in the Scriptures, convertible forms of expression. They mean the same thing, and therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ” (Ibid, 3.104)

So says Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who taught at Old Princeton for about fifty years, on the relation between faith and union. We should note that he distinguished between different aspects of our union with Christ. In the quotation above, he named explicitly “federal union” and distinguished implicitly between what we might call “decretal union” and federal union. He also connected his doctrine of mystical union to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (see the previous post).

His main focus, and the aspect of union in view in this series, however, was mystical (or existential) union. According to Hodge, faith, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites us to Christ, i.e., the mystical aspect of union is an effect of faith but its relation to faith is so close that the one may be said to be the other.

We should also observe that he described faith as a voluntary act, i.e., as an act of the will. To be sure, Hodge incorporated other faculties of the soul in the act of faith, but he did describe it as voluntary. Was his doctrine of mystical union semi-Pelagian? It would have been had he taught that we believe before we are regenerated (given new life) or if he had written that regeneration (so defined) is the result of faith but he did not. In the section of his Systematic Theology preceding faith he taught that faith is a consequence of regeneration.

In Hodge’s ordo salutis (the logical order of the Spirit’s application of redemption to the elect) mystical (or existential) union is not said to exist until faith. Faith is not a result of mystical union. Rather, mystical union is, as Hodge said, “the first effect of faith.”

“The proximate effect of this union, and consequently the second effect of faith is justification.” In Hodge’s ordo it is those who are mystically united to Christ by faith who are justified. “Faith,” he wrote, “is the condition on which God promises in the covenant of redemption, to impute unto men the righteousness of Christ. As soon, therefore, as they believe, they cannot be condemned. They are clothed with a righteousness that answers all the demands of justice” (Ibid, 3.105).

I would be happier had Hodge reversed these order of justification and union since, Hodge’s order has it that it is those who are as yet unjustified who are considered to be in mystical union with Christ but the point of this series to gain some clarity about the instrumentality of faith in Reformed theology relative to union. It should be clear that, in Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes mystical union.

What Is The Nature Of Our Mystical Union?
William Perkins on Mystical Union:

The benefits which we receive by this Mystical union are manifold. For it is the ground of the conveyance of all grace. The first is, that by means hereof every Christian as he is a Christian or a man regenerate, hath his beginning and being in Christ, howsoever as he is a man he hath his being and subsisting in himself, as Paul saith, 1. Cor. 1. 30. Ye are of God in Christ. And, Eph. 5. 30. Ye are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.(An exposition of the symbole or creed of the apostles, according to the tenour of the scripture, and the consent of orthodox Fathers of the Church, 1595; Works 300.)

His first job under this heading is to sort out the nature of our mystical union, i.e., the nature of the connection between the believer and Christ and its importance. We cannot benefit from Christ’s work until we are mystically united to him. This was Calvin’s point in Institutes 3.1. “Regenerate” here apparently refers to the Spirit’s work of raising to life the spiritually dead.

How (will some say) can this be? After this manner: The comparison is taken from our first parents. Eve was made of a rib taken out of Adams side, he being cast into a slumber: this being done, Adam awaked and said, This now is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Gen. 2. 23. Christ was nailed on the cross, and his most precious blood was shed, and out of it arise and spring all true Christians: that is, out of the merit of Christ’s death and passion, whereby they become new creatures.

Our mystical union with Christ is intimate. It is interesting in this section, however, that Perkins did not say, as we might have expected him to say, that the Spirit is the source of union. Of course it’s true that the Spirit raises the spiritually dead and grants them new life. Here, however, he turns to the work of Christ for us before turning to his work in us. We are new creatures because of Christ’s death.

Secondly, every one that believes in Christ by reason of this union hath an unspeakable prerogative: for hereby he is first united to Christ, and by reason thereof is also joined to the whole Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, and shall have eternal fellowship with them.

Were this text being published now there would be comma after “Christ” in order to make his logic clear. We should understand Perkins to be saying, “everyone who believes in Christ, by virtue of this union, has a great benefit: union with Christ, and thus with the whole Trinity.”

In other words, when Perkins thought of the source of our spiritual life, he connected it closely to the objective work of Christ for us. When he thought of coming into possession of union with Christ, he thought of Spirit-wrought faith. We have the intimate union (and communion) with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Thirdly, sundry men, specially Papists, deride the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness: thinking it is absurd, that a man should be just by that righteousness which is inherent in the person of Christ: as if we would say, that one man may live by the soul of another: or be learned by the learning of another. But here we may see, that it hath sufficient foundation.

The importance of the forensic, objective aspect of salvation and justification appears again. Notice how that, as soon as Perkins thinks of the application, he turns back to that which is applied. Notice too that he’s concerned that the reader understand that this is a Protestant doctrine. The ground of our acceptance with God is not our union with Christ— Bernard of Clairveaux had a strong doctrine of union with Christ but he did not have a Protestant doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s (condign) merit.

Implicitly here too is his answer to the frequent criticism that the Protestants teach justification on the basis of a “legal fiction.” Perkins was saying, in effect, “Nonsense!” The ground of our justification is not fiction. It’s the only actual, real, condign merit that has ever been achieved: that of Jesus. By faith we are united to that Jesus and thus benefit by what he accomplished for us.

For there is a most near and straight union between Christ and all that believe in him: and in this union Christ with all his benefits according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, is made ours really: and therefore we may stand just before God by his righteousness; it being indeed his, because it is in him as in a subject; yet so, as it is also ours; because it is given unto us of God.

The medieval and Tridentine Roman church taught (falsely) that we are accepted by God on the basis of the Spirit’s work in us and our cooperation with that grace. The ground of our acceptance with God was said to be “inherent righteousness” (iustitia inhaerens) or sometimes “charity poured forth into our hearts.” This is what some Romanist apologists are now calling the “Agape” model, as if exchanging the Latin “caritas” (charity) for the Greek Agape makes a substantial difference.

In contrast to the Romish doctrine, Perkins wanted to be clear that, relative to acceptance with God, Christ’s righteousness is truly extra nos (outside us) but he himself does not remain so. Again, one hears Calvin saying: If Christ remains outside of us, he is of no benefit to us. By virtue of Sprit-wrought union with Christ, we become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

On the other hand, in some contemporary accounts of mystical union it almost seems as if mystical union is everything and faith has become a mere technicality to be affirmed formally and then locked away. Having fulfilled its function faith goes away and mystical union now is said to do what for Perkins and most other Reformed writers faith was thought to do. In Perkins, however, we do not find that mystical union swallows up or replaces the forensic doctrine. Rather, Spirit-wrought faith and mystical (Spirit-wrought) union complement each other and faith plays an essential role in justification, in union, and in the Christian life that flows from our mystical union with Christ.

What Does The Church Say?
William Perkins taught that believers are given new life by the Spirit and by the same Spirit given faith and through that faith united to Christ. It is particularly useful to be aware of Perkins as we come to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

It is good for us to close this essay by considering the Westminster Shorter Catechism since as important as our theologians are, we do not confess their work. We confess God’s Word as summarized by the churches in the confessions and catechisms. The Shorter Catechism has a clear survey of the nature of union with Christ. It should clarify remaining questions.

Since the mid-1970s there has been a number of Reformed theologians who have sought to revise the Reformed doctrines of justification and union with Christ. Some have proposed the doctrine that sinners are accepted with God through faith and works. Yes, it has been put that baldly. “What?” You might object, “Didn’t we settle that in the Reformation?” Yes, for those of us who still believe what the Reformation believed, yes it is settled. Formally, the doctrine of the Reformed churches, as summarized by the confessions and catechisms, has not changed but under the surface, as a matter of history, that revision was accepted and defended by more than a few as the genuine “Reformed” doctrine (as distinct from the ostensibly, allegedly defective Lutheran doctrine). When objections were raised the view was reformulated to teach acceptance with God through “faithfulness.” Nothing was changed, however. The revised doctrine taught (and teaches) that we are justified through trust and obedience or cooperation with grace.

As part of this revision, it was proposed that we are brought into a conditional union with Christ by baptism and that we remain in union with Christ by cooperation with grace, i.e., by works. In this way, our perseverance and our assurance of salvation was placed in jeopardy in the name of achieving a truly and distinctly “Reformed” doctrine of justification (and union with Christ).

As we’ve seen, some have proposed a revision of the doctrine of union that disregards the idea of an ordo salutis arguing that a proper doctrine of union with Christ renders the idea a logical order of salvation invalid. All of Christ’s benefits, it is claimed, flow from existential, mystical union.

Thus, it behooves us to notice the logical and pedagogical order of salvation relative to mystical union with Christ in the catechism. In the questions leading up to this section the catechism has been summarizing the accomplishment of redemption by Christ. Questions 24–28 account for Christ’s triplex munus (threefold office): prophet, priest, and king.

Question 29 asks,

How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?

We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

As we saw in Perkins, in the Shorter Catechism, redemption is accomplished outside of us (extra nos), for us (pro nobis, by Christ alone (solo Christo) and applied to us the Holy Spirit.

Those who benefit from Christ’s work do so by “effectual application” worked by the Spirit. How does this work? The adjective “effectual” signals that we’re thinking about that which the Spirit does, as distinct from what is offered generally to all in the preaching of the Gospel.

Question 30 answers

The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling (emphasis added).

So far there is no question about who applies Christ and his benefits to us: the Holy Spirit. The next question is how the Spirit applies Christ’s benefits to us. The answer is “by working faith in us.” In the context of the current discussions and confusion about the doctrine of union with Christ we must appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the Shorter Catechism. Once more: The Holy Spirit applies the redemption that Christ purchased, earned for us “by working faith in us.”

According to some accounts of mystical or existential union with Christ, we might have expected to see the catechism say, “through [mystical] union with Christ” but that is not what the catechism says. Union with Christ is not the instrument through which we apprehend Christ and his benefits, faith is.

There is a second aspect to this answer. There is a subordinate clause beginning with the word “thereby.” The clause says: “thereby uniting us to Christ.” To what does the “thereby” refer? Faith. How does the Spirit apply redemption? By faith. What else does faith do? It unites us to Christ. Not only is faith the instrument of justification it is also the instrument of union with Christ.

Remember, according to Perkins, there are multiple aspects of union with Christ. There isn’t any genuine disagreement over the decretal union or the federal (representative) union with Christ. The aspect over which there has been confusion has been mystical or existential union with Christ.

This is how the following questions characterize and describe the work of the Spirit in effectual calling:

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

The Spirit convicts, renews, enlightens, and renews the heretofore spiritually dead, unregenerate will. The Spirit is said to “persuade and enable” the renewed faculties to “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” That embrace is faith. Those who’ve been given new life, who’ve been given faith, who by grace have embraced Christ through faith alone, receive “justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.”

Finally, it should be noted again that we have been considering the logical, not temporal order of salvation. This discussion has to do with how we should think and speak (and teach) about the work of the Spirit and the instrumental role of faith in justification and sanctification. We should think and speak of the Spirit working through the “due use of the ordinary means,” i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ’s actively obedient suffering, death, and victorious resurrection. We should think and speak of the Spirit creating new life in the elect, giving faith to those renewed, and through that faith conferring union with Christ, justification, adoption, etc.

Contrary to the way some are speaking today, faith is not simply the instrument of justification, it is also the instrument of union and if we are going to characterize the Christian life as a life lived in union and communion with Christ, then we must also characterize it as a life lived by faith. It is not that faith has only one function and that it fulfills its one function in justification and then is locked away in a box for safe keeping. If faith is the instrument of union and union is of the essence of the Christ life then faith is of the essence of sanctification just as it is of the essence of justification.

Historically, some Reformed folk have been tempted to place predestination in the foreground of Reformed theology. Our best theologians and certainly our confessional documents tend to treat predestination as a source of explanation for why things are the way they are but it remains in the background. For example, Theodore Beza (like Calvin) and the Reformed orthodox typically discouraged believers from asking, “Am I elect?” That’s the wrong question because we cannot know, in the abstract, if we are elect. It would require knowledge of God’s decree and such knowledge is hidden from us (Deut 29:29). The question we should ask is: “Do I believe?” The logic is thus: Only the elect believe, I believe, therefore I’m elect. That’s the Reformed faith.

Our theologians and ecclesiastical documents tend to treat mystical union in a similar way. Rather than asking, “Do I have mystical union with Christ?”—again, how, in the abstract would we know?—we should ask, “Do I believe?” The Reformed faith teaches: Believers have union with Christ. I believe. Therefore I have union with Christ. If we start with mystical union or if we focus on it we tend to lose Christ, who is the object of faith and the source of our life. After all, the point of mystical union is to connect us to Christ not to call attention to itself.

Through Good Works?

In Reformed theology the noun salvation is typically used in two ways. Sometimes it is used as a synonym for justification. When used this way it does not include sanctification since, according to the Reformed confession, justification is a declarative act of God whereby he credits (imputes) to sinners the perfect, active and suffering righteousness of Christ so that it is as if those sinners to whom Christ’s righteousness has been so imputed are considered to have themselves accomplished personally all the Christ did for them as their substitute. Further, we say that this benefit is received through faith alone (sola fide) defined as trusting, resting in, and receiving Christ and his righteousness. We confess that both the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and faith as the receiving instrument are nothing but God’s free gifts. Hence we attribute all of this to God’s favor (grace) alone. The slogan for this is sola gratia, by grace alone.

We also say, however, that God’s grace is twofold (duplex), the justification is the first benefit (beneficium) and sanctification is the second. It is not a “second blessing” in the way neo-Pentecostalists speak of tongues etc as a “second blessing,” as if there are two classes of Christians, those with and those without. Rather, we say that progressive sanctification flows from or grows out of and is grounded in our justification. It too is also a gift of God, his work in his by his Spirit, through his divinely ordained means, whereby he puts to death in us the sin and makes alive in us Christ or whereby he is gradually and graciously conforming us to Christ.

The noun salvation is also used to describe that whole complex of benefits, justification and sanctification. In this sense we are thinking both of deliverance from the wrath to come and from the effects of the fall in this life. In our confessional documents and in our theologians both of these benefits (justification and sanctification) are said to be by grace alone. Often times, though not perhaps universally, in our theologians (as distinct from our ecclesiastical confessions) salvation is said to be through faith alone. That is, the sole instrument of justification and salvation is faith alone. In our confessions certainly and in our better writers, good works are said to be a necessary concomitant or an accompanying fruit and evidence of justification and salvation.

Diversity of Expression Within Confessional Boundaries
Since I have already addressed this at length let us focus specifically on the use and function of the English instrumental phrase “through good works” and its Latin equivalent, “per bona opera.” There is no question whether Reformed writers have used this language. The question is what was meant by it. As we grapple with the diversity of expression within Reformed theology we should also remember that there are confessional boundaries. In other words, the temptation in our age is to appeal to “the many” or the particular over against “the one” or that which unifies. Cornelius Van Til was correct. We should also seek to keep the one and the many together. There is value in recognizing differences but we should not mistake formal or rhetorical differences for substantial differences. Further, there was a unified Reformed theology. We know that because it came to expression authoritative ecclesiastically sanctioned documents, the Reformed confessions. Those documents, under the sole, unique authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura) form the boundaries of what properly constitutes the Reformed confession, i.e., our theology, piety, and practice. Not every opinion or every expression of every Reformed writer is definitive for Reformed theology.

Heidelberg Catechism 86 is a classic expression of the Reformed confession concerning the moral necessity of good works:

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.

Since I have already written a four-part explanation of this question and answer suffice it to say here that the catechism gives 4 reasons for doing good works:

  1. Gratitude
  2. God’s Glory
  3. Assurance of Faith
  4. Christian Witness

The catechism never remotely suggests that good works are either the ground of our salvation—the very idea of which it repudiates consistently—nor does it suggest or imply that good works are any part of the instrument of our salvation. Notice that the term in the question is not justification but “redeemed.” This is the broader of idea of deliverance from wrath (justification) and the effects of sin (sanctification). Though we confess justification and salvation sola fide, through the sole instrument of faith, we do not confess sola fides, i.e., a faith that is alone. A living tree produces good fruit.

The Question: Do Good Works Return As Instruments Under The Heading Of Salvation?
Nevertheless, it is being suggested by some that, through we should say that we are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, when it comes to salvation we should say that we are saved through faith and good works. I have previously addressed this question in a number of posts. You can find them under the heading of salvation. Please take a look at those resources.

Yesterday someone argued that, in Institutes 3.14.21 that Calvin did use the expression “per bona opera” which is translated through or by good works. This raises the question: did the Reformed teach that good works are co-instrumental in salvation in the fullest sense? Did they teach that it is partly through faith and partly through good works that we are delivered from the wrath to come and from the effects of sin? On its face it seems improbable that evangelical Protestants, who had just emerged from the medieval doctrine of justification through progressive sanctification (by grace and cooperation with grace) should turn around and posit that we are delivered from the wrath of God, even in part, by or through our cooperation with grace or good works. So, is it the case that they intended to teach that believers are delivered from the effects of sin in this life through good works or that we come into possession of eternal life through good works as a co-instrument with faith?

An electronic search of several hundred English-language texts from the 16th and 17th centuries produces limited results. The phrase “through good works” is often used relative to an appeal to a late textual variant, noted by Theodore Beza, in 2 Peter 1:10 in which the phrase “through good works” (διὰ καλῶν ἐργῶν) was added. Thomas Adams (1583–1653) commented on it in his 1633 commentary on 2 Peter. Other writers did the same. The argument is that good works are a secondary way through which we confirm the reality of our election. The first question here is always “What has God promised?” The second, ” do I believe?” and only after that do we turn to good works as evidence of the fruit of our salvation but, as we saw in Heidelberg 86, we certainly do so.

John Hooper (c. 1495–1555), a solid evangelical who was martyred for the gospel, refuted the Roman calumny that the Protestant doctrine of justification (and salvation) leads to moral laxity by arguing:

I believe also that, as the Lord hath created all things heavenly and earthly for the service of man, and to the end that by his creatures he might come to the knowledge of the Creator; even so also hath he formed and made man for himself, that of him and by him he might be known, loved, feared, served, and honoured, which is the greatest good thing that is or can be in man; and that in him might shine the image of divine virtues and perfections through good works, the which God hath ordained, because we should walk in them unto his honour and praise, and to the confusion of the adversary….(A brief and clear confession of the Christian faith…according to the order of the Creed of the apostles (1550; repr. Cambridge 1852), n.p.).

The function of good works is to glorify God, to manifest his grace toward us. This is one of the four reasons adopted by the Reformed Churches in the Heidelberg.

The great, foundational English Reformer William Tyndale (c.1494–1536), in his Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1528) addressed this problem directly. What are we Protestants to make of those passages which talk about good works?

After the same manner shalt thou interpret the scriptures which make mention of works: that God thereby will that we show forth that goodness which we have received by faith, and let it break forth and come to the profit of other, that the false faith may be known, and weeded out by the roots. For God giveth no man his grace that he should let it lie still and do no good withal: but that he should increase it & multiply it with lending it to other & with openly declaring of it with the outward works, provoke & draw other to God. As Christ saith in Matthew the fifth chapter let your light so shine in the sight of men that they may see your good works, & glorify your father which is in heaven (p. x).

Tyndale classes such passages under fruit and evidence. By our good works we “show forth” that which we have received through faith and love our brothers and sisters in Christ. His first instinct is to think of good works as necessary as fruit and evidence.

He also connects them to our assurance:

Moreover therewith the goodness, favor, & gifts of God which are in thee, not only shall be known unto other, but also unto thine own self, and ye shall be sure that thy faith is right, and that the true spirit of God is in thee, and that thou art called and chosen of God unto eternal life, and loosed from the bonds of Satan whose captive thou wast, as Peter exhorteth in the first of his second epistle, through good works to make our calling & election (wherewith we are called & chosen of God) sure. For how dare a man presume to think that his faith is right, and that Gods favor is on him, & that Gods spirit is in him (when he feeleth not the working of the spirit, neither himself desposed to any Godly thing. Thou canst never know or be sure of thy faith, but by the works, if works follow not yea and that of love, without looking after any reward, thou mayest be sure that thy faith is but a dream and not right, and even the same that James called in his epistle. ii. Chapter deed faith and not justifying (ibid, p. xi).

Notice that he too appealed to the textual variant in 2 Peter 1:10 so that the instrumental function of good works here is not in order that we might be saved or in order that we might enter into heaven but that in order that through them we might glorify God, edify others, and give evidence of our faith.

Above, we considered a couple of ways some Reformed writers used the expression “through good works.” In this installment we want to consider Institutes 3.14.21 where Calvin, in speaking of the relations between the good works of believers (bona fidelium opera) and salvation (salutis) used the expression “per bona opera” (through good works). That expression is translated “through good works” or “by good works.” It seems that Calvin ascribed to good works a co-instrumental role, along with faith, in our salvation. Indeed, Calvin says “Scriptures shows (Scriptura…ostendit) that good works are “causes” (causas

In order to understand properly what Calvin wrote we need to put these passages in context. Chapter 21 is about the relations between justification and sanctification, which he called the “progress” of justification. In other words, for Calvin, the definitive act of God in declaring sinners righteous, on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is received through faith alone, results in the gradual sanctification of the Christian.

The question that he pursued through the section is the cause of virtue (e.g., 3.14.2). Rome made virtue the product of our free cooperation with grace toward progressive sanctification or progressive justification. For Rome, justification is ordinarily never final or certain in this life. Therefore, for Rome, any claim to assurance is necessarily regarded as presumption. Calvin, on the other hand, was an evangelical (in the 16th-century sense of the word), a Protestant. He accepted Luther’s basic insights as fundamental to the doctrine of justification. For Calvin, virtue is the product of the Spirit’s work in us as a consequence of definitive justification.

In 3.14.3–4 he argued that virtue (sanctification) is the product of true faith, through which we are united to Christ. “we have attained the hope of salvation by his grace alone, not by works” (3.14.5; Battles edition). He explicitly rejected the notion “that in entering into possession of redemption we are aided by our own works” (3.14.6, ibid). At the outset (3.14.1) he observed that there are four classes of persons relative to justification. Those:

  1. endowed with no knowledge of God and immersed in idolatry;
  2. initiated into the sacraments, yet by impurity of life denying God in their actions while they confess him with their lips, they belong to Christ only in name;
  3. they are hypocrites who conceal with empty pretenses their wickedness of heart;
  4. regenerated by God’s Spirit, they make true holiness their concern.

The 2nd and 3rd groups, he wrote (3.14.7) are hypocrites and/or only nominal Christians, i.e., they have not been given new life by God. Because they lack new life they also lack faith and we “attain these benefits only by faith….”

Only those who belong to the 4th class are righteousness before God because only they have true faith and only they have the Spirit who is also working progressive sanctification in them. Even in a state of grace, even though we being sanctified by the Spirit our good works will always, in this life, remain corrupt (3.14.8). Those who think that they can contribute to their salvation by their works, even if they appeal to the work of the Spirit, underestimate the severity of the law (3.14.10). Anyone who wants to present himself to God on the basis of good works, even Spirit-wrought good works, has placed himself back under the law and he must then fulfill all of it perfectly, which no sinner can do (ibid). Calvin was insistent that it is only through faith in Christ that we can appear before God (3.14.11), as Abraham did. “Paul does not say to the Ephesians that we have the beginning of salvation from grace but that we have been saved through grace, “not by works, lest any man should boast” (ibid).

The Fourfold Causal Scheme Applied To Salvation
Calvin continued by despatching the medieval doctrine of “supererogatory” works and the so-called “treasury of merit” (3.14.12–15). Rather, he argued, that we must “banish from our minds” any confidence in good works and we must never ascribe to our good works any glory (3.14.16). If we use the fourfold cause scheme of “the philosophers” (Aristotle et al) then works are not “fit for the establishing (constituenda) of our salvation” (3.14.17).

  1. “The efficient cause” of obtaining eternal life is God’s mercy and his “freely-given” love toward us.
  2. The “material cause” is Christ and his righteousness earned for us.
  3. The “instrumental cause” is faith. His proof text was John 3:16, which does not say “works” but “believes.”
  4. The “final cause” (or purpose) is his own glory.

He restated this scheme by appealing to other passages. Again he argued that the “instrumental cause” is faith and his proof text was Romans 3:25 “through faith in his blood” and Romans 3:26 “the justifier of him who has faith in Christ.” “Since we see that every particle of our salvation stands thus outside of us, why is it that we still trust or glory in works?” (ibid).

What then do good works do in our salvation? In the first instance they remind us of God’s mercy and grace toward us in Christ (3.14.18). In the second case they are “fruits” of his efficacious call (3.14.19). We “take the fruits of regeneration (ex regenerationis fructibus) as proof of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit….” (ibid). Our good works, to the degree they are good, are not ours. They are the Spirit’s. Thus, we do not present them to God as anything but evidence of his grace toward us, which is what the Old Testament believers did when they appealed to their works.

Through Good Works
This brings us to the 3.14.21, the section in which Calvin used the expression “through good works” (per bona opera). Having considered the broader context, this language takes on a different character than it might should we consider that phrase in the abstract. Again Calvin recited the four causes he had already discussed in order that our faith should not be shaken we must know:

that the efficient cause of our salvation consists in God the Father’s love; the material cause in God the Son’s obedience; the instrumental cause in the Spirit’s illumination, that is, faith; the final cause, in the glory of God’s great generosity (ibid, Battles edition).

These foundational truths, however, Calvin argued do not “prevent the Lord from embracing works as inferior causes (causas inferiores).” How do these “inferior causes” function? Those whom God has elected unconditionally he leads (inducit)into possession of it, in his ordinary providence, “through good works” (per bona opera). When we interpret this expression there are certain conclusions that we must reject. First, it is not possible that “through good works” means “good works are the co-instrumental cause of our salvation.” We know this conclusion is impossible because Calvin was at pains to make very clear that the only “instrumental cause” of our “salvation” (that is the term of discussion here since it is apparently broader than justification) is faith. In other words, Calvin taught salvation (justification and sanctification) sola fide. He assiduously excluded good works of every kind, even Spirit-wrought good works, from the other causes as well.

We will understand him better if we understand what an “inferior cause” is. Essentially it is a “co-incidence,” i.e., it is something which occurs along with something else. Consider Noah and his household. They were in the ark and they went through the water. We could say that they were saved “through the water.” By this we do not intend to say that the water saved them nor do we mean that the water had saving power but that they were in the water and it was in the midst of the water and from the water that the Lord saved them. He used the ark to save them. Christ is the ark.

The water is co-incident with the ark. The water constituted the circumstances in which Noah and his family were saved. Good works are the circumstances in which believers come into possession of eternal life. They are not instrumental in the possession of them. Faith alone is that instrument. Christ’s righteousness imputed alone is the ground. Behind it all is God’s mercy and grace. good works are not a “cause” in the same sense that God’s mercy and grace, faith, and his glory are causes.

This is how Calvin explained the role of good works in salvation. In the ordinary providence of God it is the case that those who are saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, produce the fruit of good works. Salvation comes after that. “What goes before in the order of dispensation he calls the cause of what comes after” (ibid). Nevertheless, he hastened to add that Scripture does not speak this way because it wants to ascribe the possession of eternal life to good works. Rather, it is part of the order of things. In short, it Calvin was trying to say that good works are fruit and indicators, they exist in those who are saved. They are the ordinary, expected, accompaniment of new life and true faith. This is why we must not “take refuge” in good works. Our only refuge is God’s mercy to us sinners in Christ. Death is owing to our sin but eternal “life rests solely upon God’s mercy” (ibid).

Conclusion: Co-incidental Is Not Co-Instrumental
In Institutes 3.14.21 Calvin used a mode of expression that would be taken up and repeated by a number of writers in the Reformed tradition. They distinguished between having “title” to eternal life through faith alone and “taking possession” of it with respect to works. The tendency, in some quarters, has been to take the second half of the distinction as making good works co-instrumental in salvation. As I have already argued with respect to Turretin and Witsius, that interpretation is not correct.

In using this language, however, Calvin assumed a degree of understanding of the traditional Christian appropriation of the Aristotelian causal scheme. He also intended this language to be understood in light of the 20 sections he had already written to explain the ground, instrument, and purpose (or causes) of our salvation (justification and sanctification). He was arguing with Rome, who taught that we are justified through progressive sanctification, that our justification is initiated in baptism, continued by our cooperation with grace and good works, and finally consummated upon perfection (ordinarily) after this life. He was disputing their allegation that the Protestants (e.g., Luther and Calvin) had removed any genuine incentive to good works. Good works are no more a second blessing than fruit is a second blessing to a tree. He was also acutely aware of the “Libertines” in Geneva, who had resisted the evangelical doctrine of the moral and logical necessity of good works as a consequence of salvation. The same arguments refute both errors. If good works are the fruit and evidence of salvation then they are necessary to those who profess faith in Christ.

Antinomianism remains a danger today but in our response to it, as we work through yet another controversy over justification, sanctification, and deliverance from the wrath to come (or salvation as encompassing all three aspects), let us not lose sight of our precious evangelical heritage: salvation sola gratia, sola fide in which the Spirit produces in his people the fruits and evidence of his salvation to his glory alone and to the encouragement of believers.