Did Ursinus Teach Final Salvation Through Works?

Introduction
Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) was the principal author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). He was responsible for perhaps as much as 70% of the catechism, though the two source documents that he created, from which much of the catechism was formed, drew from many sources (including Luther), so the source criticism of the catechism is challenging. For more on the background of the catechism see Lyle Bierma et al ed., An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology (2005) and J. I. Good, Good, The Heidelberg Catechism in Its Newest Light ( Philadelphia, PA: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1914).

Ursinus was from Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) and studied in Wittenberg with the great Protestant scholar Philipp Melanchthon (1497–1560) for several years before finally siding with the Reformed just after Melanchthon’s death. Frederick III (1515–76), the elector Palatinate, called him to teach theology in the University in Heidelberg and in the seminary, the Collegium Sapientiae (the College of Wisdom). So, Ursinus had deep roots in the Protestant Reformation. Melanchthon had been involved in controversies over how to relate good works to salvation. There had been those (e.g., John Major in the early 1550s) who had tried out formulae to the effect that the believer enters salvation by grace but retains it by good works. Melanchthon, who had battled the Antinomians (e.g., Johannes Agricola) decades earlier in the 1520s, had toyed with such language but ultimately rejected it. He had no interest in corrupting the doctrine of justification and sanctification (salvation) by sola gratia, sola fide. The question of the relation between good works was, then, “in the air,” when Ursinus reached Heidelberg.

Ursinus’ Catechisms Before The Heidelberg
In his larger catechism (Q. 46), also known as the Summa Theologiae, which he wrote in preparation for drafting the official catechism of the Palatinate (Heidelberg), he taught salvation as the product of grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide):

46 Q What does it mean to believe in God?

A It means to be firmly convinced that this one true God who has revealed himself in the church is Lord of all creatures so that with the highest right he is able to do with them whatever he wishes, and yet he so desires our good that we ought to expect from him everything that pertains to our salvation.

Of course one sees here the lineaments of what will become Heidelberg 21. Note that the question pertains to faith and that the instrument of salvation is not good works but faith. One sees the same doctrine in his Catechismus Minor (from the same period) Q. 17. He repeated this doctrine in Summa Q. 49 in the very same terms. Salvation is through faith alone. Under Christology (e.g., Summa 45), in both catechisms, he taught that Christ is the Savior, that Christ accomplished our salvation for us. Nowhere are we said to be co-Saviors, cooperating sufficiently with grace unto salvation. Of course, Ursinus knew nothing and taught nothing of a two-stage salvation wherein we are said to be initially justified sola gratia, sola fide but only finally saved through faith and works. In his Minor Q. 51, (as in Heidelberg 64) free salvation does not make the believer careless about sanctification and good works.

A No. Rather, it kindles in me an even stronger desire to continue and advance in piety, since, without true conversion to God, I cannot take comfort in the confidence of my election. And the more certain I am of my salvation, the more I want to show God that I am thankful.

In Q. 90, obeying the fifth commandment (to honor parents and superior authorities) is said to “serve our salvation.” Q. 195 in the Summa echoes this doctrine. In Q 219 he addressed the problem of assurance.

Q But since no one is saved except those whom God from eternity has chosen for salvation, how can you be convinced that the promise of grace belongs to you when you don’t know whether you are elect?

A Because by true faith I accept the grace of God offered to me, and by that most certain proof I know that I have been chosen and will always be kept by God for eternal life. For if he had not chosen me from eternity, he would never have given me the Spirit of adoption.

We note two things: the absence of any mention of good works and his immediate turn to the unique function of faith. “By true faith” (language later to be adopted repeatedly in the Heidelberg) “I accept the grace of God offered…”.

In Summa 233 and in Minor 98 prayer, like good works, is said to “serve” our salvation but it is not made an instrument. In Summa 264 the ministry of the church is said to work toward the “perfecting” of our salvation. Clearly here, Ursinus was thinking of our progressive sanctification graciously wrought and aided by the due use of the ordained means of grace.

In Summa 267 he explained the relationship between the ministry of the church and the sanctification of the Christian. Notice the instrument of salvation.

267 Q Isn’t the Holy Spirit’s honor taken awaywhen sanctification is attributed to the ministry?

A No, it is not. For the strength and power by which we are sanctified is all from the divine Spirit; the ministry is simply his instrument. By it he moves the hearts and souls of the elect whenever and however he sees fit; not because he could not do otherwise, but because it pleased divine wisdom, through the foolish preaching of the cross, to save those who believe.

God the Spirit uses means and instruments. The ministry of Word and sacrament is a divinely instituted instrument of sanctification. Notice, however, what is the instrument of salvation: faith. God saves believers. Had Ursinus intended to teach salvation through faith and works, he should have written, “to save those who believe and obey” but he did not because, for Ursinus, faith was the alone instrument of salvation.

In Summa 269 he gave his students a diagnostic test to determine whether the ministers were preaching God’s Word faithfully:

269 Q And how can we be sure that the Word of God is being proclaimed by ministers?

A If they proclaim the teaching written in the books of the Old and New Testaments, and if what they say conforms to the articles of faith and the commands of God; in short, if they teach us to seek our complete salvation
in Christ alone.

Again, Ursinus wrote nothing about the instrumental role of good works. Studying God’s Word privately, he wrote, is “necessary for your salvation” (Q. 270). The force of this language, however, does not seem to be instrumental. It was analogous to that in 281 where he wrote about the use of the sacraments in the Christian life:

A Those who do not make use of the sacraments, when it is possible, show that they have no faith
and exclude themselves from the communion of saints and God’s covenant. Nevertheless the promise made to believers is valid for those deprived of the sacraments against their will.

Those who refuse the sacraments “show” that they do not believe. Here he was thinking of fruit and evidence and not of instruments (see also Minor Q. 55). This is the same language he used in Summa 123 where he wrote that being a member in the visible church is “necessary for all who will be saved.” Membership is not instrumental but it is necessary. Unlike some in the contemporary debates, Ursinus regularly distinguished between is, with, and through.

In Minor 19 he made it clear that not only is Christ the only Savior but it is those who believe who are saved:

19 Q Why do you call him “Jesus” meaning
“savior”?

A Because I am firmly persuaded that he alone by his merit and power is the author of perfect and eternal salvation for me and all who believe in him.

Had Ursinus wanted us to think that good works were co-instrumental in our salvation it is odd that he missed his opportunity to say so here. So too in Summa 135 where Jesus was said to be the Savior only of believers. Faith is always and only the instrument of salvation. In this connection Minor 52 speaks only of the instrumentality of faith in salvation.

Rather, consistently good works were said to be the result of salvation as in Summa 160:

160 Q Why does he call himself our God who brought Israel out of Egypt?

A First, so that we may be reminded that this alone is the true God who revealed himself from the beginning in the church by his sure Word and clear divine testimonies. Second, so that, considering that we are saved and set free from all evil by him, we may realize that we owe him thanks and obedience.

God is the Savior and believers are the saved. We respond with good works out of heartfelt gratitude. He taught this explicitly in Summa 214:

214 Q Since we are not made right with God by this obedience, why does he require it?

A First, so that we might give our thanks to him who has freely justified and saved us. Second, so that even in our reconciliation it will still be clear that God is an enemy of sin, since he receives in grace only those who repent.

For Ursinus, in his catechisms, salvation is a free gift, offered graciously and received through the sole instrument of faith. Works are the said to be the by product of true faith, to act as evidence of salvation given and received but there are nowhere said to function as co-instruments with faith nor is salvation ever structured in two stages, initial and final.

On Heidelberg Catechism 91
Above we considered the two catechisms Ursinus wrote in preparation for the drafting of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). We saw that, though he taught both the necessity and even inevitability of good works issuing from new life and true faith as fruit and evidence of salvation, he did not distinguish two stages of salvation (initial and final) nor did he teach that good works are the instrument of final salvation. He certainly taught nothing about an “initial justification” sola gratia, sola fide and continuing or maintaining justification through good works.

Nevertheless, Ursinus’ career did not end in 1562. After the publication of the Heidelberg Catechism he was assigned by the Elector Palatinate, Frederick III, with explaining and defending the catechism in a series of lectures. They were later published as the Body of Orthodox Doctrine or Explication of the Catechism. He addressed the question of good works at length in his lectures on Heidelberg 91, which is in the beginning of the third part of the catechism. Remember, the catechism is in three parts: Guilt (law), Grace (Gospel), and Sanctification or Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. The Heidelberg is a Protestant catechism, i.e., it distinguishes law and gospel and teaches justification and sanctification (salvation) sola gratia, sola fide. For Ursinus, becoming Reformed did not entail abandoning all he had learned from Melanchthon even if it did mean putting it in a somewhat different framework, namely the framework of the covenant of works made with Adam before the fall, in which Adam was under the law for glorification and the covenant of grace made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David after the fall in which believers are declared righteous and saved only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed and received through faith alone.

According to the catechism, the first use of the law is to convict us of our sins and the gospel declares our righteousness and salvation from sin and wrath sola gratia, sola fide. Believers do good works out of thankfulness, in union with Christ, in communion with the saints.What are good works (bona opera)? Good works are such as are performed according to the law of God, such as proceed from a true faith, and are directed to the glory of God.”1

Ursinus was an Augustinian. He was a Calvinist. He accepted Augustine’s and Calvin’s reading of Romans 7 (as distinct from that of Pelagius, who knew that Paul could not have been describing a believer). He was realistic about the effects of the fall and the corruption of sin even in those who are in a state of grace (favor with God) for Christ’s sake alone:

The works of the saints are not perfectly good or pure in this life:

1. Because even those who are regenerated do many things which are evil, which are sins in themselves, on account of which they are guilty in the sight of God, and deserve to be cast into everlasting punishment. Thus, Peter denied Christ thrice; David committed adultery, slew Uriah, attempted to conceal his wickedness, numbered the children of Israel, &c. The law now declares, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” (Deut. 27:26.).

2. Because they omit doing many good things which they ought to do according to the law.

3. Because the good works which they perform are not so perfectly good and pure as the law requires; for they are always marred with defects, and polluted with sins. The perfect righteousness which the law requires is wanting, even in the best works of the saints. The reason of this is easily understood, inasmuch as faith, regeneration, and the love of God and our neighbor, from which good works proceed, continue imperfect in us in this life. As the cause is, therefore, imperfect, it is impossible that the effects which flow from this cause should be perfect. “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind.” (Rom. 7:23.) This is the reason why the works of the godly cannot stand in the judgment of God. “Enter not into judgment with thy servant; for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them.” (Ps. 143:2. Deut. 27:26.) Inasmuch, therefore, as all our works are imperfect, it becomes us to acknowledge and lament our sinfulness and infirmity, and press forward so much the more towards perfection.

From what has now been said, it is evident that the figment, or conceit of the Monks in reference to works of supererogation—by which they understand such works as are done over and above what God and the law require from them, is full of impiety; for it makes God a debtor to man. Yea, it is a blasphemous doctrine; for Christ himself has said: “When ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants; for we have done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10.)2

Our good works are, in themselves, so defiled by sin, that they are acceptable to God only because he has imputed to them Christ’s righteousness. To understand Ursinus on this point it is essential to grasp his Augustinian realism about sin. Ursinus was not a Methodist nor a Perfectionist of any sort. He wrote, “Yet they are, nevertheless, acceptable to God in Christ the Mediator, through faith, or on account of the merit and satisfaction of Christ imputed unto us by faith, and on account of his intercession with the Father in our behalf.”3 It was only by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness that Abel’s works were accepted as righteous.4

As he turned to the necessity of good works he re-stated his exposition of Heidelberg 86 in two points. Good works are necessary first as “the proof of our faith and election” and second as “a good example by which others are won to Christ.”5 Since it is being claimed that Ursinus taught that good works are the instrument or part of the instrument of final salvation (as if he taught a two-stage salvation) let us observe that here, where he might have articulated such a view, he remained classically Protestant. In his elaboration Ursinus distinguished between the ways good works are owed to God, the ways we owe them to ourselves, third, the ways we owe them to our neighbors. Under the first heading he gave three reasons why good works are necessary:

  1. “In order that the glory of our heavenly Father might be illustrated or on account of the glory of God.”6
  2. “That we may present to God the obedience owed.”7
  3. “That we might be thankful to God or on account of the gratitude we owe to God.”8

Under the second heading, he discussed how our good works testify to our faith and contribute to our assurance. Ursinus taught the practical syllogism:

  1. believers do good works.
  2. By God’s grace I do good works out of gratitude
  3. Therefore I am a believer

Our good works are not the foundation (basis) of our standing with God nor the basis for our assurance. The gospel and the promises of Christ are the basis for our assurance but good works do help. As Belgic Confession (1561) art. 24, Ursinus appealed to the analogy of trees and fruit. How does one know that a tree is alive? It produces fruit. The fruit does not make the tree good but it gives proof that the tree is alive, that it is good. This is why faith is not “formed” (Rome) by good works but it is evidenced by it yet those good works never become the ground or instrument of our standing before God.9

He also appealed to what Calvin called the “twofold grace of God (duplex gratia Dei) and what his colleague Caspar Olevianus called the “double benefit of Christ” (duplex beneficium), namely that we have from God’s gracious hand both justification and sanctification. Good works give evidence that we have received this double benefit and thereby contributes to our assurance that we really are elect. Good works also exercise (exerceatur) our faith.10 When we do good works we “adorn” (ornemus) and “commend” (cohonestumus) our profession of faith. He quoted Ephesians 4:1.11 In passing (number 6 under this heading) he mentioned in passing, “that we might avoid temporal and eternal penalties.”12 As proof he quoted Matthew 7:19, ” Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The seventh reason we ought to do them for ourselves is that rewards graciously given might follow (consequamur; here the Willard translation creates a misleading impression) good works in this life and the life to come. He quoted 1 Timothy 4:8, godliness is profitable for this life and the life to come. “For unless God willed the hope of rewards and the fear of penalties to be impulsive causes of good works, he would not make use of these arguments in his promises and judgments.”12 A correspondent wrote recently to ask if, under this heading, Ursinus had put the believer back under the covenant of works. I think not. First, Ursinus was writing under the broader heading of the covenant of grace, not the covenant of works. Second, His use of Matthew 7 here links this passage to the earlier line of argument from fruit and evidence. Third, Ursinus assumed that reasonable people, enlightened by new life (regeneration) would fear God. Fourth, we do turn to God to be saved from the wrath to come. Fifth, there is such a thing as a holy, filial fear of God (Heb and of the consequences of sin. Such reverence is one of the reasons why believers do good works. It is an expression of our gratitude. As we interpret this passage we may not read it without remember all that he has already said about the role and function of good works.

These last two points are no more than the teaching of Hebrews 12:7–11:

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (ESV).

Perhaps our cultural setting and the influence of broad evangelical antinomianism makes it more difficult to appreciate this sort of teaching but it is biblical. Being disciplined by our heavenly Father does not mean that we are being put back under the covenant of works for our standing with God or that we are “in by grace” and “stay in by works.” It is believers that God chastises and corrects and believers ought to have a healthy respect for almighty God even as they love and adore him for saving them graciously from wrath and judgment.

Finally, under this head, he turned to how they relate to one’s neighbor.13 This section is brief. We do them in order to benefit our neighbor and to edify him. He quoted 2 Cor 4:15 and Philippians 1:24. We do do them so “that through us scandals might be avoided.” He quoted Matthew 18:7 and Romans 2:2414 The third reason (relative to our neighbor) that we do good works is that we might gain (lucrifaciamus) unbelievers (infideles) for Christ.15 He quoted Luke 22:32.

Here began to address directly the question whether (utrum) good works (bona opera) are neessary (necessaria) unto salvation (ad salutem) or whether they are “pernicious” (perniciosa) to the same.16 As mentioned in the first part of this essay, Ursinus was well aware of the controversies Melanchthon and the Protestants had experienced in the 1530s, 40s, and 50s over how to relate justification to sanctification and sanctification to good works and salvation. The view that they are “necessary” to salvation was proposed by John Major and the view that they are “pernicious” or injurious by Nicholas von Amsdorf. He criticized both ways of speaking as “ambiguous and scandalous,” i.e., vague and liable to give offense. He was particularly unhappy with von Amsdorf’s expression since it tends to diminish (damnare) trust (fiduciam) but also zeal for good works.17 Major’s thesis can be retained if it is understood properly. The marginal note in the 1616 edition says, “the degree to which good works are necessary.”18

They are necessary unto salvation not as cause to effect or as merit to reward but as part of salvation itself, as antecedent to consequent or as means to an end.19

Later Reformed theologians would describe good works as “constituitive” of salvation. This is what I call the “is” of good works. We are not saved because of good works. They never become the ground of salvation. We may be confident that “medium” does not mean “instrument” since he was elaborating on the expression “pars ipsius salutis.” This is the equivalent of the Westminster Divines saying “having their fruit unto holiness, they may have the end, eternal life” (WCF 16.2). Good works are the fruit of the “saving graces” (WCF 11.2). He continued to explain the relationship of good works to salvation by analogy with justification. Good works are necessary to salvation as they are necessary “unto righteousness” (ad iustitiam) or “unto justification” (ad iustificationem) or “in those being justified” (in iustificandis), i.e., as a consequence of justification (quam consequens iustificationis) since sanctification (regeneratio) is inseparably conjoined with justification.20 This was Calvin’s doctrine of the duplex gratia Dei (twofold grace of God) or Olevianus’ duplex beneficium. Justification gives rise to progressive sanctification and sanctification produces good works as fruit and evidence of salvation.21

At the top of the next page, however, he hastened to add “but I do not use this form of speaking” because it is ambiguous (which had already said) and because “it gives birth to contentions and give our adversaries opportunity for quibbling. 22 He also did not speak thus because this way of speaking is not found in Scripture. It is prudent (tutius) to say “good works are necessary in those being justified (iustificandis) and in those being saved” (salvandis). 23 Ursinus was unwilling to say things about salvation (the broader concept) that he could not say about justification (the narrower concept). It is “ambiguous” (ambigue) to talk about the necessity of good works in justification since such a way of speaking may be understood to make good works prior or antecedent to justification (ante iustificationem), which way of speaking would overturn the material cause of the Reformation. He was unequivocally and irrevocably committed to justification sola gratia, sola fide. Neither was he willing to say that good works are a “cause of justification” (causa iustificationis).24 Rather, he wanted to follow Augustine: Good works do not precede (praecedunt) being justified but they follow the justified.25

From there he responded to the objection that good works are so essential to salvation that it is not possible to have salvation without them. In answer he reminded the reader of Heidelberg 87,

87. Can they then not be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life?

By no means, for, as the Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the Kingdom of God.

Therefore, he concluded, “good works are necessary to salvation” but he insisted on a distinction. They are, as he had already said and now repeats, “pars salutis (part of salvation). They are antecedent to salvation (antecedens salutem) but they do not merit salvation. They are necessary “in those being saved” (in salvandis) but they do not merit or cause salvation.

Conclusions

In the contemporary debate over salvation prompted by the thesis of a prominent evangelical leader that there are two stages in salvation, the initial being justification sola gratia, sola fide and the putative “final” stage through “that fruit [of justification] and that faith” or that we good works are for “maintaining” our justification it has been claimed that this two-stage soteriology with good works as the instrument of final salvation is nothing more than one finds frequently in the Reformed tradition. It has been claimed that Ursinus taught this very thing or something like it.

To examine this claim we have surveyed his two early catechisms, the Summa and the Minor (1561 and 1562) and his lectures on the Body of Orthodox Doctrine, which he gave for about two decades until his death in 1583. In none of these texts have seen even the slightest hint of a “two-stage” soteriology nor have found him teaching that good works are instrumental in our salvation. We have found him teaching that good works are constituitive of salvation, that they are found in the saved, that they are fruit and evidence of salvation, that they glorify God, that they assure the believer, and edify the neighbor. We even found him teaching that they help the believer to avoid temporal and eternal penalties (chastisements) but we have seen no indication that he thought or taught his students that good works are instrumental in salvation and certainly not co-instrumental with faith in salvation.

NOTES

1. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 476. Corpus doctrinae orthodoxae (Heidelberg, 1616), 470.

2. Commentary, 481.

3. Ibid., 482.

4. Ibid., p. 482.

5. Ibid., p. 482–83.

6. Corpus doctrinae, 476. My translation.

7. Corpus, 477.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 478.

10. Ibid., 478.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ursinus, Commentary, 484–85.

14. Corpus doctrinae, 478.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. “quod sint necessaria ad salutem, non tanquam causa ad effectum, vel tanquam tum ad mercedem, sed tanquam pars ipsius salutis, vel tanqam antecedens ad consequens, vel tanquam medium, fine ad finem.” (Ibid).

20.Ibid.

21. See Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ and R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ.

22. Ibid., 479.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Augustine, Ennaratio in Psalmum 110.3 (= English 111.3). Augustine of Hippo, “Expositions on the Book of Psalms,” in Saint Augustin: Expositions on the Book of Psalms, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 8, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 545.

The Reasons Christians Do Good Works

Guilt, Grace, And Gratitude
The Heidelberg Catechism is in three parts: Law, Gospel, and Sanctification or Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. This is not an artificial interpretation of the Catechism nor is it an artificial arrangement of the Christian faith. Question 2 outlines the Catechism for us:

How many things are necessary for you to know, that in this comfort you may live and die happily?

Three things: the first, how great my sin and misery is; the second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; the third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.

Notice that there are three things that one must know: sin and misery (guilt), how we are redeemed (grace), and how believers live in light of God’s grace (gratitude). Remarkably, even among Reformed Christians this outline is not as well known as it should be. I recall a discussion from more than a decade ago in which a person well familiar with the Reformed Churches professed that he had never heard this outline of the Catechism and suggested that it was some novelty. It is not a novelty. The principal author of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83), who was authorized to comment on the Catechism in Heidelberg and who lectured on it explained:

There are others, again, who make the catechism consist of five different parts; the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Prayer; of which, the Decalogue was delivered immediately by God himself, while the other parts were delivered mediately, either through the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, as is true of the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, and the Eucharist, or through the ministry of the apostles, as is true of the Apostles’ Creed. But all these different parts may also be reduced to the two general heads noticed in the first division. The Decalogue contains the substance of the law, the Apostles’ Creed that of the gospel; the sacraments are parts of the gospel, and may, therefore, be embraced in it as far as they are seals of the grace which it promises, but as far as they are testimonies of our obedience to God, they have the nature of sacrifices and pertain to the law, whilst prayer, in like manner, may be referred to the law, being a part of the worship of God.
The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts. The first treats of the misery of man, the second of his deliverance from this misery, and the third of gratitude, which division does not, in reality, differ from the above, because all the parts which are there specified are embraced in these three general heads. The Decalogue belongs to the first part, in as far as it is the mirror through which we are brought to see ourselves, and thus led to a knowledge of our sins and misery, and to the third part in as far as it is the rule of true thankfulness and of a Christian life. The Apostles’ Creed is embraced in the second part inasmuch as it unfolds the way of deliverance from sins. The sacraments, belonging to the doctrine of faith and being the seals that are attached thereto, belong in like manner to this second part of the catechism, which treats of deliverance from the misery of man. And prayer, being the chief part of spiritual worship and of thankfulness, may, with great propriety, be referred to the third general part.

Already, between 1563 and 1583 Ursinus was aware that there was discussion of the organization of the Catechism. It’s interesting that he did not “pull rank” as we say but he it also interesting that the did suggest there are different ways of analyzing the catechism. There is the superstructure and there are substructures within the catechism. A house has a basic frame within which there are rooms and hallways. So too, within the catechism. He argued that the five parts that some had seen we really only expressions of two great heads: law and gospel. That there is today such apparent resistance, within the Reformed world, to these basic categories, which Ursinus had inherited from Luther and Calvin, illustrates how far we have drifted from our roots. When he invoked these categories he was not being controversial. He just states them as a matter of fact, as accepted categories because they were universally accepted by the Reformed theologians and churches of the 16th and 17th centuries. Ursinus, Olevianus, Beza, and Calvin would not understand why some insist on saying that they are Lutheran distinctions since they themselves used them, advocated them, and taught them. In his Summa theologiae, written before the Heidelberg, Ursinus wrote:

Q.36 What distinguishes law and gospel?

A: The law contains a covenant of nature begun by God with men in creation, that is, it is a natural sign to men, and it requires of us perfect obedience toward God. It promises eternal life to those keeping it, and threatens eternal punishment to those not keeping it. In fact, the gospel contains a covenant of grace, that is, one known not at all under nature. This covenant declares to us fulfillment of its righteousness in Christ, which the law requires, and our restoration through Christ’s Spirit. To those who believe in him, it freely promises eternal life for Christ’s sake (Larger Catechism, Q. 36).

Not only did Ursinus clearly articulate the very same distinction between law as one principle (“do this and live”) and gospel as another (Christ has done) that he had learned from Philipp Melanchthon (1497&ndash1560), which Melanchthon had learned from Luther, and which Ursinus had heard in Geneva from Calvin and Beza but he did so in covenantal terms, which would become fundamental to Reformed theology. The great Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield would later call covenant theology “architectonic” to Reformed theology. Ursinus equated the law principle with the covenant of works (“the day you eat thereof”) and the gospel to the covenant of grace. Again, when he did this he did not intend to be controversial. He took these things as basic. The Westminster Divines adopted these categories and confessed them explicitly in the 1640s. There was some dissent, e.g., from the Arminians (Remonstrants) in the 17th century but it would only be in the 20th century that they would become highly controversial. From a historical perspective, however, these corollaries (the first use of the law = covenant of works and gospel = covenant of grace) were basic.

Calvin often spoke in terms of law and grace, instead of law and gospel, but he used the traditional terms also. Commenting on Romans 10:9, he wrote:

Do you see how he makes this the distinction between law and gospel: that the former attributes righteousness to works, the latter bestows free righteousness apart from the help of works? This is an important passage, and one that can extricate us from many difficulties if we understand that that righteousness which is given us through the gospel has been freed of all conditions of the (Institutes, 3.11.17)

He made this distinction no fewer than 35 times in his writings and it’s certain that one could many more instances. Calvin’s successor in Geneva was also insistent upon this distinction:

We divide this Word into two principal parts or kinds: the one is called the ‘Law,’ the other the ‘Gospel.’ For all the rest can be gathered under the one or other of these two headings…Ignorance of this distinction between Law and Gospel is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity (The Christian Faith, 1558)

Olevianus (and see the essay published here) wrote that the whole book of Romans could be analyzed as having two parts: law and gospel. Perkins wrote that it is impossible to preach God’s Word without using the distinction. Edward Fisher taught it clearly in The Marrow of Modern Divinity. William Twisse, the first prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly taught it explicitly and many other writers could be cited and have been in other places. Much of this evidence has been in print, in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry and online for many years now.

As we saw, however, Ursinus settled on the tripartite division of the catechism: “The catechism of which we shall speak in these lectures consists of three parts.” The evidence from the catechism itself and from Ursinus is conclusive. We must consider the catechism fundamentally organized in three parts: guilt, grace, and gratitude.

This organization is reflected in 86:

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 (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

The major premise of this question is the biblical, Protestant doctrine of salvation sola gratiasola fide, that has been explored and explained repeatedly through this commentary on the catechism. The German text  uses the verb erkauft, which is fairly translated “to redeem” or “to purchase.” This imagery takes us back to Heidelberg 1, where we confess that our only comfort in life and in death that we “belong, body and soul, in life and death” to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. This is Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “you were bought with a price, therefore honor God with your body” and 1 Corinthians 7:23, “You were bought with a price; do not become the bondservants of men” (ESV). The Latin text says “liberati simus,” and says literally, “Since from all our sins and miseries, without any of our merit, only by the mercy of God, on account of Christ we have been liberated, why should we do good works?”  The rhetorical effect of the ordering of the phrases is to condition the final clause, the question. We are only discussing good works after reiterating that the biblical, Protestant, and Reformed conviction that redemption (salvation) is by grace alone, through faith alone. To make it crystal clear, the catechism specifically mentions the question of merit. It does rejects any notion that we sinners have merit of any kind, condign or congruent, relative to our standing before God. Here is a discussion merit in Heidelberg 62 and 63.

The catechism  speaks thus because the Reformed (e.g., Calvin and Olevianus) had long spoken of the “double grace” (duplex gratia) or the “double benefit” (duplex beneficium) of Christ. We are justified and sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Our new life, our sanctification, that process of being gradually conformed to the image of Christ is the consequence of our free justification and his gracious salvation of his people.

Sanctification As Fruit And Evidence
There is another piece to the back story, as they say in Hollywood. During the 1550s there were great struggles over how to express the doctrine of sanctification relation to the doctrine of justification. Prior to the 50s there had been questions. There had been those whom Luther labelled “antinomians” in the 1530s. This paragraph from his First Disputation against the Antinomians was used almost verbatim in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Likewise against those evils revealed and pointed out to us by the law, lest we despair, that other doctrine also has to be preserved in the Church, which teaches consolation against the accusation and terrors of the law, grace against God’s wrath, remission of sins and righteousness against sin, life against death. That doctrine is the gospel, which teaches that God through his word has locked up everyone under sin so that he might have mercy upon everyone; that he most certainly wants to remit the sins of all, liberate from death, and give righteousness and life to those who feel their misery, unrighteousness, and perdition, and certainly freely without any merit of ours, yet only in such a way that these benefits come upon believers because of Christ.

Here, to be sure, Luther was explaining the relation between the first use of the law and the gospel but this passage illustrates the degree to which the Reformed were dependent upon and influenced by Luther. He also defended what Melanchthon, the Lutheran orthodox, and the Reformed called the third use of the law (tertius usus legis):

The law, therefore, cannot be eliminated, but it remains, prior to Christ as not fulfilled, after Christ as to be fulfilled, although this does not happen perfectly in this life even by the justified. For it requires that we love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves (cf. Matt. 22:37, 39). This will happen perfectly first in the coming life.

No one who has actually read Luther with any care should think that he is an antinomian. Unfortunately, some Reformed folk, relying upon mainline Lutherans (from the USA, Germany, and elsewhere) conclude from the way liberal mainliners speak (and the claims they make about Luther) that he was essentially antinomian. That would be like looking at what some mainline Presbyterian (PCUSA) writers in this country say about Calvin and drawing conclusions that e.g., would support the self-described “Occupy” movement. Again, I doubt any serious Calvin scholar would think this way since Calvin’s greatest fear about society was represented by the Anabaptists in the (1534–35) Münster rebellion. There are too many Reformed folk (and others who identify with aspects of Calvin’s theology, e.g., his soteriology) who do not read those sources that shaped  and influenced Calvin (and other Reformed writers) for themselves. Among those would be Luther.

Nevertheless, through the 1540s and 50s the question persisted among evangelicals (the word they used of themselves) or the magisterial Protestants how to relate sanctification and good works to justification. Some argued that we ought not speak of good works at all since that tends to lead Christians astray. It might tempt them to think once again that their good works, done in cooperation with grace, somehow contributed to their standing before God. It’s not as if there were no grounds for such a fear.  There were some saying that good works were a condition of standing before God. Remember, the Roman doctrine, out of which the evangelicals had come, taught that we justified because we are sanctified and we are sanctified by grace and cooperation with grace. Then there were some who were arguing ingeniously that Christ dwells in us by virtue of our union with him and God looks at us and sees the indwelling Christ and we are justified on the basis of Christ’s indwelling (and not on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed). So, the evangelicals had been ping-ponging between forms of legalism and antinomianism before the 1560s.

In our time, of course, we’ve seen the same sort of ping-ponging. We have the self-described, so-called Federal Vision movement arguing essentially the Arminian doctrine of salvation and calling it Reformed. Among the evangelicals there are antinomians arguing that the moral law no longer applies to Christians and then there are moralists (nomists) who teach that  we are justified and saved because we cooperate sufficiently with grace. So, we are not much better off in the early 21st century than we were in the mid-sixteenth century.

Thus, it is significant that the Reformed Churches confess:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

Notice that we say “because.” There are some today, who call themselves Reformed, who, not unlike those in the 16th century who said that God accepts us because were Christ indwells us, would say that the catechism’s way of speaking is inadequate. They want to say that it is because Christ dwells in us and we in Christ (union with Christ) that we are sanctified and that justification and sanctification are nothing but parallel fruits of that union. That is not the teaching of the Scriptures as understood and confessed by the Reformed Churches. There are, as mentioned last time, two benefits and sanctification is the second benefit of Christ. Here we thinking and speaking of the logical order of salvation. We are not talking about time or a temporal or chronological order. Think of it this way: it is the justified, i.e., those of whom God has declared “just,” that the Spirit is necessarily, graciously, and gradually sanctifying. It is the justified, who are being sanctified, who do good works. If we reverse the order, then we have become Romanists again. Thus, we should reject soundly those who would do away with, as they say, “ordo salutis thinking.” To do away with the logical order in which the Spirit works, as taught by Scripture (e.g., Romans 8) is to send the Reformed Churches right off the cliff to destruction.

We should also reject soundly and unreservedly that teaching that will not say that believers, who are united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, who are justified freely (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), have no moral obligation to be conformed to Christ and thus to do good works. That is antinomianism. No, the Spirit is conforming us to Christ’s image. Those who have been given new life (regenerated) will do good works. They want to do good works out of thankfulness. Gratitude is not, as some say, a second blessing any more than oranges are a second blessing on an orange tree (see Belgic Confession art. 24). This is the language of our Lord Jesus in John 15. Believers “show themselves to be thankful.” They manifest their new life by good works. They give evidence. That’s why the two words most often used by the classical Reformed writers and the Reformed confessions in this discussion are “fruit” and “evidence.” Anyone who is dissatisfied with this way of speaking is on the path to Rome, even if they do not realize it.

Sanctification And Assurance
Sanctification has another function in the Christian life: to bolster assurance. This doctrine has also been controversial in some circles. There is a view that says that sanctification can play no role whatsoever in assurance. There is also an approach that says that, in seeking assurance, the first place a believer looks is to his sanctification. In distinction the Reformed Churches confess:

86. Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?

Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and also that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

The two clauses in view here are “he be glorified through us” and “we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof….” The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously begins by teaching that the “chief end of man” is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This notion, however, did not arise in the 17th century. He was common Reformed teaching. Adam was created to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Our Savior, the Last Adam, glorified God and now enjoys him forever, and we shall, by God’s grace, because of Christ’s obedience for us, enjoy him forever and by his grace, with the help of his Spirit, we seek now to glorify him day by day. We do that by obeying him, according to all the teaching of his Word and particularly by obeying God’s moral law. We will address the role of the law in the Christian life in more detail under Heidelberg 91.

When, by the grace of God, in union with Christ, with the help of his Spirit, we are obeying him (however imperfectly) that fruit of our free justification and salvation does contribute to our assurance. To be sure, we do not look first off to our sanctification (fruit) for assurance. That would be a mistake. Our sanctification, in this life, is never complete. Therefore, to look at our sanctification as the primary ground must necessarily result in uncertainty. Should we look principally at our sanctification then every time we sin we should lose our assurance. This is not only unbiblical and contrary to our confession but a terrible way to live the Christian life. The ground of our assurance is Christ’s obedience and righteousness for us not the Spirit’s work in us. The ground, the basis of, our assurance of our salvation and right standing with God is God’s gospel promise to us that “whosover believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). The ground of our assurance is objective. It is fixed. It is established by Christ. It is immutable, i.e., it does not change. It cannot change. It is fixed in history and in the heavens. It rests upon God’s immutable, eternal decree and upon his immutable, eternal character and attributes.

Nevertheless, resting on the fact of Christ’s obedience for us and upon his promises to us, e.g.,

  • “it is finished”
  • “having therefore been justified”
  • “no one can snatch them from my hand”

we may also look to the evidence of the work of God’s Spirit in us as proof that we really do believe. We rightly say that we are justified and saved by grace alone, through faith alone (sola fide) but believers frequently ask the question, “how do I know that I believe”? It is not sufficient to answer that question by simply repeating the exhortation, “believe!” There are other questions. “Do I know the greatness of my sin and misery?” and “Do I know the history of salvation?” and “Do I agree that what Scripture says is true?” One who does not yet know himself to be, by nature, under the wrath of God, who has not sensed the jeopardy in which all of Adam’s children exist after the fall, is not ready to flee to Christ as his only hope and righteousness. Certainly true faith involves basic knowledge of the facts of Christ’s saving work and assent to those truths. He must also trust heartily that what Christ did, he did for us (pro nobis), for me (pro me). This is why it is so important for believers to hear and read over and again God’s law and Christ’s promises. We must be reminded constantly of what God demands and what Christ has fulfilled for us and promised to us.

It is entirely appropriate and even necessary, however, for the believer to find encouragement that he does actually believe by observing the evidences, however small and inadequate they may be in this life, that yes the Spirit of God has given him new life. We begin with the objective, the promises of God represented to us in the preached gospel and the gospel made visible in the sacraments. We are baptized people. We are being nourished by the body and blood of Christ. We are received in the church as members in good standing. We do see ourselves for what we are by nature: sinners. We acknowledge that and seek our standing before God only in what Christ has done for us. We are grieved by our sins. With Paul we sometimes despair “what will become of me?” That is the cry of the Christian who struggles with and sometimes seems overcome by sin and death. Finally, however, we say:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:1-4).

It is because of what Christ has done for us that we can move forward in conformity to Christ. Believers are no longer under the law of sin and death but under the “law of the Spirit of life.” Christ has liberated us from condemnation. The same righteous substitute has not only justified but he is sanctifying us. Is our sanctification perfect? No, not by a long shot but just as we trust Jesus for our justification and salvation so we trust him for our sanctification.

Christian Witness
The last major point of Heidelberg 86 is its reference to Christian witness relative to sanctification and good works. This last clause, “and by our godly walk win also others to Christ” is truly important for a variety of reasons. Here is the whole of question and answer 86:

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 (Heidelberg Catechism 86).

Imagine how Christianity would be viewed has evangelical television preachers not been found to be committing fraud or to have committed immorality. Imagine if we did not have to account for pederasty among Romanist priests, the crusades, the inquisition, or the treatment of Jews in the middle ages (and after)? Sanctification or its absence has a great affect on the Christian witness to the watching world. Our sanctification or lack thereof has an affect on the plausibility of our testimony to the facts of redemption: the incarnation, Christ’s obedience, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. Now, regardless of our failings, the facts are the facts. Jesus did what he did and he is returning and when he does he will settle accounts with the skeptics. Nevertheless, just a very brief review of the history of scandals in the church gives plenty of prima facieevidence that keeps us from being cavalier about the corruption of the Christian witness in the world.

The second thing that should be said is that the catechism and the Reformed faith should get at least a little credit for showing some concern about the spiritual welfare of the lost. Even though the catechism was drafted and adopted in a period when the state imposed religion upon its citizens, there is an open recognition that not everyone around us is a believer. This evident concern expressed in the catechism contradicts the assumption often made about the Reformed that they must be indifferent to the spiritual state (and the final state) of those around them who do not believe. The assumption is often made that if God has decreed who is and is not going to come to faith (he has) then Reformed folk must be indifferent (we aren’t). Yes, God is sovereign but that conviction is hardly distinctive to Reformed theology. It was widely held and taught in the church for the 1500 years before the Reformation. Augustine taught it. Anselm taught it, and Aquinas taught it, just to name three. These were all major theologians in the western church. God knows what he has decreed and we know that he has decreed but we do not know whom he has decreed to save and whom he has decreed to reprobate. The church’s duty is to make known the law and the gospel and offer salvation freely, seriously, and promiscuously to all who will recognize the greatness of their sin and misery, turn from it, and embrace Christ in true faith.

Evangelism properly is what the minister does in the pulpit when he proclaims the gospel to the world but each of us as Christians is a witness or gives witness to the faith (the objective facts of redemptive history and the basic truths of Scripture summarized in the creeds) and to our faith, i.e., to our personal appropriation of Christ by grace alone, through faith alone. Each of us is ordinarily surrounded by unbelieving friends, relatives, and co-workers. We must pray for them regularly that God the Spirit might do in them what he has done in us who believe: convict them of their need for Christ, grant them new life, and grant them the grace of faith and through it union with Christ. When we pray that way we should be prepared because God, in his providence, may well give us opportunity to give witness to Christ and to our faith in him.

When, by God’s grace, we do good works that gives witness to our faith and to the truth of the Christian faith. When our lives match our profession opportunities for witness are created. We do not have to choose between a silent witness of good works and a spoken witness to Christ and his truth. We believe in and confess both. They go together. May the Lord give us opportunities to give witness and may he bless that witness when it is given.

On The Necessity And Efficacy Of Good Works In Salvation

noteIntroduction
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.”

The Confessions
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)—not 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 gratiasola 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 gratiasola 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.

NOTES

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.

13. Ibid.

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.