Through Good Works?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also connects them to our assurance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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