Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine

Are Good Works Sins? (3)

As we’ve seen in the two previous posts, Francis Turretin argues that the works of believers are truly good, first, because they are done “by a special motion and impulse of the Holy Spirit,” and thus he is their primary cause; and, second, because they are said to please God, indicating that they cannot properly be termed sins, for sin does not please God.

Turretin’s third argument is based on rewards. He says:

(3) Because a reward is promised to them, which could not be done if they were not truly good. For although works have nothing in themselves which can merit and obtain such a reward (which for that reason is merely gratuitous, as will later be discussed), they nevertheless have a certain ordination and fitness such that they are ordained to a reward, both from the condition of the worker, who is classed as a believer (that is, admitted into the grace and friendship of God), and from the condition of the works themselves, which although they do not have a condignity for the reward, nevertheless have the relation of disposition that is required in the subject for its possession, and, with this having been posited, the reward is not able not to be given as, with it having been denied, the reward cannot be obtained. For as without holiness, no one shall see God and, unless a person has been renewed by water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven (Jn. 3:5; Heb. 12:14); so, with holiness having been posited, glory is necessarily posited from the inseparable connection that exists between them. (Institutes of Elenctic Theology XVII.4.XII)1

Turretin makes a number of important distinctions here. God could not promised to reward the works of believers if they were properly sins–for how could God reward sin? And yet he does promise to reward the works of believers. Therefore, they must be good. This does not mean that man merits something from God: Turretin explicitly denies that man can do anything that in itself makes him worthy of a reward, and later in the same sentence is even more explicit in his rejection, against Rome, of the position that man can condignly merit from God (merit will be the focus of the Fifth Question in this Topic). Thus the ultimate source of the reward springs from God’s grace.

Nevertheless, it is also not the case that God is rewarding what is properly sin (see above). So, on the one hand he denies that man has an intrinsic right to rewards from God, and yet affirms that rewards will be given and that they will be based in truth. How does he do so? By recourse to the concepts of order (ordinatio) and fitness (aptitudo), and this for two reasons: first, they are performed by a believer, and so someone who is already in the “grace and friendship of God.” They are performed by the children of a benevolent Father–by those who are already part of the family rather than by those who are trying to earn the right to enter or remain in the family. Second, the works themselves come from that renewed believer: (imperfectly) holy deeds can be done by those who have been made (imperfectly) holy. But holiness is ordered to glory; therefore, if there is holiness, glory must follow because of the “inseparable connection” between them; therefore, the reward must follow the works. This is why Turretin can say that rewards are a matter of ordinatio and aptitudo, while denying that they have anything to do with merit or dessert (meritum).

The logic is a biblical one, as can be seen from the two proof texts he links. Scripture teaches that without holiness no one shall see the Lord (Heb. 12.14, miscited in the Latin as Heb. 12.12). It also teaches that no one can enter the Kingdom unless he has been renewed or reborn by water and the Spirit (John. 3.5). Therefore holiness is required, but it cannot exist without renewal or rebirth. Renewal, though, means newness of life (a new “relation of disposition”), which is to say holiness, and holiness means seeing God, that is, the beatific vision, or “glory.” They are “inseparably connect[ed],” and so God rewards the former (which comes from him) with the latter (which also comes from him).

  1. Institutes, vol. 2, 708-9, Geiger translation (modified).

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.