“But this alone we say, There is grace administered by the promises of the gospel, enabling us to perform the obedience of it in that way and manner which God will accept.” – John Owen
When arguing for the necessity of good works for final salvation, not as the meritorious ground by which we enter heaven, since that is reserved for the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, it may be possible that a well-meaning Christian might ask, “But how many good works are necessary?”
I think this type of question can proceed out of a genuine interest or concern. It can also proceed from a less than gracious spirit where contention is pursued rather than understanding. Let’s assume the question is genuine.
The Scriptures don’t really quantify works, suffering, endurance, etc., in quite the way we might wish. So, in Romans 8 Paul says that if a Christian, by the Spirit, mortifies the misdeeds of the flesh, they will live (v. 13). He doesn’t say how much mortification, but he does say we must “put to death” if we want to live. A little later on he says that if we are children of God we are also fellows heirs with Christ, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17). Note the “conditional” language. We will be glorified “provided with suffer.” How much suffering? Again, that is not Paul’s concern, for such is our human nature that we would get to our “quota” and do no more!
In one respect, it is not the quantity of sanctification that matters. Certainly, we pray for more. Rather, God is concerned about the quality of our sanctification. Is it by the Spirit and for God’s glory, proceeding from faith? The Reformed tradition spoke of “sincere obedience” and “small beginnings.” God is not a hard taskmaster. He remembers we are flesh.
The law requires absolute perfection for anyone to be justified, whereas in the gospel those who are freely justified (WCF 11.1) may serve God with sincere, albeit imperfect, obedience (WCF 16.6). Since our persons are accepted in Christ in our justification, our imperfect works of sanctification are also accepted in him (1 Peter 2:5).
This explains why, in Genesis 26:5, Abraham can be described as having kept God’s commandments, statutes, and laws, even though by that time Abraham had broken the ninth commandment (on two occasions) by calling Sarah his sister (Gen. 12:13; 20:2). King David, notwithstanding his sordid history involving Bathsheba and Uriah, kept God’s commandments and followed him with all of his heart (1 Kings 14:8). Similarly, Noah is described as a righteous and blameless man (Gen. 6:9; see also Job 1:1, 8; Luke 1:6). If one reads 1-2 Kings, it is interesting how often the narrator assesses each one based on the orientation of the heart: his heart was true (or not true) to the Lord his God.
I think we should be concerned to simply ask: Is there a Spirit-led (Rom. 8:14) desire to serve the Lord?
In Revelation 2:10-11, Jesus says: “… Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life… The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” Also Revelation 3:15=16, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
When Jesus demands “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life,” and “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end…’” and “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!”, etc., the nervous response might say, “how faithful?” / “how many works till the end?” / “How hot or cold?” But such a response is misplaced.
Such a response does not arise from the demand. God commands but also promises, which means we can all say with Augustine, “give what you command, and command whatever you wish.” We live according to the promises God makes, not an artificial accounting system concocted by our own servile spirits. God says, “be holy.” We do not ask, “But how much holiness?” (Heb. 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord”). We simply strive for holiness.
Such questions (i.e., “How many?”) may actually reveal a legal spirit, not a gospel spirit, that needs mortifying. From those who should know better, to ask “How many good works?” is not evidence to me that they are trying to guard something special (i.e., justification), but rather that they are trying to ignore something glorious, namely, that God accepts the sincere obedience of his children because they are pure in heart (Matt. 5:8; Ps. 73:1; 24:4), live by faith (Gal. 2:20), and obey in the Spirit (Rom. 8:13-14). God warns, promises, and commands for our good.
Do fear of punishment and hope of rewards cause servile fear in a Christian? John Owen asserts that such a reaction is a “vain” imagination. Only the bondage of our spirits can make what we do servile. Owen says, “a due respect unto God’s promises and threatenings is a principal part of our liberty.” Returning to the Scriptures themselves, Paul says we must put to death the misdeeds of the flesh if we want to live (Rom. 8:13). This we do by the Spirit. But it isn’t an option for the Christian. If you want to ask yourself whether good works are necessary for final salvation (“life”, Rom. 8:13), ask yourself this:
What if a professing Christian does not mortify the misdeeds of the flesh? Will he or she live or die? To argue that good works are necessary for final salvation is to answer the previous question by saying, “die”. To ask how many? Well, that, it seems to me, is to ask God a question that his word, quite rightly, does not answer.
Some Reformed authors have recently argued for a principle of corporate meritorious obedience for the retention of the blessing of Canaan. Israel’s sincere, albeit imperfect obedience, was necessary for the retention of Canaan, they say (see Estelle in: The Law is Not of Faith).
One can imagine why, when any theologian speaks of sincere, albeit imperfect, obedience necessary for the full possession of salvation, certain “republicationists” might identify it as the reintroduction of the works principle into the covenant of grace, and thus a compromise of justification. Their theology of the Mosaic covenant of works skews their understanding of the necessity of the place of good works in the outworking of salvation.
Now, if a certain form of “republication” theology is true concerning the works-principle for Israel’s “meritorious grounds for Israel’s continuance in the land”, we might be justified in asking the following question: “How many good works?” How many works were needed on the national level for Israel’s meritorious retention of the land? Is it okay to ask this question regarding the necessity of good works for salvation, but not with regards to the recent innovations concerning “republication”?