Ever since the Protestant Reformation, the role of good works in salvation has been a topic the Reformed were keen to address in detail in order to guard against attacks from those outside of the tradition who accused them of abandoning the necessity of good works in the life of believers. As such, in the Early Modern period, with the help of the scholastic toolbox, Reformed divines adopted certain distinctions and phrases that became commonplace as they sought to carefully explain the role of good works in relation to justification, sanctification, and glorification.
In the late twentieth century and early part of the twenty-first century, historical theology has fallen on particularly hard times in North American Reformed circles in certain respects. In part this was due to a lack of access to the sources (especially in their original Latin) and also a lack of trained historical theologians. Of late, this problem is being remedied by scores of doctoral students in Europe and North America who are leading a new charge back into the sources and the requisite methodological prowess that is required for the valuable use of these (sometimes) hitherto unknown works. In an attempt to love one’s neighbor, theologians need to be clear about what they mean and do not mean in their theological discourse. By adopting the language of the church on various doctrines (e.g., Trinitarian terms such as procession, begetting, etc.) we are on the right track. This essay aims, in part, to urge us to recover the language of the Early Modern Reformed theologians in order to help us today explain what we mean when we ask questions such as, “Are good works necessary for salvation?”
A basic distinction used by Reformed divines in the Post-Reformation period speaks of the “right to salvation” versus the “possession of salvation.” For example, Herman Witsius, a Reformed divine whose orthodoxy is rarely questioned, said: “We must accurately distinguish between a right to life, and the possession of life.” 1
The right to life “must so be assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded.” 2 Our right to all of the promises given to us by Christ exclude our good works. However, regarding the possession of life, our good works, which are performed in the Spirit, and prepared in advance for us to do, “contribute something,” according to Witsius. For Witsius, the Scriptures teach that we “must do something” in order to “obtain the possession of the salvation purchased by Christ.” He adds, “Neither because Christ is the way to life, is the practice of Christian piety therefore not the way to life. Christ is the way to life, because he purchased us a right to life. The practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ.” 3 And Thomas Goodwin likewise says, “Upon believing, the whole right of salvation is given us; but all the holiness and works we have do not serve for the right, but only we are led through them to the possession of it.” 4
Similarly, Petrus van Mastricht once wrote:
In so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10. 5
Like Witsius and Goodwin, Mastricht is making use of the basic terms in use to highlight the manner in which good works are necessary for attaining final salvation. He uses the “right unto eternal life” versus the “possession of eternal life” distinction. Or, similarly, Jerome Zanchius: “Good works are the instrumental cause of the possession of eternal life; by these indeed, just as by an obvious and legitimate way, God leads us into the possession of eternal life.” (see Lillback, Binding of God, 207). 6 This is the “language” of Reformed theology during this period. It is language that has been forgotten today.
John Davenant, in his classic work on justification, A Treatise on Justification, responds to Cardinal Robert Bellarmine in many places where Bellarmine has falsely attacked the Reformed Protestant doctrine of justification in relation to salvation. In one place he claims that Bellarmine “errs in this, that he supposes it to be our opinion that faith alone saves.” 7 But, while it is true that by faith alone we apprehend Christ and thus he is the meritorious cause of salvation, it is also true that “we may be led to the possession of salvation” by “many other things [that] are necessary.” 8 Another error made by Bellarmine is actually an error that some Reformed scholars and churchmen make today. Bellarmine contended that good works are merely a sign of true faith. In fact, Professor R. Scott Clark (Westminster Seminary California), makes precisely this contention that good works are “merely evidence of sanctity and nothing more.” 9 Clark appeals to Trent but for some reason uses the word “sanctity” whereas the Council of Trent used “justification.” In contrast to Clark’s claim, Davenant argues that good works “have, in reference to salvation, a necessity of their own, not significative only, but active; because…by means of the practice of good works are we advancing and make progress towards the kingdom of heaven.” 10 By using this language, Davenant understands works as a means by which we enter life; they are not merely evidence, but necessary means for believers without which they ordinarily cannot enter life.
When speaking about the right to life versus the possession of life, another common phrase that was used among the Reformed involved good works as “the way to life.” As noted above, Witsius makes use of this language. His reasoning is important: we eat because we are alive, but we still need to eat in order to remain alive. We have been made alive by the Spirit (i.e., regeneration), “But,” says Witsius, “we must also act in the same manner, that that life may be preserved in us, may increase, and at last terminate in an uninterrupted and eternal life” (Deut. 30:19–20). 11
Marshaling a number of scriptural texts, Turretin says:
This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the ‘way’ to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the ‘sowing’ to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)…of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the ‘contest’ to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27). 12
Turretin makes this statement in the context of the question whether good works are necessary for salvation, which he answers with a “We affirm.” The question is not whether good works are necessary for salvation. They certainly are. But how can we do justice to the doctrine of justification by faith alone and also the conditional character of the nature of salvation that is so obviously present in the Scriptures.
As evidenced above in the case of Turretin, Davenant, et al, there was no question that good works are necessary for salvation. The instrumental cause of justification is faith alone. But that does not mean the instrumental cause of salvation is only faith alone. R. Scott Clark thinks the matter is clear-cut and we should all affirm that Spirit-wrought sanctity is an evidence of our justification and union with Christ. He critiques “some Reformed folk” because “They want that sanctification and attendant good works to do more. They want that sanctity, obedience, and fruit to be a part of the means or instrument of our salvation (deliverance from the wrath to come), which includes our justification. As historians are wont to say, this has happened before.” 13 Clark says that Protestants have been clear that good works are never the ground…or the instrument of salvation.” Thus Shepherd is allegedly in error for teaching that:
“18. Faith, repentance, and new obedience are not the cause or ground of salvation or justification, but are, as covenantal response to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the way (Acts 24:14; II Peter 2:2, 21) in which the Lord of the Covenant brings his people into the full possession of eternal life.” 14
Clark’s analysis of this quote leads him to conclude that, according to Shepherd, “sanctification and works are our ‘covenantal response’ and ‘the way’ by which we ‘come into possession of eternal life.’” 15 Now this is remarkable for a few reasons. I am not persuaded Shepherd was always as clear as he ought to have been; and I certainly don’t wish to agree with his own developed view of justification. But Clark is suffering from his own serious error, namely: what he accuses Shepherd of saying is precisely what the Reformed have said about good works as “the way” by which we “come into possession of eternal life.” On this specific point, at least, Shepherd is more Reformed than Clark. Shepherd, at this point, is actually using the terminology that was present in Reformed theologians during the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras.
My own reading of the Reformed tradition differs from Clark in some significant ways. The instrumental cause of justification is faith alone. On this we can and should all agree. But Reformed orthodox theologians had no problem speaking of instrumental causes for salvation (broadly considered). Good works function as an instrumental cause on the way to life. They are part of the necessary path we walk on as we enter through the narrow gate to eternal life. A consequent condition differs, obviously, from an antecedent condition. The right to life, given graciously by Christ, through Spirit-wrought faith, is antecedent to the condition of good works in the covenant of grace.
Good works are necessary for the possession of salvation. They are the path upon which we must (by the Spirit) walk to eternal life. There is no other path available to the Christian but the path of works to eternal life. According to Davenant, while they are not “merits by the value and worth of which we attain it,” they are nonetheless “intermediate courses, or paths, by which we advance towards the goal of eternal life.” 16 Bellarmine had argued that good works were causes of salvation, which leads to a number of further clarifications. We could outright reject such language, but Reformed Protestants generally did not. The Prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, William Twisse states, “Beyond all controversy, good works are the dispositive cause of salvation.” 17
Bishop George Downame said, “Sanctification, and the duties thereof are not causes of salvation.” 18 Good works are not the cause of salvation (in serie causarum), but the way to salvation. They do not give us the “right” to salvation. But that does not mean they have no place in our salvation as a “cause.” Davenant addresses this with his usual incisive clarity. If Bellarmine means good works function as a ground for salvation as “meritorious causes, or properly efficient, that is, causes which attain and produce the effect itself of salvation; we must deny it altogether.” 19 However, if we understand causes to mean (sine quibus non) those which “produce something that ordinarily precedes the effect of salvation, in this wide and improper acceptation, we allow them to be termed causes.” 20
Even before the Post-Reformation Reformed divines dealt with counter-Reformation assaults upon their doctrine of salvation, John Calvin was willing to speak of causes in regards to salvation. He adopts a basic understanding of causation in relation to salvation: the efficient cause (Father’s love), material cause (Son’s obedience), instrumental cause (Spirit’s illumination, i.e., faith), and final cause (God’s glory). But this does not mean that good works are not “inferior causes.” Calvin writes: “Those whom the Lord has destined by his mercy for the inheritance of eternal life he leads into possession of it, according to his ordinary dispensation, by means of good works. What goes before in the order of dispensation he calls the cause of what comes after. In this way he sometimes derives eternal life from works, not intending it to be ascribed to them; but because he justifies those whom he has chosen in order at last to glorify them [Romans 8:30], he makes the prior grace, which is a step to that which follows, as it were the cause…In short, by these expressions sequence more than cause is denoted.” 21
To suggest that good works are causes of salvation as merits (or properly efficient causes) is Papist. Reformed Protestants, beginning with Calvin, reject such a view. However, as noted above, we have lost the vocabulary (and also the basic training) of the Early Modern Reformed and so we reject any language of causality in relation to good works and salvation. But understood as a “means” and “way” to salvation, good works are necessary. As Davenant concludes, “Such a necessity of good works, however, proves only their precedence in the way of appointment, not their efficacy as of themselves the cause of eternal life.” 22 This brings us back to the “right to life” versus the “possession of life” distinction. In the end, against Clark, we can speak of good works as an instrument of our salvation, so long as we properly define our terms, as Davenant et al did. Just because we speak of good works as both necessary for salvation, and thus “causes,” does not mean they have to be understood in a way whereby they are meritorious causes of salvation and therefore functioning as the “right to life.”
Protestants believe in one justification by faith. Rome taught a double justification, the first of which is the infusion of grace through baptism, which effects grace automatically ex opere operato, whereby original sin is extinguished and the habits of sin are expelled. The second justification is the formal cause of their good works. As John Owen notes:
Paul, they say, treats of the first justification only, whence he excludes all works […] but James treats of the second justification; which is by good works […] Sanctification is turned into a justification […] The whole nature of evangelical justification, consisting in the gratuitous pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness […] is utterly defeated by it. 23
You cannot have two justifications and expect to be justified at all in this life. There are only two ways a person may be justified: by the works of the law or by the free grace of Christ. The Reformed Protestant doctrine of justification is a work of God “by grace” that is, says Owen, once completed “in all the causes and the whole effect of it, though not as unto the full possession of all that it give right and title unto.” What this means is not that we attain to heaven by faith alone. Rather, it means that we have the full right to heaven when we first believe. If justification is not at once complete and in need of a second justification, “no man can be justified in this world.” This last sentence is crucial. There is one justification, not two justifications. 24 With this in mind, that does not mean there are not distinct periods in reference to our one justification by faith. The clearest summary of this view comes from Mastricht:
From this come three periods of justification that should be diligently observed here, namely 1: The period of establishment, by which man is first justified: in this occasion not only is efficacy of works excluded for acquiring justification, but so is the very presence of these works, in so far as God justifies the sinner (Rom. 3:23) and the wicked (Rom. 5:5). 2: The period of continuation: in this occasion, although no efficacy of good works is granted for justification, the presence of these same works, nevertheless, is required (Gal. 5:6). And it is probably in this sense that James denies that we are justified by faith alone, but he requires works in addition (James 2:14–26). And lastly, 3: The period of consummation in which the right unto eternal life, granted under the first period and continued under the second, is advanced even to the possession of eternal life: in this occasion not only is the presence of good works required, but also, in a certain sense, their efficacy, in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34–36; Rom. 2:7, 10. 25
In the third period we see that our good works are a means that bring us into the possession of eternal life. But the meritorious ground for our acceptance with God is the same in the third period as it is in the first and second period. There is one justification by faith, not two. When speaking of “periods” we are referring to the beginning, continuation, and “end” of the Christian’s life before their entrance into glory. How do works function in relation to these three periods? In the third period, the merit of Christ does not somehow vanish into the distance. His merit gives us the right to life. Nonetheless, God does not grant eternal life to those who have had a spurious faith that was never accompanied by good works.
The question of the necessity of good works in relation to final salvation is addressed in a host of biblical texts. But perhaps one of the clearest examples of the necessity of good works is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans in chapter eight, verse 13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
The “if” in Romans 8:13 functions as a conditional: Do this (i.e., mortify the sinful nature by the Spirit) and live. We live in order to eat, but we eat in order to live. We are those who are in Christ, in whom there is now no condemnation (Rom. 8:1). But we are also those who have not yet been revealed as the children of God: “…we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There is, in between these two realities, the necessity of mortification as we walk on the path to possess life.
What if the professing Christian does not “put to death the misdeeds of the body”? Will they live (i.e., enter eternal life)? Certainly, the Christian united to Christ by faith will do so, but it is also true that if a professing Christian does not mortify then they will not live. Thus when the question is asked whether we attain heaven by faith alone, we need to first state: “Do you mean the right to heaven or do you mean our possession of heaven?” Clearly Paul does not think you can attain life without mortification of the sinful nature by the Spirit. That makes the work of mortification – a good work – necessary for anyone who professes to be a Christian.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul writes: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Salvation is a New Testament word that can refer to a past, present, or future reality. Paul speaks of salvation as an accomplished fact in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith…” But there is also a present reality of salvation as it is being “worked out”: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). And there is a future aspect to our salvation: “…For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom. 13:11). If we understand “salvation” as only a past reality then it is hard to make sense of the view that good works are necessary for salvation. But if we adopt a more biblical sensitive view of salvation that has past, present, and future realities, then we do not need to be embarrassed by the language of Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 when he says we have been saved “…through sanctification by the Spirit…”
John Piper, who has drawn some unnecessary ire from over-zealous Reformed gatekeepers, is spot-on regarding this point. He says: “In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, ‘God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.’” 26 Note he speaks of “final salvation” and then basically says precisely what the Scripture explicitly affirms: on the path to salvation we are saved through that fruit. There can be little doubt that he means by this what Davenant argues for above, namely, that we possess heavenly life by/through good works, not as meritorious causes, but as causes which “produce something that ordinarily precedes the effect of salvation.” 27 Moreover, in a Foreword to Thomas Schreiner’s book on justification, Piper also says, in response to how a person can be right with God:
The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God. In fact, one must already be in a right relationship with God by faith alone in order to meet the other conditions. 28
Given what Reformed theologians from previous centuries have argued above, the question has to be asked: What is so controversial about this statement from Piper? None of them believed that we attain heaven by faith alone in terms of possession. Almost all would certainly embrace the view that there are consequent conditions – the type offered by Paul in Romans 8:13 – that are necessary for believers to possess eternal life.
The structure above helps us to make sense of Christ’s sayings in the gospels, which highlight the “way” or “path” that we must walk. For example, in Matthew 7:13–14 our Lord says, “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The path we walk on is narrow but it leads to life. Luke highlights that we “strive” to enter through the narrow door that leads to life (Luke 13:24). Thus elsewhere in the New Testament we see this language appear frequently. Paul says we are to “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called…” (1 Tim. 6:12; see also, Phil. 3:12–14, “…I press on to make it my own…straining forward to what lies ahead…”). The path is a difficult path that Christians walk on as they seek to enter heaven. This path is necessarily a path laid with good works (Eph. 2:10). We do not have any other path available to us that leads to life except the path of good works en route to glory.
The merciful shall receive mercy; the pure in heart shall see God (Matthew 5:7–8); and “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:7). Romans 2:7,10 should be understood as the means by which we shall walk on the path to possess life. Paul is not addressing the “right to salvation,” which he will speak of in great detail in the next chapter (see 3:22–26). But on this path we are required, as a consequent condition of having been justified, to be patient in well-doing. No wonder then that the majority of Early Modern Reformed viewed Romans 2:7,10 as a reference to evangelical righteousness. They were sensitive to the biblical teaching that Christians will be judged according to works when Christ returns (see 2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:27; Jn. 5:28-29; Gal. 6:7-9; Rev. 20:13; 22:12). These works are, again, not meritorious and thus do not give believers the right to salvation. But they are necessary and therefore place believers in the possession of salvation. The “way” or “path” includes, according to Paul in Romans 2, those who do good according to the goodness that is in them: Romans 15:14, “I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness…”).
Conditional language is also prominent in Christ’s letters to the seven churches. The refrain, “to the one who conquers” appears over and over: “To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone…” (Rev. 2:17); “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations” (Rev. 2:26; see also Rev. 2:10, “…Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life”). Or, writing to the church in Ephesus, Christ tells them to repent and “do the works you did at first” otherwise he will come to them and remove their lampstand if they do not repent (Rev. 2:4–5). To the Laodiceans, Jesus tells them he knows they are neither cold nor hot and wishes they were one or the other; “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15–16). If they do not repent they stand in jeopardy of being excommunicated by the risen Lord. These are not idle threats but covenantal lawsuit judgments upon God’s people who are being confronted for their general lack of patience in well-doing and specific sins relative to their situation.
This essay has attempted to illustrate that there is a “Reformed language” concerning how to speak of good works in relation to justification and final salvation. In recovering the Reformed confession, the language concerning good works needs to be language that enables us to know what the writer means and does not mean. Hence the value of scholastic distinctions.
The grace of God is revealed in the covenant of grace in various ways, according to the Westminster divines. In Question and Answer 32 of the Larger Catechism, “holy obedience” is not only evidence of a true faith and thankfulness to God (gratitude), but also functions as “the way which he has appointed them to salvation.” These good works, as the fruit that leads to holiness (from holiness) have their end as eternal life (WCF 16.2). “Fruit” (good works) are not optional, as is clearly the case from Christ’s language in John 15 (esp. verse 2, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away”).
Good works are the way to salvation, appointed by God. They are a means (instrumental cause) used by God to bring his children home in a manner that glorifies Christ. Using the right to life versus the possession of life distinction helps to clarify how good works are necessary for salvation. We cannot get rid of the conditional language of the New Testament as much as we can get rid of the free nature of justification by faith alone (compare Rom. 3:21-24 with Rom. 8:13). I have offered a way to bridge these two truths by appealing to historical sources and then looking, albeit briefly, at some scriptural evidence to help explain the conditional language that is stamped all over the New Testament.
Passages cited (ESV): Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Matthew 7:2, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 25:34–36, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’” Romans 2:7, 10 “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.” ↩