In a time where “theology” is being done on Twitter and Facebook by anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection, we are becoming increasingly susceptible to statements that, on closer inspection, are not particularly helpful. The statements are made in a manner where they are either self-evidently false or self-evidently true, but without a whole lot of investigation and analysis as to why that is the case. It is not uncommon to hear the following: “this view states that we are in by grace but remain in by works.” This is supposed to be self-evidently wrong. Yet this particular theological view (“in by grace, remain in by works”) is capable of various understandings.
I suppose the crassest understanding might go something like this: “God is gracious to the sinner by imparting spiritual life, but once the sinner is saved it is up to the redeemed sinner to remain faithful to God by his own works. One begins by grace and finishes by works.”
It is easy to see why the phrase, “in by grace, remain in by works,” would be a rhetorically powerful move by those wishing to critique other persons or theological traditions by imputing this view to them. But it is not so easy to find a system of theology or a theologian who would simply state the matter so crassly. Simply offering the supposedly false statement “in by grace, remain in by works” may have a rhetorical appeal to some but it fails to adequately understand the view(s) being critiqued.
Is the statement in question capable of an orthodox sense? That is to say, while one should never describe one’s view so crassly, is the actual belief that we are saved by grace but that, as part of that salvation in a full sense, we must nevertheless remain faithful to God through faith and works a belief that has no truth at all to it? I have enjoyed the Reformed scholastics so much because they take a proposition and discuss the sense(s) in which the proposition may be both true or false.
The English delegate to the Synod of Dort, John Davenant, offers a careful discussion of this particular question over “remaining” in covenant with God by our works. He states that “Good works are necessary for retaining and preserving a state of justification, not as causes, which by themselves effect or merit this preservation, but as means or conditions, without which God will not preserve in men the grace of justification” (A Treatise on Justification, 1:300). His argument is rather simple: if someone receives justification from Christ they will also necessarily receive sanctification (e.g., “mortifying the flesh, constantly repenting…”). These acts/works are necessary because if their “exercises are interrupted, then their opposites, which are contrary to the nature of a justified man, begin to occupy their place.” If the fruit of the Spirit is not present then the works of the flesh will be the dominant principle. And, after highlighting the works of the flesh, Paul says: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21).
If one lives according to the flesh he will die; but if one, by the Spirit, puts to death the misdeeds of the flesh he will live (Rom. 8:13). With this in mind, Davenant notes that the acts of believing, repenting, and mortifying do not effect or merit the preservation of our justified state. We do these things imperfectly. God thus preserves the regenerate in their sanctification, despite our many imperfections. Therefore these acts “do not properly and of themselves preserve the life of grace by securing the effect itself of preservation; but indirectly and incidentally by excluding and removing the cause of destruction.” This is, as I say, one way in which we can explain how we “remain in covenant” with God through our Spirit-wrought works that keep us from living according to the flesh.
As you can see, Davenant is careful to explain what he means and does not mean when he affirms the proposition that “good works are necessary for retaining and preserving a state of justification.” We could perhaps summarize this as “in by grace, remain in by works” but that would be a pitiful way to describe what is a somewhat complicated theological view concerning the necessity of good works for final salvation. My point is simply this: the statement in question, like many theological statements, can be explained in an orthodox sense or an unorthodox sense. However, simply stating the proposition does not actually prove anything.
The necessity of “fruit-bearing” in order to remain in Christ is seen in John 15:5–10,
 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
Is it the case that we will abide in Christ if we truly believe in him? Yes. But it is also necessarily the case that we must bear fruit in order to remain (abide) in Christ’s love. The bearing of fruit is the evidence that we are Christ’s disciples, which is to say, with Davenant, that if we do not bear fruit in keeping with repentance then the opposite effect must be true, in which case Galatians 5:21 is the outcome (and thus John 15:6, “he is thrown away like a branch and withers…”).
So are sinners brought into the covenant by grace and remain in by works? That is a statement that may be either sound or unsound depending on what is meant by the “remaining in by works.” I suspect that the crass version of this – a sort of semi-Pelagianism or Roman Catholic view – is probably not a view that has much current in broadly Reformed circles. That does not mean the NPP, for example, is safe. I have very little sympathy for the various versions of the NPP. But my point is that one cannot simply throw out the statement, “in by grace, remain in by works” and expect that to have such explanatory power that we all simply accept its falsehood without inquiring in what sense it is false and in what sense it may be true.
In sum, to be in by grace and to remain in by works does not mean, of course, that we cannot also say, “in by grace, remain in by grace.” We are saved by grace and only by grace. By grace we are brought into the family of God. By grace we remain in the family of God. By grace we repent and express our faith in Christ Jesus. By grace we remain in Christ Jesus and do good works. In by grace, remain in by grace. Thanks be to God for transforming grace, grace that saves, grace that justifies, grace that sanctifies, grace that preserves until the very end. But Davenant is also not wrong, I believe, to also affirm that our good works (prepared in advance for us to do) “indirectly and incidentally” exclude and remove the cause of our destruction. This is how God has ordained our salvation, namely, that the road that leads to life is the road of good works. In other words, since our good works are a result of God’s grace then there can be harmony between “remaining in by works” and “remaining in by grace.” Or we can say, “in by grace, remain in by the grace that finds expression in good works, among other things.”
John Ball said something similar to Davenant: “The faith that is lively to embrace mercy is ever conjoined with an unfeigned purpose to walk in all well pleasing, and the sincere performance of all holy obedience, as opportunity is offered, does ever attend that faith, whereby we continually lay hold upon the promises once embraced. Actual good works of all sorts (though not perfect in degree) are necessary to the continuance of actual justification, because faith can no longer lay faithful claim to the promises of life, then it doth virtually or actually lead us forward in the way of heaven.” (Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, 21.)
The British Delegation to the Synod of Dort: “If any many therefore walke in a way contrarie to Gods ordinance, namely, that broad way of uncleannesse and impenitencie, (which leads directly downe to hell) he can never come by this meanes to the kingdome of heaven. Yea and if death shall overtake him, wandring in this by-path, hee cannot but fall into everlasting death.” (The Fourth Position).
Update: Owen has a marvellous section in his work on justification, which is practically arguing the same as Davenant. Owen, as we would expect, argues that the right and title to life is by faith alone. Justification is at once complete in this life; our life does not depend, properly speaking, on our obedience. However, he will acknowledge the sense of what Davenant is arguing:
“Hence, in particular, the faith and grace of believers, [who] do constantly and deeply exercise themselves in godly sorrow, repentance, humiliation for sin, and confession of it before God, upon their apprehensions of its guilt. And these duties are so far necessary unto the continuation of our justification, as that a justified estate cannot consist with the sins and vices that are opposite unto them; so the apostle affirms that “if we live after the flesh, we shall die,” Rom. 8:13. He that doth not carefully avoid falling into the fire or water, or other things immediately destructive of life natural, cannot live. But these are not the things whereon life doth depend. Nor have the best of our duties any other respect unto the continuation of our justification, but only as in them we are preserved from those things which are contrary unto it, and destructive of it. But the sole question is, upon what the continuation of our justification doth depend, not concerning what duties are required of us in the way of our obedience. If this be that which is intended in this position, that the continuation of our justification depends on our own obedience and good works, or that our own obedience and good works are the condition of the continuation of our justification,—namely, that God doth indispensably require good works and obedience in all that are justified, so that a justified estate is inconsistent with the neglect of them,—it is readily granted, and I shall never contend with any about the way whereby they choose to express the conceptions of their minds.
Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 5, pp. 149–150). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.Ezekiel Hopkins:
Ezekiel Hopkins: “Obedience and good works are necessary, as the Way and Means whereby we must obtain salvation…They are the pathway, that he hath chalked out for us to heaven; and, therefore, as ever we will arrive thither, it is necessary that we walk in this way…Though we are not justified by works, yet good works are necessary to our Justification, so that we cannot possibly be justified without them…Good works are absolutely necessary, to preserve the state of Justification when once obtained. It is impossible that we should maintain our Justification, without believing, repenting, mortifying the deeds of the body, and performing the duties of new obedience; all which are good works; and the reason is, because, as soon as these cease, their contraries, which are utterly inconsistent with a justified estate, succeed in the room of them. If faith, repentance, and mortification cease, it is impossible that Justification can be preserved; otherwise, a man might be a justified unbeliever, a justified impenitent, a justified slave to his lusts; which is a contradiction. You see then that good works are necessary, both for the first obtaining of Justification, and for the preservation of it when obtained…We are not justified by works, neither can we be justified without them.” Works 2:216, 219.
Thomas Manton: “We are justified by works, and not by faith only, by which are meant the fruits of sanctification. For true faith and true holiness will show itself by good works; faith gives us the first right, but works continue it, for otherwise a course of sin would put us into a state of damnation again; therefore at the last judgment these are considered: Rev. 20:12, “And the dead were judged out of those thing which were written in the books, according to their works;” Matt 25:35-36, “For I was hungry….” Faith is our consent, but obedience verifieth it, or is out performance of what we consented unto, the one as covenant-making, the other as covenant-keeping; we are admitted by covenant-making, but continued in our privileges by covenant-keeping…” Works, 12:354