Are Good Works Necessary
Since we have been delivered from our guilt and condemnation by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and thus have not earned one aspect of our salvation, are good works necessary?
Does placing primary emphasis upon justification for assurance understate the importance and necessity of good works (i.e., sanctification)? Absolutely not!
Calvin clearly taught that when a believer grasps justification he also grasps sanctification (3.16.1):
Therefore Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify. These benefits are joined together by an everlasting and indissoluble bond, so that those whom he illumines by his wisdom, he redeems; those whom he redeems, he justifies; those whom he justifies, he sanctifies, (3.16.1).
“…Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify.”
In like manner, Martin Luther taught, “There is no justification without sanctification, no forgiveness without renewal of life, no real faith from which the fruits of new obedience do not grow.”
“There is no justification without sanctification…”
Sanctification is a necessary part of salvation. As the author of Hebrews declares, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification (i.e., holiness) without which no one will see the Lord,” (Heb. 12:14).
But, it is equally important to understand that holiness is not a means to an end (i.e., good works do not save a man). Good works (i.e., sanctification) are not the condition that earns salvation and good works do not prepare a sinner to receive Christ through faith.
Rather, sanctification is part of the end itself. God saves sinners in order to do good works. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them,” (Eph. 2:10).
Salvation not only consists of the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from eternal punishment but also holiness of life. Walter Marshall writes,
“…no one can trust in Christ for true salvation without trusting in him for holiness! You cannot truly trust in Christ for true salvation if you do not want to be made holy and righteous in your life! When God gives you salvation through Christ, holiness will be one part of that salvation. If Christ, “does not wash you” from the filth of your sins, “you have no part of him,” (John 13:8). What a strange salvation it is, if people who are saved do not care about holiness! In this case, people want to be saved, but they want to stay dead in sin, alien from the life of God, without the image of God, deformed by the image of satan, and in slavery to satan and to their own filthy lusts.
“…no one can trust in Christ for true salvation without trusting in him for holiness…”
They seem to prefer to stay totally unfit to enjoy God in glory. Christ never purchased such a salvation as this by his own blood. Those who think they have received a salvation such as this abuse the grace of God in Christ, and turn it into license for sin. They want to be saved by Christ, but apart from Christ, so to speak. They want to be saved, but they also want to remain in a fleshly state, with a fleshly lifestyle. This is simply not how salvation works! The only people Christ frees from condemnation are those who are “in Christ, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4). If this were not the case, people would divide Christ. They would take one part of his salvation, and leave out the rest. However, “Christ is not divided” (1 Cor. 1:13). You cannot have half a Christ!” (p. The Gospel Mystery, p. 115)
“…You cannot have half a Christ!…”
The Role of Good Works and Assurance
Since sanctification is indispensable to true saving faith, what role then does sanctification play in regards to the believer’s assurance?
Good Works as A Posteriori
Calvin writes that the sight of good works may play a role in strengthening the believer’s faith but only when taken a posteriori (3.14.19). That is to say the evidence of good works in a believer’s life may serve as a secondary role in the support of assurance.
According to Calvin, good works are “testimonies of God dwelling and ruling” in believers inasmuch as they first cast their full confidence upon God’s mercy not upon their obedience. Calvin argues,
…under God’s judgment we must not put any trust in works, or glory in any esteem of them. The agreement lies in this: that the saints, when it is a question of the founding and establishing of their own salvation, without regard for works turn their eyes solely to God’s goodness. Not only do they betake themselves to it before all things as to the beginning of blessedness but they repose in it as in the fulfillment of this. A conscience so founded, erected, and established is established also in the consideration of works, so far, that is, as these are testimonies of God dwelling and ruling in us. Inasmuch, therefore, as this reliance upon works has no place unless you first cast the whole confidence of your mind upon God’s mercy, it ought not to seem contrary to that upon which it depends, (3.14.18).
“…when all the gifts of God has bestowed upon us are called to mind, they are like rays of the divine countenance by which we are illumined to contemplate that supreme light of goodness…”
According to Calvin, good works serve as “signs of the divine benevolence” toward believers. In this regard, good works may serve to undergird and strengthen one’s faith provided these gracious “testimonies” direct the believer outside of himself to contemplate the source (i.e., God) of those good works. Calvin explains,
Therefore, when we rule out reliance upon works, we mean only this: that the Christian mind may not be turned back to the merit of works as to a help toward salvation but should rely wholly on the free promise of righteousness. But we do not forbid him from undergirding and strengthening this faith by signs of the divine benevolence toward him. For it, when all the gifts of God has bestowed upon us are called to mind, they are like rays of the divine countenance by which we are illumined to contemplate that supreme light of goodness; much more is this true of the grace of good works, which shows that the Spirit of adoption has been given to us [cf., Rom. 8:15], (3.14.18).
The Giver not the Gifts
Calvin gives place to good works in strengthening a believer’s faith. But, just like the rays of the sun, which always lead us back to their source, so good works are intended to take us back to their source, God.
Ralph Erskine, in discussing characteristics of a legalistic disposition in believers, echoes Calvin when he writes,
It is a sign of a legal temper when a person is more taken up with the gifts of Christ than with Christ Himself; more taken up with any little thing they get from him than with himself. When they get any sensible grace, and sensible good affections, melting of heart, and melting of spirit; any inclination to what is good, any gifts or graces, whether more common or special, they admire these, and are not so much taken up with Christ Himself. But the person that is evangelical (i.e., gospel-driven- J.F.) in his actings, by what he gets, he is led to the giver; if this be sweet, O! He is infinitely sweeter that sent it: I embrace the token, and it draws out my heart the more after him, from whom it came, (p. The Works of Ralph Erskine, vol. 2, p. 83).
“…the person that is evangelical in his actings, by what he gets, he is led to the giver…”
When understood in this way, believers are reminded that good works are God’s gifts (i.e., fruits of justification) and they are intended to lead the believer back to the Giver not to remain fixated on the gifts.
Sanctification unstable ground for assurance
Good works cannot become the foundation for boasting, self-confidence or assurance because as we have already seen, sanctification is incomplete in this life. The very best we offer is imperfect and stained with sin. Moreover, the only good believers possess is that which is given to them by grace.
Quoting Augustine, Calvin writes,
I do not say to the Lord, “Despise not the works of my hand.” [Ps. 138:8; cf., Ps. 137:8, Vg.] “I have sought the Lord with my hands and am not deceived.” [Ps. 77:2; cf., Ps. 76:3, Vg.] But, I do not commend the works of my hands, for I fear lest, when Thou lookest upon them, thou mayest find more sins than merits. This only I say, this I ask, this I desire: despise not the works of they hands; see in me thy work, not mine. For if thou seest mine, thou will condemn it. If thou seest thine own, thou wilt crown it. For whatever good works are mine are from thee,” (3.14.20).
He (Augustine-J.F.) gives two reasons why he dared not vaunt his works before God: because if he has anything of good works, he sees in them nothing of his own; and secondly, because these are also overwhelmed by a multitude of sins. From this it comes about that his conscience feels more fear and consternation than assurance. Therefore, he would like God to look upon his good deeds only that, recognizing the grace of his own call in them, he may finish the work he has begun, (3.14.20).
A legal disposition constantly looks inward for assurance. Yet, believers bent in on themselves find nothing but failings, faults, flaws and weaknesses rather than holiness, obedience, love for God and neighbor. As a result, their peace is entirely destroyed. Why? Because they do not look upward and outward to Christ, their advocate and High Priest, where His blood and righteousness, intercedes for them.
Again, Ralph Erskine, writes,
…when a man’s peace and comfort rests only and always upon his sanctification, as if there were no other ground of joy, but a righteousness inherent: surely, when the joy of sanctification is greater than the joy of justification, it is an evidence of a legal temper; for the joy of justification is founded upon a law-bidding righteousness, the perfect obedience of the glorious Head, which is always the same unchangeable ground of joy to believers; whereas his sanctification is imperfect here, and cannot afford such peace and joy, as faith in a perfect obedience will give. The true circumcision rejoice in Christ, and in what they have in him, more than in what they have from him. But behold, even the believer is ready to be taken up with his sanctification, which is inherent, and so to be lifted up, when he attains to a good gale, a great measure of sanctification; corruption may abuse the privilege, and then he is proud and lifted up, (p. 80).
“The true circumcision rejoice in Christ, and in what they have in him, more than in what they have from him.”
It is true, communion with God, is of a humbling nature, and natively makes a man humble, and lively, and watchful; but when the good frame is wearing off, and corruption beginning to work again, if this nick of time be not noticed, and the believer on his guard, a proud thought may enter in, were it even upon a Paul wrapt up to the third heavens; ‘Lest I should be exalted above measure, a messenger of satan was sent; a thorn in the flesh. O how does a legal temper run through every frame! When a man is dead and dull, then he is in danger of murmuring: and when he is active and lively, then he is in danger of swelling, (p. 80).
“O how does a legal temper run through every frame!”
Thus, believers must not put any confidence in the “righteousness” of their works as the primary foundation for assurance of their right standing before God. The believer must be taken up with the Gift-giver not his gifts. For this reason, as Calvin shows, when confidence is banished, all ascription of glory to works must also depart (3.14.16).
Legal-driven Believers and Ignorance of the Gospel
Many believers today do not understand gospel-driven assurance (i.e., justification based assurance). Consequently, they carry around unnecessary, crippling guilt. They live under excessive discouragement and are plagued by an anguished spirit. They fail to realize that the law can give no encouragement and no peace to a troubled conscience.
Legal-driven believers seek assurance in performances (“good day, bad day” scenarios), past decisions, crisis experiences, or faithfulness in spiritual disciplines and religious devotion. Holiness is pursued only in their “better moments,” yet they soon grow weary and give up in despair.
Peace is always spoiled by the failures of legal-driven believers (e.g., failures in mortification of sin, failures in spiritual disciplines, failures in the daily exercise of gospel-graces, etc…). Why? Legal-driven believers miss the most important element in their pursuit of holiness and the possession of assurance: the Gospel!
Ignorance of the gospel by believers and unbelievers alike is the cause of a legal temper and the reason for lack of assurance.
Christ, the Unchangeable Foundation for Assurance
A believer’s conscience cannot be quieted and holiness cannot be pursued rightly unless he is confidently persuaded that he is pleasing to God. Such persuasion comes only through the gospel.
Approach, my soul, the mercy seat,
Where Jesus answers prayer;
There humbly fall before His feet,
For none can perish there.
Thy promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to Thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.
Bowed down beneath a load of sin,
By Satan sorely pressed,
By war without and fears within,
I come to Thee for rest.
Be Thou my Shield and hiding Place,
That, sheltered by Thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him Thou hast died!
O wondrous love! to bleed and die,
To bear the cross and shame,
That guilty sinners, such as I,
Might plead Thy gracious Name.
“Poor tempest-tossèd soul, be still;
My promised grace receive”;
’Tis Jesus speaks—I must, I will,
I can, I do believe.
(Words by John Newton, Approach, My Soul, The Mercy Seat, Olney Hymns, 1779)
Only Christ can give rest to the anguished soul. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, (Matt. 11:28). Only Christ can give peace to the restless heart. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” (Jn. 14:27a). Only Christ can give confidence in place of fear. “Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid, (Jn. 14:27b).
In Christ alone is freedom from all accusation and peace of conscience. Herein grace is glorified in this new and gospel way! Therefore, the more of a gospel spirit you have, the more cheerfully will you embrace the certainty of your salvation.
We must contend for justification (Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus) because it here that God is glorified (Soli Deo Gloria) and sinners find peace of conscience.