Church HistoryReformed

Sola Fide and Justification According to Works

I recently reread one of Matthew Bryan’s posts from December 2015 titled, “The False Gospel of Protestantism.” While I was reading it, I was struck first with regret that Matt does not write as regularly for CP anymore. I have always enjoyed his articles (although I almost always disagree with his position) and profit from engaging with him in the comments section. For being a “post-Protestant,” he certainly embodies what I consider to be a marked characteristic of what was birthed some 500 years ago, namely, stating one’s position clearly and straightforwardly and not mincing words about the implications. I find that to be one the most venerable, Luther-esque traits that a Protestant (“post” or otherwise) can exhibit. Consider this, then, my official request that Matt return to a regular writing schedule at CP.

The second thing I was struck by gets more to the substance of Matt’s article. I do not endeavor to directly answer his objections here, but I do want to use one of his points/critiques as a springboard for addressing a common theological oversight in evangelical Protestantism generally.

Matt rightly expresses concern that the doctrine of sola fide provides false assurance and removes the necessity of Christian piety for salvation. What I aim to do below is exonerate the Reformed wing of Protestantism from these pitfalls. This is a rather contentious (but nevertheless orthodox) position to take in the modern Reformed culture. John Piper of all people has been ridiculed for making points similar to the ones below, his detractors alleging that he compromises sola fide. Yet, nothing could be further from the case, so long as one does not limit their understanding of Reformed theology by some sort of “Calvin against the Calvinists,” Barthian thesis which ignores all doctrinal development after circa 1564 and makes Calvin the sum of Reformed theology.1 I have my own disagreements with some of Piper’s theology, but this is not one of them.

Does the Protestant gospel include repentance and necessitate good works?

The Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century were faced with this very question both in their clashes with antinomianism and Socinianism and in their defense against Roman Catholic critiques. To follow their line of reasoning one must first begin with the basic law-gospel distinction. Martin Luther said that “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the gospel, him place at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.”2 Both Lutherans and Reformed theologians have stressed this distinction ever since Luther’s famous remarks, but in different ways. Richard Muller sums the difference in terms of emphasis and application:

“The Reformed lay heavy stress on the tertius usus legis on the assumption that faith must spring forth and bear the fruit of good works, as defined by the law in its normative function [i.e. the third use]. The Lutherans, however, see here the danger of works-righteousness and insist that the usus normativus ultimately returns the believer, who remains simul iustus et peccator, to the usus paedagogicus and from there again to Christ and his grace as the sole source of salvation.”3

Thus, the law for Lutherans cannot be a norm for Christian living. It has the sole function of leading men to Christ alone. For the Lutheran, the law-gospel distinction is a true dialectic, whereas for the Reformed it is a mere simple distinction. The primary point of contention between the two Protestant parties became whether repentance (and reproof) belongs to the preaching of the law or to the preaching of the Gospel (see also Ben Winter’s article on this same point from a Roman Catholic perspective). The Lutherans denied that repentance belonged to the Gospel (see The Epitome of the Formula of Concord), for whatever reproves sin or demands repentance belongs to the law, whereas the gospel proclaims the all-sufficient atonement for sin which is ultimate consolation and “a joyful message which does not reprove or terrify.” (5.6; see also 5. 11). Law is condemnation; Gospel is consolation; and a repentance is therefore a damning precept which man cannot perform.

The Reformed on the other hand, rejected the Lutheran formulation. To them, the command to repent, believe, and “embrace the benefits of Christ, and to commence new obedience, or that righteousness which the law requires” all belonged to the Gospel proclamation.4

Men are in fact commanded to believe in God and that Jesus is the Christ, and to give credit to all the divine promises related thereto, or else be punished eternally. Zacharias Ursinus said that “the gospel commands us expressly and particularly to embrace by faith, the promise of grace; and also exhorts us by the Holy Spirit and by the Word, to walk worthy of our heavenly calling.” These were the “gospel precepts,” as Thomas Manton called them, which the elect are enabled to fulfill by God’s grace alone; but the gospel holds the power to both promise and command.

Covenant Theology

This idea cannot be detached from Reformed covenant theology. Whilst the Reformed acknowledged the danger of “mingling Law and Gospel, Christ’s righteousness and Man’s,” they nevertheless affirmed the conditionality of the covenant of grace, “lest the necessity of Faith and Holiness be relaxed,” which would inevitably lead to “Libertinism.”5 Thus, faith, obedience, and works were necessary to meet the conditions of the covenant, said covenant being two-sided in nature. Covenants imply mutual stipulation or conditions between the parties involved, though in the Biblical context they denote something more and uses the term in various ways, sometimes to express a unilateral promise of God which is immutable. Thus, to speak of a covenant as absolute or conditional depends on the context. The covenant of grace in particular, is a two-sided covenant (dipleuron). Accordingly, the Reformed unanimously argued that the new covenant included faith as a condition of promised justification. Faith is, however, an antecedent condition. Contra the antinomians, “Men must believe before they can be justified.”6

Faith as an antecedent condition is not the only condition. There are also consequential or concomitant conditions of obedience and good works. To deny this, the Reformed held, is to deny the relevancy of good works in the future judgment, which appears contrary to scripture (see e.g. 1 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 16:7; Jn. 5:28-29; Gal. 6:7-9).

Faith, it must be said, is a non-meritorious act in that it does not move or motivate God to express his grace, nor is it the impetus for the covenant between the Father and the Son which initiated, so to speak the plan of redemption. But rather it is the indispensable instrument or means by which the benefits of the new covenant are applied to the elect. John Owen helpfully delineated this distinction:

“I do not say the covenant of grace Is absolutely without condition, if by conditions we intend the duties of obedience which God requireth of us in and by virtue of that covenant; but this I say, the principal promises thereof are not in the first place remunerative of our obedience in the covenant, but efficaciously assumptive of us into covenant; and establishing and confirming the covenant.”7

In other words, as Joel Beeke and Mark Jones clarify, “we do not earn our place in the covenant, we simply obtain it by faith. Once in covenant, our obedience to god’s commandments only serves to confirm our new status.”8 Because God applies to man, in the covenant, both remissions of sins and sanctification, the resulting duties are “thankful acceptance of [God’s] grace by faith, and also new obedience, as the fruit of love.”9

Thus, the “Reformed theologians typically insisted upon the necessity of good works for salvation though not specifically for justification,” salvation being related to justification but not merely co-extensive with it.10 And so, justification by faith alone according to God’s grace alone was maintained, but was arraigned within the Reformed covenant theology: salvation is attained by a comprehensive keeping of the covenant. Salvation requires works though justification, strictly speaking, does not. Francis Turretin said that works do not merit salvation but they do enable the possession of it because the Gospel demands not just profession of the truth but the practice of piety also, because good works necessarily flow from life, being “related to justification not antecedently, efficiently, [or] meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively.”11 

John Davenant vigorously took up defense of this formulation in response to Robert Bellarmine and the Council of Trent, both of which Davenant held had grossly misunderstood Reformed doctrine in their denunciation of it.12 Davenant, like Turretin, held that good works are required of the justified, not as the formal cause of justification itself, which would deny the sufficiency of Christ’s work, but as evidence of obedience to God’s commands in those who live in covenant with him. Works are the fruit of faith, necessary for the “retaining and preserving a state of justification, not as cause 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.”13 “[B]y means of the practice of good works are we advancing and make progress towards the kingdom of heaven.”14 

Good Works and the Final Judgment

Based on this view of works as a consequent condition of the covenant of grace, the Reformed affirmed the role of works in the final judgment. Though the justification of believers is not based on any merit of their own in their works, no believer will attain salvation without them (e.g. Rom. 2:6-7). In the article that gained John Piper so much flack, he rightly states that, “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.” Thomas Goodwin produced the most helpful demonstration of Reformed doctrine on this point in a way that sufficiently reconciles the Pauline Epistles with the book of James.15

Goodwin held that the elect were justified in eternity but still undergo a transference from wrath to grace (i.e. actual justification) as God works out salvation inside of time. Man is first justified “authoritatively” coram Deo by faith apart from works and declared righteous on account of Christ’ atonement applied to them unilaterally (e.g. Rom. 4:2-5). But, on the final day of judgment, God will judge men according to their works, thereby making evident who was truly justified and who was not even though they tacitly professed faith in Christ (e.g. Matt. 25: 31-46). This is the “demonstrative” aspect of justification (e.g. Acts 8:13). Crudely stated, the proof will be in the pudding. Those who are truly in the covenant of grace will necessarily produce (by the enabling of the Spirit) fruit, and the presence of this fruit will render them justified (acquitted) on the last day. Though sanctification is logically subsequent to the authoritative justification, it is nevertheless just as necessary an element. All of this is, of course, a work of grace in them, but it affirms the necessity of the presence of works in the believer for their ultimate salvation.This formulation distinguishes between the “right” to justification (the first point) and the “possession” of it (the second point). Petrus van Mastricht, the theologian who was heavily influential on Jonathan Edwards, expressed this distinction clearly when he said that:

“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; Matt 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, Rom. 10.”

As Beeke and Jones state, “the key to all of this is to understand that Goodwin [and Mastricht] is making an argument for god’s own justification or vindication of Himself at the final judgment. God justifies apart from works, but He also will ‘go demonstratively to work’ and clearly distinguish between believing Abraham and unbelieving Ishmael.”16 In short, “God will justify his own acts of justification.” He will demonstrate that when he elected to justify man he would also produce therein a good work pleasing to Himself (Phil. 1:6). For as Luther himself said, “The love of God does not find but creates that which is pleasing to it.”

Goodwin takes together the idea of man being justified according to his works as evidence of real faith, and justification according to works, because the latter is meant “demonstratively.” For Goodwin astutely notes, “Neither is it anywhere said, that God will judge men according to their faith only,” but rather that God will judge man “so as everyone shall be able to judge my sentence righteous together with me (1 Cor. 4:5) … the whole world may know that he justified one that had true faith indeed.”17 All present at the final judgment will be able to discriminate between the truly godly and the ungodly, the faithful and the unfaithful, and thereby God’s justice will be gloriously displayed and publicly vindicated. John Owen affirmed Goodwin’s position by himself stating that though at the final judgment man will be judged apart from works according to faith, “how a man that professeth evangelical faith… shall be tried, judged, and whereon, as such, he shall be justified, we grant that it is, and must be, by his own personal, sincere obedience.”18


It has hopefully been shown above that Reformed orthodoxy in its mature form affirmed a conditional covenant of grace whilst not denying the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work received by the elect through faith alone. Faith was the antecedent condition. And they, therefore, affirmed too the consequential conditional of “new” or “evangelical” obedience in the covenant. Whilst the elect is justified only by faith, he attains salvation by meeting all conditions of the covenant required of him, which includes obedience to God’s commands as a response of gratitude to receiving grace. These works are confirmation of true faith and, of course, attributed to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in man, which only heightens the requirement of works. But works are not merely evidence of sanctity, as Davenant so adamantly denied (“[W]e abhor such doatings as these… and openly affirm that good works have, in reference to salvation, a necessity of their own, not significative only, but active.”19 Works may not contribute merit to one’s salvation but they are essential for the possession of it. For a justified man of true faith will necessarily exhibits good works as a result “not of the strength of free-will, but from infused grace” received upon coming to Christ.20 Good fruits are demanded by the doctrine of sanctification, which the Reformed appropriately maintained was separate but intricately connected to justification in the ordo salutus.21 The ultimate result of all of this is God’s vindication at the final judgment at which point he will divide before all the wheat from the chaff. And that’s the point: God will not allow the true work he begins to remain incomplete. Hence, all who are true heirs of the covenant will exhibit the work of God in them and be acquitted at the day of judgment, a work that only comes to them by utter dependence on the initiator and upholder of the covenant union they enjoy with Christ. To deny that the covenant is not conditional, or that good works are not necessary for salvation, is to deny 1) a unified, comprehensive reading of scripture (e.g. Paul and James),22 and namely, that faith without works is somehow alive; 2) the theological convictions of the Reformers (e.g. Martin Bucer, John Calvin,Girolamo Zanchius, and Herman Witsius, to name a few not mentioned above); and 3) the historic confession of the church, which has unequivocally holds (per the Athanasian Creed) that when Christ judges the living and the dead, all people will arise bodily and give an accounting of their own deeds. Those who have done good will enter eternal life, and those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.”

My fellow CP‘er Matthew Bryan can hardly be blamed for getting this aspect of Protestant doctrine wrong; his point is descriptive and he is certainly not arguing for its legitimacy. And almost no one in modern evangelicalism believes it themselves. This is probably due to a lack of acquaintance with the seventeenth-century scholastics and the encyclopedic confessions of that period. Therefore, Matt was only incorrect in applying what is indeed false doctrine to the historical and necessary position of all Protestants. The Reformed orthodox would have made the same arguments (and did) against Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and antinomians, and classical Reformed doctrine contains a corrective against such pitfalls.

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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a graduate of Wright State University, Rutgers Law School, Westminster Theological Seminary. He also writes at Modern Reformation and works as an attorney in Philadelphia where he lives with his wife, Rachel.

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