Having examined the nature of the believer’s good works, we now turn our attention to the historically contentious subject of the function of good works. We know what good works are as the fruits that proceed from the good root of faith, but what function do these works serve in the life of the child of God?
We begin with an examination of the relation between good works and justification. We begin with justification because in the daily consciousness of the believer, justification is of first rank among all the saving acts of God. To any sinner imbued with an awareness of his own guiltiness and wretchedness before the thrice holy God, nothing presses more deeply upon his consciousness than his desperate need for righteousness. Moreover, we begin with justification because contending for the faith must always be done most earnestly over this doctrine. If we get the relation between good works and justification wrong and maintain our error, we not only end up promoting a false gospel worthy of anathematization (Gal. 1:8-9), but the entire cause of truth is doomed. Martin Luther once put it this way, “In short, without this article of faith that we are justified and saved only through Christ and that apart from him everything is damned, there is no defense or restraint, no boundary or limit for every heresy and error, every sect and faction, with everyone thinking up and broadcasting some peculiar idea of his own.”1
As we shall see later in our series, good works certainly have many positive, God-ordained functions in the life of the believer. Nevertheless, the relation between good works and justification is one of absolute exclusion in that good works “are of no account towards our justification” (Belgic Confession, Art. 24).
By justification we refer to that saving work of God whereby He, through the gospel, speaks to the guilty elect sinner in his consciousness and declares, “As touching my law, I find no fault in you, for I have imputed the guilt of all your sins to Christ my Son who bore your punishment. I behold you as righteous, as if you have perfectly fulfilled all that obedience which my law requires, for I have imputed to you the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ my Son. The light and favor of my countenance shines upon you. You have the right to every spiritual blessing stored up in Jesus Christ.” Grafted into the living Savior by an inseparable union, the believing sinner consciously appropriates to himself the righteousness of Christ. Not by any of the works he has done, but by faith in Jesus Christ and His perfect work the sinner has a right standing before the Holy God. This is justification.
Theologians commonly explicate the concept of justification by making various distinctions. Some speak of an eternal justification (think: counsel) whereby God eternally pronounces His elect people righteous in Christ. There is an objective justification (think: cross) which refers to the redemptive work of the crucified and risen Christ to secure the justification we enjoy. There is justification in the subjective sense (think: consciousness) which is the declaration of God in the gospel that the believer personally receives and enjoys by faith. And, there is a final justification (think: court of heaven) when God, at the end of history, pronounces His people righteous before the whole world of men and angels. The third sense (subjective) is what the Bible means by justification by faith and it is this concept we intend by our use of the term justification. There is yet another distinction within that third sense above, and that is between (1) the state of justification entered into when one first believes—an everlasting and unlosable status that cannot be forfeited or undone even in melancholy falls when the justified believer is unconscious of his status (see Canons V, 6), and (2) the justification that is the continuing and oft-repeated pronouncement of God as He takes His people who come crying to Him for mercy and acquits them so that they, like the publican, go down to their house justified (Luke 18:14).2
With studied appeals to the Old Testament, the apostle Paul forcefully impressed upon the apostolic churches the truth that our good works are of no account towards our justification, for justification is by faith alone. “For what saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness,” (Rom. 4:3-5; see also Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 2:16).
The believer does not stand before the tribunal of God and look to his good works as the ground on which he expects to be declared righteous. Without any hesitation, the believer confesses—personally confesses regarding his own good works—that his good works are of no account towards his justification, so much so, that he with fervency of spirit renounces every good work he has ever performed. Justification is by faith alone, not by works. This confession belongs to the ABC’s of the Reformed faith.
Neither is the assurance of justification attained or maintained by our good works. The assurance of justification is by faith alone. It is erroneous to teach that justification is by faith alone but the assurance of justification is by works or by faith and works.
First of all, the Scriptures do not distinguish between justification and the assurance of justification as if they are two essentially different things, and as if it were possible to receive God’s pronouncement by faith but have no assurance of that justification. The assurance of justification is intrinsic to justification by faith, so much so, that if the sinner does not have assurance of his justification, it is because he does not exercise faith in the One who justifies the ungodly. According to Jesus’ doctrine of justification by faith alone taught in the well-known parable of Luke 18:9-14, which concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other,” there are not various ways to go home justified. One either goes home justified or he does not. According to the parable, the proud, self-righteous Pharisee who trusted in his works instead of Christ did not go home justified, while the humble publican who disdained all his works and sought God’s merciful provision of a sacrifice did go home justified. For a believer to go home justified is for a believer to go home assured that he is justified.
Secondly, Scripture teaches very plainly that justification is by faith. According to Lord’s Day 7 of the Heidelberg Catechism, for me to hear the promise of the gospel and believe by faith that I am justified on account of the merits of Christ is not only for me to have a certain knowledge that God has remitted all my sins, declared me righteous, and given me the right to eternal life, but it is for me to be confidently assured of these things. According to Lord’s Day 23, when I belong to Christ and receive Him by a true and living faith, God “grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, even so, as if I never had had nor committed any sin, yea, as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me.” If justification is by faith, and assurance is an essential element of that faith, then what more could my works add to reassure me that I am right with God as I receive by faith the whole Christ in all His perfect works?
We might be plagued by doubts about our justification as our conscience testifies against us. A believer might go home from church with a soul paralyzed in terror at the thought of the impending judgment of God. Nevertheless, that doubt is owing to no infirmity in the pure gospel and its power to give assurance. Neither is that doubt owing to any inherent inadequacy in faith as such, as if a living, conscious faith is insufficient for assurance of justification. Nor does that doubt suggest the believer has lost the principle of faith or the unlosable status of justification enjoyed when he first believed. Rather, those doubts and fears are to be explained by sins, as well as the powerful assaults and temptations of Satan, and the carnal flesh of unbelief that as an old man hates the gospel and strives tirelessly against the new man of faith. In the bitter struggle of the spiritual man, sometimes faith grows dim. But God the Spirit, through the gospel, will bring a richer season of grace and fan that waning flame of faith so that the believer looks again to the Lamb of God slain for him and his salvation.
The practical solution to the doubting believer who fears God’s impending wrath and the prospect of going to hell is not, “Look to your works to regain assurance that you are righteous.” To the trembling sinner, the call of the gospel is not “Get to work!” or “Look to your works to help find assurance!” but “Believe! Stop dwelling on your sins. Behold, the Lamb of God!” Should we stand before God’s tribunal and look to our works, those works condemn us, fill our conscience with fear, terror, and dread, cause us to tremble, and alas consume us (see Belgic Confession, Art. 23). Justification, which is the assurance of justification, is by faith alone.
Neither is the experience of justification derived from our good works. The experience of justification is by faith alone. It is erroneous to teach that justification is by faith alone but the experience of justification is by works or by faith and works.
The experience of justification is the certain blessedness that the believer experiences when God’s verdict is sounded and effectually carried by the Spirit into the believer’s heart, awakening him in the forum of his consciousness to the reality of his righteousness. Like David, the justified believer is blessed (Ps. 32:1), and blessedness was not only an objective reality to be stated about David, but a real experience of happiness in David. The apostle Paul further defines this experience as “peace” in Romans 5:1, so that to be justified is to enjoy blessed relief as the sweet gospel sounds of the Savior’s “Peace Be Still” blow over the turbulent waters of the guilt-stricken soul and bring great calm. In the teaching of Jesus, the experience of justification was enjoyed when the publican “went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14). That seemingly nondescript statement concerning the justified publican comes to life when contrasted with the earlier statements in Luke 18:13 describing that vexed sinner’s bitter experience in the temple as he was smiting his breast in agony, covering his eyes in humiliation, and crying out to God for mercy. When the publican went home justified, his inner turmoil was gone and surely he was happily looking heavenward and praising God in the loftiest strains. Blessed experience!
According to the Scriptures, this experience of blessedness comes by faith, not works. In Psalm 32:1-2 David exclaims, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity….” Then the apostle Paul appeals to those words of David as a biblical ground for his doctrine of justification by faith alone, teaching in Romans 4:6-8, “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.” Inspired by the Spirit, Paul interprets and expounds David’s words in Ps. 32:1-2 to mean that the man who is blessed is the man to whom God imputeth righteousness without works. When God imputes righteousness, bringing His gracious verdict into the believing sinner’s consciousness through the instrument of faith, God brings happiness. Furthermore, in Romans 5:1 Paul returns to the experience of the justified sinner and teaches that we do not enjoy peace through our good works but through our Lord Jesus Christ whom we embrace by faith, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The believer performs good works. Who would be so foolish to deny it? Faith is always fruitful. Nevertheless, when it comes to the concept or category of justification and our legal standing before God, there is absolutely no place for our good works. Justification is by faith alone.
Next time, we will enter the divine courtroom where the legal act of justification occurs and even plainer will the truth of justification by faith alone become.
1 Martin Luther, “The Sermon on the Mount” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, American ed., vol. 21 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1956), 59.
2 The clearest and most helpful presentation of this one-time/repeated distinction can be found in David J. Engelsma, Gospel Truth of Justification (Jenison, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2017), 224-242.