Previous article in this series: August, 2020, p. 446.
We have strongly insisted that justification is by faith alone and thus excludes all good works of the believer. This same strong insistence by the notable Reformers of the sixteenth century was always met with the charge that their doctrine militates against a holy life of good works, jeopardizes true religion, and if it does not expressly teach, it strongly suggests, that a believer can walk in sweet peace with his God no matter how loose, offensive, or vile his life. When faithfully taught, the doctrine of justification by faith alone invariably elicits the charge that it destroys the holiness of the church.
Perhaps in reading the last two articles there have been questions in your mind about our strong repudiation of good works in the matter of justification, especially our repudiation of the idea that the believer looks to his good works to find assurance of his justification. Perhaps you wonder how this repudiation squares with confessional statements like LD 32, Q&A 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “and that everyone may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof,” or you wonder if we are slighting the important place good works have in the Christian life.
With this article and the next we are really jumping ahead a bit into the next major subject of sanctification. However, before we definitively make the transition to the doctrine of sanctification, and while we yet remain in the category of justification, we want to establish the Reformed and biblical truth of the fruitfulness of faith; we want to relate those fruits of faith to the justified believer’s walk of life, experience of covenant fellowship, and enjoyment of assurance; and then, finally, we want to circle back to reassert and further develop our main point that our good works are of no account toward our justification because justification is not by the fruits of faith but by faith alone.
The Reformation and the fruitfulness of faith
With one voice, and in the context of their instruction on the doctrine of justification, the Reformers always responded to their challengers by affirming their own wholehearted agreement with the fundamental truth of the fruitfulness of faith. They taught that salvation is sola fide—by faith alone—but the faith by which we are saved is never alone. True faith is always fruitful in all good works of obedience to the law of God. The doctrine of justification by faith alone does not deny the
fruitfulness of faith; on the contrary, the free imputation of the legal righteousness of Christ through faith makes possible and even guarantees a fruitful walk in actual, moral righteousness. God’s gracious acceptance of the elect sinner in the Beloved, Christ Jesus, is the basis for the renewing work of the Spirit of sanctification, who quickens the believer unto the production of good works. The Reformers and the confessional statements that followed them said it like this:
Martin Luther: “We say that justification is effective without works, not that faith is without works. For that faith which lacks fruit is not an efficacious but a feigned faith…. It is one thing that faith justifies without works; it is another thing that faith exists without works.”1
John Calvin: “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone: just as it is the heat alone of the sun which warms the earth, and yet in the sun it is not alone, because it is constantly conjoined with light.”2
Heinrich Bullinger: “Moreover, whereas we say, that the faithful are justified by faith alone, or else by faith without works, we do not say, as many think we do, that faith is post alone [“post” means “after,” so that Bullinger means “we do not say…that faith is alone after justification], or utterly destitute of good works, for wheresoever faith is, there also it sheweth itself by good works, because the righteous cannot but work righteousness.”3
Heidelberg Catechism: “But doth not this doctrine [justification by faith alone] make men careless and profane? By no means, for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness” (LD 24, Q&A 64).
Westminster Confession of Faith: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ alone and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification; yet it is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love” (Chap. 11 on Justification).
Scripture and the fruitfulness of faith
The Scriptures teach that true faith always bears fruit. James 2:14-26 is the outstanding passage, teaching that faith without works is dead. James argues that a man may appear to be a very religious fellow who talks a good pious talk and claims he has faith; however, if that man has no good works, his faith cannot save him because it is dead. He does not have true faith. But if a man claims he has faith and he has the fruitful life of good works to prove it, then that man is justified by his works, which means, his claim to have faith is demonstrated to be true by the fact that he has works. Underlying all of James instruction is the fundamental truth that genuine faith always bears fruit. Similarly, our Lord taught the fruitfulness of faith in Matthew 7: “Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit” (v. 17), and “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (v. 20). It impossible that a believer united to the living Lord in the covenant of grace, as a branch is united to the vine, not bear fruit.
The way of obedient living
Let’s return to the publican of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:13-14 and watch him walk home. Recall his posture in the temple. He stood consciously before the glorious presence of the thrice-holy God, smiting his breast in the agony of his guilt. He dared not cast his eyes upward toward the blinding moral perfection of God or to any works he ever performed, but with a broken heart he cried in faith, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” That publican, not the Pharisee, went home justified. The justified publican represents every justified believer. Possessing the freely imputed righteousness of Christ, the believer has peace so that his raging conscience is stilled. He is assured that he stands faultless before God’s glory.
Now watch that justified publican go home, for his walk home represents the path of life trod by every justified believer. Jesus said of him, “This man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14). Jesus said nothing more about that man’s walk, but the rest of Scripture explains that the believer who has been justified walks in good works on the straight and narrow path of obedience. It was the practice of our Lord to bid farewell to sinners whom He saved by sending them home with the exhortation, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11), or “Sin no more lest a worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14). The justified believer is exhorted to walk in the Spirit bearing the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-26), and those who are freed from condemnation in the wonder of justification do walk after the Spirit (Rom. 8:1).
Going home with profound gratitude and ardent love for his God, the justified believer is more careful and solicitous than ever to walk not in the counsel of the ungodly but in the undefiled way marked out by God’s law. The faith by which he is justified without works is the faith that bears fruit. In contrast to the guilty and proud unbeliever who is not planted into Christ, who does not know God and His favor, and whose walk is characterized by disobedience, the believing child of God lives out of his faith in Christ by living a life of obedience. Thus, you can be sure that if the publican of Jesus’ parable had spotted a wounded traveler ignored by every passer-by and dying in the ditch, he would have reached down and shown to his pitiful neighbor the same mercy his Redeemer had shown to him.
The experience of covenant fellowship
The one path of life trod by the justified believer is the path of obedience marked out by God’s law, and on that path the believer walks in sweet communion with his covenant God, delighting in Him, enjoying Him, worshiping and serving Him. Not on account of his own obedience, but on account of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ received by faith, the believer has sweet peace with his God and a way of access unto all the blessed and pleasurable experiences of joy that are at God’s right hand. Whereas prior to being justified he cowered before the holy God at whom he dared not steal a glance, now being declared righteous and receiving that reality and the assurance of it by faith, the believer cherishes and delights in the light of God’s fatherly countenance shining upon him. Like the sinful woman Jesus forgave, the justified publican and every justified believer walks home to the sweet tune of Jesus’ effectual farewell, “Thy faith hath saved thee, go in peace” (Luke 7:50). He walks in peace with God his Friend.
This was true of Abraham. Abraham was justified by faith alone (Gen. 15, Romans 4). Consequently, Abraham not only walked in love for and obedience to God, demonstrating his faith by his offering up of Isaac upon the altar (Gen. 22, James 2), but Abraham walked in covenant communion with his God. Being reconciled to God through God’s offering up of His own Son according to promise, Abraham was called the friend of God and walked with God in all the sweet communion and happiness that characterizes true friendship (James 2:23).
For the preservation of the gospel of grace, it is important that we understand and insist that the believer’s good works of obedience do not obtain or gain for him the experience of fellowship with God. The believer’s doing of good works is not the condition of, the cause of, the ground of, or the way of access into that blessed experience. His good works of obedience are not first and foundational as that which he must perform in order to experience covenant fellowship with God. Salvation is by grace, through faith, and not of works (Eph. 2:8-9). When God saves us by delivering us out of all the miserable experiences of sin and death, and delivering us into all the wonderful experiences of union with Christ and life in the bond of the covenant, He does not save us by our works, but by grace, through faith in Christ’s works.
To state the relation positively, it is only in the way of an obedient life of good works that the believer enjoys the fellowship of God. He who walks in communion with God walks on the path of obedience. The believer’s good works of obedience are the inevitable fruits of the faith by which he enjoys covenant fellowship, so that as he consciously enjoys God’s nearness, blessings, and favor through the instrument of faith in Christ, his faith is always accompanied by good works as his response of love for, joy in, and gratitude to his covenant God. Exactly because faith in Christ is always fruitful, the justified believer’s manner of conduct as he walks in the conscious experience of sweet communion with God is one of grateful obedience. To deny that believers experience covenant fellowship with God in the way of obedience is to deny faith and the Reformation principle that, while faith is the alone instrument of justification and the only way of access unto God and all of His blessings, faith is never alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied by fruit.
Nowhere is this relation, as positively expressed, taught more plainly than in that book of Scripture that the children of Israel knew better than any other, that book that gives vivid expression to all of the experiences of the believer’s soul—the Book of Psalms. The Psalter begins with “The Blessedness of the Godly,” and the words, “That man is blessed who fearing God from sin restrains his feet” (Psalter #1). The believing Israelite who drew near unto Jehovah and received His covenant blessings through faith in the promised Messiah always enjoyed and sang of his blessedness as he walked gratefully in the law of the Lord.4
The deepest reason for the fact that the path of obedient living and the path of the enjoyment of fellowship with God are harmoniously joined together as one and may not be put asunder is the nature of God. Exactly because God is holy and cannot walk in the way of the ungodly, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the seat of the scornful, the way on which His children walk when they walk in communion with Him must be and is by grace a holy way (I Pet. 1:15-16).
And when the believer is seduced by and complies with the lusts of his flesh so that off that straight and narrow path of obedience he swerves, as he does repeatedly to his great shame and to the loss of the enjoyment of the light of God’s fatherly countenance, a sincere and godly sorrow again fills his breast. Firmly persuaded that the Holy God against whom he has sinned is the God whose mercy is as great as the heavens are high above the earth, the poor sinner is moved by the Spirit to acknowledge his sin and seek again remission in the blood of the Mediator to whom he belongs. Restored by grace, he is resolved again to walk in obedience, and more and more he longs for the day when his walk with God will no longer be disrupted by his foul transgressions.
Next time we will continue with the subject of assurance and see how it relates as a third important element that belongs to the justified believer’s walk of life.
1 Martin Luther, “The Disputation Concerning Justification,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, and Christopher Brown, American ed., vol. 34 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), 176.
2 John Calvin, “Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent with the Antidote,” in Tracts and Letters, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 152.
3 Heinrich Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger, ed. Thomas Harding, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), I.6: 118.
4 The positive expression of this relation between obedience and the experience of God’s blessings needs further development and we intend to say more in the future.