Last time we saw that Calvin spoke of four “causes” of salvation. The first was the efficient cause, which Calvin said points to the Author of salvation, the triune God of grace. The second was the material cause, describing the substance of our salvation, Christ and His righteousness. Next, Calvin spoke of the instrumental cause of our salvation, describing faith, the pipeline or instrument God uses to grant us all the salvation that is ours in Christ. Finally, Calvin referred to the final cause of our salvation, which describes the end or goal of salvation, namely, the glory of God.
Works out of place
When we hear of good works having a place and function out of harmony with the Reformed confessions, we tend to see a red blinking light going off over the material cause of salvation. And it is good we have that instinct. Generally, the error that puts good works in a wrong place is the one that adds good works to Christ’s righteousness as the ground or material cause of salvation. If our works (done before or after regeneration) become part of that ground, we are not saved on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone.
The purpose of this article, however, is to show that there is an error that not only adds works to the material cause of our salvation but also to the instrumental cause of our salvation. That is, there is an error that combines faith and the works that faith produces, and makes these together the pipeline through which we receive salvation from Christ. If this error is being made, we ought to see a red blinking light over the instrumental cause of our salvation.
When the Reformers battled for the recovery of the gospel, they not only had to do so facing Rome’s error regarding the material cause of salvation but also facing Rome’s error regarding the instrumental cause of salvation. The Roman Catholic Church not only taught (and still teaches) that our works are part of the ground or material of our salvation, but it also taught (and still teaches) that our good works are part of the instrumental cause of our salvation. Rome used the language of the four causes to teach its errant doctrine of salvation.1 At the Council of Trent, therefore, where Rome tried to combat the Protestant teaching that we are saved by faith alone, Rome declared, “Of this Justification the causes are these:…the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism….”2 Baptism! Rome said baptism is the instrument or pipeline through which justification comes, which baptism consists of faith and works according to Rome.
But more, since a baptized person can still commit the kind of sin (mortal sin) that cancels out the justification one receives through baptism, Rome taught (and still teaches) penance is necessary as a “second plank” to justification. That is, penance is a second instrumental cause that restores justification to someone who lost it: “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesiastical communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification.”3 And, according to Rome herself, that penance includes faith and works: “Penance is a sacrament of the New Law instituted by Christ in which forgiveness of sins committed after baptism is granted through the priest’s absolution to those who with true sorrow confess their sins and promise to satisfy for the same.”4 In Roman Catholic teaching, the instrumental cause of our salvation is not faith alone.
The Federal Vision’s error
When the Federal Vision (FV) put forward its corruption of Reformed theology, that really was Roman Catholic theology re-imaged. The problems FV had (and has) include that it makes the good works of faith part of the instrumental cause of salvation. Especially, FV teaches this with regard to our final salvation at the judgment day. Rich Lusk is representative: “Works of faith-filled obedience…are the means through which we come into possession of eternal life.” And again, “They [good works produced by true faith] are not merely evidential, but even causal or instrumental in our final salvation.”5 Guy Prentiss Waters comments, “Lusk has spoken of faith-produced works as ‘causes’ or ‘means’ of our salvation.” “Lusk’s formulations are vulnerable to the charge of…denying the uniquely receptive office of faith in justification.”6 The danger in both Roman Catholic and FV theology is not only, then, that it makes faith-filled works part of the material cause of one’s salvation, but also that it makes faith-filled works part of the instrumental cause of salvation.
When the Reformers set forth the biblical doctrine of faith alone as the instrumental cause of salvation, they made clear that, though faith goes on to produce many works and indeed must do so in order to be deemed true faith,7 those works are no part of faith when it is functioning as the instrumental cause of our salvation. In fact, they went so far as to say, when faith is functioning as the instrumental cause, it does not even include love.
Luther, commenting on Galatians 3:12, wrote,
Paul saith: “the law is not of faith.” But what is the law? Is it not also a commandment touching charity, as we may see by the text: “thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy soul, etc.” (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37)…. If the law then that commandeth charity be contrary to faith, it must needs follow, that charity is not of faith…. Now the law being separate and set apart, charity is also set apart, with all that belongeth to the law, and faith only is left, which justifieth and quickeneth to everlasting life.8
Calvin, commenting on Galatians 5:6, says, “If the faith which justifies us be that ‘which worketh by love,’ then faith alone does not justify.”9 Galatians 5:6 is the passage to which Rome constantly referred to teach that our works are part of the instrumental cause of justification. The verse reads, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” The FV, too, repeatedly refers to this passage to say that the works of faith are part of the instrumental cause of our salvation (especially our final salvation at the end). Calvin agreed with Luther, that while faith has love, and goes on in love to produce works of love (the meaning of Gal. 5:6) even faith’s love is not with it when faith is functioning as the instrumental cause of justification.
Geerhardus Vos, following the Reformed tradition, asks and answers a significant question in this regard: “Does the essence of faith then consist in love for the Mediator?” If love is of the essence of faith, and love is commanded by the law, then faith can never be distinguished from works. If faith cannot be distinguished from works, then not faith alone but faith plus its works are together the instrumental cause of salvation.
To maintain this would bring us into Roman Catholic terrain, because, as has already been noted, for Rome love is seen as the “form” of faith—that is, love is what gives faith its distinguishing character…. There is evidently a difference in principle between believing and loving. It is true that saving trust in the Mediator may not be conceived of without it being accompanied by love for Him. But this does not at all prove that faith and love must be regarded as identical. The difference is this: that love is an act by which I devote myself to the beloved object, while faith, conversely, resides in an appropriation of the object of faith for myself. In faith I seek for myself a certainty on which I can live before God, and so in faith there is always an element of personal interest. In love, on the other hand, I am not inquiring after such a personal interest…. Out of the personal relationship of faith…love naturally develops.10
Vos is saying faith and love are distinguishable. Even though they are not separated, they are distinguishable. Thus faith, apart from its love, may be and is the sole instrumental cause of salvation.
…to be continued.
1 This is part of the reason the Reformers used this language in their teaching.
2 Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed November 13, 2020. https:// catholicism.org/the-causes-of-justification.html (emphasis added).
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1992), 363.
4 Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed November 13, 2020. https:// www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/penance (emphasis added).
5 Quoted in Guy Waters, The Federal Vision and Covenant Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2006), 89.
6 Waters, Federal Vision, 89, 90.
7 Probably the most striking in Calvin on this are his comments on Ezekiel 18:14-17.
8 Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classics, 1999), 159.
9 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 152.
10 Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol 4: Soteriology (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2015), 130-31.