Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Hull, Iowa.
The Reformed faith insists upon the must of doing good works. That is biblical. It refuses, however, to attribute justification in any sense to those good works. That would be contrary to biblical teaching. For we have seen that righteousness is by faith only, not by the works of the law.
It is impossible that our good works be a ground for our righteousness before God, in whole or in part. It is impossible, because you and I do not stand in relation to God as wage-earners.
The working man stands in such a relation to his employer that he earns something for his work. Whether written or unwritten, we live in a contractual society. That is, a working man has a contract with his employer, under which contract he becomes a wage-earner who can claim wages for what he does. As an able-bodied man, you present your employer with your time and abilities, seeking wages in return. You are called as a Christian to labor diligently in your vocation to the glory of God. But you do so for something in return. And as long as you have not entered into a contract for a specific period of time, and as long as such a move is not spiritually detrimental (we have no business making any work-related move without first evaluating its effects upon our spiritual life), you have the right later to take your time and talents to another man who offers you more for your labors. That is the idea of merit.
But merit is absolutely impossible with God. We can claim nothing from God. For we have nothing of our own to give to God. All that we are and all that we have—all our time and all our talents, all the power, the strength of our entire body—is not of us, but of God.
You cannot walk into a store and pick up that which belongs to the owner, and say, “Sir, I would like to sell you this item.” The very thought is absurd! How is it, then, that some would teach that we can merit something with God? God gave us everything we have! And He gave us what we have for one reason, namely, that we might serve Him and glorify Him. That’s all.
When we serve God and when we glorify God, we do not earn anything by that. We were obligated to do it from the beginning.
Christ tells us that specifically in Luke 17:10. Having spoken a parable about the relationship between servant and master, the Lord says, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded of you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.”
Our Belgic Confession goes even further. Article 24, treating “Man’s Sanctification and Good Works,” states:
…Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perfect such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them. Thus then we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences continually vexed, if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior.
The Belgic Confession, in speaking so of our good works, is speaking the language of Isaiah 64:6: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”
Although many would reject the interpretation of that text as referring to the speech of a regenerated child of God, even as they reject the language of the apostle Paul in Romans 7 as belonging to the regenerated child of God, nonetheless, the context makes very clear who they are that speak this language. They are those who indeed rejoice in their salvation, and who remember Jehovah in His ways. But at the same time they live in the consciousness of the sinfulness of their natures, and the consequence of their own uncleanness, as well as belonging to a nation—Israel, the church on this earth—that is also defiled by sin.
The Heidelberg Catechism speaks the same language in Question and Answer 62, when it says that our good works cannot be the whole or part of our righteousness before God, “because that the righteousness which can be approved of before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”
We are compelled to emphasize again that justification is through faith alone, and is not attributed to man for anything that he brings.
Answering an Objection
But when good works are excluded as a ground for our justification, there is an objection that we face—an objection that the apostle Paul also faced, and which he was compelled to answer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Romans 6.
Bear in mind the context of this chapter.
Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had been teaching the impossibility of being justified by the works of the law. All righteousness of works the apostle has condemned as impossible for man in this world.
Secondly, he had shown, from the examples of Old Testament saints, that God’s people had never looked for a righteousness by works. Abraham was justified by faith.
And finally, only by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous. Our righteousness is only in Christ.
In other words, he had just set forth the truth of the forgiveness of sins out of mere grace, or justification by faith only.
I think you can understand that the whole idea of forgiveness of sins is foolishness to the world. That God justifies the ungodly merely for the merits of Christ and by faith alone is a foolish doctrine to the world, because they cannot experience the forgiveness of sins. They don’t see the forgiveness of sins anywhere.
What they see is this: If I sin I am punished. If I live in immorality, I suffer the consequences. Some are willing to risk that. But they see the consequences of sexual promiscuity, adultery, and fornication. The world sees that if I live as a drunkard or become involved with drugs, I wreck my life. If I live by violence, I will likely die violently too. The world sees those things.
But they cannot see this truth of forgiveness of sins. That is seen and experienced only by the children of the living God who are in Christ Jesus.
You can understand, then, that the only conclusion the world can draw from such a doctrine is this: Let us continue in sin! To the world the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins seems absurd.The devil also draws conclusions from our doctrine. Satan, the great deceiver, would have us believe that, from a practical point of view, this doctrine is even dangerous! That is true of all the most comforting doctrines of Scripture. Always the most comforting doctrines of Scripture are under the most vehement attacks, because Satan would take our comfort from us. He would have us conclude that if we teach this doctrine of justification by faith alone, then Christians will say, “What difference does it make how I live? God justifies the ungodly anyway. I’ll continue in sin, that grace may abound.” That is the argument that the apostle anticipates and answers in the opening verses of Romans 6.
“What shall we say then?” You teach forgiveness of sins, justification by faith only, without works. Doesn’t this doctrine make men careless and profane? “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” And God’s people say, “God forbid!” By no means! “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”
That is the spiritual marvel of the forgiveness of sins. When you are forgiven by God’s wonder work of grace, with that wonder comes the confession, “God forbid that I should live any longer in that sin!”
Notice, the apostle does not say that we no longer sin. But the question the apostle asks is this: “Shall we continue in sin?” That is, shall we remain in sin? Shall we dwell in sin, so that in sin we have our delight? And to that question the one who has truly been justified by a true faith in Christ Jesus says, By no means! “God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”
It is a spiritual impossibility and a doctrinal monstrosity that we who are dead to sin should live any longer therein; that we who are Christ’s should not show the fruits of Christ.
We who are justified by faith in Christ Jesus are now dead to sin and alive in Christ.
That we are dead to sin means that the former friendship between us and sin has been broken. That is also why we find ourselves involved in a great spiritual conflict within ourselves. We have this life within a sinful nature. There is now a great battle—clearly depicted inRomans 7. That which we formerly loved, we now hate.
And although it is true that sometimes it seems that sin almost reigns over us, the result is always that we get on our knees, in that prayer which is the chief part of thankfulness to God, and plead: God, be merciful to me, the sinner.
That prayer is a fruit of our justification. That prayer is ours because Christ works in us through faith and by His Holy Spirit. Christ causes us to love God and to love Him and to appreciate the privilege of doing good works, and to fight the good fight of faith. Isn’t it so? In that way we also receive the testimony of the Spirit that we are the children of God.
So those fruits are also important for our own comfort and assurance. They are the evidences of God’s continued work in us by the Holy Spirit. They are indeed God’s own testimony of His glorious grace. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).