Good works as fruit
In the Standard Bearer article “Of free will and thus of human powers” of November 15, 2020, Prof. R. Cammenga stated:
In this paragraph, the SHC [Second Helvetic Confession] makes plain that good works are not to be viewed only ever as fruit and nothing but fruit—fruit that in a sort of automatic and mysterious way simply appears in the life of the regenerate.
But fruit is not the only way in which Scripture speaks of good works. Good works are not only fruit, certainly not fruit that in some automatic and mysterious way appears in the life of the believer like apples or pears on a fruit tree. To speak of good works only as fruit overlooks the important teaching of Scripture that the child of God consciously wills and does that which pleases God.
I am concerned that these statements allow for the minimizing, belittling, and the setting aside of the critical understanding we must have that our good works are only, always, and ever fruits of faith. Also noted is that this distinction (that “works are not to be viewed only as fruit and nothing but fruit”) does not appear itself in the SHC, but is inferred by Prof. Cammenga in the article that such is the teaching of the SHC.
The moment we conceive the function, role, and place of our good works as something other than fruits of faith to the glory of God is the moment we begin to err, and adoption of false doctrine officially is right around the corner. Among the anathemas of the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, is this, “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.”
The Reformed faith has always insisted that works are merely fruits as to their function, place, and role in salvation. The PRC Synod 2018 also set this forth, “obedience…is always a fruit in the covenant relationship” (2018 Acts, p. 73). Stating this truth with all boldness in no way takes away from the truth that God works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. Rather, it sets forth in clarity, with biblical and confessional basis, that our works are not the basis of any aspect of our salvation, nor are they the means of any aspect of salvation.
Certainly Scripture uses many terms to refer to our good works. Yet we must maintain that in all of Scripture’s referencing of good works in various terms and settings and in all of Scripture’s setting forth our wondrous calling and ability in Christ to bring forth good works, nowhere does Scripture in any way whatsoever contradict or teach anything other than that our good works are only, always, and ever the fruits of faith to the glory of God.
We confess that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and thus our works are only the fruits of faith to God’s glory. We ought not be afraid that this doctrine might make men careless and profane.
May our answer to that objection always be that of our Heidelberg Catechism, “But doth not this doctrine 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” (Q&A 65).
No Reformed believer may question that we are saved by faith, altogether apart from our works. Salvation by faith alone includes both our justification by faith (Rom. 5:1) and our sanctification by faith (Acts 26:18). Neither may there be any question that our good works are always the fruit of grace, produced in us by the work of the Holy Spirit, as God has ordained them in eternity. Obedience is always a fruit in the covenant relationship (PRC Acts of Synod 2018, p. 73). Neither may anyone question that “it is God which worketh in [us] both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). As Bullinger says in the Second Helvetic Confession, although “the regenerate, in choosing and doing good, work not only passively but actively,” it nevertheless remains true that “they are moved by God that they may do themselves what they do.”
Nonetheless, in the article in question, I objected to those who fail to view good works as the conscious, willing activity of the regenerated believer. They are hesitant to speak of our willing to do that which is good, even though Scripture clearly teaches that we who are born again by the Spirit do actively will that which is good. They view as suspect anyone who speaks in this way, even though Scripture makes plain that God’s “people [are] willing in the day of [His] power” (Ps. 110:1). They are of the view that anyone who speaks of our willing and doing is walking perilously close to the edge of Arminian and conditional theology, rather than exalting God’s work of grace in us. Such folk exist. I have dealt with them pastorally—more than once. I do not disagree that our works are the fruits of faith. But the point of my statements is that the concept of fruit must not be misunderstood. And it can be misunderstood, because fruit on a tree is not produced consciously and willingly, but automatically. A fruit tree does not consciously and willingly make the decision to produce its fruit.
The point of my comments in the article, as it is indeed the teaching of the SHC that I was explaining, is “that the regenerate, in choosing and doing good, work not only passively but actively.” We must do justice to the teaching of Scripture in this regard. Scripture speaks of the good works of the child of God not only as fruit, but also as the conscious, willing activity of the believer. One way in which Scripture does this is by speaking of our good works as the sacrifice of praise that we willingly offer up to God (Rom. 12:1; Phil. 4:18; Heb. 13:15). This is also confessional language. In Lord’s Day 16, Q&A 43, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?” The response is that “our old man is crucified, dead, and buried with Him.” This means that “the corrupt inclinations of the flesh may no more reign in us.” It also means that we “offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Willingly we offer ourselves as sacrifices of thanksgiving to God.
There may be no question that this conscious, willing activity of the believer is the fruit (result, consequence) of God’s work of grace. Absolutely! Yet at the same time, the Christian life is a life lived consciously before the face of God. John Calvin’s emblem of his flaming heart in his hand, and his accompanying motto speaks to this point: “My heart I offer to thee, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” To speak of good works as “gratitude,” as our Heidelberg Catechism does, also underscores this important aspect of good works. This means that anyone who is doing good works only outwardly, either because this is the way they were brought up, or to receive the praise of men, or for any other ulterior motive, is not doing good works. Good works are the willing sacrifice of praise, which we lay on the altar, for the glory of God. When the Heidelberg Catechism describes conversion in Q&A 90, especially conversion as the quickening of the new man, it teaches us that such quickening is “a sincere joy of heart in God, through Christ, and with love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works.” That language underscores the conscious, willing activity of the Christian.
In conclusion, we may not deny that our good works are always fruit. But Scripture does not allow us to say they are only fruit.
I want to thank you for your letter and for the opportunity to clarify what I wrote.
Prof. R. Cammenga