In our preceding article we concluded our quotations from the Decrees of the Council of Trent as setting forth the Roman Catholic position of “Justification by Works.” We also quoted from John Calvin, in which he emphasized that we are justified solely by faith and not by works. We will now quote from our Reformed Symbols in connection with the truth of Justification.
In Lord’s Day 7 of our Heidelberg Catechism, in answer to the question, “What is true faith?”, we read that “True faith is not only a certain knowledge . . . .) but also an assured confidence, which the Holy Ghost works by the gospel, in my heart; that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and. salvation, are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.” Notice, please, that EVERLASTING RIGHTEOUSNESS AND SALVATION ARE FREELY GIVEN BY GOD, MERELY OF GRACE, ONLY FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST’S MERITS.
In Lord’s Day 23 the truth of our justification by faith is beautifully set forth in one of the beautiful Lord’s Days of our Catechism. In answer to Question 60: How art thou righteous before God?, we read: “Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; so that, though my conscience accuse me, that I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and kept none of them, and am still inclined to all evil; notwithstanding, God, without any merit of mine, but only of mere grace, 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: inasmuch as I embrace such benefit with a believing heart.” And, then, to emphasize the truth that we are justified solely by faith, without any merit on our part, the Heidelberger asks Question 61: Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only? And the answer reads: “Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith: but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God: and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.”
In Lord’s Day 24 the same truth is set forth by the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 62 reads: But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God? And the answer reads: “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” (it is this truth, namely that our best works are all imperfect and defiled with sin, which is condemned by Rome—H.V.). Then, we read in Question 63: What! do not our good works merit, which yet God will reward in this and in a future life ? And the answer reads: This reward is not of merit, but of grace. And this Lord’s Day concluded with Question 64: But doth not this doctrine make men careless and profane? And the answer reads: 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.
Also Lord’s Day 26 has something to tell us about this subject. Question 70 reads: What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ? And the answer reads: “It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which He shed for us by His sacrifice upon the cross; and also, to be renewed by the Holy Ghost, and sanctified to be members of Christ, that so we may more and more die unto sin, and lead holy and unblamable lives.” Also in this answer the Catechism emphasizes that we receive freely the remission of sins, only for the sake of the blood of Christ.
Finally, as far as the Heidelberg Catechism is concerned, Question 86 reads: Since then we are delivered from our misery, merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works? This concludes our quotations from the Heidelberg Catechism.
Our Confession of Faith, the Thirty-Seven Articles, has also much to say on this subject, in Articles 22-24. Article 22, entitled: “Of Faith In Jesus Christ,” reads as follows: “We believe that, to attain the true knowledge of this great mystery, the Holy Ghost kindleth in our hearts an upright faith, which embraces Jesus Christ, with all His merits appropriates Him, and seeks nothing more besides Him. For it must needs follow, either that all things, which are requisite to our salvation, are not in Jesus Christ, or if all things are in Him, that then those, who possess Jesus Christ through faith, have complete salvation in Him. Therefore, for any to assert, that Christ is not sufficient, but that something more is required besides Him, would be too gross a blasphemy: for hence it would follow, that Christ was but half a Savior. Therefore we justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith without works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean, that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our Righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us, and in our stead, is our Righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.”
Article 23 of our Confession of Faith, entitled: “Of Justification,” reads as follows: “We believe that our salvation consists in the remission of our sins for Jesus Christ’s sake, and that therein our righteousness before God is implied: as David and Paul teach us, declaring this to be the happiness of man, that God imputes righteousness to him without works. And the same apostle saith, that we are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. And therefore we always hold fast this foundation, ascribing all the glory to God, humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in any thing in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours, when we believe in him. This is sufficient to cover all our iniquities, and to give us confidence in approaching to God; freeing the conscience of fear, terror and dread, without following the example of our first father, who, trembling, attempted to cover himself with fig leaves. And verily if we should appear before, relying on ourselves, or on any other creature, though ever so little, we should, alas! be consumed. And therefore every one must pray with David: O Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” In this article our fathers again declare that we are justified freely by God’s grace, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, quoting in these words the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 3:24. And they also state that our only trust and confidence is not in anything in ourselves; does not rest upon any merit of our own, but solely in the obedience of the crucified Lamb of Calvary.
Article 24 of our Confession of Faith treats the subject: “Of Man’s Sanctification And Good Works.” In this article our fathers declare, literally, that our good works are of no account toward our justification. But let us quote this article: “We believe that this true faith being wrought in man by the hearing of the Word of God, and the operation of the Holy Ghost, doth regenerate and make him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. Therefore it is so far from being true, that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man: for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith, which is called in Scripture, a faith that worketh by love, which excites man to the practice of those works, which God has commanded in his Word. Which works, as they proceed from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable in the sight of God, forasmuch as they are all sanctified by his grace; howbeit they are of no account towards our justification. For it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works, any more than the fruit of a tree can be good, before the tree itself is good. Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them, (for what can we merit?) nay, we are beholden to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he that worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Let us therefore attend to what is written: when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. In the meantime, we do not deny that God rewards our good works, but it is through his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, though we do good works, we do not found our salvation upon them; for we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform 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.” In this article of our Confession of Faith it is surely clearly stated that our good works are never meritorious, that they are never of any account toward our justification. That they are of no account toward our justification is because our good works are exclusively the fruit of faith in Christ Jesus, and this faith is the gift of God, so that all our good works are nothing else than the fruit of that which was merited for us by Jesus Christ. Indeed, the fathers do not deny that the Scriptures also speak of rewards, that the Lord rewards our good works, but all this is through the grace of God, and it is the Lord Who crowns His gifts.
The position of the Reformers on this subject of our justification and good works is therefore clear. Protestantism does not deny the necessity of good works. It does not submit to a “rocking chair” theology. Neither does it deny that God rewards our good works. It understands very well that the Word of God speaks repeatedly of everlasting life and glory as a reward. The parable of the talents is a strong Scriptural passage to this effect. However, the Reformers emphatically deny that our good works contribute anything to our justification. They emphatically deny that our good works are meritorious. They maintain that we are justified by faith. And when it is maintained that we are justified by faith, then this faith is not presented as another work, as something we must do prior to the work of God. Faith is a gift of God, unites us with Christ. Faith and works are connected, according to our Reformed Symbols, as are a tree and its fruit. We owe everything to grace, the sovereign grace of our covenant God. Our good works are therefore never meritorious. For it is given unto us of grace, not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake. The only merits which we possess are the merits of Christ, Who was eternally anointed as our Mediator, and it is only through Him that we have access to the living God and are heirs of everlasting life and glory.