It has come as a surprise to me that the current controversy in our churches has been over the question of the place of good works in God’s work of salvation. Most of us were taught the truth of this question in our covenant homes, our catechism classes, the preaching we heard every Lord’s Day and it is, as far as I am concerned, what I was taught in the Seminary. It was part of our heritage with its glorious emphasis on sovereign grace. That we face controversy over the question is puzzling to me.
Let me briefly spell out what I (and most others) were taught and to which I have held for nearly ninety years.
We were taught, and I still believe, that all our salvation as it is given to us begins with God’s work of faith in our hearts by which we are united to Christ. All the blessings we now receive and will receive into all eternity come to us from Christ, who earned them for us by His perfect sacrifice on the cross and powerful resurrection from the dead. All is of grace alone. None is by works. He earned for us not only forgiveness of sins, but all the glory of our salvation as it will be given us in heaven.
Paul is emphatic about this in what was almost the theme text of our Protestant Reformed Churches: Ephesians 2:8-10. Most of us can quote it from memory. Paul teaches that the source and fountain of salvation is grace—unmerited favor, for as he says in verse one, we are dead in trespasses and sins. The means is faith.
Paul wants it very clear that being saved by grace through faith means that salvation in all its parts is a gift of God, a gift so great that it is not only not based on anything we do, but is given in spite of what we do.
Paul anticipates, however, that some in Ephesus (and throughout history) are going to object and insist that works play a major role. Paul says, with emphasis, NO! Not of works.
Well, then, the objector says, What about works? Are we not to do them? Isn’t it true that we must do good works? Do not all the admonitions of Scripture imply that we can and must do good works?
Paul says, “I’ll tell you about our good works.”
First of all, remember, we are God’s masterpiece; God’s glorious work; the greatest and most beautiful work ever performed; rivaling Rembrandt’s Watchman, or any painting of the world’s most gifted artists. We are that masterpiece from the viewpoint of what God makes us: saints that have a glory that is not their own, but radiates the glory of our Creator and Redeemer.
Of course, we do good works, Paul insists, but they are what makes us God’s masterpiece. They are God’s masterpiece because they are the purpose of our salvation: “…created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of good works….” As the Watchman shows the skill of the artist, so our good works show the skill of our divine Creator. He makes a humble praying saint out of a murderer!
So what is the source of good works?
The source is God’s counsel. They are all ordained to be done in God’s eternal counsel. Further, they are earned for us in the cross of Christ. And if that were not enough, God sovereignly determines that we should walk in them.
But if you say, “Yes, but we do them,” the answer is given in Philippians 2: God works in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). He gives us our desire to do them. But He also Himself works in us the doing of them. They are our works because they are His works.
When the minister preaches admonitions, the response in the heart of the believer is: “I can’t do that. I have tried all week and failed.” God works that too—as He did in the Old Testament when the old covenant demanded that Israel keep the law. The believers knew this and God used the demand to keep the law and man’s conscious inability to do it to bring the gospel of Christ. The law was the schoolmaster to bring believers to Christ. That is why every sermon must be centered in Christ. Paul says that the topic of every sermon he ever preached was “Christ crucified.” “We preach not ourselves,“ Paul claims, “but Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23; II Cor. 4:5).
We must hear, every Lord’s Day, what Christ has done. Then we are able to hear what we are called to do. We are able to hear the “must” of the law, because hearing what Christ has done means, as Herman Hoeksema said again and again from the pulpit, “Grace makes the “must” of the law the “can” and the “will” of the law. Scripture says not, “You must do this” and “you must do that,” but Scripture says, “You must do this and you must do that because I have made the “must” in you the “can” and the “will.” Work out your own salvation because it is God who worketh in you….”
The preaching calls to faith in Christ. Of course, Christ is the source and fountain of all good. But we must not forget that faith is not obedience. Thank God, for if it is, we are lost. Obedience is a work and we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Faith is the very opposite of works, even the works of obedience. “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work” (Rom. 11:5-6).
But let us also remember Canons III/IV, 14: “Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; or even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, but because He who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.”
But one might ask: How is it possible for a good work to be my work and God’s work at the same time? The question is necessary because good works are indeed said to be our works, and we must give account for them in the judgment day. Scripture even goes so far as to say that our good works will be rewarded.
In the first place, we are compelled to answer this question by admitting that God’s works are always beyond our understanding. When the Canons discuss God’s work of sanctification, or, as they call it, regeneration, a work of God that enables us to do good works, they describe this work as mysterious and ineffable, not less in power than creation itself. Our fathers bowed in worship before the glorious work of salvation that God performed and performs in us.
Second, the Heidelberg Catechism itself points the way when it describes faith as a grafting (Lord’s Day 7). When, for example, a branch of an orange tree is grafted into a lemon tree, the orange tree branch gets every speck of its life from the lemon tree and is totally dependent on it. Yet, it produces oranges. So it is with us. We are grafted into Christ (John 15). All our life is from Christ and all we do is by means of the life of Christ who works faith in us by His Holy Spirit. Yet, each saint has his own unique work of salvation performed in him, his own sins forgiven, his own good works wrought by the Spirit. Paul urges us to work out “our own salvation” not somebody else’s. Yet the willing and the doing come from Christ.
Third, these works are rewarded indeed, but let us not forget what the Belgic Confession says in Article 14, in that beautiful and memorable phrase, that the reward of grace is God’s crown on His work!
If we should ask why God’s work and our works are the same, the answer is obvious. God is the sole Author of our salvation. But God wants us to know and experience our salvation fully so that we may indeed give all praise to Him. That is why He gives us our consciousness of and sorrow for sin. That is why He leads us to the cross so that at Calvary we may see His great love for us. It is His only begotten Son who went to hell for us. And so He works in us gratitude for what He has done, a gratitude expressed in our good works—good works brought about by His work of sanctification. Then we know that He alone is God, and that He saves us and saves by grace alone.
All God’s works are for His own glory, for of Him and to Him and through Him are all things, even salvation. The sinner knows this. He knows that faith, not works, are his salvation, and he goes to the cross in which is all his salvation. Must he do good works? Yes, he must. But knowing that he cannot do them of himself, he goes to Christ, remembering that no man can come to Christ except the Father who sent Christ draw him (John 6:37, 44). He finds his ability to do good works only in the cross. And so, as he lives in the consciousness of his salvation, he marvels at the wonder of it and gives God all the glory for it. He lives by the power of the cross an obedient life, for he knows that thankful children are obedient children.
This is what I was taught. It is the “old paths.” Let us walk in them.