Previous article in this series: December 15, 2020, p. 132.


We have been considering the instrumental cause of our salvation. In the first article I pointed out what the Reformers, and Calvin in particular, meant by the instrumental cause of salvation. Calvin referred to 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, referring to faith, the sole instrument or tool God uses to grant us full salvation. Finally, Calvin referred to the final cause of our salvation, that which describes the end or goal of salvation, namely, the glory of God. The third cause out of this fourfold distinction is what lies behind the use of the word “instrument” in our confessions.

In the next article we saw why it was so important to maintain faith as the lone instrument in all our salvation. To add works to faith here is equally to deny the gospel as if one would add our works to the ground (material cause) of our salvation. Rome did, and does, commit both errors. In addition, the main way the Federal Vision denies the gospel today is by adding to the instrumental cause of salvation the works that faith performs. If one cannot or will not make a distinction between faith and the works faith performs at the point of the instrumental cause, he is believing and/or teaching Roman Catholic and Federal Vision theology, and denying salvation by faith alone.

A flame has both light and heat. But when I am cooking soup over the flame, it is only the heat that is functioning to cook the soup. The light is there, but it is not the light of the flame that is cooking my food. Faith is resting in Christ. Yet that faith goes on to work. When faith is the instrument to receive any and all aspects of salvation out of Jesus Christ, however, it is not the works of faith that are functioning, but only the receiving that belongs to trust in Christ. So much so, as we pointed out last time, that not even love accompanies faith when it is functioning as the instrumental cause of all salvation. This truth we compromise to our eternal peril.


Calvin on good works and divine benefits

I hope to return to this in a later article, but for now, let’s go on to ask the question, How did Calvin speak of good works in the context of defending faith as the lone instrumental cause of salvation? Especially, in this context, how did he understand the passages of Scripture that seem to speak of good works (in his words) “as a reason for divine benefit?”1 That is, passages that make a benefit or blessing come after good works. Especially, Calvin is thinking of passages that see the divine benefit of heaven coming after good works. For example, Matthew 25:34-35, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” How are these kinds of passages to be understood? Calvin answers:

Those whom in mercy he has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works. What precedes in the order of administration is called [in Scripture] the cause of what follows. For this reason, he sometimes makes eternal life a consequent of works; not because it is to be ascribed to them, but because those whom he has elected he justifies, that he may at length glorify (Rom. 8:30); he makes the prior grace to be a kind of cause, because it is a kind of step to that which follows.2 “Works are a means God uses to introduce us to the possession of eternal life.”

“Works are a kind of step to what follows.” What does Calvin mean by this exactly? We can say two things. First of all, negatively, we can say without a doubt that Calvin does not mean that these works are any part of the material cause or the instrumental cause of eternal life (nor any other of the four causes). He himself says so,

The fact that scripture shows that the good works of believers are reasons why the Lord benefits them is to be so understood as to allow what we have set forth before to stand unshaken: that the efficient cause of our salvation consists in God the Father’s love; the material cause in God the Son’s obedience; the instrumental cause in the Spirit’s illumination, that is, faith; the final cause, in the glory of God’s great generosity.3

Be gone with any Federal Visionist argument that would put into Calvin’s mouth the notion that works are part of the instrument by which we attain eternal blessings in the end!4

Second, we can say positively, that Calvin’s main point, (one we ought to take note of) is to show that these passages preserve the order of the way God relates to us in our life. Salvation is an organic whole, and the “order of salvation” is first of all a logical order. Nonetheless, the distinction is scriptural, neither can we escape it altogether in our experience. Heaven comes after a lifetime of service for most of us. Though works are no cause of any aspect of our salvation, not of any blessing either, but are evidence and fruit in salvation, yet we live in a covenant relationship with God that moves along in time and grows. And in God’s decree He determined that there would be some blessings that come to us after we do some things. These blessings are earned by Christ, come to us through the instrument of faith alone apart from any of its works, yet they come to us in the order God arranged, that is, often after faith has borne some of its fruits of obedience. Calvin gets to his main point and explains,

In short, by these expressions [in Scripture], the order rather than the cause is noted. The Lord adding grace to grace, takes occasion from a former to add a subsequent, so that he may omit no means of enriching his servants. Still, in following out his liberality, he would have us always look to free election as its source and beginning.5


Consistent explanation in Calvin

The explanation of these passages of Scripture as the God-ordained order in which He grants some of His divine benefits (and not as the cause or instrument of those benefits) is common in Calvin. Later in the Institutes he says,

The passages in which it is said that God will reward every man according to his works are easily disposed of. For that mode of expression indicates not the cause but the order of sequence. Now, it is beyond a doubt that the steps by which the Lord in his mercy consummates our salvation are these, “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Rom. 8:30). But though it is by mercy alone that God admits his people to life, yet as he leads them into possession of it by the course of good works, that he may complete his work in them in the order which he has destined, it is not strange that they are said to be crowned according to their works, since by these doubtless they are prepared for receiving the crown of immortality.6

Again, in Calvin’s comments on Matthew 25:34 and 35 (cited above),

For I was hungry. If Christ were now speaking of the cause [material, or instrumental, or any other cause— CG] of our salvation, the Papists could not be blamed for inferring that we merit eternal life by good works; but as Christ had no other design than to exhort his people to holy and upright conduct, it is improper to conclude from his words what is the value of the merits of works. With regard to the stress which they lay on the word “for,” as if it pointed out the cause, it is a weak argument; for we know that, when eternal life is promised to the righteous, the word “for” does not always denote a cause, but rather the order of procedure.7

Heaven is a supreme, divine benefit, and, in the order of procedure, heaven comes after we do the good works in which God has ordained us to walk. This does not make those works the material or instrumental cause of heaven granted to us. Is there not help here for thinking about other benefits God gives after we do something? The fact that He generally gives certain benefits in order of arrangement after certain expressions of obedience in this life does not in itself make those works an instrumental cause or condition to those benefits. One can certainly be guilty of that error, as happened among us in recent years. But the order itself is scriptural and must be properly explained and maintained.

It is akin to the fact that my parents’ training of me is part of the God-ordained arrangement for my salvation. God used my parents’ hard work unto the end of my salvation. Does the bare fact of that indicate my parents’ training has become the instrumental cause along with faith in my salvation? One could errantly teach that, I suppose, and we must be careful how we explain these things. But the fact of it, and the recognition of God’s use of parents’ hard work, and the calling of parents to fulfill their parental vocation also for the salvific good of the children of the covenant, does not in itself compromise sola fide. It is His divine arrangement.


Hoeksema on order of procedure

When Herman Hoeksema defined a condition as “a prerequisite which man must fulfill in order to obtain the promise of God,”8 this Calvinistic, God-ordained order of things that we are discussing was not the issue. Hoeksema himself said in the heat of the controversy, “That something precedes something else does not mean that it is a condition to something else.”9 The issue was, did man do something (even by the grace of God) that obtained (in any sense) something else by that doing. Schilder’s theology meant he had to teach that man obtained something by his doing, no matter how hard Schilder tried to argue this was not the case. That there was a chronological connection between some obedience God worked in us and something that we experienced after that was not at issue. Hoeksema (praise be to God!) steered us away from the theology of conditions, pointing out that even the term condition is loaded with errant theology according to the Canons. But Hoeksema retained the chronological connection between things in our experience with the use of “in the way of.” To that we turn next time.

1 Heading of Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.14.21. (Four paragraphs after, he speaks of the causes of salvation, none of which include works). The whole heading reads, “Sense in which good works are sometimes spoken of as a reason for divine benefits.”

2 Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.21.

3 Institutes, 3.14.21. Calvin at one point in this paragraph calls works a “lesser cause.” This is unhelpful language, as is some of the other language in Calvin. But in reality Calvin proceeds to explain that term away altogether in this paragraph and to arrive at a helpful point as explained below.

4 Some Federal Visionists have argued that since Calvin says God “introduces us into the possession of eternal life by good works” he must mean works are part of the instrumental cause of our eternal life. This is false, as Calvin himself defends himself from this preposterous conclusion in the same paragraph. He simply means this is the way God normally leads His children to eternal life (I say normally, because there are infants who die in infancy for example, who do not tread this path).

5 Institutes, 3.14.21. Emphasis added.

6 Institutes, 3.18.1. Emphasis added.

7 Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, p. 179. Emphasis in last line added.

8 Herman Hoeksema, “Very Clear,” Standard Bearer, vol. 28, no. 17 (June 1, 1952), 388.

9 Hoeksema, “Very Clear.”