Previous article in this series: February 15, 2021, p. 236.
All our salvation is stored up in Jesus Christ. And all of it—justification, sanctification, blessings, fellowship, heaven—comes to us through the lone instrument of faith. Faith is the pipeline that unites us to Christ, bringing to us all the blessings Christ has earned for us. Scripture, nonetheless, speaks of blessings that regularly come to us through that instrument of faith after certain Godworked obediences we perform. This is our experience as well. Because it is, it brings the question to mind, What is the relation between those activities and the blessings that come? Especially does this question arise when we read biblical passages that seem to make obedience a “a reason for divine benefits.”1 Last time we saw how Calvin explained this, namely, that “not the cause but the order of sequence,” is being established by such texts.
How Hoeksema described this order
Herman Hoeksema taught us to explain this order of sequence between a God-worked activity in us and certain blessings with the phrase in the way of. He proposed this in opposition to the explanation that used the term and concept condition. This term had been used in the past by Reformed writers to explain this connection between good works and blessings in a Reformed fashion. But the term more and more became a vehicle to carry an errant view of this connection. The term was used by the Arminians to teach that our work of faith (not God’s work in us) is what allows God to give us salvation. Teaching, then, that it was not God’s grace but man’s work that made the difference. The Reformed rejected Arminian theology at the Synod of Dordt, also rejecting the Arminian notion of conditions. For this reason, the term was not used by Reformed writers as often any longer.2
In Hoeksema’s day, however, the term condition was used by William Heyns to support an errant view of the covenant, a view to which the term commended itself very easily. Heyns said God’s grace and promise are given to all the baptized children of the church. Some grow up and remain in that covenant, others do not. What differentiated those who remain in that covenant from those who fall away was neither the grace nor the promise, both of which were common to all, but the use of that grace to believe the promise and to live according to it. Man made the difference. Again, this made the connection between our activity and God’s blessing the work of man. It was man who allowed God to carry on with His saving intentions— a true condition. Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder adopted a similar form of this errant view of the covenant, using the same term to explain the relation between our activity and the blessings of the covenant.
These views of the covenant were, and are, essentially Arminian. Because grace and promise are given to more than the elect, these views did not promote God’s grace or promise, but man’s work with that grace or promise as the power that made the difference. These views made something we do the gate that could prevent or allow God’s continued work. It was clear, Hoeksema said, “the term condition or faith as a condition is an Arminian term. We should not even attempt to use it in a sound sense…. There is absolutely no need for it in Reformed terminology.”3
Hoeksema proposed “that instead of the Pelagian term ‘condition’ we use the term ‘in the way of.’”4 “We are not chosen, and therefore we are not saved, on condition of faith, or of the obedience of faith; but we are chosen to faith, and to the obedience of faith, and therefore, we are saved through the instrument of faith, and in the way of obedience. That and that only is Reformed language.”5 This would become the way in which the PRC would explain the order of sequence between a God-worked obedience in us and certain blessings that follow.
Short history of “in the way of”
Hoeksema was correct that “in the way of” is Reformed language. It is Reformed language theologically, as I will explain in a moment. But it is also Reformed language historically. Synod 2019 pointed this out when a protest called Synod to lead the churches to abandon the phrase “in the way of.” Synod pointed out that Calvin himself had used this language at times to describe the order of procedure between a God-worked obedience in us and His blessing that follows. For example, in the Institutes, shortly after the section we have been referencing, Calvin says, “Thus also it will be nothing amiss if we regard holiness of life to be the way, not indeed that gives access to the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom, but by which those chosen by their God are led to its disclosure. For it is God’s good pleasure to glorify those whom he has sanctified (Rom. 8:30).”6 Commenting on I Timothy 2:15, which speaks of the godly woman saved in child bearing, Calvin says, “The Apostle does not argue here about the cause of salvation, and therefore we cannot and must not infer from these words what works deserve; but they only shew in what way God conducts us to [final] salvation, to which he has appointed us through his grace.”7
Our Reformed fathers used this language of “in the way of” to describe our obedience in the Canons of Dordt: “He hath chosen us from eternity…to salvation and the way of salvation, which He hath ordained that we should walk therein.”8 And again, connecting our life of obedience to God’s blessing: “Neither does renewed confidence of persevering produce licentiousness, or disregard to piety in those who are recovering from backsliding; but it renders them much more careful and solicitious to continue in the way of the Lord, which he hath ordained that they who walk therein may maintain an assurance of persevering.”9
The phrase has been used in the Reformed tradition in part because it is used in Scripture, especially in the book of Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 12:28, “In the way of righteousness is life; and in the pathway thereof there is no death.” And again, Proverbs 16:31, “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.”10
The theology of the phrase
There are at least four reasons why use of the phrase “in the way of” is theologically important to explain the connection between a God-worked activity in us and some blessing that God promises us and provides for us.
First of all, it highlights God’s sovereignty. Compare the phrase in the way of to the term condition and this point will be clear. No matter how one tries, it is not possible to make God in His sovereignty the focus with the use of the term condition. The best attempt one can make is to say something like this: “God grants us blessings on condition of our obedience.” Besides being wrong theologically, it forces the focus away from God to man. This is why the term condition naturally lends itself to a view of the covenant according to which God’s grace and promise are not the deciding factor. In the way of, however, allows for God’s sovereignty to be the focus. One can say, “God grants us blessings in the way of working in us a life of obedience.” One is able with this phrase to keep the focus on the sovereign God conferring salvation upon His elect.
Second, using this phrase, one is also able to maintain man’s responsibility.11 One can say, “God grants us this blessing in the way of our God-worked obedience.” This does not make man’s obedience a gate that prevents or allows God to carry on with His work but, rather, it communicates the way God confers the work of Christ upon us, while maintaining the truth that the obedience is truly our obedience that He works in us.
Third, the phrase keeps our obedience distinct from faith as instrument. We have been concerning ourselves with the instrumental cause of salvation in these articles. That instrument is faith alone. And we are determined to keep faith the only instrument. Though the phrase in the way of is insufficient by itself to maintain this critical truth if the theology is not understood, it does help us to maintain the distinction between faith and faith’s works when it comes to the instrument of salvation. Synod 2018 followed Hoeksema by stating, “we experience covenant fellowship with God through faith (instrument), on the basis of what Christ has done (ground), and in the way of our obedience (way of conduct or manner of living).” If Christ’s work is the ground, and faith is the sole instrument, and our obedience is something else, namely, the manner of life in that fellowship, then our obedience cannot be the instrument along with faith. And since faith alone is the instrument by which we have access to this fellowship, our obedience cannot be granting us access to it.12
Fourth, the phrase maintains the truth that this obedience is necessary. Again, obedience does not grant me the blessing as ground or instrument. Good works do not grant me the blessing of heaven, though heaven for most of us comes after a life of good works. Yet, those works are necessary in that they belong to the pathway on which God takes us to glory.13 The same is true of any other blessing God bestows on us in the future. The obedience does not grant me the blessing. But it is the necessary way. And, therefore, Scripture often points directly to obedience or disobedience and urges, “in this way of obedience you will know this; in this way of disobedience you will not know this.”
Something can be necessary without being a ground or instrumental cause or condition to something else. Luther once explained the believer’s obedience as necessary but not a cause or instrument by pointing to the necessity of death for resurrection. Death is absolutely necessary for the resurrection, but it is not the cause of the resurrection in any sense. It is the way along which God brings us to resurrection. So too, our life of obedience. It is not the cause, but it is necessary. The preaching must warn against obedience as ground or condition or instrument to any blessing of salvation. The preaching must also call God’s people to gratitude-driven resolve to walk in the right way of obedience in response to the gospel. It must be able to say (without fear) that is to be expected in this way, and is to be expected in rebellion against this way; therefore, walk in this way! The phrase in the way of allows us to avoid the error of making obedience a ground or instrument or condition, while also maintaining the clear exhortations and warnings of Scripture in our preaching.
Past, present, and future
We are blessed of God. We were blessed of God before we were given faith. We are blessed of God before we perform any work of obedience. Yet, God enters into a relationship with us that moves through time and develops. There are blessings that He grants, or grants a richer measure of, after some God-worked obedience, and connects the obedience to the blessing this way. Those blessings only come through the instrument of faith! But because some come through that instrument after our obedience, Scripture calls us to that obedience and tells us we will know that blessing in that way.
This is how the PRC has maintained what Calvin called the “order of procedure” with regard to the life of obedience and blessings of God, without compromising the unconditional covenant. Recently, we did compromise, by making the way of grateful obedience take on the role of the instrumental cause, a role that is reserved for faith apart from its fruits. God corrected us in the way of good church polity. God also kept us from the error of over-correction in the way of good church polity. May God unite us in the way of humility.
1 John Calvin, (quoted in previous article). The quotation is from his Institutes 3.14.21 (Battles edition, 1960), 787. The whole heading reads, “Sense in which good works are sometimes spoken of as a reason for divine benefits.”
2 So Herman Bavinck: “In the beginning, Reformed theologians spoke freely of ‘the conditions’ of the covenant. But after the nature of the covenant of grace had been more carefully considered and had to be defended against Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants, many of them took exception to the term and avoided it.” Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 229.
3 Herman Hoeksema, “As to conditions (3),” Standard Bearer, v. 26, no. 4 (Nov. 15, 1949).
4 Herman Hoeksema, “As to conditions (5),” Standard Bearer, v. 26, no. 6 (Dec. 15, 1949).
5 Hoeksema, “As to Conditions (3).”
6 Institutes, 3.18.4, p. 825. Emphasis added.
7 Commentary on I Timothy (Baker edition, 1984), 71. Emphasis added. For other examples see also, Institutes, 2.8.42. and 3.3.25.
8 Head I, Art. 8. Emphasis added.
9 Head V, Art. 13. Both quoted by Synod 2019. Cf. Acts of Synod 2019, p. 66.
10 Both quoted by Synod 2019. Cf. Acts, 66.
11 Hoeksema pointed this out in his article “As to Conditions (5).” “This term is capable of maintaining both: the absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation, and the responsibility of man.”
12 Synod 2019 made this point. Cf. Acts 2019, p. 67.
13 Save for the exceptions, such as covenant children who die in infancy.