Previous article in this series: April 1, 2021, p. 302.
Review articles 1 and 2
This article is number five in a series. It is time to reflect a bit. The first two articles in this series were written to explain the importance of maintaining faith as the lone instrument in all our salvation. In order to show how important that is, I backed up a bit to give some history behind the Reformed faith’s use of the word “instrument.” The word was used to describe Scriptures’ teaching that salvation is by, through, and out of faith. Faith is the sole instrument that connects the child of God to Christ. Through this pipeline alone all the salvation stored up in Christ comes to us.1
This teaching is made sharper when we know that Calvin and the Reformers saw Scripture distinguish four ‘causes’ of our salvation.2 First, they recognized the efficient cause or author of salvation, the Triune God of grace. Second, they spoke of the material cause, describing the substance of our salvation, Christ and His righteousness. Third, they spoke of the instrumental cause, faith, the lone instrument by which the Triune God connects us to Jesus Christ. Fourth, Calvin and the Reformers referred to the final cause of our salvation, the end or goal of salvation, namely, the glory of God. Calvin and the Reformers saw that the Scriptures give no place to works in any of these ‘causes’ of salvation. Indeed, with regard to the instrumental cause, though faith goes on to produce works, faith totally apart from its works is the sole instrumental cause of salvation.
We saw the importance then of defining faith. Faith is trust that arises out of true knowledge. This faith goes on to work by love as Galatians 5:6 tells us. Nonetheless, it remains distinct from its works, as actors are distinct from their actions. Both Rome and the Federal Vision refuse to distinguish faith from its working. Thus, when it comes time to speak of faith as the instrument, they make both faith and faith’s working co-instrumental in our salvation. This is how they compromise sola fide and is part of how they compromise justification by faith alone. It is not only the error that makes works the meritorious ground that is an issue; it is also the error that makes works part of the instrument that is an issue.
Review articles 3 and 4
In the next two articles, I spoke of the importance of maintaining what Calvin called the “order of sequence” that God has ordained in His relationship to us, without compromising faith alone as the instrument of all salvation. Explaining passages of Scripture that speak of works as “a reason for divine benefits,”3 Calvin said, “For that mode of expression indicates not the cause but the order of sequence…. 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.”4 Salvation is an organic whole. Yet we experience it in time and in covenant with God. In the way of those works we know blessings in our own lives and the lives of others, as the Heidelberg Catechism also indicates in Lord’s Day 32. Yet, Calvin is very careful to avoid speaking of works as one of the fourfold causes of anything in our salvation:
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.5
Works are never the cause, whether material or instrumental, of anything at all in our salvation. For example, my parents raise me and the preaching is a means of grace to me. These, and other good works are means God uses to work out His good pleasure in my life. But the benefit granted to me still comes through the instrumentality of faith alone even as it comes in the way of those works.
We saw that H. Hoeksema, in the thick of the battle against a conditional covenant, maintained this order of procedure regarding God’s dealings with us. He maintained that neither faith nor our works are conditions to anything in God’s covenant. They are not gates that allow God to continue to work or shut Him off from continuing His work in His elect. Rather, they are the way He applies salvation in His covenant with us. Hoeksema, drawing from the Reformed tradition and from the Canons of Dordt in particular, commended the phrase “in the way of” to describe the connection between Christian living and certain blessings we receive. He also distinguished faith from its works by the use of this phrase. “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.6 Faith alone is the instrument, and works are the manner of living in God’s covenant. Even when they are functioning at the same time (as they often are), each has its own role.
The motivation for these articles
Now that we have reviewed, let’s ask the question, “Why write two articles explaining faith as the lone instrument and two articles preserving God’s order of procedure in the covenant?” These articles represent my effort to explain what and why the PRC synods have decided what they did the last few years. As I hinted at toward the end of the last article, I believe God used Synod 2018 to take us out of one ‘ditch,’ and Synod 2019/2020 to prevent us from entering another ‘ditch.’
Synod 2018 recognized that the main issue in protested sermons that came before it was that works were (unintentionally) being made part of the instrumental cause of our salvation. Statements (well known by now) were heaped up in sermons: We do good works “so that we can have our prayers answered;” “so that we can receive God’s grace and Holy Spirit in our consciousness;” “that our generations may thrive and flourish in God’s land;” “that we might remain in God’s church with His people and with our God;” as something “I must perform in order to enjoy fellowship with God;” because “there are requirements for him to fellowship, to approaching unto God, coming to the Father;” “in order that we may have fellowship… with God;” and for “help in finding and maintaining assurance that God has justified me through Christ and Christ alone.”7 Synod’s judgment was that the repetition of such phrases indicated that “good works are performed in order to obtain something, or good works function as an instrument/means for the reception of something…”8 In other words, faith alone as the instrumental cause of salvation was compromised. The necessary way of obedience (what Synod called the manner of living) was being made part of the instrument along with faith.
Additionally, when the sermons were defended, they were defended as follows (read this now in light of this series of articles): “God does not wait for us to obey or depend on us for Him to do some further work of saving us. But God actually works in us that obedience; and in the way of that obedience that He works in us, He wisely and sovereignly causes us to experience the blessings of salvation.”9 The first sentence is good. In the second, causal language is used, apparently to describe the role of good works: “…in the way of that obedience that He works in us, He wisely and sovereignly causes us to experience the blessings of salvation” (emphasis added). Synod 2018 stated, “If we will speak of God causing us to experience the blessings of salvation, then we must speak of faith, which is the one and only instrument. We must say, God causes us to experience the blessings of salvation through faith. Again, we experience the blessings of salvation 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).” 10 Synod 2018 made clear the issue before her was that works were being made part of the instrumental cause of salvation, a role reserved for faith apart from its accompanying works.11
At Synods 2019 and 2020, the teaching concerning the order of procedure in God’s dealings with us was threatened. A proposal came to Synod 2019 to do away with the expression “in the way of.” To Synod 2020 came the charge that a minister “militated against Synod 2018 when he preached that there is an activity of the believer that is prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God.”12 In other words, the objection was that if a minister preaches that there is an activity of a believer prior to the experience of a particular blessing from God, then that minister necessarily makes that activity the instrument of an aspect of our salvation. This is really arguing that “in the way of” must be removed—that there is no “in the way of” a believer’s grateful activity that he knows a certain blessing from God. This is the other ‘ditch’ that both Calvin and Hoeksema avoided.
Synod 2018 had already preserved us from this overreaction by its statement, “We experience the blessings of salvation 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).” In addition, Synod 2018 stated, “As we live in good works we have the confidence that God will, for Jesus’ sake, continue to give us His grace and Holy Spirit.” And, “as we walk in the way of those good works we enjoy the confidence that God will bless our generations for Jesus’ sake.”13
Synod 2020 added in response to the appellant, “It would be an error to say that one does not have mercy at all until after his activity of repentance.” And then, speaking positively,
What Synod 2018 clearly rejected was any notion that characterizes what the regenerated believer does as a prerequisite or condition or instrument that earns, gains, or obtains a blessing from God. The fact that an activity of the believer may occur temporally prior to the experience of a blessing from God does not automatically make such an activity a condition or prerequisite for earning, gaining, or meriting the blessing from God.
Explanation: a) This is consistent with the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching on prayer from Lord’s Day 45, Q&A 116, “Why is prayer necessary for Christians? Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and also, because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them.” b) This is consistent with Scripture: Psalm 118:5, “I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me and set me in a large place.”14
Synod stated that there are blessings of God that come to us in the way of some activities God gives us to do, thereby defending God’s order of procedure even as she defended faith as the lone instrument of those blessings.
When the Westminster Assembly met to deal with suspected antinomianism in some of the ministers in England, she asked the ministers to answer a number of questions. One of the questions was, “Whether a sinner, after humbling himself, should be able to expect a blessing from God….”15 The assembly suspected that certain men would answer “no” to this question because these men believed that to answer “yes” automatically meant giving works a meritorious or instrumental role. But, to answer “no” to this question (while maintaining faith as the sole instrument) is in effect to deny that God gives certain blessings in the way of obedience. The Westminster Assembly at least considered a denial of the order of procedure to be antinomianism, a grave danger to the church of Jesus Christ. Though Synod did not label the challenge that came to her in 2019/2020, it is clear God used synod to keep us from an opposing ‘ditch.’16
Next time, some concluding remarks.
1 Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, “…ingrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits, by a true faith.”
2 ‘Causes’ is in quotation marks because these are not all causes in the same sense.
3 John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Westminster Press, 1960) 3.14.21 (Heading).
4 Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.21. Emphasis added.
5 Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.21.
6 Herman Hoeksema, Standard Bearer, “As to Conditions (3).” It is certainly true that Hoeksema used “in the way of” to speak of both works and faith at times without distinction. See for example, “As to Conditions (9).” There is nothing necessarily wrong with that if the theology is understood. But in the quotation above he clearly distinguished faith’s function from that of works.
7 Acts of Synod and Yearbook of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2018, 75.
8 Acts of Synod 2018, 75.
9 Acts of Synod 2018, 75. Emphasis added.
10 Acts of Synod 2018, 76. Emphasis added.
11 To try to help understand the point synod was making, add the words “by faith,” to the end of the sentence written in defense of the sermons so that the instrumentality of faith is included in the sentence. The sentence then reads, “God does not wait for us to obey or depend on us for Him to do some further work of saving us. But God actually works in us that obedience; and in the way of that obedience that He works in us, He wisely and sovereignly causes us to experience the blessings of salvation by faith.” This is now a different statement. It is still not clear, but the case could be made that faith is now the instrument. It seems a slight difference, but remember these things are being stated in the context of theological debate.
12 Acts of Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2020, 75.
13 Acts of Synod 2018, 63-64.
14 Acts of Synod 2020, 81-82. Emphasis in the original. As the Acts of Synod state, synod here adopted the work of Classis East at her January, 2020 meeting (see top of 79).
15 Whitney Gamble, Christ and the Law, Antinomianism at the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 63. Emphasis added.
16 Stating this is not a minimizing of the error dealt with in 2018, but a recognition of historical facts.