Justifying Faith and the Role of Good Works in Salvation Part 1

Note: I wrote this piece a few months back but haven't done anything with it. It is a bit academic for a blog, but I am hoping to help those who are still wrestling through the recent controversy.

Justifying Faith and the Role of Good Works in Salvation
Christopher J. Gordon, Lynden WA

The present controversy over the doctrine of justification by faith has introduced to the Reformed world a whole new theological system that intersects and overlaps at so many points, it is difficult to critique one particular area of the movement. Nevertheless, the central issue remains the doctrine of justification. In question is the very nature of justifying faith, and the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to the sinner in the act of justification. For the Reformed Christian, these issues strike at the heart of the gospel he confesses and therefore, is a matter that deserves utmost attention.
This paper outlines the particular formulations of Norman Shepherd and the so-called “Federal Vision” concerning the nature of justifying faith and the place of good works in the believer’s salvation. In order to demonstrate where the error originates, we will first provide an historical analysis of the fundamental difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the nature of justifying faith. Next, we will overview the positions of Norman Shepherd and the FV on the nature of justifying faith and good works, demonstrating how these formulations vary little from historic Roman Catholicism. Finally, we will provide a Biblical and confessional analysis of these aberrant views in defense of the Protestant position that faith is merely receptive in the act of justification, and good works are a logical and consequential necessity to this act.

I. Historical Analysis: The Nature of Justifying Faith

The Roman Catholic Position
In 1547, the Council of Trent made an official declaration concerning what Protestants viewed as a central issue of the Reformation: the nature of justifying faith. In Canon XI Trent declared,

If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favor of God: let him be anathema. [1]

Trent was capitalizing upon a long medieval tradition that taught that the act of justification occurred by co-operation with grace. Though one cannot strictly merit the prevenient grace of God in justification, his cooperation with congruent merit enables the sinner, with God’s assisting grace, to co-operate with the grace of justification.[2]
Before justification the sinner enters into a state of preparation whereby he, by his own free-will and in co-operation with the Holy Spirit, is prepared for future justification. During this preparation the sinner comes to accept a general knowledge of God and his word. After this preparation is completed, God justifies the sinner in a two-staged process. In the first part of justification, God pardons sin and infuses the inward righteousness of hope and charity into the sinner’s heart so that faith is now formed by virtue. In the second part of justification the sinner is now made more holy and just by his own merit having been infused with the quality of inward righteousness.[3]
It is important to understand the place that Rome gave to the inward qualities of hope and charity. The kind of faith that justifies includes infused sanctification. Based on an interpretation of Galatians 5:6 which speaks of faith working through love, Rome built into the nature of justifying faith the cooperation and obedience of the sinner in the act of justification. Trent declared that faith, “unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body.”[4]
It was upon this premise that Trent decreed a separate canon anathematizing any formulation of justifying faith that did not include obedience. Canon XII states, “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.”[5] For Rome in the act of justification, faith consists not merely of trusting in Jesus Christ to save, but the faith that justifies includes the inward habit of righteousness of hope, charity, and other virtues.
For Rome, there is no distinction between justification and sanctification. The sinner is justified insofar as he is sanctified, through the infusion of virtue, and in cooperation with grace, with the result that, ordinarily, no one is finally justified in this life.

The Protestant Position
The Reformers understood that properly defining the nature of justifying faith was an issue of either upholding or denying the gospel of Jesus Christ. Over against Rome’s doctrine of justification by grace through cooperation with grace, John Calvin affirmed that faith was the sole instrument in justification. The difference for Calvin was precisely in how one defined the nature of this faith that alone saves. In Calvin’s response to Osiander, he excludes from faith anything of inherent value.

For did faith justify of itself, or (as it is expressed) by its own intrinsic virtue, as it is always weak and imperfect, its efficacy would be partial, and thus our righteousness being maimed would give us only a portion of salvation. We indeed imagine nothing of the kind, but say, that, properly speaking, God alone justifies. The same thing we likewise transfer to Christ, because he was given to us for righteousness; while we compare faith to a kind of vessel, because we are incapable of receiving Christ, unless we are emptied and come with open mouth to receive his grace. [6]

When Calvin spoke of faith alone as the cause of justification, he was asserting the Protestant conviction that God’s act of justifying the sinner comes only by resting upon the merits and righteousness of Christ alone. There is nothing inherent or virtuous in faith itself by which is sinner is justified; faith is merely the open mouth or empty hand to receive Christ’s righteousness.[7] As the sinner looks away from himself by faith and lays hold of the righteousness of Christ, “God receives the sinner into his favor granting the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ.”[8]
William Perkins, the father of Elizabethan Puritanism, spoke to the difference between Rome and Protestantism on the nature of saving faith. Perkins wrote,

The difference concerning faith is this: the Papist says that a man is justified by faith: yet not by faith alone, but also by other virtues, as hope, and love, the fear of God…we say otherwise, that faith justifies, because it is a supernatural instrument created by God in the heart of man at his conversion whereby he apprehends and receives Christ’s righteousness for his justification.[9]

Here Perkins reiterates the same language of Calvin and defines faith in the act of justification only as apprehending and receiving Christ’s righteousness. Perkins wrote,

The hand always has a property to reach out itself, to lay hold of any thing, and to receive a gift, but the hand has no property to cut a piece of wood itself, without a saw or knife, or some like instrument…even so it is the nature of faith, to go out of itself and receive Christ into the heart, as for the duties of the first and second table, faith cannot of itself bring them forth no more than the hand can divide or cut…[10]

Zacharias Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), produced an entire question an answer concerning the meaning of justification by faith alone. Q. 61 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Why do you affirm, that you are made righteous by faith only?” The answer states,

Not for that I please God through the worthiness of mere faith but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I cannot take hold of it, or apply it unto myself any other way than by faith.[11]

Ursinus makes clear that there is no inherent value in faith by which a sinner is justified; the ground for a sinner’s justification is the merits of Christ. Faith, understood only as instrumental, apprehends and applies to the sinner, not only the satisfaction that Christ effected on the cross, but also the merits of his righteous and holy life. In his commentary on question and answer 61, Ursinus wrote,

We say that we are justified by faith alone: 1) because we are justified by the object of faith only, to wit, by the merit of Christ alone, besides which, there is no justice of ours, nor any other part thereof…All works are excluded, yea, faith itself as it is a virtue or work. 2) Because the proper act and operation of faith is, for a man to apprehend and apply unto himself Christ’s righteousness, yea, faith is nothing else than the acceptation itself, or apprehension of another’s justice, or of the merit of Christ. 3) Because faith only is the instrument, which apprehends Christ’s satisfaction.[12]

While Rome included certain infused qualities or virtues of righteousness into the nature of justifying faith, the Refomers were careful to define justifying faith only as receptive and without inherent value.[13]
The issues outlined above are very important for a proper understanding of the present controversies that have arisen over the doctrine of justification by faith alone and it’s relationship to sanctification.
Part 2 shortly...

[1] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Canon XI (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 2:89-118). Canon IX states, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema. Ibid., 2:112.
[2]The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Canon III (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 2:99). Canon III states, “If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

[3] The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, (Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 2:89-118).
[4]Ibid., Session 6: Ch. 7 (2:96). For Rome, faith is not simply “a certain knowledge and a hearty trust” or resting in Christ’s finished work. Rather it is a virtue, it is a power, it is obedience, it is sanctity. Rome teaches that faith is “formed by love,” i.e. it becomes a reality as we cooperate with grace.
[5] Ibid., Session 6: Canon XII (2:113).
[6] John Calvin, John T McNeil, Institutes of the Christian Religion ed., (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1960) III.10.i.
[7] Ibid. III.10.i.
[8] Calvin writes, Justified by faith is he who, excluded from the righteousness of works, grasps the righteousness of Christ through faith, and clothed in it, appears in God’s sight not as a sinner but as a righteous man. Therefore we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Ibid., III.10.i. (emphasis mine).
[9]William Perkins, The Workes: A Reformed Catholik Vol. I (John Legatt: London, 1635) I:570-71.
[10] Ibid., I:571.
[11] Zacharias Ursinus, Summe of Christian Religion (James Young: London, 1645), 385. ed. mine
Ibid., 385-6. Ursinus states, “For faith, as the Papists say, who will admit both these matters of speaking, as if faith were not indeed the application, whereby we apply unto ourselves Christ’s justice, but were also besides a certain work or merit, whereby we deserve to be just, which is quite repugnant to the nature of faith. For if for faith we were just and righteous, then faith were now no longer an acceptation of another’s righteousness, but were a merit and cause of our won justice; neither should it receive another’s satisfaction; which now it should have need of.” Ibid., 386.
[13] Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 60: “How are you righteous before God? Only by faith in Christ Jesus; so that although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously trespassed against all the commandments of God, and have not kept one of them, and further am as yet prone to all evil, yet notwithstanding, if I embrace these benefits of Christ with a true confidence and persuasion of mind, the full and perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, without any merit of mine, of the mere mercy of God, is imputed and given unto me, and that so, as if I neither had committed any sin, neither any corruption did stick unto me; yea, as if I myself had perfectly accomplished that obedience, which Christ accomplished for me.” Ibid., 379.

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