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

Note: Please see Part I , Part II and Part III

III. Summary and Critique

Faith or Faithfulness—What Is At Stake?

By the end of the seventeenth century the Reformed creeds, preeminently the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Canons of Dordt (1619) and the Westminster Standards (1647), affirmed, as over against Roman Catholicism, that faith, defined as leaning and resting in Christ’s righteousness, is the alone instrument in the justification, and that the fruits of sanctification were a logical and consequential necessity to God’s act of justifying the sinner.[1] This has been the historic Reformed position.

The consequence of defining faith merely as receptive and instrumental is of immense importance. If a sinner’s personal righteousness is as a filthy rag having no inherent value before God, and God demands of the sinner a perfect and replete righteousness to stand in his presence, then the act of God’s free justification must also provide an active righteousness wholly outside of the sinner.[2]

As stated, the Protestant doctrine of justification asserts the need not only for the remission of sins by the merit of Christ’s death, but also the imputation of his active righteousness.[3] This righteousness includes both his passive obedience in the shedding of his blood, and active obedience in fulfilling the requirements of the law for the sinner. The Reformers correctly understood that when faith is defined as having some sort of inherent value in itself, the very thing that becomes lost is the sinner’s need for the active obedience of Christ. This is exactly what has happened in both the formulations of Norman Shepherd and the FV.

Rome sought to answer this need for righteousness through the doctrine of the infusion of virtue in the act of justification by faith. Robert Bellarmine, the great Roman apologist, said that the thing that makes us righteous before God and causes us to be accepted to life everlasting, is remission of sins and the habit of inward righteousness, or charity with the fruits thereof.[4] For Bellarmine, the only real benefit of Christ’s work for the sinner lies in Christ’s passive obedience in laying down his life for the forgiveness of sin to make it possible for the sinner to receive grace and to make it possible for the sinner to do his part by cooperating with grace given in the sacraments toward final justification

As stated, this is logical to Rome’s view; for if the inward habit of righteousness is infused into the sinner, and justifying faith is said to include these habits, the need for a righteousness outside the sinner becomes unnecessary.

It is shocking how similar Bellarmine’s articulation is to that of the FV. Consistently we find in the FV’s formulation of justifying faith the inculcation of virtue that becomes a ground of God’s acceptance of the sinner. The works/merit principle is denied on the premise that the sinner fulfills his side of the covenant with an obedient faith. Thus, faith defined as virtue and obedience de facto becomes the ground for the sinner’s justification. Fundamentally, this is Rome’s view. In fact, Bellarmine’s position has a one to one correspondence to Rich Lusk’s and the FV’s denial of the need for the imputation of Christ’s active obedience.

These works [Christ’s] were not accumulating points that would be credited to Jesus’ people; rather, they were vocation fulfilling acts that prepared the way for the “one Man’s righteous act,” namely his death on the cross…The active obedience itself, then, is not saving in itself. Rather, it’s the prediction of his saving work in his death and resurrection.[5]

From the beginning this was a fundamental difference between the Protestant and the Roman doctrine of justification. When justifying faith becomes anything other than apprehending and receiving Christ and his benefits, the need for the active righteousness of Christ is subverted to our own righteousness, or in Rome’s case, as with Norman Shepherd and the FV, to the habit of the infused or inherent righteousness of hope, charity and other virtues into the nature of justifying faith. Therefore, the consequence to Rome’s doctrine of infusion was that it removed all need for the imputation of what Martin Luther and the Reformed called “an alien righteousness”, making justification only an issue of the remission of sins. We find the very same position and consequence in the teachings of Norman Shepherd and the FV.

For the Reformers, Rome’s denial of the need for the imputation of Christ’s active obedience to the sinners account, while substituting an infused or inherent righteousness into the sinner for justification, was none other than a denial of the gospel itself. Should we see it any differently?

The Double Grace of Justification and Sanctification

Rome’s great charge against the Reformed doctrine of justification was that it would lead to antinomianism. This is the very same concern articulated above that drives the covenant theology of Norman Shepherd and the FV. The Reformed answer to this charge is a simple one. For the Reformers, the question of the necessity of virtue (good works) in the life of the believer was without dispute.[6] The crucial difference was in understanding the place where it is appropriate to speak of the necessity of works. In response to Trent’s anathematizing of those who hold to the Protestant doctrine of justification, Calvin wrote in response to Canon XI:

I wish the reader to understand that as often as we mention Faith alone in this question, we are not thinking of a dead faith, which worketh not by love, but holding faith to be the only cause of justification (Gal. 5:6; Rom. 3:22). It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone…we do not separate the whole grace of regeneration from faith, but claim the power and faculty of justifying entirely for faith, as we ought.[7]

Again, in response to Canon IX Calvin wrote:

They imagine that a man is justified by faith without any movement of his own will, as if it were not with the heart that a man believeth unto righteousness. Between them and us there is a difference, that they persuade themselves that the movement comes from man himself, whereas we maintain that faith is voluntary, because God draws our wills to himself. And, that when we say that a man is justified by faith alone, we do not fancy a faith devoid of charity, but we mean that faith alone is the cause of justification."[8] -

When Calvin here speaks of the faith that justifies as not being alone, he is simply asserting that the faith which apprehends and receives Christ and his benefits is alone sufficient to justify the sinner, apart from all works. The distinction is crucial. Faith alone in the merits of Christ is sufficient to justify, and a faith that has genuinely received Christ will, consequently, bear fruit. Good works are a necessary and logical consequence of a receptive faith that has laid hold of Christ and his benefits, but they in no way contribute to God’s act of justifying the sinner. In this way, as the Reformed confessions declare, Christ remains not half a savior, but a complete savior who satisfies all the demands of divine justice in the sinner’s stead.[9]

The charge that the doctrine of justification will lead to antinomianism is premised upon a false dichotomy between justification and sanctification. Ursinus asked the question as to whether good works are necessary for salvation.

Good works are not required, that by them we may apprehend Christ’s merit, and much less that for them we should be justified; but that by them we may show our faith, which without good works is dead, and it not know by them, that is, good works are required as effects of faith, and, as it were a testimony of our thankfulness towards God.[10]

Ursinus speaks later of good works as a logical and consequential priority of having been justified.[11] The justified sinner now desires to live a holy and obedient life, not to produce his own righteousness, but as a testimony of gratitude for having received, by imputation, the perfect and complete righteousness of Christ. Thus, the act of God justifying the sinner is not something separated from the life of sanctification. There is an inseparable connection between justification and sanctification, yet there are not to be mingled or confused. [12] Both justification and sanctification, respectively, become a double-grace of God in the life of the Christian.

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[13]

This two-fold benefit of God’s grace not only gives to the believer the forensic declaration that he stands acquitted before God’s throne, but that he also receives as a gift, consequently, the grace of sanctification.[14]

Therefore, when the apostle Paul spoke of “faith working together with love” in Galatians 5:6, he was simply affirming the necessity of the believer’s sanctification.[15] The same is true of James chapter 2. Shepherd, and many FV advocates view James 2 as a statement of Abraham’s forensic justification and apply his obedience to the very faith that was credited to him as righteousness. In context, however, James is dealing with the classic problem of those who say they are Christians, but their lives don’t correspond with any fruit. James is actually dealing with the FV concern of antinomianism!

Essentially, this is the same question that Paul raises in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then shall we go on sinning that grace may abound? Certainly not, how shall we who have died to sin live any longer in it.” In the preceding chapters of Romans, Paul explains how a sinner is forensically justified by faith alone in Christ. Paul then explains in chapters 6-8 that the consequence of forensic justification is a life of being no longer under sin’s bondage.

James is working from this same paradigm and is juxtaposing two very different kinds of faith—true faith with false faith. In James 2:19, James speaks of the faith of demons, and is warning of the danger of having this kind of false faith. This faith is useless, dead, and does not save. Thus, James is not addressing true faith, fiducia; he is saying that the faith that is without works does not justify. Therefore when we come to verse 24, “you see that by works a man is justified and not by faith alone,” James is warning against this kind of dead faith that is without works.

This dead faith is juxtaposed with the kind of faith that Abraham had, namely a faith that believed God. This is the kind of faith that justifies, the kind that ”believed God and it was accounted as righteousness (Gen.15:6, cf Rom. 4).” In verse 21, however, James presents the Isaac incident as a fulfillment of what had already been declared decades earlier when Abraham believed God. The word justify in this context is purely demonstrative as verse 24 states, “you see then…” Just as in Matthew 11:19 where we read, “wisdom is justified by her children,” justification is not used in a declarative but demonstrative sense; so too, James is saying, “Abraham, as he was showing himself to be Abraham, was the man of true faith.” This is a much different position than saying, as Shepherd and the FV do, that the instrument of forensic, soteric justification includes faith and works.

The Belgic Confession Article 24 “On the Sanctification of Sinners”, summarizes the Biblical position beautifully,

We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a "new man," causing him to live the "new life" and freeing him from the slavery of sin. Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. So then, it is impossible for this holy faith to be unfruitful in a human being, seeing that we do not speak of an empty faith but of what Scripture calls "faith working through love," which leads a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word. These works, proceeding from the good root of faith, are good and acceptable to God, since they are all sanctified by his grace. Yet they do not count toward our justification-- for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works. Otherwise they could not be good, any more than the fruit of a tree could be good if the tree is not good in the first place. So then, we do good works, but nor for merit-- for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who "works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure"-- thus keeping in mind what is written: "When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.' " Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works-- but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts. Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment. And even if we could point to one, memory of a single sin is enough for God to reject that work. So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior.[16]

In response to Rome, Shepherd and the FV, we confess that our works flow from the good root of faith as a fruit and inseparable companion. Faith is not devoid of love or charity, but these virtues are to be recognized not in the act of God’s justification of the sinner, but rather as the fruits of sanctification, logically and consequential to justifying faith. William Perkins made a statement some four hundred years ago that so eloquently answers our present-day controversy.

The doctrine which we teach on the contrary is that a sinner is justified before God by faith, yes, by faith alone. The meaning is, that nothing within man, and nothing that man can do, either by nature, or by grace, concurs to the act of justification before God, as an cause thereof, either efficient, material, formal, or final, but faith alone. All other gifts and graces, as hope, love, the fear of God, are necessary to salvation, as signs thereof and consequents of faith. Nothing in any man concurs as any cause to this work but faith alone. And faith itself is no principal, but only an instrumental cause whereby we receive apprehend, and apply Christ and his righteousness for our justification.[17]

After careful historical, theological, and biblical study of Norman Shepherd and the FV’s views concerning justifying faith and the role of good works in the believers salvation, we maintain confidently that we are again (re)introduced to another gospel, which, as Paul said, “is no gospel at all, but one that seeks to pervert the true gospel by seeking perfection through the flesh (Gal. 3:1-3).” Biblical and confessional Reformed Christianity has spoken clearly over the last four hundred years regarding justification and its relationship to sanctification. Faith alone in the merits of Christ is sufficient to justify, and a faith that has genuinely received Christ will, consequently, bear fruit. Good works are a necessary and logical consequence of a receptive faith that has laid hold of Christ and his benefits, but they in no way contribute to God’s act of justifying the sinner. Many FV proponents deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, redefine faith in God’s act of justifying the sinner so as to include obedience as an instrument—thereby mingling justification and sanctification, and call into question the once for all forensic declarative act of justification.

At this time, more than ever, we are called to engage in warfare for the truth of the gospel we confess as Reformed Christians. The heart of everything we believe concerning our gospel has been called into question. When J. Gresham Machen was on his deathbed he cried in thanksgiving for the active obedience of Christ, confessing that there is no hope without it. This is the only ground by which sinners will be able to stand before a holy and just God. Let us be content to receive Jesus Christ’s active and passive obedience in no other way than by the outstretched hand of faith—and with Martin Luther and the entire Reformed tradition, here we stand!

[1]See Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 21: “What is true faith?: It is not only a certain knowledge whereby I surely assent to all things which God has revealed unto us in his word, but also an assured trust kindled in my heart by the holy ghost through the gospel, whereby I make my repose in God, being assuredly resolved that remission of sin, everlasting righteousness, and life is given, not to others only, but to me also, and that freely, through the mercy of God, for the merit of Christ alone (ed. mine).” Ursinus, Christian Religion, 133. Belgic Confession, Art. 22, “ … we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.” HC Q. A. 62: “But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God? Because the righteousness which can stand before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly conformable to the divine law ….” Canons of Dordt, Second Head of Doctrine: Rejection of Errors IV: Having set forth the orthodox teaching, the Synod rejects the errors of those…Who teach that what is involved in the new covenant of grace which God the Father made with men through the intervening of Christ's death is not that we are justified before God and saved through faith, insofar as it accepts Christ's merit, but rather that God, having withdrawn his demand for perfect obedience to the law, counts faith itself, and the imperfect obedience of faith, as perfect obedience to the law, and graciously looks upon this as worthy of the reward of eternal life.For they contradict Scripture: They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ, whom God presented as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood (Rom. 3:24-25). And along with the ungodly Socinus, they introduce a new and foreign justification of man before God, against the consensus of the whole church.
[2] Isaiah 64:6.
[3]Calvin, Institutes, 726.7. Calvin writes, 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.
[4] Joseph Bellarmine. de justif.1.2.chap. 7
[5] Lusk, Federal Vision, 77.
[6] CF Belgic Confession Article 24.
[7] John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent” 3:152'
[8] John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent” 3:151'
[9] Cf. Belgic Confession, Article 22.
[10]Ursinus, Christian Religion, 390.
[11] Ibid., 513-14.
[12] Calvin writes, “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them. This alone is of importance: having admitted that faith and good works must cleave together, we still lodge justification in faith, not in works. We have a ready explanation for doing this, provided we turn to Christ to whom our faith is directed and from whom it receives its full strength'. (Inst. III.16.1)
[13] Calvin, Institutes, III.xi.1.
[14] See R.S. Clark. Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ. Rurtherford Studies in Historical Theology (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005).
[15] John Calvin, “Acts of the Council of Trent” 3:151.

[16] Belgic Confession Article 24 (emphasis mine).
[17] Perkins, Reformed Catholik, 572.


  1. I think a lot of this comes down to how each side views the Law. I as a Catholic read passages like Gal 3:21 and believe it is saying the Law never justifies in the first place, so the notion of imputing righteousness makes no sense.

    I go over this in my apologetics article on Eph 2:8 -

  2. "As a sinner, how will you ever have a righteoness that will stand the scrutiny of God's justice?"

    That isn't really a main concern for Paul. What is his real concern is Adoption and that Gentiles and Jews are on the same level, both require the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit to become Adopted children of God.(Gal 3:1,14)

    "Without imputation, were done."

    I disagree. Paul never says this and it is a false solution because it does not follow Paul's argument. The fact Scripture never talks of an imputed alien righteousness is a serious problem if imputation is our only hope.

    "Look carefully at Gal. 3:12 and it's OT connection."

    I'm not sure what you want me to see. I'd ask to you look carefully at 3:17 and 3:21 and realize the Law was never meant to save, so keeping it perfectly still wont justify.

  3. As a sinner, how will you ever have a righteoness that will stand the scrutiny of God's justice? Without imputation, we're done. Look carefully at Gal. 3:12 and it's OT connection. Protestants have been clear on Rome's great error for over four-hundred years. I plead with you, look to Christ.