The Necessity of Good Works

Are good works “necessary to the attainment of eternal life,” as A. A. Hodge wrote at one point? Is that simply what the Confession of Faith and Catechisms say?

“Necessary” is actually a word infrequently used in the Westminster Standards. It appears six times in the first chapter of the Confession (on Scripture), as in:

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all:p yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

The Divines also use it once in the chapter on vows:

It is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone:n and, that it may be accepted, it is to be made voluntarily, out of faith, and conscience of duty, in way of thankfulness for mercy received, or for the obtaining of what we want, whereby we more strictly bind ourselves to necessary duties; or, to other things, so far and so long as they may fitly conduce thereunto. (22.6)

It comes up once in the 23rd chapter on the civil magistrate, such that wars are sometimes legitimate on “necessary occasion(s).

In chapter 28, baptizing a person by dipping is not “necessary.”

And in chapter 30 church censures are “necessary” for reclaiming unrepentant sinners.

The language of necessity attached to good works’ utility in securing eternal life is not present.

The Shorter Catechism (if my Adobe search capacities are reliable) uses “unnecessary” only once in A. 61 in relation to words, works, and thoughts about worldly employments and recreations, as in those activities that do not qualify for works of “necessity and mercy.”

The Larger Catechism uses “necessary” seven times, all in connection with duties that superiors have to inferiors, the way to pray, or certain implications of the Decalogue.

But for anything close to an assertion that good works are necessary for eternal life or salvation, the Standards say so only by inferences drawn from the mind of the one inferring.

Perhaps the language or “require” will help. But here again, if you look at the Shorter Catechism on the duty God requires, you may wind up backing away from Hodge’s claim.

Of course, Q. & A. 39 state explicitly that God requires all people to obey his law:

Q. 39. What is the duty which God requireth of man?
A. The duty which God requireth of man, is obedience to his revealed will.

That answer introduces a lengthy commentary on the Ten Commandments.

Those reflections end with this:

Q. 82. Is any man able perfectly to keep the commandments of God?
A. No mere man, since the fall, is able in this life perfectly to keep the commandments of God, but doth daily break them in thought, word, and deed.

Conceivably, someone could receive eternal life by good works if that person lived a perfect life. But the fall sort of threw a wrench into that relationship between obedience leading to salvation. The Shorter Catechism puts that reality in a fairly pithy way:

Q. 84. What doth every sin deserve?
A. Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come.

Have a nice day.

It’s not a question of how many good works will secure your salvation. It is a problem than one sin condemns you to God’s wrath. Good works aren’t going to make up for that.

So what is the remedy? What does God require for eternal life? Again, the Shorter Catechism is crisp if not clear:

Q. 85. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
A. To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us faith in Jesus Christ, repentance unto life, with the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

If someone was looking for an affirmation of the value that good works perform in obtaining eternal life, that would be a good place to find it.

And in case you are thinking that repentance is in the good works ballpark, you might have to find a different stadium since “Repentance Unto Life” is the chapter before “Good Works” in the Confession. Granted, repentance is necessary to perform good works:

By it, a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments. (15.2)

Repentance is part of the motivation for a good work. But for a work to be good, it must meet three criteria: a heart “purified by faith,” in a manner that conforms to Scripture, and for the end of God’s glory. (16.7)

19 thoughts on “The Necessity of Good Works

  1. “for a work to be good, it must meet three criteria: a heart “purified by faith,” in a manner that conforms to Scripture, and for the end of God’s glory.”

    Excellent. My litmus test for everything is, ‘How does this glorify God?’I apply it to woke ‘christianity’, celibate gay ‘christians’, etc…
    But obviously such a litmus must cannot be lacking the other two. God does not seek to confuse. Scriptural and mental gymnastics used to promote a strange doctrine mostly derived from outside sources to fulfill a political and/or carnal motivation is best left …

    with the liberals.

    “the most fundamental difference between liberalism and Christianity…liberalism is altogether in the imperative mood, while Christianity begins with a triumphant indicative; liberalism appeals to man’s will, while Christianity announces, first, a gracious act of God.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Guys like Thabiti Anyabwile promote spiritual slavery.
    “ The grace of God is rejected …the result is slavery—the slavery of the law, the wretched bondage by which man undertakes the impossible task of establishing his own righteousness as a ground of acceptance with God.

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  3. Is Hodge saying that good works are necessary to merit eternal life or is he saying that good works are necessarily a consequence of being on the path to eternal life? He Heidelberg Catechism says:

    Q. What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
    A. Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.

    Q. What is the dying-away of the old self?
    A. To be genuinely sorry for sin and more and more to hate and run away from it.

    Q. What is the rising-to-life of the new self?
    A. Wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.

    Q. What are good works?
    A. Only those which are done out of true faith, conform to God’s law, and are done for God’s glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.

    So is it possible to repent of one’s sins and not do good works? If sin includes “want of conformity” to God’s law and one repents of it, doesn’t that entail conformity to God’s law? Or is the Heidelberg catechism inconsistent with the Westminster standards? It seems fairly congruent with this:

    By [repentence] a sinner, out of the sight and sense not only of the danger, but also of the filthiness and odiousness of his sins, as contrary to the holy nature, and righteous law of God; and upon the apprehension of his mercy in Christ to such as are penitent, so grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with him in all the ways of his commandments.

    Although repentance be not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof…yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.

    So it looks to me like the Westminster standards are saying that 1. repentance entails good works and 2. while repentance does not merit salvation, everyone who is saved will repent.

    Doesn’t that imply that all the elect will necessarily produce good works?

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  4. DGHart says: What does God require for eternal life? Again, the Shorter Catechism is crisp if not clear:
    Q. 85. What doth God require of us, that we may escape his wrath and curse, due to us for sin?
    A. To escape the wrath and curse of God, due to us for sin, God requireth of us
    1)faith in Jesus Christ,
    2)repentance unto life,
    3)the diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption.

    #3, hmm.

    This debate has to do with the character of GOD, doesn’t it? Every good tree bears good fruit. We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

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  5. Jones is claiming it’s a right vs possession distinction that is best understood through the Latin. He further posits agreement with Mastricht that justification is a three phase scheme, establishment, continuation, consummation. You have the RIGHT to eternal life but don’t POSSESS eternal life UNTIL consummation and that of necessity is by non-meritorious works. So, your possession of Christ and all that entails is not by faith alone but by faith and works.

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  6. Who’s Jones? I’m obviously way out of my league. Is he reformed and claiming justification is somehow conditioned on works?

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  7. Sean,
    Thanks for the pointer. If he wanted to make the case that his view is in the mainstream of historic Reformed theology, I would think that he would contend with the standards. In the Belgic I read,

    “ We believe that this true faith, produced in us by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates us and makes us new creatures, causing us to live a new life and freeing us from the slavery of sin…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 moves people to do by themselves the works that God has commanded in the Word.
    These works…do not count toward our justification—for by faith in Christ we are justified, even before we do good works…
    So then, we do good works, but not for merit—
    for what would we merit? 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.”

    Perhaps this sounds like less of an utter repudiation of Jones’s claims in the original Latin?

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  8. Haha. Jack’s article links to Marshall’s treatment of right and possession. It seems to be yet another way someone can be Shepherdian without affirming Shepherd on justification. Also, thank goodness for the graduate students in history remedying the enormous deficits of their North American predecessors. 21st century North American church history guys(except for recent doctoral students like himself) apparently suck.

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  9. Gaffin, lecture on Romans 2:13—That judgement decides…the ultimate outcome for all believers and for all humanity, believers as well as unbelievers. It’s a life and death situation that’s in view here. Further, this ultimate judgement has as its criterion or standard, brought into view here, the criterion for that judgement is works, good works. The doing of the law, as that is the criterion for all human beings, again, believers as well as unbelievers. In fact, in the case of the believer a positive outcome is in view and that positive outcome is explicitly said to be justification. So, again the point on the one side of the passage is that eternal life… depends on and follows from a future justification according to works. Eternal life follows upon a future justification by doing the law.

    DGH: It’s not a question of how many good works will secure your salvation. It is a problem than one sin condemns you to God’s wrath. Good works aren’t going to make up for that.

    Amen to Hart and to the rest of the OPC that agrees with Hart on this. Many dismiss Hart’s reading as ” the hypothetical view”. I call it “the empty set” view. Only a falsely triumphalistic view would claim that Christ’s redemption has now removed the antithesis between law and gospel. Those who are not justified yet do no good works yet. “Dead works” are sins.

    (though not a member of the true church) Gill was a guy who also liked to do inferences from silence.

    John Gill–1. no such thing is ever to be found in the scriptures, namely, that good works are necessary to salvation. But if this was so principal a part of evangelic truth, as the adversaries plead, it should, be contained in express words in the scriptures

    2. The apostle treating of the causes of our salvation, removes good works, and entirely excludes them; and teaches, that he only has blessedness, to whom God imputes righteousness without works, Romans 4:6. Compare Ephesians 2:8, Titus 3:5. If therefore good works are entirely excluded from the causes of salvation, how will the same be necessary to salvation?

    3. That which is not necessary to our justification is not necessary to salvation. But good works are not necessary to justification.

    4. If we are saved by grace, then good works are not necessary to salvation; for the antithesis remains firm, If of grace, then not of works, otherwise grace is not grace, Romans 11:6. Romans 6:23. Ephesians 2:8, 9.

    5. If by the obedience of one Christ we all obtain justification of life and salvation, then we are not saved by our own obedience: Romans 5:17-19

    6. What is ascribed to faith alone, as it is contradistinguished from works, that is not to be attributed to works: But salvation is ascribed to faith alone, John 3:16; Mark 16:16; Romans 1:17 and 4:6; Galatians 3:11;Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:5. Heb 10:38.

    7. What is necessary to salvation is prescribed and required in the evangelic doctrine, Romans 1:16. and 3:27. But good works, as necessary to salvation, are not prescribed in the gospel John 3:16 and 6:40; Romans 1:17 and 4:6, seeing the law is the doctrine of works, the gospel the doctrine of faith, Romans 3:27; Galatians 3:12.

    8. If good works were necessary to salvation, we should have whereof to glory; but the Holy Spirit takes away all glorying from us, and for this very reason excludes good works from hence, Ephesians 2:8, 9. Romans 3:27 and 4:1, 2.

    9. Wherever the scripture produces reasons for which good works are necessary, it mentions quite others, than that they are necessary to salvation; namely, that we ought diligently to perform good works, because of God, because of Christ, because of the holy Spirit, because of the holy angels, because of our neighbor, because of ourselves, yea, even because of the devil.

    https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/10/13/john-gill-good-works-necessary-for-salvation/

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  10. My hope is built on nothing less
    Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
    I dare not trust the sweetest frame
    But wholly lean on Jesus name

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  11. Schreiner’s notion of two stages of justification is not new to Beale and Moo.
    James K Smith–That the English Puritan John Flavel constantly appears in this new collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson will surprise no one. .. As she recounts again and again in different chapters, Flavel entertained the idea of a two-stage judgment: he “considers the thought that we might all be judged twice, once when we die and again when the full consequences of our lives have played themselves out.” The notion depends on a unique intersection of eternity and history. Appointed once to die, we face the judgment, but the judgment in eternity takes account of time’s arrow in history. It’s like your soul gets a callback when the repercussions of your life have played themselves out across subsequent generations. The end of your life is not the end of your responsibility.

    https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5181/marilynne-robinsons-apologia-gloriae/

    Moo, “Justification in Galatians”,( p 172, Understanding the Times)—”Nor is there any need to set Paul’s juridicial and participationist categories in opposition to one another (see Gaffin, By Faith Not By Sight). The problem of positing a union with Christ that precedes the erasure of our legal condemnation before God CAN BE ANSWERED IF WE POSIT TWO STAGES OF “JUSTIFICATION”, one involving Christ’s payment of our legal debt–the basis for our regeneration–and second our actual justification–stemming from our union with Christ.”

    Gaffin—”Despite the exegesis of some Reformed commentators, this Romans 6 death to sin is almost certainly not to the guilt that sin incurs and justification. In view, rather, is a definitive deliverance from sin’s over-mastering power to being enslaved instead to God and righteousness. That Spirit-worked deliverance, NOT JUSTIFICATION, grounds and provides the dynamic for the believer’s beginning to “walk in newness of life” (6:4), their being enslaved in their conduct to God and righteousness….The crucial soteriological truth is that in the inception of the application of redemption, at the moment sinners are united to Christ by faith, they are delivered from sin’s enslaving power,

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  12. McMark quotes Gaffin: “The crucial soteriological truth is that in the inception of the application of redemption, at the moment sinners are united to Christ by faith, they are delivered from sin’s enslaving power”

    Good works are inevitable. Neo-nomianism solved.

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  13. Darryl, because strict merit isn’t possible. But then what about congruent? It’s complicated but such is life when you’re trying to not be soteriologically Lutheran. Btw, how is the council of American Church History Professors who don’t read Latin going?

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