Are Good Works Efficacious unto Salvation?

Bill Evans head shot

My friend Rick Phillips has posted an extended blog post over on the Reformation21 website in which he responds to Mark Jones’ contention that works are in some sense efficacious for salvation. Rick’s response frames the matter primarily in terms of the evidentiary value of works and the fact that one will not be saved without them. In other words, good works are a necessary demonstration that one is already justified, and thus, to use the language of classic Reformed orthodoxy, they are a conditio sine qua non.

Two main concerns seem to be driving Phillips’ post. First, while he recognizes that there is an “eschatological” element to justification, he is leery of any construction suggesting that final justification somehow hangs on good works and faithful perseverance. This, he thinks, constitutes a “structural difference” which undercuts the certainty and finality of the justification we as Christians presently experience, and smacks of the teachings of N. T. Wright.   Implicated here, as we will see below, are some vital though complicated issues having to do with the time of justification.

Second, Phillips is rightly concerned to safeguard the biblical and Reformational truth that faith is the sole instrument of forensic justification, and in order to do this he thinks that we must “pointedly separate [the necessity of good works] from justification.”

To be sure, there is much that I agree with in Phillips’ post. We concur that faith is the sole instrument of justification, and that works do not provide the analytic or meritorious ground of justification. Furthermore, we agree that N. T. Wright’s contention that present justification is by faith and final justification is according to works is, well, wrong. As I’ve argued elsewhere, such teaching can undermine one’s assurance of salvation. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.

Why do I say this? In quite a few passages Paul makes it clear that those who persist unchanged and unrepentant in sinful patterns of behavior “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21). Similarly, in sobering fashion the writer of Hebrews underscores the fact that those who fail to persevere in faith will not be saved (Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31). Paul notes that his own perseverance in faith and faithfulness is essential to his final salvation (Philippians 3:7-11). This language seems to go beyond the notions of works as evidentiary and as merely something without which we will not be saved. There is a positive role for works and perseverance here, and if good works play a role in whether one makes it to the pearly gates then there is some sort of connection to justification. But how do we explain this role without falling into the ditch of legalism?

Conspicuous by its absence in Phillips’ post is any mention of the believer’s union with Christ (except in his quotation of Romans 8:1). But we must remember that references to “justification by faith” are best understood as a sort of theological shorthand, for we are “justified by faith” in that we are united with Christ by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, and that “in Christ” we receive what Calvin called the duplex gratia or “double grace” of justification and transformation of life. For this reason, we must not say, as Phillips seems to, that the necessity of good works pertains only to sanctification and not to justification, for the real issue, as Paul puts it, is to “gain Christ and to be found in him” (Philippians 3:8-9), who is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Thus it is that Paul strives and presses onward in faith and obedience.

This rootedness of justification in union with Christ has implications for our understanding of justification itself. To put it more precisely, to be justified in Christ is to be so joined with Christ that his own resurrection justification (which legally overturned the sentence of condemnation and declared him to be the righteous one) applies also to us. He was, as Paul declares in 1 Timothy 3:16 in reference to the resurrection, “justified in the Spirit” (KJV), and for this reason he was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). All this, of course, implies that justification is both forensic and relational—it is a legal judgment that is received through union with Christ by faith. Thus, to be “in Christ” is to be justified, and (if it were possible) to cease to be in union with Christ is no longer to be justified.

This rootedness of justification in union with Christ in turn has implications for the time of justification. But here it is important to grasp a bit of historical theology. Many Reformed theologians have sought to protect the gratuity of justification by temporally sequestering it from transformation of life so as to underscore that justification cannot depend upon sanctification. For example, some (e.g., Abraham Kuyper) have spoken of justification from eternity, but this completely abstracts justification from the ongoing life of faith and faithfulness. Less radically, others have adopted an ordo salutis (“order of salvation”) approach in which a once-for-all declaration of justification in time and space logically and temporally precedes sanctification. But the result here is the same as the first, in that justification is abstracted from the ongoing life of faith.   Thus it is that a good deal of conservative Reformed theology has been more or less unable to give a coherent account of the Christian life.

Much more satisfactory is the early Reformed conception of the believer’s participation in Christ’s resurrection justification that has been more recently retrieved by Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, and others. Vos, for example, rightly recognized that, because we participate in Christ’s resurrection justification, our justification has dynamic dimension to it. Vos wrote in his classic and seminal work The Pauline Eschatology (153-54):

Much light falls on the forensic significance of the resurrection in believers from a comparison with the case of Christ’s resurrection. The Spirit is in Christ the seal and fruit of his righteousness, and at the same time it is in Him through his exalted state, produced by the resurrection, the perpetual witness of the continuous status of righteousness in which He exists. In Him unintermittedly springs up that fountain of justification, from which all believers draw. To say that forgiveness of sin procured though the imputation of Christ’s merit constitutes only the initial act in the Christian life, and that thereafter, the slate having been wiped clean, there is no further need for nor allowance of recourse to it, all being thenceforth staked on sanctification, is, apart from all other criticism, wrong, because it ignores forensic righteousness as a vital factor in the exalted state of the Saviour. If this were not so, it would remain unexplainable why, in the matter of justification, Paul directs the gaze of faith not merely to the cross retrospectively, but likewise upward to the glorified existence of Christ in heaven, wherein all the merit of the cross is laid up and made available forever.

Although it is popular in Reformed circles to speak of justification as a once-for-all event (in contrast to the ongoing moral renovation of sanctification) our view of the time of justification must take this more biblical dynamic into account. Elsewhere I have written on this point:

Here the earlier Reformed notion of the resurrection justification of Christ opens up new possibilities, for it now becomes possible to move beyond the aporias of ordo salutis thinking. No longer is justification viewed as an abstract punctiliar decree in eternity or when a person believes. Rather, justification inheres once for all in the person of Christ, the resurrected and justified one. The believer’s justification, then, is viewed as a continual and ongoing participation in the one divine forensic decree of justification—the resurrection justification of Christ. Such a decree of justification is both analytic (in the case of Christ) and synthetic (for the believer). . . . As to the time of justification, to speak theologically, the Christian’s justification is intended in the eternal purposes of God; it is objectively declared at the resurrection of Christ; it is subjectively realized in the ongoing union with Christ by faith and the Holy Spirit; and it is conclusively ratified at the eschaton (Imputation and Impartation, 265).

Because our forensic justification is found always in Christ, and only in Christ, there can be no “structural difference” between present justification and future justification of the sort Phillips references. Justification is always by faith and by faith alone as we are continually joined with Christ and look to him for righteousness.

Having laid this biblical-theological foundation we are now better able to see how works are “efficacious” unto salvation and thus related to justification. Here, however, we must understand that works relate to justification, not directly as the analytic or meritorious ground of justification, but indirectly through union with Christ by faith. The lessons of experience as well as Scripture teach us that good works are essential to faith. Faith that is not strengthened and deepened by the ongoing patterns of obedience that flow from faith as we trust God in every aspect of our lives simply will not last. Any pastor worth his salt quickly learns that many if not most crises of faith are caused by lifestyle issues and disobedience. The decision to disobey God often sooner or later leads to a process of cognitive bargaining that asks, “Has God really said?”

In other words, we need to realize that the relationship between faith and obedience is a two-way street. On the one hand, a true and living faith will issue in good works, as both Paul and James agree. On the other hand, good works are also essential to a true and living faith. This latter truth seems to be what James was driving at when he said of Abraham that “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22).

We conclude from this that good works are efficacious unto salvation, but in a carefully and biblically defined way that is properly zealous to protect the graciousness and gratuity of justification.