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God’s Word and Reformed theology teach that our ultimate acceptance with God is grounded in Christ’s imputed righteousness, received by faith alone apart from human works. This precious truth, in fact, is central to the good news. Why, then, doesn’t it seem like good news to some people, particularly to our Roman Catholic friends and loved ones?

Not Fire Insurance

According to the Council of Trent (1545–63), justification is a process in which one becomes increasingly righteous. So, to Roman Catholic ears, the Protestant conviction that God accepts us by “faith alone” often sounds like “cheap grace.” Many of them hear us saying: “Don’t worry about pursuing a life of holiness. Just say the sinner’s prayer, walk this aisle, and then you’ll be safe for all of eternity.” Many Roman Catholics view our doctrine of justification as a kind of fire insurance, requiring a minimal investment in exchange for an eternal payoff.

Of course, the idea that one can simply say a sinner’s prayer and be assured of salvation is certainly not what the Reformers or Puritans taught. They were clear that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.1 As John Calvin wrote, “We dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them.”2 Calvin was hardly alone in this conviction. From the sixteenth century to the present, evangelical theology at its best has always emphasized that the purpose of salvation is maturity in Christ for the glory of God, not mere fire insurance.

J.I. Packer helpfully explains how this tradition is ultimately rooted in the teaching of Jesus:

A man must know that, in the words of the first of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, “when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,” and he must also know what repentance involves. More than once, Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me . . . whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same (but only he) shall save it.”3

The Necessity of Good Works

So, what does this life of repentance look like?

Over against the ideas of Roman Catholic renewal advocates, the Reformers refused to see Jesus as merely an ethical paradigm for Christianity. Rather, they insisted on the spiritual union of believers with the crucified and risen Christ as the guiding impulse of faith (John 15:5; 1 Cor. 6:15–19; Eph. 1:7–13). “Did we in our own strength confide,” Luther wrote, “our striving would be losing.” We come to the Savior full of weakness and find His grace sufficient.

The purpose of salvation is maturity in Christ for the glory of God.

But how do we find God’s empowering grace to be sufficient? Contrary to popular opinion, it is not by reducing the Christian life to mere forgiveness by God. In Oswald Bayer’s words, “The new human is no grotesque caricature who spends his life in a darkened room, reciting with closed eyes, ‘I am justified by faith alone, I am justified by faith alone.’”4 While Reformation Protestants asserted that we are justified by faith alone, this faith does not remain alone, “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them,” Calvin said.5

Such good works are not extra credit for religious overachievers; they are the natural unfolding of our lives and callings as children of God. We disagree with our Roman Catholic friends who see divine acceptance as a sacramental process that consists in moral virtues and good works. Nevertheless, we insist that authentic faith nurtures and produces good works.

Remember the biblical balance. Salvation may not be achieved “by” works, but it certainly bears the fruit of works in the lives of those whom God saves. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” said Paul, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13).

 

  1. The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love” (WCF 11.2). ↩︎
  2. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 1:798 (3.16.1). ↩︎
  3. J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 72. ↩︎
  4. Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 27. ↩︎
  5. John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, (3.16.1). ↩︎

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