Concerns about the "Efficacy" of Works

Posted by

I continue to hope that the recent debate/controversy over sanctification will lend clarity and light to readers.  For this to happen, we will have to labor hard for biblical depth and balance.  In my opinion, those who are opposing the biblical doctrine of sanctification are motivated mainly by a wounded terror regarding legalism.  As I have recently written, legalism is a constant and deadly error.  Yet we must not oppose one error by advancing another error, which I believe is happening in some quarters.  With this in mind, those of us wanting to avoid antinomianism must not only avoid genuine neonomianism but must be seen to do so.  We must argue for sanctification and good works in a way that safeguards the legitimate concerns of those who struggle against legalism.  In this cause, having criticized Tullian Tchividjian's teaching in downplaying good works and obedience, let me now express concerns about the way that good works are described as efficacious by Mark Jones in his article Good Works Necessary for Salvation?

In saying this, I am not making any accusation against Mark, who I think has been very helpful in critiquing antinomian tendencies that are popular today.  Nonetheless, in reading Mark's post on the necessity of good works, I confess to having something more than mere qualms. 

I would summarize Mark Jones' argument as stating, first, that good works are necessary to salvation in that one cannot normally be saved without them.  Most Puritans would say that works are necessary as the evidence of saving faith and also as the way by which the justified believer advances through life to glory.  But there are some Puritans who go beyond the mere necessity of works to salvation but who make a good biblical case for the efficacy of good works in salvation.  Citing van Mastricht and John Owen with reference to Romans 2:7 and Romans 8:13, Jones posits that a fully biblical view will see good works as playing an efficacious role in God granting eternal life to his people.  This, as I read him, is Jones' argument.

Let me respond, first, by fully endorsing the teaching that good works are necessary to salvation.  This is clearly the Bible's teaching so long as works are seen as a consequence and not a condition of justification.  As Jim Boice used to teach, whereas Rome says that faith + works = justification, the Reformation says that faith = justification + works.  We are not saved by good works but we are certainly saved to them (Eph. 2:10).  So vital is this component of good works that without them one cannot be seen to be saved.  In this vital sense, works are necessary to salvation.  Amen and Amen.

I am less eager to support the teaching of good works as efficacious in salvation, however, regardless of the Puritan gravitas attached to the idea.  Now, if what we mean by the efficacy of works in attaining eternal life is James' teaching that faith without works is dead, so that the evidence of work is needed to justify our faith, then I will of course agree.  Moreover, if we mean that works are efficacious, as Owen says, "as the way wherein we ought to walk, for the coming to and obtaining of the inheritance so fully purchased and freely given," then I will earnestly bow once again to Owen's lucid biblical accuracy.  But when we suggest that works enter into the instrumentality of salvation, so that in the consummation of our salvation eternal life is granted on the basis of good works, then I find myself expressing both objections and concerns. 

In raising these concerns, I am not accusing Mark Jones of teaching that works are an instrumental condition of the Christian's justification.  I am rather raising concern about the need to be clear in avoiding this kind of implication.  To this end, I will raise specific concerns about two arguments that are advanced in Jones' piece in support of the efficacy of good works to salvation.

First, I am persuaded that we must avoid any approach to justification in which "present justification" is structurally contrasted with "final justification."  Frankly, I dislike even these terms, given that they suggest that our present justification may not in some way be final.  I do realize, of course, that there is an eschatology to justification just as there is to salvation as a whole.  But Christians are not justified one way in the present and justified another way when Jesus returns. 

I do not mean this as a slur against either Mark Jones or the Puritans, but this is in fact the structuring of justification that so many of us have been opposing in the writings of N. T. Wright.  Wright says that present justification is by faith alone but future justification is by works.  Present justification by faith is merely a pledge of good works to follow and it is the good works that actually justify.  Now, this is not what Mark Jones is saying and please understand that I am not accusing him of being a New Perspectivalist.  Nonetheless, I object to a teaching on justification that sees a "present," "continuing," and "consummate" form of justification in which there are structural differences.  Yet, unless I am mistaken, this is precisely the configuration which Jones commends in his citation from van Mastricht.  No, I am not accusing either Jones or Mastricht of being a neonomian or federal visionist.  I do nonetheless object to any structure whereby our "present justification" is not seen to be conclusive. 

This is not to downplay the importance of perseverance in faith, in which works do play so important a role.  But even in perseverance, works must be limited to "evidence" and "way," or else we end up with a final justification that is different from present justification.  In the New Testament, present justification through a true and living faith is absolutely conclusive, so that John 3:36 says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life" (notice the present tense).  See also John 5:24, where Jesus treats present justification through faith as eternally conclusive.  This is the very argument we have been making against NT Wright, the New Perspective and the Federal Vision, and I would plead for us all to avoid this configuration in advocating good works and sanctification.  Those who are justified by faith now will be justified on the last day when Christ returns and on the same ground: faith alone in the person and work of Christ.  Will our works be present on the last day?  They will, to stop the mouths of those who accuse the people of Christ and to bear full testimony to the saving achievement of Christ through the gracious gift of faith. 

So what about Matthew 25:34-46, where Jesus in the final judgment praises the good works of the sheep, in contrast to the goats?  Again, our answer is that this shows how necessary works are as evidence of true and saving faith and as the fruits of a true conversion.  But to see these works as efficacious with any sense of instrumentality requires us to have two doctrines of justification, one present and one future, in such a way that justification through faith alone is simply not conclusive.  But this is contrary to Paul's constant emphasis: "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1).  That "now" is not provisional, but conclusive and final.   

Second, I would indeed quarrel with an interpretation of Romans 2:7 and Romans 8:13 wherein works are seen to be efficacious or instrumental in salvation under the covenant of grace.  (Again, this is an argument already played out against the New Perspective).  I would certainly agree that Romans 2:6-7 is not hypothetical but actual.  Paul means it when he writes, "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life."  I will even grant that this statement shows God's attitude toward good works and sets a precedent for Christians honoring and pursuing good works in their manner of living.  Nonetheless, the context in which this statement is made is one that has the purpose of showing that no one can be justified by good works because of our sin.  Whatever we think of Romans 2:6-7, the conclusion that those verses ultimately serve is specified by Paul: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:20).  Likewise for Romans 8:13: "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."  Amen to Jones' concluding words that this teaching is necessary.  But the context in which this statement is made - Romans 8 - is one focused on sanctification.  So in pointing out the necessity of good works we must pointedly separate it from justification.  Romans 8:13 is absolutely true, but it is not speaking of justification.  In my mind, this distinction must be made and made clearly.

Any readers who take these concerns as signaling a division among the pro-sanctification crowd know more than I do.  I suspect that discussion about these points will end up showing a fundamental agreement in principle (the very opposite of what interaction with Tullian Tchividjian has shown).  In the meantime, I would urge us to be clear in what we are not saying and to be perfectly clear in isolating good works from the instrumentality of justification.  Are good works necessary to salvation?  Yes, they are.  Are they efficacious?  That  depends on what you mean.  If we are going to pursue genuine biblical balance and avoid providing evidence for the straw man arguments being used against sanctification, then let's be perfectly clear that justification is and always will be by faith alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Finally, I apologize in advance if I have misunderstood or misrepresented Mark Jones' meaning.  If so, I wonder if I am the only one.  In my belief, the matters at hand are important enough that we should do everything possible to be as accurate and clear as we can be. 

Posted May 30, 2014 @ 2:11 PM by Rick Phillips

Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Inc. © 2005-2018   |   |   800.956.2644   |   Frequently Asked Questions   |   Login