An Apologie

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Thanks to Carl (sort of) for the Introduction. But the man he speaks about is not me, I promise. I have lots of friends on Facebook, but do plan to purge some of the less trustworthy ones.

I hope to alleviate the concerns of Rick Phillips, which mainly seems to be over one word in particular. But first, I must say that I appreciated his kind, irenic tone, even if I have a few queries about his post.

The word "salvation" has a broad semantic range in the New Testament, and does not always refer to how we are justified. It can encompass all of our saving benefits, from regeneration to justification to glorification (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet. 1:9; Heb. 2:3). I believe Reformed theologians have tried to do justice to this New Testament concern, though we should be sensitive to the fact that many American evangelicals have a truncated understanding of the word.

According to the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin, good works are required "as the means and way for possessing salvation." Works do not contribute to the acquisition of salvation - a point I made clearly in my original post -, but "still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them." He then goes on to argue:

"This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the 'way' to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil 3:14); of the 'sowing' to the harvest (Gal. 6:7,8)...of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the 'contest' to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5; 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27)" (emphasis mine).

John Owen's position was made sufficiently clear in the original piece, so I will not venture to discuss his view in detail, except to say that Owen makes it quite obvious that holiness is the way of our "attaining and coming to blessedness." Like Turretin, Owen affirms that good works are the necessary path believers must walk to final salvation. This is in keeping with Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A 32, which speaks of good works as "the way which [God] hath appointed them to salvation." WCF 16.2 speaks of "their fruit unto holiness" leading to the end, which likewise reflects the relationship between means and end.

Finally, Herman Witsius, a so-called "middle-man" in antinomian/neonomian debates in the latter part of the 17th century, affirms that the "practice of Christian piety is the way to life, because thereby we go to the possession of the right obtained by Christ." But as I noted in my book on Antinomianism (p. 67), Witsius makes a distinction between the right to life (i.e., acquisition) and the possession of life. The former is "assigned to the obedience of Christ, that all the value of our holiness may be entirely excluded." However, regarding the latter, "our works...which the Spirit of Christ works in us, and by us, contribute something to the latter."

Enter Petrus van Mastricht, the Reformed theologian that caused Rick so much consternation. (By the way, Mastricht was not a Puritan, so the "Puritan gravitas" that Rick speaks about should be understood as a "Reformed gravitas." I tend to dislike the idea that the Puritans were somehow radical or different on soteriological issues compared to the broader Reformed tradition).

Rick raised the following concern:
"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."

I must confess to being a little bit confused as to how and why Rick would make this particular point, since I nowhere referred to works as an "instrumental cause" of salvation. I also do not know what to make of Rick's choice of words. Neither Owen, Mastricht, or any other reformed writer has ever suggested that the consummation of our salvation and eternal life is granted on the basis of good works. If one did put good works into the instrumentality of our salvation, then that would make works the basis of eternal life. The language of "basis" suggests ground; but a ground is different from an instrument. So Rick's concern, if he still has one, might need some fine-tuning.

As Bishop Downame said, "Sanctification, and the duties thereof are not causes of salvation." Good works are not the cause of salvation (in serie causarum), but the way to salvation. Because Rick read Mastricht (and myself) in a particular way - though Rick granted that we could technically speak about the "efficacy of good works" if understood properly!! -, he was led into all sorts of objections that were, in my view, quite unnecessary. After all, the majority of the post was about Owen, with whom Rick seemed to agree.

Causes: Regarding "causes," an instrumental cause is not the same as a material cause, an efficient cause, or a formal cause. Faith is the instrumental cause of justification, a point hardly in dispute (I hope). These distinctions were important among Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox theologians because they enabled our divines to remain clear on matters where the gospel was at stake.

So in debates with Remonstrant (i.e., Arminian) theologians, the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps: for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.

The thorny issue of neonomianism also relates to "causes." Simply put, neonomianism is the idea that Christ, by fulfilling the requirements of the old covenant, makes it possible for man to be justified according to the more lenient terms of the "new law" (hence, "neonomianism") of the gospel. Christ's righteous obedience becomes the meritorious cause of justification, which allows the faith of the believer to be the formal cause of justification. As noted, most Reformed theologians believed that the imputation of Christ's righteousness was the formal cause of justification.

Returning, then, to Mastricht: his point about good works having "in a certain sense" an "efficacy" is immediately explained: "in so far as God, whose law we attain just now through the merit alone of Christ, does not want to grant possession of eternal life, unless [it is] beyond faith with good works previously performed. We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10 (emphasis mine)."

While I personally would not chose to use the word "efficacy" (even in the way Rick thinks is acceptable), I believe Mastricht is saying precisely the same thing as Witsius, Turretin, and others, since in the quote he affirms the well-known distinction between "right" and "possession." In all probability, Witsius's words, "contribute something to the latter" (regarding "possession" not "right"), equals Mastricht's "sort of efficacy". There are a lot of other Reformed theologians - not just the Puritans!! - who were of this mind (e.g., Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Robert Rollock, Gisbertus Voetius, John Davenant). Surely Rick does not want raise concerns about the Reformed tradition (not just a few "Puritans") to which he belongs?

Rick, I think, is concerned that the "right" to eternal life remains the imputation of Christ's righteousness. I agree. But the Reformed often speak of "possessing" eternal life, and good works are the necessary path that believers must walk if they are to enter eternal life. In this context, "efficacy" simply has to do with the way in which we attain the end. Again, I understand how that word could confuse some - and I apologize for not explaining that initially - but there is a perfectly legitimate way of reading Mastricht that does not require us to impute to him - pardon the pun - the view that causes Rick so much concern. It never occurred to me that there was an incipient "neonomianism" in Mastricht for the reasons asserted above, and the fact that he was something of a legend among Reformed theologians who came after him! And he will be again soon once his massive systematic theology is translated.

"Right" versus "Possession": The "right" versus "possession" distinction has several advantages. First, it helps us to safeguard the fact that when we trust in Christ we are united to him and possess all blessings in him. That is the "right" aspect (based on Christ's meritorious work). We are as justified as we will ever be when we first believe. Second, it helps us to make sense of the "conditional" language of Scripture (see, for example, Philippians 3:7-14 "...[12] Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. [13] Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, [14] I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."

Entering into the possession of glory comes through a path that God has marked out for his people, and that path necessarily involves good works (See Rom. 8:13, which his obviously about sanctification). Here, I think, we see one of the many benefits of Reformed scholasticism for present-day debates that have often missed important distinctions and qualifications.

I understand this may be a little bit technical for some, and I'd be happy to speak on two of the other issues Rick raised, such as "stages in justification" or "judgment according to works", but the above seems sufficient for now.

Pastoral Summary
: As a pastor I do not like to use big words in the pulpit. I don't even think we should use the word "eschatological" when preaching. And I'll be wearing skinny jeans in the pulpit before I preach from the Westminster Confession or Catechisms. So how would I explain all of this to average laypeople?

Our right to eternal life is based on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Nothing can be added to that, not even a single good work. Justification is an act that can never be revoked. That is why we are justified by faith alone in this life, because through faith alone we receive this inestimable gift. But the final goal of our salvation is glorification and the vision of Christ (beatific vision). When we stand before God our justification, whereby we stand clothed in Christ's perfect righteousness (i.e., his active and passive obedience), enables us to withstand the demands of God's righteous, holy law. But we nonetheless have to walk to this destination in order to possess the vision of Christ (eternal life), and the only path we walk is the path of good works - works that have, of course, been prepared in advance for us (Eph. 2:10). Not only must we (i.e., necessity) walk this way, but we will (i.e., God's promise) walk this way. Sanctification, as much as justification, is a gift from Christ, and we can be confident that both will play their appropriate and necessary part in our so great a salvation.

Let me again take the chance to thank Rick for being gracious when he was concerned. Not always an easy thing to do. While I do think he got a little ahead of himself in this instance, I can appreciate his desire for clarity and, most of all, his desire to protect the article by which the church stands or falls.

Pastor Mark Jones likes long walks on the beach with his "smokin' hot wife," singing "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Posted June 2, 2014 @ 11:53 AM by Mark Jones
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