Good Works and Sola Fide
May 24, 2016
In my last article I discussed that the puritans believed that good works are more than the fruit of faith, justification and salvation in that they are the way to eternal life and an antecedent condition of glorification. The minority of puritans labelled as "antinomians" not only rejected this view, they characterized it as a form of legalism. They were by no means the only ones to have done so. A noted 20th century scholar wrote that you didn’t have to be an antinomian to regard this view of good works “as a betrayal of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.” Indeed, more recently John Piper sparked something of an outrage by his statement that we do not attain heaven by faith alone, which essentially is no different from the puritan view.
I do not believe that the critics are right. The puritans didn’t betray justification sola fide (by faith alone) by their doctrine of good works. Nonetheless, I can see why people might think that they did and so in this article I want to make a few observations to demonstrate that they were able to maintain a high view of works without falling into works-righteousness or subverting the precious the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone.
First, the puritans were quick to point out that good works are non-meritorious. They do not “merit pardon of sin or eternal life" (Westminster Confession of Faith 16.5). Despite their necessity, good works are not the grounds or basis for entering into eternal life. When John Davenant affirmed that good works “have a relation to the attainment of eternal life,” he did not fail to qualify that relation by noting in the very same sentence that it was “not as merits by the value and worth of which we attain it, but as the intermediate courses, or paths, by which we advance towards the goal of eternal life, according to the appointment of God.” Similarly, John Ball said: “Without observation in some measure to all the Commandments of God, we cannot enter into the kingdome of heaven: but we enter not for the obedience we have performed.”
Second, the puritans emphasized that the ability to do good works is “wholly from the Spirit of Christ" (WCF 16.3). Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 32 says that the Holy Spirit is given to the elect “to enable them unto all holy obedience…as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.” The puritans didn’t neglect the role of the Holy Spirit or the unconditional promises of God. They believed and taught that obedience is a condition and a benefit of the covenant of grace. In other words, they affirmed that God gives what he requires of his people. Hence, they expounded the condition of sincere obedience within an Augustinian—and not a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian—framework of salvation.
Finally, the puritans made good use of a common and time honored distinction between cause and way, or as it was sometimes articulated, title and possession. Good works are not causes (meritorious or non-meritorious) of our justification or of our title to eternal life; rather they are the way and means by which we possess eternal life. In this regard, the puritans were fond of either quoting Bernard of Clairveaux directly (via regni, non causa regnandi; "the way to the kingdom, not the cause of reigning") or simply incorporating his distinction in their own writings. John Ball was of the latter who wrote, “The commandments of God are laid before Beleevers, not as the cause for obtaining of eternal life, but the way to walk in unto eternall life, assured unto us by the free promise and gift of God.” Thomas Goodwin said essentially the same thing but in terms of title and possession: “Works of new obedience are required as necessary to the possession of salvation, but faith is that alone which puts us into a condition of having the title and right to it, by the blood and righteousness of Christ.” John Bunyan beautifully illustrates this distinction in his famous book Pilgrim’s Progress. At the beginning of his journey, Christian is given a certificate. This is his title to salvation. No one enters heaven without it. Nonetheless, Christian still needs to make his way to the Celestial City. If he returns to the City of Destruction then he will die. Thus the only way for him to possess heaven is to complete the journey. He doesn’t enter heaven because he made the journey. He enters because of his certificate. The certificate and the journey are both necessary to enter heaven but they are not necessary in the same way. The same is true for the roles of faith and obedience. By faith alone a sinner is justified and the road that a justified sinner must travel in order to enter glory is paved with good works.
In this way the puritans affirmed that good works are more than fruit without compromising the doctrine of justification by faith alone.