John Davenant: Good Works
October 25, 2017
In the last article, I looked at John Davenant’s discussion on the formal cause of our justification. Now I will turn to his discussion of the role of good works in light of our justification in Christ.
Davenant is at pains to refute the common Romanist accusation that Protestants deny the necessity of good works. In particular, he focuses upon correcting Bellarmine’s caricature of the Protestant position which is that Protestants believe that good works are not conditionally connected to salvation and are only necessary to attest or evidence true faith; and answering Bellarmine’s criticisms of the Protestant position on good works. In so doing, he fervently and repeatedly affirms that good works play an active and positive role in salvation.
Davenant defines good works as those which are "wrought by the regenerate now, and flow from a heart purified by faith" and they may be external like feeding the hungry or internal such as trusting God. Good works are necessary for a variety of reasons. Believers must engage in good works in order to submit to God’s command, express gratitude, satisfy one’s conscience, avoid punishment, be assured of salvation, edify one’s neighbor and glorify God. There is even a causal necessity to good works in that if the Spirit abides in a person then he will bear fruit. But what is more, Davenant affirms that good works are conditionally necessary for salvation.
The good works that are conditionally necessary for salvation are not perfect works, which are demanded by the law. Rather what is required and demanded by the gospel are "those works of inchoate holiness, which through the efficacy of grace are wrought by the regenerate." In other words, sincere, not hypocritical, obedience is necessary for salvation. Another important caveat is that good works are not meritorious in any sense. They do not merit justification or the preservation and increase of salvation. These two points are intricately related. Sincere obedience cannot be meritorious. Therefore, since the good works that are necessary for salvation are imperfect, they are not meritorious. And since they are not meritorious they can be quite imperfect and even intermittent. Indeed, a believer can fall into grievous sin or backslide and still be saved. Nevertheless, sincere obedience, which is akin to perseverance, is still necessary for salvation and pleasing to God because of the gospel. This is one difference between the law and the gospel. The law could not accept sincere obedience because it demands perfect obedience and condemns for the slightest sin. But the gospel, which "treats with the justified, who are delivered from death through faith in Christ, and graciously appointed to life, allows sinners an advocate, by whose intercession they obtain the constant remission of sins," can require and even reward the sincere but imperfect works of believers because they are "accepted by God the Father, in Christ the Mediator."
Davenant clearly states that justification and the right to eternal life is by faith alone. Good works are demanded from the justified and thus not for their justification. Yet, he is also willing to admit that some good works are necessary to justification as "concurrent or preliminary conditions." Here Davenant has in mind internal good works such as a hatred for sin and a turning to Christ for mercy. These internal works, which essentially amount to faith and repentance, are conditionally necessary for justification in terms of order and not causality. They are not an efficient or meritorious cause of justification. Nevertheless, a sinner must believe and repent in order to be justified. Davenant uses the example of being knighted. A man must go through the ceremony in order to become a knight, but his role in the ceremony is not the meritorious ground or cause of his knighthood.
Good works, in the sense of internal and external works, are conditionally necessary for the justified believer both negatively and positively. Negatively, they are necessary to avoid condemnation or to retain and preserve the state of justification. They are the "means or conditions, without which God will not preserve in men the grace of justification." Once again Davenant stresses that good works are not causes which effect or merit this preservation. They are the means or conditions by which God preserves his people. In order to remain alive a person must avoid those things which will kill him such as poisons. Likewise, in order to maintain spiritual health a person needs to avoid those things which kill, which in turn requires a believer to continually do good works, that is, to repent, trust, and obey. "But these acts do not properly and of themselves preserve the life of grace by securing the effect itself of preservation; but indirectly and incidentally by excluding and removing the cause of destruction."
Positively, good works are conditionally necessary for salvation in order to grow in grace and make it to glory. Echoing his predecessors, Davenant says that good works are necessary because they are God’s appointed path to attain eternal life. There are three goals or ends for good works: the glory of God, the welfare of one’s neighbor, and one’s own salvation. This last end indicates that there is a personal salvific interest or motive to doing good works. The road to glory is paved with good works and he who would arrive at the celestial city must walk on this narrow road. Davenant writes:
Besides, we ought to regard eternal life as our goal and end; but this goal is never reached except in the way of good works. For that broad way of licentiousness and impiety leads straight to hell, as Christ himself assures us, Matt. vii. 13, 14. It being understood then, that we are seeking the kingdom of heaven, we must necessarily enter upon the way which leads to the kingdom of heaven—the way of good works.
Yet again, the Englishman stresses that good works are not proper efficient causes of eternal life, but are necessary by a necessity of order. They are necessary "as the way to the kingdom, not as the causes of reigning." Matthew 19:17, Heb 10:36; 1 Tim 2:14-15, 2 Cor 4:17, and Rom 8:13 teach that law keeping, perseverance, sanctification, patience and mortification are necessary as the non-meritorious divinely ordained road to glory. Good works therefore "follow justification, and precede glorification as the way ordained thereto," making them a subsequent condition of justification and an antecedent condition to salvation.
It is in this respect that Davenant can speak of good works as being rewarded with heaven and as causes of salvation. Indeed, with respect to the latter, he is even willing to refer to good works as efficient causes. Works are often denied to be an efficient cause in salvation by Protestants, as Davenant himself does, but only in the sense of meriting or being the ground of salvation. This is why the key point between the Romanists and the Protestants, at least according to Davenant, was not that good works are in some sense a cause of salvation. Rather, the dispute was over the kind of cause attributed to good works. Romanists affirmed that good works are meritorious or properly efficient causes. Davenant, on the other hand, admits that good works are an efficient cause, but only in an improper, non-meritorious or broad sense. In responding to Bellarmine’s claim that Phil 2:12 teaches that good works are necessary as efficient causes, Davenant carefully distinguishes between efficiency in its broad and narrow senses. He writes:
We do not deny efficiency altogether to works in relation to salvation, but meritorious efficiency, or efficiency properly so understood: namely, such as reaches or produces the effect itself of salvation: but efficiency taken in a broad sense, that is to say, as working something preceding the effect of salvation, we willingly grant to spring from good works. For good works lead to progression in the way of salvation, which consequence is antecedent to salvation itself, although it is not the meritorious or efficient cause of the same. And in this sense, he who performs good works is said to work out his salvation, not by effecting his salvation, through the inherent virtue or merit of his works, but by advancing forward to salvation by the way of good works.
Thus, on the one hand, Davenant says that it is God who saves his elect from start to finish. By grace alone, God brings them into a state of justification, preserves them in that state and finally glorifies them. He flatly denies that their good works, indeed their feeble efforts, acquire "the efficacy or character of a meritorious cause for the preserving of justifying grace, or the attaining to heavenly glory." Yet, on the other hand, he freely admits that "God preserves and increases the gifts of grace in those who apply themselves to good works, and by the zeal of good works draws them on to the goal of salvation." So, although good works are not causes, which effect or merit salvation, "they cause the doers of them to advance in the way of salvation."
One of the key criticisms by Roman Catholics against the Protestant doctrine of justification was that it nullified the necessity of and the incentive to do good works in part because they viewed Protestants as only teaching that good works are necessary in order to prove the existence of faith. John Davenant, however, as we have seen above, aptly defended the Protestant position from this criticism. Good works are indeed conditionally necessary for salvation as the way to glory.