Are Good Works Necessary to Salvation?

By Francis Turretin in Institutes of Elenctic Theology

I.Since the practice and desire of good works pertain to sanctification, it cannot be better ascertained than by getting a proper knowledge of their nature. Now there are four principal questions concerning them: their necessity, truth, perfection and merit. We must treat of these individually. Having already in the preceding question spoken of their perfection, we now take up their necessity.

Three opinions concerning the necessity of good works.

II. There are three principal opinions about the necessity of good works. First is that of those who (sinning in defect) deny it; such were formerly the Simonians and the modern Epicureans and Libertines, who make good works arbitrary and indifferent, which we may perform or omit at pleasure. The second is that of those who (sinning in excess) affirm and press the necessity of merit and causality; such were the ancient Pharisees and false apostles, who contended that works are necessary to justification. These are followed by the Romanists and Socinians of our day. The third is that of those who (holding the middle ground between these two extremes) neither simply deny, nor simply assert; yet they recognize a certain necessity for them against the Libertines, but uniformly reject the necessity of merit against the Romanists. This is the opinion of the orthodox.

Statement of the question.

III. Hence it is evident that the question here does not concern the necessity of merit, causality and efficiency—whether good works are necessary to effect salvation or to acquire it of right. (For this belongs to another controversy, of which hereafter). Rather the question concerns the necessity of means, of presence and of connection or order—Are they required as the means and way for possessing salvation? This we hold.

IV. Although the proposition concerning the necessity of good works to salvation (which was thrust forward in a former century by the Romanists under the show of a reconciliation in the Interimistic formula, but really that imperceptibly the purity of the doctrine concerning justification might be corrupted) was rejected by various Lutheran theologians as less suitable and dangerous; nay, even by some of our theologians; still we think with others that it can be retained without danger if properly explained. We also hold that it should be pressed against the license of the Epicureans so that although works may be said to contribute nothing to the acquisition of salvation, still they should be considered necessary to the obtainment of it, so that no one can be saved without them—that thus our religion may be freed from those most foul calumnies everywhere cast most unjustly upon it by the Romanists (as if it were the mistress of impiety and the cushion of carnal licentiousness and security).

The necessity of good works is proved: (1) from the command of God.

V. Now although this necessity has already been established in part (Question 1 where we treated of the connection between justification and sanctification), it is still further proved both from the command of God and from the nature of the thing itself and the condition of the believer. For since the will of God is the supreme and indispensable rule of our duty, the practice of good works cannot but be considered as highly necessary (which the Lord so often and so expressly recommends and enjoins in his word). There is no need to refer to passages for they are so numerous. Let the following be specially consulted (1 Thess. 4:3, 4; 1 Jn. 4:21; Jn. 13:34; Mt. 5:16; 1 Pet. 1:15, 16; 2 Pet. 1:5–7, 10; Rom. 6:11, 12; 12:1, 2ff.). And so far from leaving to each one the license of living according to his pleasure, it openly condemns and abhors it (Rom. 6:1, 2, 15; Gal. 5:13; 1 Thess. 4:7; 1 Pet. 2:16) and declares that believers are “debtors” who are bound to new obedience by an indissoluble and indispensable bond (Rom. 8:12; 13:7; 1 Jn. 4:11), not only by the necessity of the precept, but also by the necessity of the means.

VI. This can be demonstrated more clearly from the nature of the thing and the state and condition of man, whether we look to the covenant of grace entered into with him or attend to the doctrine of the gospel which he professes; or to the state of grace in which he is placed; or to the benefits which depend on it, past as well as present and future. All these draw after them the absolute necessity of good works.

2. From the covenant of grace.

VII. And as to the covenant, everyone knows that it consists of two parts: on the one hand the promise on the part of God; on the other the stipulation of obedience on the part of man. For as God promises in it to be our God, he wishes that we also in turn should be his people. And as that promise includes every blessing of God, so the obligation denotes the duties of all kinds owed by man to God (as was seen when we treated of the clauses of the covenant). Although God by his special grace wishes these duties of man to be his blessings (which he carries out in them), still the believer does not cease to be bound to observe it, if he wishes to be a partaker of the blessings of the covenant.

VIII. However, the promise of grace flows from the three persons of the holy Trinity. All concur in the work of redemption and hold a peculiar relation (schesin) according to the mode of operation proper to each. The first, indeed, of the Father adopting us into his family; the second, of Redeemer and head, redeeming his people and uniting them to himself as his purchase and body; the third, of Comforter and sanctifier consecrating us for temples to himself. Thus a threefold necessity of worship and obedience arises that we may live worthily as the sons of God, members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit: that we may adore and worship the Father (1 Pet. 1:15, 16; Mal. 1:6; Eph. 5:1); that we may glorify the Redeemer with all our soul (1 Cor. 6:20) and serve him as a “peculiar people zealous of good works” (periousios zēlōtēs kalōn ergōn, Tit. 2:14); that we may venerate with great zeal the Spirit dwelling in us and, living in the Spirit, walk also in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), nor suffer his temple to be polluted (1 Cor. 6:15, 19). This is sealed to us in baptism (administered to us in the name of the whole Trinity) and procured by our union with Christ. It cannot be true and saving unless it draws after it conformity with him (to which we were predestinated, Rom. 8:29) that with him we should die to sin and live to God (Rom. 6:11), walk as he walked (1 Jn. 2:6) and himself both be formed and live in us (Gal. 2:20; 4:19).

3. From the gospel.

IX. Third, the word of God or the gospel which is proposed for our belief as a rule of faith and of life proves this necessity no less. It is not a doctrine merely theoretical (which feeds the mind with fruitless knowledge), but practical (which affects the will itself and renews it). On this account, it is called the “mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16); the light which transforms (2 Cor. 3:18); truth which sanctifies (Jn. 17:17), which makes us not only wiser, but also better (Jn. 13:17); the seed of our regeneration (Jam. 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23); the law of the Spirit and of life (Rom. 8:2), which by freeing us from the law of sin and of death, still does not make us without the law, but under the law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 2:19). Here belongs also the religion we profess, which demands not a mere profession of the truth, but principally the practice of piety and love (Rom. 2:28, 29): “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jam. 1:27).

4. From the state of grace.

X. Fourth, the state of grace and of liberty into which the gospel transfers us demands this. It is a spiritual freedom from the curse of the law, the tyranny of Satan and the yoke of sin, but not a carnal license. It does not remove us from obedience to God, but joins us by a stronger bond to him: “Being then made free from sin,” says Paul, “ye became the servants of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18); “As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God” (1 Pet. 2:16), viz., in whose worship our true liberty consists because “to serve God is to reign.” Christ, by freeing us from the curse and rigor of the law, still did not free us from the obligation to obedience, which is indispensable from the creature. Grace demands the same thing. The greater it is, the more effectually it obliges us to gratitude, so that it not be turned into lasciviousness (aselgeian, Gal. 5:13; Jd. 4), but that it be referred to the desire of holiness (Tit. 2:12). Hence, the apostle infers that we must not remain in sin “because we are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14, 15).

5. From the blessings of God.

XI. Fifth, all the benefits of God tend to this, whether regarded as to the past in eternal election or as to the present in grace, or as to the future in glory. For all these are destined to or conferred upon us for no other reason than to promote the work of sanctification. On this account, good works are set forth to us as the effects of eternal election (Eph. 1:4); the fruit and seal of present grace (2 Tim. 2:19; 2 Cor. 1:21, 22; Jn. 15:4; Gal. 5:22); and the “seeds” or “firstfruits” and earnests of future glory (Gal. 6:7, 8; Eph. 1:14; Rom. 8:23). Hence these are called “the nurseries of hope, incentives of love, signs of secret predestination, presages of future bliss, the way to the Kingdom, but not the cause of reigning” (Bernard, Tractatus de Gratia et Libero Arbitrio [PL 182.1030]). Scripture frequently testifies this concerning election (Jn. 15:16; Eph. 1:4; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14); redemption (Lk. 1:74; Tit. 2:14; 1 Pet. 2:24; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15); calling (2 Pet. 1:10; 1 Pet. 2:9; Phil. 3:14); faith (Gal. 5:6; Acts 15:9); justification (Pss. 130:4; 85:8; Eph. 2:8–10); regeneration (2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 3:1, 2).

XII. 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 the “firstfruits” to the mass (Rom. 8:23); 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).

XIII. Finally, there are three things, the necessity of seeking which above all others devolves upon us (to wit, the glory of God, the edification of our neighbor and our own salvation). It is known the practice of good works contributes to these in the greatest degree. Thus it easily appears that they are necessary above all things (Mt. 5:10; Phil. 1:11; Rom. 15:2; 2 Pet. 1:10).

Sources of explanation.

XIV. Works can be considered in three ways: either with reference to justification or sanctification or glorification. They are related to justification not antecedently, efficiently and meritoriously, but consequently and declaratively. They are related to sanctification constitutively because they constitute and promote it. They are related to glorification antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end; yea, as the beginning to the complement because grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.

XV. Although we acknowledge the necessity of good works against the Epicureans, we do not on this account confound the law and the gospel and interfere with gratuitous justification by faith alone. Good works are required not for living according to the law, but because we live by the gospel; not as the causes on account of which life is given to us, but as effects which testify that life has been given to us.

XVI. Believers are a willing people who ought not to be impelled to good works by necessity (ex ananchēs) (viz., by a necessity of compulsion), but spontaneously and voluntarily (hekousiōs). But still, works do not cease to be necessary by the necessity of means and of debt. Although all coaction is necessity, not all necessity is coaction. The calumnies wont to be drawn against the necessity of good works from our doctrine concerning perserverance and the certainty of faith have been discussed in Topic XV, Questions 16 and 17.

PL Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiae … series Latina. Paris: Garnieri Fratres, 1878.

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