This post is a continuation of “Part 3” of the series below, assessing the tradition with respect to John Piper and his defenders:
Salvation Sola Fide: Johannes Wollebius; Justification to Glorification
While not very well known today, the Compendium Theologiae Christianae by Johannes Wollebius (1589-1629) was a standard textbook at Yale and Harvard in the 17th and 18th centuries, and according to the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith was also quite influential in the development of the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Wollebius’ work in the Compendium was and is considered by many to be an accurate summary of the teaching of the Reformed churches in the early part of 17th century, the very period of the Synod of Dort.
Since in this series we are discussing “salvation” broadly considered, we will begin with Wollebius’ teaching on Justification and then follow on to Sanctification, good works, and the Final Judgement. It is important to note that once Justification is accurately understood, many of the following doctrines are pretty simple.
Wollebius begins this section of the Compendium by making a distinction between “perfect” righteousness and “imperfect” righteousness:
Personal righteousness is either complete or incomplete. Complete [perfectus] righteousness is called legal, since the law requires it, and evangelical, since the gospel manifests it in Christ. Incomplete [inchoata] righteousness is that which the Holy Spirit begins for believers in this life, and which is completed in the next. Complete righteousness, therefore, is the gift of Christ’s justification; incomplete righteousness is the gift of sanctification. (Bk. XXX.I)
This distinction is important to understand because it is often thought that the only righteousness a believer can have is the imputed righteousness of Christ. This has never been the Reformed understanding. The regenerate believer can indeed have personal righteousness, but due to inherited corruption and remaining sin, this righteousness can never be complete. Only that which perfectly fulfills the Law of God and the conditions of the Covenant is a complete righteousness, and is therefore called a “legal” righteousness, answering as it does to the just and legal requirements of God. But the incomplete righteousness of a believer is still received by God as righteous, but only as it is worked by God in the heart of the believer, and only by degrees in this life, ultimately culminating and coming to completion in future Glory. Complete righteousness is the gift of Justification; incomplete righteousness is the gift of Sanctification.
This Justification is to be had through faith alone. Why? Because faith alone apprehends the merits of Christ. In fact,
The expression “We are justified by faith” is a metonymy, and has the same meaning as “We are justified by the merit of Christ, which is apprehended by faith.” (Bk. I.XXX.VIII)
But, of course, though faith alone apprehends the merits of Christ, thereby granting complete and legal righteousness, faith is never alone:
Faith is said to justify “alone” [sola] by contrast with works, which, although they are effects resulting from faith, are not the cause of justification, and do not precede justification, but follow it.
Therefore, although faith does not exist by itself, but is united to works, nevertheless faith alone justifies, just as the sun does not exist alone in the heavens, but alone makes the day. (Bk. I.XXX.IX)
Though faith and works are as inseparable as the Sun and the sky, faith alone justifies just as the Sun alone lights the day. (See Ursinus point #5 HERE for more on this.)
But what of James Chapter 2? Does not James speak of Justification by works, a separate Justification than that by faith? Wollebius gives the same consistent witness on this matter as did Luther, Calvin, and Ursinus before him. James speaks not of Justification unto life, but rather a public justification of one’s righteousness had by true faith in Christ:
Justification before God is different from justification before men; the first is by faith, and the second by works.
The latter, therefore, is intended in James 2:24: “So you see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone”; which statement does not contradict the teaching of the apostle Paul: “We hold that man is justified by faith without works” (Rom. 3:28). The first text deals with justification before men, and the second with justification before God. In the first, historical faith not working through love is understood, but in the second, a true and living faith. (Bk. I.XXX.XXII)
Next, unlike in Sanctification, Justification includes the full imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believer, not in degrees, but complete, permanent, and in need of no future improvement:
The righteousness that is imputed to us is perfect and is imputed in equal measure to all believers.
The imperfection of faith does not prevent this; just as a strong and a weak hand grasp the same jewel, so strong and weak receive the same righteousness of Christ.
The same [righteousness] cannot be lost.
The divine gifts of calling are irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).
It is also final [unicus]. (Bk. I.XXX.XX-XXII)
Last, there is no question that this Justification by faith alone grants the immutable right and privilege to eternal life and freedom from all future punishment.
The effects of justification are peace with God, a bold approach to him, a glorying in tribulation, and liberation not only from the guilt of sin, as the papists imagine, but also from punishment.
Otherwise Christ would have borne punishment for us in vain (Is. 53). (Bk. I.XXX.XIX)
Please note, these are all effects of Justification itself, not effects of other effects of Justification. To have the righteousness of Christ imputed by faith, with all His merits, unto perfect, complete, and legal righteousness is to be freed forever from both the guilt of sin and the punishment due.
Sanctification and Good Works
Sanctification is related to justification as light is related to the sun.
It is the free act of God, by which the faithful, who are engrafted into Christ through faith and justified through the Holy Spirit, are progressively set free from their innate sinfulness and restored to his image, so that they may be made fit to glorify him by good works. (Bk. I.XXXI.I.1-2)
Sanctification is inseparable from Justification; both are benefits of Union with Christ, by the instrument of faith. But whereas in Justification complete righteousness is given in perfect answer to the just requirements of God, in Sanctification God by degrees frees the righteous in Christ from their inherent corruption, granting them freedom from sin and misery, giving them good works in preparation for eternal Glory. This is all accomplished as “the free act of God” and is a fruit of Union with Christ.
Next, if we are already completely righteous in Christ by Justification and are thereby already free from guilt and punishment, why do good works at all? Especially given that even Sanctification itself is by “the free act of God”? (Yes, this is a stupid question that no true believer would ever ask. But it makes for a transition.) What is their purpose if Justice is already perfectly and finally satisfied in Christ?
The purpose of good works is threefold: the glorification of God and the testimony to our thanksgiving to him; the assurance of our salvation; and the edification of our neighbor. (Bk. II.X)
None of which are, “to receive Final Salvation” or, “to be Finally Justified before God.” Further, because of the inseparability of Justification and Sanctification (“as light is related to the sun”), and because of the stated purpose of good works, it should be clear that good works are indeed necessary, not optional.
The adjuncts of good works are their imperfection, and, nevertheless, their necessity.
Good works are necessary because of a commandment and as means; not as cause and merit.
They are necessary because the practice of good works is most explicitly enjoined upon us in Scripture. They are necessary as a means because they are evidences and signs of calling and election and true faith, and because they are the means, or road, which is traveled to heavenly bliss. Just as, if someone travels for the sake of obtaining an inheritance, the road or journey is indeed a means, but not the meritorious cause of the inheritance, so it is also in this matter. (Bk. II.XII, XV)
Good works glorify God, so they are by definition necessary. Good works are signs to ourselves and our neighbors that we are indeed recipients of true faith. And finally, good works are the necessary path that must be walked to Glory. As Calvin puts it: “Those whom in mercy [God] has destined for the inheritance of eternal life, he, in his ordinary administration, introduces to the possession of it by means of good works,” not as causes or conditions proper, but rather as “the Lord adding grace to grace, tak[ing] occasion from a former to add a subsequent, so that he may omit no means of enriching his servants” (Institutes, 3.14.21). Good works are the beginnings of possessing and actually enjoying the benefits of our Justification, culminating in perfect bliss for eternity.
The Last Judgement
In the end, on the Last Day, before the judgement seat of God, the charges will be made and the verdict given. How so? On what basis?
The making of the charge is described by the metaphor of books or records in which the actions of persons who are being judged are written down.
Revelation 20:12: “And the books were opened.” By the word “books” is to be understood both God’s omniscience and man’s conscience.
The wicked will be judged in accordance with their works and on account of their works; the righteous according to the works of faith but not on account of works.
Thus is Revelation 20:12 it is said that another book, the book of life, was opened, so that we may know that the salvation of the righteous depends not on works but on the eternal grace of God, through which they have been entered in the book of life. (Bk. I.XXXV.X-XI)
Though the good works of believers will be displayed and the verdict given, not “on account of” but “according to” good works, the verdict of “righteous” and “not guilty” will depend entirely on the same righteousness that was imputed in Justification. Not a lowered standard; not an acceptance of good works done in faith in lieu of perfect righteousness; not a different standard at the end from the beginning; but by the same eternal grace of God by which we were written in the book of life when we were joined with Christ in Justification. The standard is perfect righteousness at the end, just as it was at the beginning and Christ alone is our righteousness.
To be perfectly clear: “the salvation of the righteous depends not on works but on the eternal grace of God,” even at the Last Judgement.
Shall we say, Salvation Sola Fide?