In the recent post, “But How Many Good Works are Necessary?”, Dr. Mark Jones responds to what has probably become a common retort to his insistence that good works are necessary for final salvation. Jones simply believes it is the wrong question altogether, and may even “reveal a legal spirit, not a gospel spirit, that needs mortifying.” I for one think it is a pretty obvious follow up question to being told that good works are necessary for salvation. And I don’t believe this because of “a legal spirit,” or because I am “trying to ignore something glorious” as “one who should know better”; I believe it’s a good question because it is addressed clearly in the Scripture. Yes, as a matter of fact, it is not only an acceptable question, but it has a Biblical answer.
How Many Good Works are Necessary for Final Salvation?
Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ ”
And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”
So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Luke 18:18-22)
And we read earlier in Luke:
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”
So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’”
And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” (10:25-28)
So, what is our Lord’s answer to “How many works are necessary for final salvation?” Well quite frankly, all of them. Every good work possible. Every commandment, every precept, every statute, as well as perfect and complete love for God and neighbor. Jesus did not change the conditions for salvation. Just like Adam, we owe “perfect and personal obedience” (WCF 7.2); that is the condition for life. We read in Herman Witsius’s Economy of the Covenants that the condition “is perfect obedience only; this the law requires: nor does the gospel substitute any other.” But fortunately, Witsius continues: “but [the Gospel] declares that satisfaction has been made to the law by Christ our surety” (Bk. 3.VII.LII).
This is the whole point. Perfect righteousness, perfect obedience, all good works are required for salvation, whether it be salvation past, salvation present, or salvation future. God did not relax the required conditions, He met them in the God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him alone are all the conditions met. And faith alone grasps this condition keeping righteousness and makes it our own:
Q/61: Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?
A: Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God, and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only. (Heidelberg Catechism)
Is this righteousness enough, being that it is not actually our own, but alien? The Catechism Q & A just prior answers this admirably:
Q/60: How are you righteous before God?
A: Only by true faith in Jesus Christ: that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and that I am still prone always to all evil, yet God, without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me, if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
But there must be more. Are our good works not even a part of our salvation?
Q/62: But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God?
A: Because the righteousness which can stand before the judgment seat of God must be perfect throughout and wholly conformable to the divine law; whereas even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
That’s pretty straight forward. Let’s look at one more from the Heidelberg:
Q/30: Do such then believe in the only Savior Jesus, who seek their salvation and welfare from “saints,” themselves, or anywhere else?
A: No; although they may make their boast of Him, yet in act they deny the only Savior Jesus. For either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior, must have in Him all that is necessary to their salvation.
So, we see that good works are in fact necessary for salvation—perfectly performed and constant good works, with no derelictions of duty, all done from a pure heart of love for God and neighbor. This is what faith grasps, by the grace of God, in our only Savior Jesus Christ. And His works become our works, His merits our merits, His obedience our obedience, and His holiness our holiness.
Good Works Are Nevertheless Necessary
Now of course, once the Holy Spirit has worked Christ-embracing faith in our hearts, all conditions of salvation having been met in Him, do good works then cease to be necessary? Of course not—why would they? Good works are glorifying to God, comforting to the soul of believers, and are used by God to win others to Christ (HC Q&A 86). But good works are necessary in a different sense. Zacharias Ursinus, author of the Heidelberg Catechism, gives us the important distinction that must be made:
[G]ood works are necessary to salvation, or, to speak more properly, in them that are to be saved (for it is better thus to speak for the sake of avoiding ambiguity) as a part of salvation itself; or, as an antecedent of salvation, but not as a cause or merit of salvation. (CHC, p. 860)
Thus, it is not appropriate to say that good works are necessary “for” salvation, as though they were proper causes or conditions of salvation for the believer; these conditions are fully met in Christ alone. Rather, we must say that good works are necessary “to” salvation, as they are “a part of salvation itself.”
This brings us back again to the important distinction of the Divines between the Right to Salvation and the Possession of Salvation.
“For” vs. “to” and Right vs. Possession
What is necessary “for” salvation, past, present, and future? Perfect righteousness. This we have in Christ by faith. We have a right and immutable claim to all aspects of salvation, including entrance into heaven by the perfect righteousness of God. By faith, we have a right to the “whole lump” of salvation, as Thomas Goodwin says, not just the beginning, but the end as well. He comments on Ephesians 2:8-9:
[H]ere is whole salvation in the very lump, it is all given at once, given at first; the whole of it as it lay in the womb of God’s decree and free grace, it is completely, according to the right and title of it, bestowed upon us at once, and it is received through faith. “By grace ye are saved through faith.”
Now then, this same right to salvation, and to the whole of salvation, and all that ever you shall have, it is truly and properly called salvation. Why? You were once sinners: for you to be saved from your sins, saved from wrath, to have a kingdom added to it, and to have a right to all the blessings that ever the grace of God means to bestow, and to have all this reputed yours, this is to be saved truly and properly[…]. Now when he [Paul] saith God saveth us, his meaning is, he saveth us as a judge, as the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, by endowing us with the pardon of all sin, and righteousness, and adoption, and whatever else. (Thomas Goodwin, (Works, Vol. 2,, p. 317)
And there is a reason why faith is the lone instrument of this salvation:
“What grace is there that could take in the whole at once? that could look to all that is to come and to all that is past?” Nothing else but faith. The Apostle, when he saith here, ‘ye are saved,’ he referreth to what he had said before: we sit, saith he, ‘in heavenly places in Christ,’ and we are ‘risen with Christ;’ these are things to come, if we respect the actual bestowing of them. The right we have now; what can take this right in? Nothing but faith can make me see myself sit in heavenly places with Christ, and see myself risen with Christ. Faith can take in all that was done before the world was, can take in all that God means to do, yea, and give a subsistence thereunto. Love cannot do this; love may make a fancy of the party, but it cannot make the party present; but faith makes all these things present. (p. 335)
So, what is the Possession Salvation? First, what distinguishes Possession from Right is that it is given by degrees: “Now there is this difference between these two, that the one is given at once, and the other the Lord doth give by degrees, and go on to perfect it one after another” (p. 316). This is because Possession is the actual transformation of the believer in time into the image of God. It is the existential reception and enjoyment of the benefits flowing from God and consummating in the eternal reward. We may even say it is the possession of good works themselves, having already received the right to them. Good works are, after all, a part of Salvation itself—the blessed freedom from the tyranny of sin and the Devil. According to Goodwin, Possession is indeed “actual possession, or, if you will, rather call it an accomplishment of all the parts of salvation and works of God in us, which God carrieth on in us by degrees, works holiness in us by degrees, whereof quickening is the beginning; works glory in us by degrees, first raising us and then filling us with glory in heaven” (p. 315). Thus, we may say that good works are necessary “to” salvation as a “part of salvation,” all conditions “for” salvation having already been met in Christ, and the whole of this (beginning and end) granted by right through the instrument of faith.
How Many Good Works are Necessary “to” Final Salvation?
Having oriented good works as a necessary “part of salvation,” as necessary “to” salvation, and as the blessed beginnings of possessing and enjoying salvation, we might ask: “How many works are necessary ‘to’ final salvation?” And strikingly, the answer is again (though in a different sense) the same as before: Lord willing, all of them! The more the better. Since good works are themselves a part of God graciously bringing His righteous people into possession of His infinite blessings, it is much like asking “How much joy is necessary to salvation?” or “How much peace is necessary to salvation?” or “How much freedom from the tyranny of sin and the Devil is necessary to salvation?” Hopefully quite a bit—as much as God, in His kindness, “has prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). And we ought diligently to pray for more and more every day, “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” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.14.21).
Three Last Observations re: Jones’s Post
(1) Dr. Mark Jones writes,
Since our persons are accepted in Christ in our justification, our imperfect works of sanctification are also accepted in him (1 Peter 2:5).
This explains why, in Genesis 26:5, Abraham can be described as having kept God’s commandments, statutes, and laws, even though by that time Abraham had broken the ninth commandment (on two occasions) by calling Sarah his sister (Gen. 12:13; 20:2). King David, notwithstanding his sordid history involving Bathsheba and Uriah, kept God’s commandments and followed him with all of his heart (1 Kings 14:8). Similarly, Noah is described as a righteous and blameless man (Gen. 6:9; see also Job 1:1, 8; Luke 1:6). If one reads 1-2 Kings, it is interesting how often the narrator assesses each one based on the orientation of the heart: his heart was true (or not true) to the Lord his God.
This is certainly true, but why is this always put in defense of good works as necessary “for” salvation, and especially for “final salvation”? Yes, God justifies the good works of believers, having already justified their persons in Christ. John Calvin writes,
And by means of this, God justifies the whole man according to his character and works:
[T]hey who are regenerated by his grace, created anew after his image, and heartily give themselves up to the practice of sincere holiness, are by him absolved from the sin of profaneness, impiety, and hypocrisy; and are no longer looked upon as dead in sins, slaves to the devil, children of the world; but as true believers, his own children, restored to his image and endowed with his life. It was thus he justified his servant Job, declaring, “That there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil,” Job 1:8. (Bk. 2.VIII.XXII)
But, to begin with, this justification by works is not a final justification, as though there is a justification at the beginning by faith and then a justification at the end by works. When were Noah, Abraham, Rahab, David, and Job declared righteous according to their character and works? Was it not in their lifetime? As Witsius explains, this justification of the character and works of the regenerate man is a “daily” acquittal of sins, “which he is not chargeable with, and is declared not to have committed,” in the face of slanderous accusations of men and devils. Further, this justification according to works belongs to all believers without exception (see Economy of the Covenants, Bk. 3.VIII.XXIII). But even more importantly, this justification is not properly coram Deo, viz., it is not properly before the face of God. Goodwin explains:
There is a double justification by God: the one authoritative, the other declarative or demonstrative. Though this is also before God, yet it is that which is to be made before all the world by God; and in order thereunto, the one is the justification of men’s persons coram Deo, before God, as they appear before him nakedly, and have to do with him alone for the right to salvation; and so they are justified by faith without works, either as looked at by God or by themselves. God therein passeth an act of Christ’s righteousness, out of his pure prerogative; as a king, when he pardons, or creates a nobleman, and the like. (Works, Vol. 7, p. 181)
This justification according to character and works is a justification before men, devils, and angels and will be the same at the Final Judgement. God will judge according to works on the Last Day, but this Final Judgement will be a justifying of God’s justification of those for whom He has already prepared an eternal inheritance—those who are perfectly righteous in Christ, coram Deo.
And in this final declaration according to the “deeds done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10), it will not be the quantity of works that matter, nor the quality of works, but rather the quality of the merit grasping faith which these works signal. “For they will not be mentioned as the causes of their right to claim the reward, to which perfection is requisite; but as effects and signs of grace, and of union with Christ, and of a living faith, and of justification by faith, and of a right to life, for which their unfeigned sincerity [as opposed to purity] is sufficient. We, therefore, conclude, that the justification in the next world is not to be so very much distinguished from the justification in this world” (Witisus, Economy, Bk. 3.VIII.LXXVII; see also Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Bk. 3.20.5.XX; also see “Double Justification, Quadruple Justification, and the Defense of John Piper“).
(2) Jones cites Romans 8:13-14, Hebrews 12:14, Revelation 2:10-11, etc., suggesting that they demonstrate a final salvation conditioned upon good works. While I do believe they represent prescriptions, obligations, and even necessity, they nevertheless do not teach conditionality proper. These passages are descriptive. They are of the sort, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And again, this passage definitely implies necessity; but does it therefore teach that tribulation is a proper condition to be met for salvation (whether past, present, or future salvation)? Was Paul telling them what they needed to do in order to be saved? Or was he not rather describing what the necessary path to final salvation would necessarily entail? I think the latter.
In like manner to Acts 14:22, only those who are killing sin will be saved (Rom. 8:13-14); only those being shaped into the image of God in holiness will see God (Heb. 12:14); only conquerors will overcome the second death (Rev. 2:10-11). And who are these people? Those who have been saved by grace, through faith; those whom God has also created anew unto good works—good works that He has prepared from all eternity that they should walk in (Eph. 2:8-10).
(3) Last, Dr. Jones suggest some inconsistency relative to the necessity of works and his Republication opponents:
Now, if a certain form of “republication” theology is true concerning the works-principle for Israel’s “meritorious grounds for Israel’s continuance in the land”, we might be justified in asking the following question: “How many good works?” How many works were needed on the national level for Israel’s meritorious retention of the land? Is it okay to ask this question regarding the necessity of good works for salvation, but not with regards to the recent innovations concerning “republication”?
While I largely reject Republication theology, making the following merely hypothetical upon the supposition in question, I nevertheless do not see how Jones’s point could stick. Why? Because it definitely would be proper to ask “how many works” Israel needed. It is proper because there are hundreds of pages in the Old Testament wherein God tells Israel specifically what they must do to retain the Land. Not only in His general statutes and laws, but also in His specific warnings for specific occasions to specific people. God is quite deliberate throughout, making plain through His prophets what needed to be repented of, what needed to change, and what would constitute a last straw in retaining the Land. Israel was told specifically at each point in their history what they needed to do to stay in the Land.