Commending Good Works


How essential are “good works”—virtuous behavior growing out of one’s character, manifested in tangible form—in the course of justification? For many evangelicals, the idea of placing these terms in the same sentence (“good works” and “justification”) is problematic enough. Adjoining them in our preaching and discipleship would be dicey at best, if not patently provocative. Such a bold act might result in a late night invasion of one’s office in which elders and informed laymen examine your bookshelves to see whether their dark corners contain titles by authors such as Wright, Hafemann, or Ratzinger. You don’t want that.

In the following extract from Professor Tony Lane’s chapter in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates?,1 we learn why it is not only faithful to the Reformed tradition to insist on good works (even in the same sentence as “justification”), but it is the only pastorally responsible thing to do (yes, the pencil drawing is of Professor Lane, pleading with you to read Calvin’s Institutes and see these truths for yourself. Notice the dramatic position of his hands, which is how Englishmen express passion).

* * * * * * *

There is the good news of free grace but there is also the call to discipleship – not as an optional extra for the zealous but as part of the basic package. As someone once put it, the entrance fee for the Christian faith is nothing, but the annual subscription is everything. When we are in Christ we receive the free gift of justification but we also need to press on with the arduous task of sanctification.2 At different times one or other side of this tension has been lost. At times the church has lapsed into preaching cheap grace, as Bonhoeffer put it, and Christians have been shamefully indistinct from the ungodly. At other times the stress has been on the moral demands of Christian faith and the radical message of forgiveness has faded into the background.

Present-day evangelicalism is not very good at maintaining this tension. Some actually deny it. There are some who deny that repentance is a necessary part of the gospel message. There are some who say that it is possible to have Christ as Savior without accepting him as Lord. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals would have no problem with rejecting these two positions, but in practice and by implication teach something similar. Having worked intensively on the doctrine of justification for some three years, my ears have become very sensitive to these issues. Listening to sermons from a wide range of sources3 I hear a never-ending flood of references to the freeness of God’s mercy, to the fact that God forgives, to the grace and favor that God is eager to lavish on all who come to him. At the same time I have heard a tiny trickle of references to the fact that repentance is needed as well as faith, to the fact that discipleship is not an optional extra. The leading Catholic scholar Etienne Gilson fundamentally misunderstood the Reformers’ doctrine of justification: “For the first time, with the Reformation, there appeared this conception of a grace that saves a man without changing him, of a justice that redeems corrupted nature without restoring it, of a Christ who pardons the sinner for self-inflicted wounds but does not heal them.”4 On the other hand, if he had been attempting to describe modern evangelical preaching would he have been so far wide of the truth?

One symptom of the problem can be seen in the way that good works are commended. I have heard a number of sermons in which Christians are taught that they ought to love and do good works. The Reformers would have regarded this as grossly inadequate. It is not enough to state that Christians ought to do good works – the truth is that Christians will do good works and those who do not simply demonstrate that they are not Christians. (This is so often stated in the teaching of Jesus that there is no need to give references.) The Reformers were often challenged by their Catholic opponents to state whether or not love and good works are necessary for salvation. Their answer was that love and good works are necessary for salvation in that without them one cannot be a Christian. But they do not cause our justification. You cannot be justified without love and good works, but it is not they that bring about justification. They are necessary as consequences or symptoms of justification, not as causes of it.5 It is necessary to have spots in order to have chicken pox. It is not that the spots cause chicken pox, but that where this is chicken pox so there will be (not ought to be) spots. It is necessary to cough in order to have SARS (Severe Adult Respiratory [Distress] Syndrome), but coughing does not cause it – at least not your own coughing! As Calvin put it, justification is not by works, but nor is it without works (Institutes 3:15:1).



1 Anthony N. S. Lane, “Twofold Righteousness: A Key to the Doctrine of Justification?” in Husbands and Treier, eds., Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates? (Downers Grove, IVP, 2004), 205-224.

2 Justification and sanctification are held together in that we receive both in Christ. They are, as Calvin put it, like the heat and light of the sun: distinct but inseparable (Institutes 3.2.6). That does not in itself prevent us from falling into the trap of stressing one to the exclusion of the other.

3 I would exempt from this criticism my own pastor, Roger Pearce.

4 Etienne Gilson. The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (London: Sheed & Ward, 1936), p. 421.

5 E.g. Luther in the 1536 Disputation on Justification (WA 30/I:96, 102); Bucer, De vera ecclesarum in doctrina, ceremoniis, et disciplina reconcilatione et compositione (Strassburg: W. Rihel, 1542), fols, 179b-180b.

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